Cover crop acreage has increased significantly around the nation, and in some areas over 70% of farmland is “green” going into winter.
I know I’m probably biased, but the Mid-Atlantic region is leading the charge. However, I still see some bare fields in my local travels. What will it take to reach the remaining 30%?
There are various reasons for this observation and question. I believe there are some clear barriers that, if understood, will pave the way for still more cover crop adoption in the decades ahead.
Lack of Information
In spite of widespread agriculture media and that most farm meetings include a topic on cover crops or soil health in the programming, some farmers are just now becoming open to the idea of using these practices. And others who have just planted them for a year or two are needing more information in order to take it to the next level.
Now that cover crop knowledge is readily available, there is really no excuse for lack of knowledge. But the farmer has to want to learn and provide a substantial amount of effort in order to be effective with cover crop use. Buying a bag of cover crop seed does not make you a soil health farmer. You need to learn and experience many nuances of the concept, just like you intuitively do in growing cash crops or milking cows. It’s all about the management.
Unfortunately, some government programs do not make it easy to add a level of complexity. Crop insurance may be the most obvious example. Certain dates are required for termination, and they don’t always line up with best soil health practices. Also, farmers who have invested in cover crops for a number of years are not rewarded for managing their soils in a way that makes them less subject to insurance claims. Iowa and Illinois have already offered a $5 per acre discount to those using cover crops for the first time. That’s certainly a step in the right direction. And to be fair, there are accessible government programs that help cover the costs of establishing cover crops.
The fear of losing yields is a powerful motivator. It is indeed a valid concern, but the whole world is literally using more cover crops each year. Are those of us doing so out of our minds, or are we on to something? What will the neighbors think if I plant cover crops? How do you put up with the naysayers at the local coffee shop? Becoming confident in how to use cover crops is the cure for this aspect. It may be the right opportunity, but you might want to try a new practice in the “back-40” and not along a busy highway.
This may be one of the most significant barriers. Why would a farmer pay $30-40 an acre on cover crops knowing there is a very real possibility they may be outbid by a neighbor the following year and not benefit from the investment they made. You want to have a good relationship with the landlord. Some landlords have offered to share some or even all of the cover crop expense, or provide a prorated agreement that will pay investment back to the farmer if he does not farm the land after a certain amount of years.
Those who influence farmers and who are not confident in how cover crops work, will not promote them. If your crop consultant is not supportive of cover crops and does not want to learn how to effectively use them, you need to find one who is experienced, or at the very least is open to trying them on your farm. Your crop consultant needs to understand and support your goals in using cover crops.
Some folks who are providing fertilizer, crop care products and other farm inputs feel threatened by the claims of veteran cover croppers who tout the reduced use of those products. In some cases, this is indeed true, but it takes quite a few years until tangible lower inputs are realized. Farmers need to fully understand what they want to accomplish with cover crops in order to be confident that lower costs of production are obtainable.
It is likely a banker will ask how it pays to expense money on an input like cover crops that does not show up anywhere on a balance sheet as income. Farmers need to be prepared to explain how cover crops work and how they see them as an investment in their farming operation.
Finally, how you think about something will dramatically impact your success. Treat your cover crops like your cash crops and you will increase their success.