Christmas is almost here, and here’s hoping you were able to take care of everyone on your list this year.

In the spirit of holiday generosity, here’s a list to review that won’t cost you anything. Below are 12 interesting facts and tidbits from an extensive cover crop survey distributed to more than 500 farmers in Montana this year by Montana State University Extension. 

The survey was part of a larger USDA-Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) grant on soil quality and agronomic responses to cover-crop mixes.

About 40% of farmers responded and shared their thoughts on what covers they’re using and why, when they seed and terminate them, and how they feel about continuing to use cover crops. 

Nearly 30% of respondents had grown cover crops, with an almost equal split between single species and mixed-species cover crops. Some 90% of farmers say they would continue to use cover crops. 

“Those are good facts to know. They guide our future research and outreach activities,” says Extension soil fertility specialist Clain Jones. The full survey and report are available on the University’s soil fertility website.

Here’s what researchers found:

  • Soil health was the biggest reason for farmers to use cover crops. The main reason quit, or possibly quit covers, is cost, water availability, then yield loss.
  • 70% of respondents hadn’t heard of cover-crop mixes or had minimal knowledge of them.
  • 55% grow cover crops in the summer, 42% in the shoulder season between harvest and winter. Only 12% of farmers are doing winter covers.
  • Peas, turnips, radish and lentils led the list of cover crops growers would most likely use again. “All four are broadleaf crops, and thus add some diversity to cereal rotations,” Jones says.
  • April and May were common months for seeding covers, followed closely by August. Termination was typically in June, July and August, or later in the fall.
  • Seeding and termination timing is determined by weather/season, preventing mature seeds, or depending on other crops. Rarely was crop-insurance rules listed as a factor.
  • About 70% of growers didn’t change their yield goals after seeding cover crops vs. their yield goals after fallow.
  • Most cover crop growers (62%) tested their soils to determine nitrogen (N) rates after cover crops, yet most (70%) didn’t alter subsequent N fertilizer to account for N released from, or tied up by, cover crop residue.
  • A slight majority said they would be willing to invest in covers without seeing a return on their investment in the year after their cover crop. Most said they would give 1-3 years to invest in covers before expecting a financial return.
  • Most farmers say they don’t want to spend more than $20 an acre for seed.
  • 45% of farmers were grazing cover crops, although only 28% said forage production is or would be the main reason they would plant covers.
  • Nearly 12% of cover crop growers stated that they intend to increase acreage by 300 acres or more.`