For the second year in a row, a national survey of farmers has documented a yield boost from the use of cover crops in corn and soybeans, as well as a wide variety of other benefits. The survey—which was funded by the North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program and carried out by the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC)—also details the challenges and benefits farmers expect from cover crops, data on the costs of seed and establishment, and insight into how farmers learn to manage cover crops.
In all, 1,924 respondents—both users and non-users of cover crops—completed the survey in the winter of 2013-2014. Of the total, 639 provided data comparing corn yields on similar fields with and without cover crops. They noted an average yield increase of five bushels per acre, or 3.1 percent, on fields that had been planted to cover crops before corn. Comparing yields in soybeans, 583 farmers reported an average boost of two bushels per acre, or 4.3 percent, following cover crops.
Those increases, while significant, are lower than the boost discovered in a similar survey last year by SARE and CTIC, which saw improvements of 11.1 bushels (9 percent) in corn following cover crops and 4.9 bushels (10 percent) of soybeans after cover crops. Rob Myers, Regional Director of Extension Programs for NCR-SARE and an agronomist at the University of Missouri, points out that much of the difference in yield impact between the two years of surveys may be attributed to the drought in 2012, which highlights the moisture-management benefits of cover crops.
The new report also reveals other benefits farmers gain from planting cover crops, including increases in soil organic matter, reduced soil erosion and compaction, improved weed control, the availability of “free” nitrogen through soil fixation by legumes, and others.
Dramatic Growth in Acreage
Note: Acreage data represents surveyed cover crop users.
“These many benefits of cover crops are reflected in the rapidly rising rate of adoption from 2010 to 2013, when cover crop acreage among survey respondents increased by 30 percent per year,” says Myers.
Of course, both users and non-users of cover crops recognize that the practice can add challenges to the average crop rotation. Users and non-users alike ranked the time and labor required to plant and manage cover crops as their biggest concern. Establishing the cover crops, seed cost and selecting the right cover crops for their operations also ranked high for both groups of farmers.
“The survey reveals a widespread perception among farmers that cover crop seed and seeding costs are high,” says Chad Watts, project director for CTIC. “It also shows that the median cost for cover crop seed was $25 per acre. This points to a clear need for detailed research into the economic benefits of cover crops, and the return on investment that they can provide. Such research is currently ongoing—in fact, CTIC is engaged in a USDA-funded study on the economics of cover crops in seven Midwest states right now.”
“One of the most surprising findings of the survey was that 63 percent of the cover crop users said they had never received cost-share assistance or payments to grow cover crops,” Myers points out. “In fact, only eight percent said they only plant cover crops when they receive financial assistance. Our conclusion is that incentive payments can be very important to some farmers—either to get them started with cover crops or on an ongoing basis—but that the benefits of cover crops become apparent pretty quickly and inspire farmers to continue with the practice.”
Landowners also were reported to view cover crops favorably. More than half the cover crop users—61 percent—said their landowners were very supportive or somewhat supportive of cover crops on rented or tenant-shared acreage.
Ag Retailer Role
The new survey report delves into another new direction, exploring the role of agricultural retailers in supporting cover crops. Farmers said ag retailers can assist most by helping them assess changes in the soil resulting from cover crop use, guiding changes in nutrient management plans to account for cover crops, and providing advice and service for termination. Help with seed selection and custom seeding also ranked high on the lists for both users and non-users of cover crops.
“Ag retailers are widely respected for their agronomic knowledge, and it’s clear from this year’s survey that farmers are willing to look to them for insight and services related to cover crops,” says Myers. “That creates great opportunities for ag retailers to expand their offerings and expertise, and for farmers to tap into local expertise that can help them manage cover crops to their best advantage.”
Other Insights Abound
The SARE-CTIC survey features a wide range of other insights about farmers’ experience with and perceptions about cover crops. Additional highlights include:
- Seventy-one percent of the cover crop users seed their own cover crops.
- Nearly half (48 percent) of the cover crop users apply a herbicide for termination; tillage and choosing species that winter-kill are each employed by about half as many growers (21 percent and 20 percent, respectively).
- Winter cereals are by far the most popular cover crops, planted by 73 percent of respondents. Legumes and brassicas are each planted by 55 percent of respondents. About one-third (34 percent) of the cover crop users plant a multiple-species mix.
- Cover crop users say they learn most about cover crop management through trial and error. Local workshops are the second-most popular source of insight, followed by online research and regional meetings.
“The farmers who shared their time and perspective on this survey have done a lot to teach us about on-the-ground perceptions and realities of cover crops, and about the types and sources of information that we can provide to support the adoption of these remarkable tools,” says Watts.