In its second-annual survey on cover crops, the North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program has found that farmers are reporting yield boosts of up to five bushels per acre when cover crops are used in corn production systems and two bushels per acre on soy.
The nationwide survey, which canvassed 1,924 users and non-users of cover crops in the winter of 2013-2014, used information from 639 of the respondents who provided data comparing corn yields, and 583 who provided data comparing soy yields, on similar fields with and without cover crops.
The research was completed by the Conservation Technology Information Center.
While the yield boosts were significant, CTIC and SARE said, they are lower than the boost discovered in a similar survey last year, which saw improvements of 11.1 bushels in corn following cover crops and 4.9 bushels 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.
Other cover crop impacts
The report also investigates other impacts of planting cover crops, including changes in soil organic matter, soil erosion and compaction, weed control and nitrogen content, all of which were increased.
Both users and non-users of cover crops, the groups said, recognized 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."
Watts said the price point shows a need for research into the economic benefits of cover crops and the return on investment they provide.
Such research is ongoing, he said, citing a USDA-funded study on the economics of cover crops in seven Midwest states right now.
Despite concerns about costs of time, inputs and labor, Myers added that a "surprising finding" of the survey was that 63% of the cover crop users said they had never received cost-share assistance or payments to grow cover crops.
"In fact, only 8% said they only plant cover crops when they receive financial assistance," Myers said. "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%—said their landowners were very supportive or somewhat supportive of cover crops on rented or tenant-shared acreage.
Role of ag retailers
Farmers surveyed 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," Myers said.
"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."
The SARE-CTIC survey features a wide range of other insights about farmers' experience with and perceptions about cover crops. Additional highlights include:
• 71% of the cover crop users seed their own cover crops.
• Nearly half (48%) 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% and 20%, respectively).
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• Winter cereals are by far the most popular cover crops, planted by 73% of respondents. Legumes and brassicas are each planted by 55% of respondents. About one-third (34%) 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," Watts said.
Read complete survey results from the CTIC-SARE 2013-14 Cover Crop Survey.