Soon the snow will melt from farm fields and you may notice plants starting to green up. These plants, sometimes mistaken for weeds, are most likely a cover crop that was intentionally planted. Cover crops are grown for the protection and enrichment of the soil, and are not planted for harvest or to sell. This separates them from cash crops, such as corn and soybeans, which are harvested and sold, and forage crops, which are either grazed in the field or harvested and fed to livestock.

Cover crops are one of several management practices that farmers implement to improve the health of the soil. They aid in reducing and even preventing soil erosion, improve the soil’s physical and biological properties, supply nutrients to both growing crops and the many microorganisms that live in the soil, suppress weeds, improve the availability of water to growing plants especially under drought conditions, break pest cycles and help maintain biodiversity in crop fields.

Cover crops are also considered to be a soil health conservation practice, and meet three of the four principles of soil health. Cover crops maximize soil cover and biodiversity, and provide living roots in the soil. They, however, fall short on minimizing soil disturbance, the fourth principle.

In central New York, our soil resources are quite different from other parts of the country. The topsoil in our fields is not deep compared to places like the Midwest, therefore farmers strive to do everything they can to keep this valuable resource on their fields. One method to achieve this is to plant cover crops, which help stabilize the top soil layer.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture just released a report, “Cover Crop Trends, Programs, and Practices in the United States,” which found that farmers across the nation are rapidly increasing the use of cover crops. From 2012 to 2017, there was in 50% increase in the acreage planted to cover crops nationally.

Cover crops have some associated costs that were found to limit their adoption, according to the USDA report. These include the extra planting expense of seed, time managing an additional crop that may require adjustment to current cropping plans, and the cost of an additional herbicide or increased tillage to kill the cover crop in order to plant the cash crop. Some cover crops can produce unintended consequences that are often resolved the following year.

Financial incentives and technical assistance from state, federal and private organizations were found useful in encouraging the adoption of cover crops, often offsetting some of the initial costs of adopting this new conservation practice.

The USDA report also found that farmers use a variety of cover crops and have various strategies to manage them. Plus, cover crops were part of an overall plan for improving soil health. In addition, farms using cover crops were more likely to use other conservation practices, such as no-till planting and utilizing a written nutrient management plan.

The USDA report noted that the rate of cover crop adoption varied across the U.S. Generally, states in the East had higher adoption rates when compared to states further west. There was also variability within states, often reflecting the differences in soils, types of crops grown, number of livestock, availability of outreach and training, and technical assistance and financial incentives. For example, Pennsylvania counties within the Chesapeake Bay watershed had greater adoption rates, reflecting the watershed-wide conservation efforts and financial resources available to this priority watershed.

The adoption of cover crops has been rapid. However, when compared to other conservation practices on a national level, the adoption rate is still low, with only 5% of the crop land using a cover crop in 2017. New York has incentivized cover crop use through the Eastern Finger Lakes Cover Crop Initiative, which began in 2018. Funded through the state’s Environmental Protection Fund, it has helped farmers use cover crops to reduce erosion and protect water quality. Fields growing a cover crop as part of this initiative are marked with a blue cover crops sign and often sunflowers, part of the cover crop mix, are seen following the sun.

Farmers strive to be good stewards of the land and water resources necessary to sustain their crops, livestock and families. Cover crops are one of several best management practices used to help improve the productivity of crop fields. There is also the additional environmental benefit, which is why more acreage is planted to them each year as conditions allow.