Cover crops can work tremendous benefits in the soil, but they’re not a miracle cure. Still, all farmers should be working together to increase cover crop use and looking for ways to incorporate covers into their operations.
The state of Illinois recently released their biennial Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy Report. The state has struggled with nutrient pollution in waterways and utilizing covers has been identified as a method for mitigating nutrient runoff.
The problem lies in the rate of cover crop adoption. According to the report, it will be 200 years before Illinois will plant enough cover crops to make a significant reduction in nutrient runoff.
What is at stake here? For the state of Illinois, having safe, affordable drinking water and water for use for livestock and crops is what will be at risk if nutrients from agriculture continue to pour unchecked into waterways.
Illinois currently only plants 710,000 acres of cover crops, with a goal to plant 19 million by 2035. Reaching this goal seems nearly impossible right now.
So, what can Illinois and other states do to increase cover crop adoption by farmers? Change takes time, and a paradigm shift of this magnitude could very well take decades. There are a few things that all have to work together to result in more cover crop acres being planted:
• Crop insurance: Crop insurance fees could be reduced if cover crops are planted. Raising covers is an added expense, despite their obvious benefits, so crop insurance providers should consider offering financial incentives to plant cover crops that would help farmers’ bottom lines.
• Government policies: This is a slippery slope. The vast majority of farmers I know don’t want more government regulations. However, state and federal policies could also find ways to incentivize raising covers — whether through a tax write off, USDA program or other programs like EQIP.
• University research: Land-grant universities can and should be ramping up their research on cover crops to help growers in their respective regions identify and successfully implement covers in a way that fits the region’s soils, climate, rotations and other factors.
• Being a leader yourself! If you’re doing well with cover crops, consider hosting a field day at your farm and becoming a leader in this movement, like many other farmers have. On-farm success is one of the quickest ways to spread adoption.
I encourage each of you to learn how to best incorporate cover crops in your own operation, and if you have not already done so, get started with growing them! There is a plethora of resources available to help you, so make cover crops a priority in 2020.