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Cover crops gaining popularity, survey finds

More conventional row-crop farmers are diving into cover crops and seeing increased yield, better soil health, increased soil moisture and better weed control.
Carol Ryan Dumas

Capital Press

Published on September 18, 2017 3:58PM

Last changed on September 19, 2017 2:24PM

A low elevation sprinkler system irrigates a cover crop near Mud Lake, Idaho. A new survey shows cover cropping is becoming more popular among conventional farmers.

John O’Connell/Capital Press File

A low elevation sprinkler system irrigates a cover crop near Mud Lake, Idaho. A new survey shows cover cropping is becoming more popular among conventional farmers.

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More farmers across the nation are employing cover crops and are committing more acreage to the practice, according to a new survey by USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program and the Conservation Technology Information Center at Purdue University.

The fifth annual survey shows enthusiasm for cover crops remains high and that the practice is moving steadily into conventional agriculture, with 88 percent of respondents reporting they use cover crops and 80 percent identifying themselves as commodity crop farmers.

“It shows us it’s no longer just the small farmers or the horticulture farmers or the organic farmers,” said Chad Watts, CTIC executive director.

Cover crops are being used by a broader scope of farmers, using different tillage methods. It’s becoming a much more mainstream practice, he said.

The survey also showed farmers committed an average of 400 acres to cover crops, nearly double the 217 acres per farm in 2012, and they expected to increase their cover crop plantings to an average of 451 acres in 2017.

“More farmers are using it, and more farmers are using it on more acres every year. That’s certainly positive,” Watts said.

The survey also found that for those already using cover crops, lower commodity prices wouldn’t substantially change those practices. They might use lower seeding rates or less expensive varieties but they aren’t likely to abandon cover crops, he said.

Another encouraging aspect of the survey is that those who aren’t using cover crops are at least thinking about it. They’re interested enough to consider it, he said.

Some of the reasons they gave for not using a cover crop are not knowing how to plant it or kill it, what species work best, and labor issues in the fall when they’re at their busiest.

“These are not vexing questions, to say the least. They’re just not comfortable with it and need guidance,” he said.

The last USDA Census of Agriculture found U.S. farmers planted more than 10 million acres of cover crops in 2012, and the survey takers said this year’s census is likely to find several million additional acres in 2017.

More than 2,100 farmers from 47 states and the District of Columbia, reporting on nearly 700,000 acres of cover crops, responded to the survey.

Survey participants again reported higher yields of corn and soybeans after cover crops, an increase of 2.3 bushels and 2.1 bushels per acre, respectively. And for the first time, enough wheat growers were participating to analyze the yield advantage in wheat, an increase of 1.9 bushels per acre.

The survey also found 86 percent of respondents said improved soil health is a key benefit of using cover crops, and 54 percent said they began to see those benefits within less than two years.

Venturing into a new area, the survey found 39 percent of respondents have planted directly into cover crops without first killing them. Of those, 62 percent said it improved soil moisture, 61 percent said it improved weed control and 27 percent said it made managing their crash crop simpler.

The survey also asked if cover cropping, specifically using cereal rye, was helpful in fighting herbicide-resistant weeds. One in four said they always saw improvement and 44 percent said they sometimes saw improvement.

Farmers were invited to participate in the survey through several links and organizations, including SARE, CTIC, Penton Agriculture, regional cover crop councils, National Corn Growers Association and American Soybean Association.


Go to CTIC.org


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