It looks like the cover-crop movement continues to build steam in the U.S., as growers are seeding them to reduce erosion, fix or scavenge nutrients, improve soil biological activity and the like.

In its annual survey of cover-crop practices — filled out by more than 1,200 farmers in 47 states — Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SARE) found the average number of acres planted to cover crops has nearly tripled between 2010 and 2015, rising from 119 to 300 acres in that span.

SARE data show corn raised after cover crops yielded 176.2 bushels among 401 farmers who provided yield data last year, compared to 172.5 bushels for corn that didn’t follow covers. For soybeans, based on analysis of data from 362 farms, yields averaged 53.1 bushels following cover crops, and 51.4 bushels without cover crops.

So what about wheat, sorghum and cotton? 

SARE says an effort was made to explore the yield impact of cover crops on those cash crops, but sample sizes were too small to identify statistically significant relationships. Of the respondents who finished the survey, some 34% planted wheat, 7% planted sorghum and 1% raised cotton.

While Kansas was represented very well, the largest group of responses came from the “I” states of Illinois, Indiana and Iowa. But SARE did break out the results of corn and soybeans yields, both with and without cover crops, for Kansas, North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska, and perhaps some things can be gleaned from that. 

Yields were higher in corn preceded by cover crops in South Dakota (4.3 bushels), Nebraska (0.80 bushels) and Kansas (5.6 bushels), while North Dakota noted a decline. For soybeans in those states, yields were higher in every case when following cover crops, although the difference wasn’t any higher than about 2 bushels.

Some other noteworthy items: 

  • Among farmers using cover crops, their top five reasons for doing so are to increase soil health (22.4%), increase soil organic matter (20.4%), reduce soil erosion (15.1%), control weeds (11.4%) and reduce soil compaction (7.8%).
  • The biggest challenges in making cover crops work, say farmers who are currently seeding them, are establishment (21%), seed cost (19%), time and labor (18%) and seeding the right species for their farm (14%).
  • Some 28% say they plant cover crops specifically aimed at attracting native pollinators to their farm.
  • About 75% of farmers say the market outlook for cash crops has little or no impact on their decision to plant cover crops.
  • Some 53% of farmers agreed that using cover crops reduces yield variability associated with weather extremes.
  • 46% of cover crop users say they would be motivated to plant more cover crops if the practice reduced their crop insurance premiums. That number jumps to 70% for non-users of cover crops.
  • 90% of farmers who don’t currently seed cover crops say economic incentives would “somewhat” or “always” influence cover crop adoption. 

No-tillers, university researchers and the NRCS are working to convince more wheat, sorghum and cotton producers to seed cover crops and eliminate lengthy fallow periods. I think the survey highlights the need for states to push for more funding from our friends in Washington D.C. to give growers incentives to try covers, reducing the worry about how it might hurt the bottom line. It’s clear that farmers are asking for this.

Pressure also needs to be increased even more on insurance companies to consider giving those who use sustainable farming practices like cover crops a break on premiums. 

Finally, if SARE officials are concerned about finding out how covers might benefit yields in wheat, cotton and sorghum, they need to work with a wider array of stakeholders, organizations and media outlets that cover the Great Plains.