Cover crops can slow erosion, improve soil, smother weeds, enhance nutrient and moisture availability, help control many pests and bring a host of other benefits to farms across the country.
Cover-crop adoption has been increasing rapidly in the past five years with an estimated 1.5 million to 2 million acres planted in the United States in 2012.
For more than 20 years, the North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) has supported projects by researchers, producers and educators who are using this time-tested method of revitalizing soil, curbing erosion and managing pests.
During the winter of 2012-13, the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) carried out a survey of farmers who have grown cover crops.
A short survey of a dozen questions was developed with help from steering committee members of the Midwest Cover Crops Council.
THE SURVEY was distributed at several farmer conferences in the Midwest over the winter and was also sent out in an online format to people across the United States. The survey was funded by NCR-SARE.
A total of 759 farmers completed the survey. The farmers who completed the survey used cover crops on about 218,000 acres in 2012 and expected to increase that to more than 300,000 acres in 2013.
Questions on cover crop adoption, benefits, challenges and yield effects were included in the survey.
During the fall of 2012, corn planted after cover crops had a 9.6 percent increase in yield compared to side-by-side fields with no cover crops.
Likewise, soybean yields were improved 11.6 percent following cover crops.
In the hardest-hit drought areas of the Cornbelt, yield differences were even larger with an 11 percent yield increase for corn and a 14.3 percent increase for soybeans.
SURVEYED FARMERS are rapidly increasing acreage of cover crops used with an average of 303 acres of cover crops per farm planted in 2012. The farmers intend to plant an average of 421 acres of cover crops in 2013.
Total acreage of cover crops among farmers surveyed increased 350 percent from 2008 to 2012.
Farmers identified improved soil health as a key overall benefit from cover crops.
Reduction in soil compaction, improved nutrient management and reduced soil erosion were other key benefits cited for cover crops.
One of the surveyed farmers said, “Cover crops are just part of a systems approach that builds a healthy soil, higher yields and cleaner water.”
Farmers are willing to pay an average (median) amount of $25 per acre for cover-crop seed and an additional $15 per acre for establishment costs (either for their cost of planting or to hire a contractor to do the seeding).
“It is especially noteworthy how significant the yield benefits for cover crops were in an extremely dry year,” noted Rob Myers, a University of Missouri agronomist and regional director of extension programs for North Central Region SARE.
“The yield improvements provided from cover crops in 2012 were likely a combination of factors, such as better rooting of the cash crop along with the residue blanket provided by the cover crop reducing soil moisture loss.
“Also, where cover crops have been used for several years, we know that organic matter typically increases, which improves rainfall infiltration and soil water-holding capacity.”
This analysis includes results from the survey.
Questions can be directed to: Rob Myers, University of Missouri, 238 Ag Engineering Bldg., Columbia, MO 65211. Office phone: 573-882-1547, Fax: 573-884-5650 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.