Data from a recent cover-crop survey offers solid evidence that no-tillers are ahead of many other farmers when it comes to recognizing the value of keeping their ground covered throughout the year.

No-tillers not only see the economic value of cover crops, but also recognize a long list of other benefits, such as reduced soil erosion, improved weed control, increased nutrient and moisture availability and more effective pest control.

A survey of 759 farmers, including growers that attended last winter’s 21st annual National No-Tillage Conference in Indianapolis, sheds new light on the value of cover crops. Conducted by the USDA’s North Central Regional Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program (SARE) and the Conservation Technology Information Center, the results demonstrate why investing dollars in cover crops is a good strategy.

While many growers utilize more than one tillage practice, 55% of the farmers are following a continuous no-till program, while 19% do rotational no-till. Strip-tillage and vertical tillage are each used by 12% of the growers.

By comparison, only 10% of the growers that filled out the survey are using conventional tillage, while reduced tillage was used by 19%.

Big Yield Benefits

The results showed that corn planted after cover crops had a 9.6% yield boost when compared to side-by-side fields without cover crops. Soybean yields jumped nearly 12% following a cover crop.

But the big news occurred in areas of the Corn Belt that were hit hard by last year’s drought. In an extremely dry year, there was a 14.3% increase in soybean yields and an 11% yield boost with corn when following cover crops.

“The yield improvements provided from cover crops in 2012 were likely a combination of factors,” says Rob Myers, a University of Missouri agronomist and regional director of extension programs for the North Central Region of SARE. “These included better rooting of the following cash crop coupled with the residue blanket provided by the cover crop, which reduced soil moisture loss.”

More Healthy Soils

When asked to name the major benefit of cover crops, 58% of the growers said cover crops reduce soil compaction and 56% see less soil erosion.

Nitrogen scavenging was cited by 41% of the farmers, while more effective weed control was cited by 40% of the growers. More than one-third of the survey respondents credit cover crops with boosting future yields.

Some 57% of the growers seeded cover crops after corn and ahead of soybeans, while 54% grew cover crops after soybeans followed by corn. Some 43% seeded cover crops after small grains, while 18% included them in a continuous-corn rotation.

The typical grower who responded to this survey seeded 116 acres of cover crops in 2008. This increased to 303 acres in 2012, and they expect to seed 421 acres of cover crops this year.

Winter cereal grains were seeded by 72% of the growers. Brassicas were seeded by 62%, legumes by 58% and annual grasses by 56% of the farmers. Nearly two-thirds of the growers used cover-crop mixes.

Growers were willing to invest an average of $25 per acre for cover-crop seed and add another $15 per acre for seeding and establishment.

Cover Crop Challenges

Time, labor and increased management needs were a major concern for 44% of the respondents. Some 23% of the growers felt soil moisture was stolen that could be used to grow corn, soybeans or other crops.

Selecting the right cover crops was a concern for 43% of the growers, 33% thought seed was pricey and 18% cited a lack of seed availability. Planting costs were a worry for 27%.

Growers with more than 3 years of cover-crop experience had fewer concerns over species selection and establishment. Instead, they’re looking at ways to fully capitalize on attributes like improved nitrogen immobilization to trim nutrient costs.

One message from the survey results came through loud and clear. No-tillers are more sophisticated in using cover crops and their value in improving soil health — much more so than farmers using more tillage.