Cover crops have been used on American farms for over 75 years, but it wasn’t until 2012 that the practice really started to be tracked in annual surveys.
The 2013 U.S. Census of Agriculture revealed 133,124 farms were using cover crops on 10.3 million acres nationwide — or an average of 77 acres per farm.
While the 2018 Census of Agriculture data won’t be released until February, the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) and USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SARE) program survey data from 2016-17 shows cover crop acres are growing by roughly 15% each year from 217 acres per farm in 2012 to 451 acres per farm in 2017.
Cover crop usage is indeed growing, particularly among farmers practicing no-till. In 2018, 83% of no-tillers reported using cover crops, compared to just 49% 10 years earlier, according the 2018 and 2008 No-Till Farmer benchmark studies.
Of those who responded to the SARE Cover Crop survey, covers are being incorporated into a variety of tillage practices. Cover crops are most popular with continuous no-tillers, with 41% of respondents. Another 27% practice reduced tillage, 14% do rotational no-till, 14% use conventional tillage and 4% are using vertical tillage.
There’s been a significant push in recent years by federal and state governments encouraging farmers to improve soil health, especially as problems with hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico and pollution issues in other watersheds have drawn public concern. Regulators suggest farmers consider adopting no-till or strip-till practices, increase crop rotation, use more precise nutrient management and also seed cover crops to build a “systems approach” to help keep watersheds clean. Doing so could also help farm operations improve profitability.
Another trend that may possibly affect farmers — and bolster the case for working with cover crops and other conservation tools — relates to the food industry as a whole. Companies such as General Mills have strongly suggested their supplier farmers use more sustainable methods to produce crops.
Dan Towery, a cover crop consultant, says the key with cover crops is improving soil biology, which can save growers $50-100 in fertilizer costs.
Cover crops such as clover, field peas, cereal rye, annual ryegrass or radishes, among others, are touted for improving soil organic matter, which in turn improves nutrient cycling, alleviates compaction concerns and increases water-holding capacity.
Cover crops help reduce erosion and nutrient runoff and, in some cases, can repel certain weeds and pests or attract beneficial pollinators. Many ranchers are also grazing livestock on cover crops and say it’s helping them improve forage quality, stretch winter feed supplies, improve average daily gain and lower the cost of gain.
Between 2005-16, USDA funding for cover crops in EQIP increased from about $5 million to more than $90 million.
The special report that follows digs into how incorporating cover crops — regardless of your tillage practices — can help improve your soils, increase yields and cut some costs.
This is just a primer on cover crops, and we couldn’t fit all the information available into the pages of this magazine. We’ve got more to share, and if you fill out the form attached to the cover of your magazine we’ll email you a free copy of the 2019 Cover Cropping Triple-Play Digital Package. You can learn more at www.CoverCropStrategies.net.