As you’ll see in the article below, the news about cover crop acres coming out the Census of Agriculture this month was very positive. Acres grew by nearly 50% between 2012 and 2017, from 10.2 million to 15.4 million in the U.S.

In major agricultural states like Iowa, Illinois and Missouri the growth in acres seeded was two or three times higher than that. Even states like Oklahoma (50%), North Dakota (89%), South Dakota (88%), Nebraska (109%), Kansas (72%) and Arizona (123%) that have greater challenges with semi-arid conditions realized significant acreage growth.

I think these numbers provide some vindication for farmers, the NRCS, the soil and water conservation districts, Extension officials, crop advisors and numerous conservation organizations and stakeholders who’ve faced criticism as they’ve pushed for increased adoption for cover crops.

Going forward, I think messaging is going to become increasingly important at the local level to keep the momentum going.

Ryan Stockwell, director of sustainable agriculture for the National Wildlife Federation, last year addressed this issue and shared concepts taught to the organization’s Cover Crop Champions to prepare them to deliver messages that will stick with other farmers and make them think:

  • Getting to Fields On Time. Just as no-till practices can help improve soil tilth and structure, cover crop seeding can accelerate that process with improved soil biology and organic matter conversation. “Farmers are competitive when it comes to getting into the fields either for planting or for harvest, so telling them of an advantage through no-till (and cover crops) would get them thinking, especially when delivered in difficult weather years,” he says.
  • Emphasize Managing Risks. From better field access to less yield variability, no-till and covers have conventional tillage beat — but they key, Stockwell says, it to present this information not as benefits, but as avoiding risks. “An example would be, ‘I just don’t worry about the weather anymore.’ Or, ‘My yields are much more stable now, year in and year out, that has allowed me to cut back on crop insurance while my banker feels confident in me. I don’t have to worry as much about the balance sheets and stress about my conversation with my banker.’”
  • Avoid Labor Savings Talk. “We need to avoid adoption of no-till and cover crops as somehow labor saving,” Stockwell says. “For so many farmers, hard work is a key part of identity. And field work provides a visual representation of holding up that shared value. So when we offer less work farmers generally have a subconscious negative response because they assume they will look lazy to their neighbors.

“When cover crops start coming up they are evidence that I have prepared my land for success for next year. I have given myself another tool for managing water, nutrients, and weeds, giving me a leg up on the next cropping year.”