Farmers are becoming more open to acknowledging that carbon emissions and climate change are becoming a problem, according to Iowa State University researcher J. Arbuckle.
And it’s a good thing they’re willing to talk about it, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that without cutting carbon emissions, growers will face increasing weather challenges, including severe storms, droughts, floods and pest migrations — problems that could be a major hit to the bottom line. The Farm & Rural Life Poll, conducted in 2020 by an Iowa State University research team, found that 50% of farmers agreed that extreme weather events are happening more frequently.
Cover crops are one way that growers can help their farms become more resilient to these weather extremes. Armoring the soil with cover crops can help prevent soil erosion when torrential rains and winds come. In addition, using cover crops to improve soil health by increasing water infiltration allows the soil to soak up excess water to store it for droughts.
And because covers can help remove carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it in the ground, they can also help farmers do their part to help reduce carbon emissions.
Net positive carbon sequestration tends to happen on the most degraded soils, which cover crops can help to heal. One study done by a group of Michigan State University scientists found that intensively managed grazing systems sequester carbon for 3 years, then become carbon neutral. Growers must be careful, though, that intensive grazing doesn’t result in overgrazed land that is susceptible to soil erosion and salinity issues.
How we encourage greater cover crop adoption is salient question. One of the Michigan State University researchers, Paige Stanley, goes so far as to state that embracing the regenerative agriculture movement requires completely restructuring how the food system operates. Stanley advocates for rewarding operations based on multi-functionality, rather than solely rewarding based on yield, ending incentives for monocrops, and encouraging smaller farms with locally adapted crop rotations, integrated livestock with crops, cover crops and no-till.
Perhaps a more balanced approach is needed, and the agriculture industry will take baby steps toward Stanley’s ideals. Cover crops are an excellent place to start minimizing erosion, adding crop diversity, increasing crop rotations and integrating livestock.