Drought, heat, hot wind, heavy rainfall, flooding and other extreme weather cost the top 10 U.S. agriculture states more than $25 billion the last 5 years, says the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
In a recently released report, “Climate-Ready Soil: How Cover Crops Can Make Farms More Resilient to Extreme Weather Risks,” the NRDC says scientists predict these extremes will continue, with more consecutively dry days and hot nights. And when precipitation does occur, it will bring more intense rainfall, increasing the risk of soil erosion.
The NRDC adds that more carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide in the atmosphere will likely stimulate weed growth, and changing precipitation and temperature patterns can mean new pressures from insect pests and pathogens.
But the council says with increased adoption of cover crops, both carbon and water can be stored in the soil, helping reduce extreme weather and protect cash crops.
The NRDC estimates that using cover crops on half of the acres devoted to corn and soybeans in the top 10 states — California, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin — could capture more than 19 million metric tons of carbon each year and help soils retain an additional trillion gallons of water.
If you were unable to get a cover crop seeded this fall, it may not be too late. Penn State soil scientist Sjoerd Duiker says no-tillers can still have a rye or wheat cover crop in the spring by dormant seeding — which means the seeds are in the soil but may not germinate until early spring. Still, by planting time, these cereals may be 6-12 inches tall, Duiker says.
Farmers who no-till wheat in areas that experience freeze/thaw cycles may consider frost seeding— broadcasting seed while the soil is still frozen, which allows the seed to fall into cracks in the soil surface. As the soil thaws, the cracks close shut. Red clover is commonly frost-seeded into winter wheat for its nitrogen production.
To help increase the adoption of cover crops, the NRDC says it’s working on a proposal to get crop-insurance companies to offer “actuarially sound” premium discounts to growers who use cover crops to reduce their risk of crop loss.
This would be a good incentive, as the National Wildlife Federation found earlier this year that 45% of growers not using cover crops say they’re hesitant to try the practice because of possible complications with crop insurance.