Two of the most popular cover crops, crimson clover and cereal rye, grow together in a mix to help build soil health and control weeds. Photo credit: Annie Klodd.
Farmers have been successfully incorporating cover crops into their rotations and their enthusiasm for the practice remains high according to a 2016-2017 Cover Crop Survey Annual Report conducted by the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC). This survey is also supported by Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) and the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA) and has been conducted since 2012. Covering a wide breadth of topics associated with cover crop use, the complete survey is available on the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education website.
Limited to U.S. farmers, the survey gathered information about their practices, preferences, and concerns associated with managing cover crops. Although responses came from a diverse set of producers across the nation, the respondents that used cover crops (1,850 individuals) were mainly producing agronomic commodity crops (80%) in the mid-Western U.S. on farms most commonly 1,000 to 2,000 acres in size. Of the total number of respondents, approximately 25 were from Pennsylvania. Perhaps not too surprising, 82% of all farmer respondents using cover crops practiced conservation or strict no-tillage methods, whereas 18% used conventional or vertical tillage.
Cereal rye is the most popular cover crop overall, while crimson clover is the most popular legume, buckwheat the most popular summer annual, and radish the top brassica chosen by farmers. A significant majority (50%) of respondents reported using cover crop mixes in 2016 and plan to do so again in 2017. The mixes varied greatly and appeared to be specific to farm management goals and personal interest and 28% used 3-species mixes, 27% used 2-species mixes, 23% used mixes with 4 to 5 species, and another 22% used mixes containing 6 or more cover crop species. The majority (66%) of farmers designed their own cover crop blends while 16% used pre-packaged mixes and 18% used mixes custom-designed by a consultant.
Overall, farmers using cover crops reported that average yields increased by 1.3% for corn, 3.8% for soybeans, and 2.8% for wheat when compared to yields for these same crops grown in the absence of cover crops. Regarding their opinions specific to other questions related to cash crops, 49% of the respondents agreed that cover crops helped level out yield swings and improved yield consistency regardless of weather, 51% agreed that they achieved a yield advantage when using cover crops on their farm, 45% of cover crop users experienced an economic advantage over neighbors that do not use them, and 47% felt they were able to reduce overall crop inputs (e.g., fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides etc.) by using cover crops.
The acreage of land managed with cover crops has increased steadily over the last five years, a trend that is likely to continue. According to the survey, cover crop acreage has increased from 383,523 acres reported in 2012 to 691,164 acres expected to be planted in 2017. Similarly, the USDA Census of Agriculture reported 10.3 million acres of cover crops planted in the U.S. in 2012 and is expecting that cover crop plantings will be several million acres higher in the 2017 Census. The increase in cover crop plantings has occurred despite low commodity prices, demonstrating farmer’s perceived value of cover crops and their recognition of the importance of investing in them even when price margins are low.
Some of the main reasons for farmer’s initial adoption of cover crops included improving soil health, controlling soil erosion, and suppressing weeds. As Rob Myer (Regional Director of Extension Programs; Univ. of Missouri) explained during a recent webinar about the report, “Once farmers use cover crops for 2-3 years, they experience multiple benefits and continue to use them.” Soil health was identified as the top benefit that farmers achieve from planting cover crops. The largest reaction to any of the questions, 86% of survey respondents agreed or strongly agreed that “using cover crops has improved soil health on my farm.” The majority (54%) of farmer respondents experienced soil health benefits in less than 2 years after beginning to use cover crops. In combination with a series of questions about yield advantages and economic returns, it is clear that farmers highly value soil health and quite possibly the economic implications that arise from it. Continuing to cover crop during times of low prices also reflects that although yield benefits and economic returns are important, other factors are influencing farmers’ decisions to include cover crops on their farms.