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Cover Crop mix USDA.jpg Photo by Mark Liebig, USDA-ARS.
A cover crop mixture that includes oat, proso millet, canola, sunflower, dry pea, soybean and pasja turnip.

Cover crops show benefits as acreage continues to expand

Survey finds many farmers reported economic benefits from cover crop beyond just yield improvements.

Despite the crippling rainfall that significantly delayed planting across much of the country in 2019, more than 90% of farmers participating in a national cover crop survey reported that cover crops allowed them to plant earlier or at the same time as non-cover-cropped fields. Among those who had "planted green" by seeding cash crops into growing cover crops, 54% said the practice helped them plant earlier than on other fields.

Those findings were among several new insights from the "2019-2020 National Cover Crop Survey" conducted by the nonprofit Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC), with financial support from the Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SARE) program and the American Seed Trade Assn. (ASTA). These organizations have worked together on several past national cover crop surveys dating back to the 2012 crop year.

The 2019-20 survey, which included perspectives from 1,172 farmers representing every state, was the first by SARE, CTIC and ASTA to include a detailed exploration of planting green — a tactic employed by 52% of the respondents — as well as crop insurance use among cover croppers and the impact of cover crops on the profitability of horticultural operations.

Many U.S. farmers have turned to cover crops as part of their strategy to improve soil health while reducing input costs and maintaining yields, according to Mike Smith, who managed the national survey for CTIC. Survey participants averaged 465 acres in cover crops in 2019, an increase of 38% in four years. The federal "Census of Agriculture" found a 50% increase in cover crop acreage over the five-year period between 2012 and 2017.

“Farmers are using cover crops for a variety of reasons, and many have tried new approaches to cover cropping,” Smith said. "This year's survey also indicated that some of the concerns that many growers have had about the effects of cover crops on planting dates in a wet year turned out not to be true. In fact, in many cases, cover crops helped farmers plant earlier in the very wet spring of 2019."

According to Rob Myers, regional director of extension programs for North Central SARE, “many farmers are finding that cover crops improve the resiliency of their soil, and the longer they use cover crops, the greater the yield increases and cost savings that are reported by producers.”

“We are pleased to see farmers appreciate the expertise of cover crop seed companies, with 46% saying they buy from them and another 42% buying from retailers,” said Jane DeMarchi, ASTA vice president of government and regulatory affairs. “Professionally produced cover crop seed is grown for seed from the start and has been selected, harvested, cleaned and tested for performance. The study shows farmers are using a range of cover crop seed and mixes to address their individual needs, with 46% paying $15 or under per acre.”

Among the 1,172 farmers who provided responses in the 2019-20 cover crop survey, 81% were commodity producers (corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, etc.), and 19% were horticultural producers.

The previous five national cover crop surveys sponsored by SARE, CTIC and ASTA have all reported yield boosts from cover crops, most notably in the drought year of 2012, when soybean yields were improved 11.6% following cover crops and corn yields were 9.6% better. In 2019, when early wet conditions prevailed across much of the corn and soybean regions, yield gains were more modest but still statistically significant. Following the use of cover crops, soybean yields improved 5%, and corn yields increased 2%, on average, while spring wheat yields improved 2.6%.

Saving on farming costs

Many farmers reported economic benefits from cover crops beyond just yield improvements. Of farmers growing corn, soybeans, spring wheat or cotton, the following had savings on production costs with fertilizers and/or herbicides:

  • Soybeans – 41% saved on herbicide costs and 41% on fertilizer costs;
  • Corn – 39% saved on herbicide costs and 49% on fertilizer costs;
  • Spring wheat – 32% saved on herbicide costs and 43% on fertilizer costs, and
  • Cotton – 71% saved on herbicide costs and 53% on fertilizer costs.

While cover crop seed purchase and planting do represent an extra cost for farmers, the survey found that most producers are finding ways to economize on cover crop seed costs. Whereas surveys from 2012 and 2013 reported a median cover crop seed cost of $25 per acre, most farmers reported paying less in 2019, with 16% paying only $6-10 per acre for cover crop seed, 27% paying $11-15 per acre, 20% paying $16-20 per acre and 14% paying $21-25 per acre. Only about one-fourth were paying $26 or more per acre.

Planting green

Planting green refers to planting a cash crop like corn, soybeans or cotton into a still-living cover crop and then terminating it soon afterward with herbicides, a roller-crimper or other methods. In the 2019 survey, 52% of farmers planted green into cover crops on at least some of their fields. This compares to 39% of respondents planting green in the 2016-17 report, the next most recent survey by SARE, CTIC and ASTA.

Of the farmers planting green, 71% reported better weed control, and 68% reported better soil moisture management, which is particularly valuable in a wet spring.

Horticultural producers also benefit

For the first time, the survey queried horticultural producers about how cover crops have affected their profit. Of the 184 horticultural producers responding to the question, 35% reported a moderate increase in net profit (defined as an increase of 5% or more), and another 23% reported a minor increase in net profit (a 2-4% increase). Even after factoring in the purchase and planting cost of cover crop seed, only 4% observed a minor (2-4%) reduction in net profit, and none reported a moderate loss in net profit.

 Available online

"The '2019-2020 National Cover Crop Survey' shows that an ever-growing number of farmers of all types and in all regions of the U.S. continue to find advantages to using cover crops," Myers said. "While the first survey in 2012 showed the benefits of cover crops in a drought year, this year’s survey showed that cover crops helped farmers in wet weather as well, with many of them being able to plant in wet spring weather when conventional neighbors couldn’t. The survey showed farmers are figuring out how to make cover crops work for them economically while using them as a tool to address challenging issues such as herbicide-resistant weeds."

For the full survey report, including past years' survey reports, visit www.sare.org/covercropsurvey.

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