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Cover crops – an underused key to stewardship

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According to a recent report, less than 2 percent of agricultural cropland is planted to cover crops. But that percentage is rising.

Cover crops could help farmers improve their soils and the health of streams and rivers leading into the Gulf of Mexico.

According to the National Wildlife Federation, less than 2 percent of cropland in the highly-farmed Mississippi River Basin is planted to cover crops. But that percentage could be on the rise, according to a recent report.

“Cover crops are a win-win-win for our nation’s wildlife, waterways and farmers,” said Lara Bryant, co-author of Clean Water Grows.

“This report provides a baseline for cover crop planting so that we can demonstrate what we believe will be an exponential increase in the coming decade,” Bryant said.

Bryant said if cover crops are adopted on a large scale throughout the Mississippi River Basin, “they could greatly improve the health of the Gulf of Mexico by keeping nutrients and sediments on farms and out of waterways.”

As most farmers know, cover crops are non-commodity crops grown to protect soil in fallow fields, which also provide benefits to the public by improving water quality, air quality and wildlife habitat.

Yet, the potential of cover crops is still largely untapped, according to the NWF. Only about 1.8 million acres in the Mississippi River Basin are planted to cover crops.

But farmers are starting to see the benefits. Michele Reba, a USDA-ARS research hydrologist, has been quantifying many cover crop benefits at research sites around the Arkansas Delta and the Lower Mississippi River Basin. One of the speakers at the recent, NRCS-sponsored Southern Agricultural Cover Crops Workshop held in Jonesboro, Ark., Reba explained how cover crops can positively impact farmland. 

“In the northeastern part of Arkansas, there are fields where a cover crop is grown prior to planting cotton. That is to reduce the amount of wind erosion that the young cotton seedlings experience. In other areas farmers are using cover crops as ‘catch crops.’ That’s where a cover crop is grown to catch available nitrogen in the soil. That prevents leaching losses.”

The Midwest is pushing for more cover crops too.

For example, in the Miami River Watershed of Ohio, water treatment facilities are investing in a nutrient trading program that pays farmers to install cover crops and other beneficial practices that reduce the amount of phosphorus running off agricultural land. This has resulted in measurably cleaner streams and lower costs for downstream utilities and consumers.

While only a small percentage of acres are planted to cover crops, “where they are being used, cover crops are producing undeniable positive results for farmers, water quality and wildlife,” Bryant said. Get more National Wildlife Federation news at www.nwf.org/news.

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