Farmers responding to an annual survey sponsored by the Conservation Technology Information Center say they've seen yield increases on corn and soybeans thanks to cover crops for the third year in a row.
The 1,200 farmers responding to the survey said covers boosted corn yields last year by a mean of 3.66 bushels per acre (2.1%) and increased soybeans by an average of 2.19 bushels per acre (4.2%).
Average acres of cover crops per farm reported in the surveys have more than doubled over the past five years, CTIC says.
Of those who completed the survey, 84% have planted cover crops and 16% had not yet used them. The survey was assisted by funding from USDA's Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education and the American Seed Trade Association.
"What's particularly interesting is that while seeing an immediate benefit like a yield bump from cover crops is great, the large majority of farmers who plant cover crops told us they actually rate improvements in soil health, increases in soil organic matter, reduced soil erosion and improved weed control far higher than yield increases when they list the benefits they enjoy from the practice," says Chad Watts, CTIC program director.
"That shows a strong appreciation for the wide range of long-term benefits cover crops deliver."
Nutrient management benefits of cover crops, including fixing atmospheric nitrogen in the soil, scavenging nutrients before they leached out of the root zone, and cycling nutrients for use by later cash crops, are underappreciated, Watts says.
"It shows us that we have more work to do in communicating about these nutrient management benefits," he notes. "It also shows us that there's great opportunity to create even more interest in cover crops as more growers start to see those benefits and think about how valuable they'd be on their farms."
Role of markets in cover crops
Rob Myers, regional extension director for North Central SARE and a University of Missouri agronomist, says growers' answers to questions on financial issues provide powerful insight on the role of markets and programs in influencing cover crop decisions.
"Nearly three-quarters of the cover crop users in the survey said commodity crop prices have little or no influence on whether they plant cover crops," Myers says. "Many people have speculated that low corn and soybean prices would stall the growth of cover crops, but the farmers in the survey are telling us—and demonstrating—that the benefits of cover crops outweigh lower commodity price considerations."
In the survey, 59% of cover crop users said they have never received cost share or financial incentives to plant cover crops, 11% said they used to receive assistance but now fund their own cover cropping, and just 9% say they only plant cover crops if they receive a financial incentive.
However, 92% of the farmers who do not currently plant cover crops say economic incentives would somewhat or always influence cover crop adoption. Similarly, while 46% of cover crop users say they would be motivated to plant more cover crops if the practice reduced their crop insurance premiums, that number jumps up to 70% of non-users who said reduced crop insurance premiums could or would influence them to plant cover crops.
"These results illustrate that economic incentives can help encourage farmers to consider cover crops, but once they start using them, the multiple benefits they are seeing will motivate them to continue using covers," Myers says.
Jane DeMarchi, vice president of government and regulatory affairs for ASTA, notes that the survey results provide important perspective on the role of seed suppliers and on the demand for various types of seed as cover crops grow in popularity.
"We saw that specialized knowledge of cover crops is important to farmers when they buy cover crop seed. Thirty-eight percent of the farmers surveyed bought cover crop seed from seed companies that specialize in cover crops, 31% from their ag retailers and 13% from their commodity seed dealers," she points out. "The survey is an important tool for companies as they prepare for growing demand for cover crop seeds."
More cover crop users reported planting brassica species and cover crop mixes compared to previous surveys, DeMarchi adds. Sixty-one percent of respondents planted brassicas and 67% reported planting a mix of cover crops.
"This indicates a growing sophistication among farmers who plant cover crops," Watts adds. "They are clearly learning more about species that work on their farms and deliver the kinds of benefits they're looking for."
Read a full report on the cover crop survey online.
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