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Lots of folks are saying we need to dramatically expand our cover crop acreage in an effort to improve soil health. But if this is going to happen over the next few years, the most effective way depends on many more farmers switching to no-tillage. 

An analysis of the 2020 Census of Agriculture data shows that no-till is 2-3 times more likely to be used with a following crop rather than reduced or conventional tillage systems. This means no-tillers are already seeding as much as 67% of the cover crops that are planted each year. Based on 2020 Census of Agriculture data, this works out to 8.9-12 million acres of the total U.S. 18 million cover crop acres being seeded by no-tillers.

Backing up this data are similar results from the 2022-23 National Cover Crop Survey, which is sponsored by the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) and the Conservation Technology Information Center. Rob Myers, director of the Center for Regenerative Agriculture at the University of Missouri and regional director for SARE, says this random survey of growers indicates 71% of cover croppers are utilizing continuous no-till (58.8%) or rotational no-till (11.7%).

71% of Cover Croppers Already No-Tilling

Tillage System Cover Crop Users
Continuous no-till 59%
Rotational no-till 12%
Reduced tillage 14%
Vertical tillage 3%
Strip-Till 7%
Conventional tillage 5%

2022-23 National Cover Crop Survey, SARE and Conservation Technology Center

Less Than 5% Acres Covered

While the cover crop acreage increased from 15.4 million acres in 2017 to 17.9 million acres in 2022, this represents only 4.7% of the total U.S. farmed cropland. Even though the data shows a 17% increase in cover-cropped acres between 2017 and 2022, there’s still a long way to go with farmers who are still relying on conventional and minimum tillage farming practices.

By comparison, the 2024 No-Till Farmer No-Till Operational Benchmark Study shows how much further along no-tillers are in capitalizing on the many benefits of cover crops. 

In 2023, 80% of no-tillers seeded cover crops on an average of 493 acres. With the average farm size being 1,086 acres, no-tillers are seeding cover crops on 43% of their ground.

Our latest survey of strip-tillers shows 74% seed cover crops on an average of 571 acres. With an average farming operation of 1,413 acres, 40% of their ground is seeded to cover crops. 

Data from our 2024 Cover Crop Strategies Operational Practices survey shows these growers seeded an average of 504 acres in 2023, making up 54% of their total acres. Over 90% are no-tillers.

Reduced Tillage Favors Cover Cropping Adoption

Farm Data No-Tillers Strip-Tillers Cover Croppers
Seeding cover crops 80% 74% 100%
Average farm acreage 1,086 1,413 939
Cover crop acreage 493 571 504
% acres cover cropped 43% 40% 54%

—2024 No-Till Farmer, Strip-Till Farmer and Cover Crop Strategies Operational Benchmark studies

Still a Long Way to Go

A 2021 USDA analysis of cover crop trends, programs and practices showed U.S. farmers have been extremely slow in adopting cover crops: 

  • In 2017, farmers seeded 15.4 million acres of cover crops, a 50% increase compared to the 10.3 million acres reported in 2012.
  •  Expanded cover crop adoption is highest where corn is cut for silage. Lowest adoption occurred with wheat.
  • Financial incentives provided by federal, state, and private organizations to encourage seeding of cover crops have been a major driver of increased cover crop adoption over the past decade. In 2018, about one-third of the cover crop acreage received some type of financial assistance from federal, state or other programs that support cover crop adoption. Financial assistance for cover crops ranged from $12-92 per acre.

Cover crops are often part of a package of conservation practices that make up a farmer’s soil health management system. Other conservation practices, such as no-till and a written nutrient management plan, are more commonly used with cover cropping. In addition, testing for nutrients and soil organic matter, and the use of written nutrient management plans are more likely to be used in fields seeded to a cover crop. 

Time for Action

All this data indicates the fastest way to increase cover crop adoption to promote soil health is through further adoption of no-till and strip-till. With only 4.7% of the total U.S. cropland currently seeded to cover crops and no-tillers accounting for two thirds of the 17.9-million-acre total, this is the logical way to go.

Boost the no-acreage and the number of cover-cropped acres will go up dramatically.