A newly-released survey shows that cover crop usage by farmers is on the upswing. The survey is the work of the Conservation and Technology Information Center and USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program.
“We did it because we wanted to see what was happening with cover crops and their impacts during such a dry year of 2012,” says Rob Myers, a University of Missouri agronomist and regional director of Extension programs for North Central Region SARE.
Among the findings that were “mild” surprises, says Myers, was the significance of yield impacts after cover crop adoption. “Those yield differences were certainly greater than we expected. The fact that the yield difference was larger in the driest states was a surprise.
“Overall, we knew that cover crops were likely to help in dry conditions. That’s because of their ability to promote deeper rooting for corn and soybeans and provide a residue blanket on the soil.”
Read the full survey here.
Among Myers’ other comments:
On adoption of cover crops in recent years…
“Cover crop adoption is definitely moving quickly upwards. Of the 750 farmers surveyed, they’d increased their acreage of cover crops three-and-a-half fold — or 350 percent — over the last five years. We’ve been hearing from companies selling cover crop seed that their volume of seed sales has also been rising rapidly.
“We also know that the NRCS has been increasing the number of acres they’ve been cost-sharing. There’s definitely a strong trend in the number of acres being planted to cover crops.”
On types of cover crops being planted…
“We’re definitely seeing some new things being used as cover crops. Probably the one that’s growing most rapidly is tillage radishes. Those are planted in the fall and are killed during the winter months.
“We’re also seeing a growth in the use of annual ryegrass in certain states. It isn’t as good for Southern states — but it’s popular in Indiana and Ohio.
“Overall, across the country, we’re seeing a mix of cover crops. Sometimes producers use a mix of brassicas (members of the mustard family) or a mix of grass crops like cereal rye with a legume like hairy vetch or crimson clover. In other cases, they mix multiple species together in an effort to get maximum benefits from the cover crops.”
On the cost/benefit factor of cover crops…
“The survey wasn’t designed to do economic analysis per se. But if you look at the farmers that had side-by-side yield results — with cover crops and no cover crops — of corn and soybeans, they saw roughly a 10 percent yield boost (from cover crops). Now, that was for a dry year, so that response wouldn’t be the same every year.
“But if you’re getting a 10 percent yield boost in corn and soybeans, it should cover the cost of cover crop seed, for sure.
“Of course, some farmers are getting a cost-share payment from the NRCS or, in some cases, their state conservation agency.”
On the benefits to rural communities…
“There are a few ways cover crops can help boost rural economies. A lot of the seed sales are through smaller companies. Many times, local farmers are actually selling the seed.
“There are also opportunities for local businesses to provide custom seeding services for the cover crops. The farmers don’t always have time to do the cover crop plantings. That means an aerial applicator will fly on the seed or a local fertilizer dealer will broadcast the seed either before or after the corn and soybean harvest.
“So, that brings extra money into the community.”
On the benefits of cover crops in a dry year…
“Each situation is a bit different. Where a farmer has used cover crops for several years, we know organic matter tends to rise in the soil — especially if they’re not doing much tillage or no-tilling. There are documented cases where farmers raise organic matter 1 to 2 percent after several years of no-till and cover crop.
“That can improve the water-holding capacity of the soil and allows the rain to infiltrate better instead of running off.
“Even in the short run, though, where farmers use cover crops for one, two or three years, there are still yield benefits. I think what’s happening there is the residue blanket provided by the cover crop helps keep the soil moisture in the ground.
“Last year, the soil began drying out early. If you have a tilled field with no residue blanket, you lose the soil moisture quicker — it’s evaporating faster than it might if you had a blanket of cereal rye residue.
“Another thing we know is some of these cover crops, not all, can help accrue the rooting depth of corn and soybeans. Things like annual ryegrass are known to root very deeply. Then, the corn or beans that follow will follow the cover crop’s root channels and go more deeply in the soil profile. That means more access to moisture.”
On the NRCS cover crop programs funding and the farm bill…
“The amount of funding for conservation as a whole, of course, will be impacted by the farm bill. Annual appropriations also affect that.
“Most of the money available for cost-share payments for cover crops comes from two NRCS programs: the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program. EQIP is the larger of the two.
“Right now, EQIP is scheduled to continue, as I understand it. So, I expect there will continue to be cost-share payments available.”
On expectations that cover crop usage will continue to rise…
“I think the biggest factor that would reduce cover crop planting is if the prices for corn and soybeans fall dramatically. That would mean less money for inputs.
“On the other hand, when we see cover crops boost crop yields in many situations it’s a reason to economically plant the cover crop.
“So, I do see use of cover crops continue to increase in the coming years. And that isn’t just because of yield benefits. Some of the no-till farmers in the survey said cover crops are an important way to reduce soil compaction. There were also farmers that have livestock that said cover crops helped capture the nutrients if they applied manure to the fields.
“We also hear from farmers reducing soil erosion and, in some cases, providing nitrogen with legumes.
“So, there are many reasons farmers make use of cover crops.”
What about feed for the livestock industry? Could a cover crop ease the feed cost concerns that ranchers complain about?
“Some cover crops are being used for livestock grazing, particularly in the fall. There is cereal rye. Also forage turnips are available, which allow grazing not only the leafy top-growth but also on the turnip itself.
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“Farmers turn their cattle on those fields and get the feed benefits while the soil also is getting a benefit. But that is only happening on a minority of the cover crop acreage — again, though, I expect that to continue to grow.”
“The farmer interest in cover crops appears to be growing rapidly. Increasing numbers are attending meetings on cover crops and trying them on their farm.
“There’s a perception that maybe a farmer is growing just 40 acres of cover crops. But for the farmers in the survey, they averaged close to 400 acres this year. It’s becoming a sizable practice for many farmers and I expect that trend to continue.”
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