Increasing Profitability, Reducing Risk: Cover Crops

By Bruce Knight

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As we look at ways to increase profitability and reduce environmental risk, cover crops just keep popping up.  At the December Farm Journal Forum, the February USDA Ag Outlook Conference and the March Commodity Classic, we heard speeches and conversations that focused on the value of multi-cropping and planting cover crops to maximize resources.  Often there were more questions than answers, but this is an issue that many farmers and ranchers continue to ponder.

At the Outlook Conference, Secretary Vilsack talked about conserving water resources and getting through droughts through the use of cover crops.  He pointed to one farmer speaking at the conference who'd managed to save $100 per acre on nitrogen while increasing his corn and soybean yields through his multi-cropping and double-cropping program. Secretary Vilsack noted that USDA agencies need to be looking at ways to reduce barriers to multi-cropping.  He promised to use NRCS Conservation Innovation Grants to evaluate the effects of multi-cropping on yields of primary crops and to let farmers know about the conservation benefits that come from multi-cropping.

The truth is relatively few farmers plant cover crops.  The Conservation Effects Assessment Project (CEAP) estimated that from 2003-2006, producers put cover crops on fewer than one percent of the acres in the Upper Mississippi Basin Region.

Together we can feed the Bees

National Wildlife Federation also wants to encourage farmers to plant cover crops to benefit the environment and for the additional opportunities offered as habitat for wildlife.  Their goal is to see 100 million acres of cover crops planted by 2025.  That would represent a tremendous increase as NWF's own best estimate of acres planted to cover crops in 16 Mississippi River Basin states, based on extrapolations from surveys of seed dealers, was about 1.5 million acres in 2011.   Compare that with USDA's Economic Research Service estimates that there are 250 million acres of cropland in those 16 states.  Putting cover crops on 100 million acres may well be a stretch goal rather than a practical one.  But we need to get started.

Increasing double-cropping by moving the practice further north and further west poses similar challenges.  It will take changes in planting, seeding and harvesting technologies and practices, but holds the potential of increasing the intensity of production with minimal environmental risk.  The concept is simple, whether a farmer plants a cover crop or double crops, the more time that a field is “green and growing,” the lower the risk of erosion or nutrient runoff.

Seed dealers and producers also have a stake in new technologies involving cover crops and double-cropping.  When I spoke to leaders in the seed industry several weeks ago, they wanted to know how best to prepare for greater interest in cover crops.  If more farmers want to plant cover crops, dealers need lead time to have the clean, certified seed available to sell them. 

As a farmer, I have a lot of questions about using cover crops, as I know many others do.  Will I get greater return on investment by putting cover crops on my least productive land or on my most productive land?  What kind of reduction can I expect in my fertilizer bill?  How much improvement will there be in soil health and moisture retention?  How long will it take for those improvements to occur?  I honestly don't know, and I would love to have some solid research that would help me answer these questions. 

Secretary Vilsack has expressed his strong support for providing sufficient funds for research in the next farm bill.  He told the Farm Bureau in January that American farmers have become the second most productive area of our economy since 1980 and the most efficient agricultural producers in the world because of our willingness to embrace new technologies, new techniques and new machinery. 

Of course, the key to embracing new strategies and technologies is identifying them-and that takes research, which the Secretary supports.  I agree.  I cannot emphasize strongly enough how important I believe it is to devote dollars to innovative research to support sustainable intensification and then to put those findings into practice on the ground. 

For the past 20 years, the primary interest in cover crops has come from the organic community, folks often working with relatively small acreages.  But as interest increases from modern commercial-scale operations focusing on much larger acreages, the questions of returns on investment, timeliness of practices and scalability are somewhat different.  So are the environmental benefits to the Mississippi River Basin and the Chesapeake Bay.  I have seen some fascinating use of cover crop cocktails on Gabe Brown's farm in North Dakota that integrate cover crops into both grazing and cropping systems.  We need USDA models to consider a wide variety of scenarios and help farmers apply them locally.

We also need to address barriers to multi-cropping caused by rules for crop insurance, eligibility for farm payments and low ranking in some localities for Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) funds.  Cover crops are a natural fit for the Conservation Security Program, but even a sign-up for the program is uncertain for 2013.

I am convinced that cover crops and more double-cropping will be playing a significant role in the future of American farming.  But they aren't a panacea, and they won't work for everyone or in every farming operation.  I have met a number of folks who advocate for cover crops with almost a religious fervor, and I admire their commitment to their convictions. 

However, we need to move forward with the research that will allow farmers to make decisions based on sound science and economics, not emotions.  In addition, we need to remove well-meaning but challenging bureaucratic and regulatory barriers that thwart farmer-led innovation in multi-cropping.  The road to sustainable intensification of American agriculture remains a bit unclear, but it is likely to include cover crops, multi-cropping and increased double-cropping. 

About the author: Bruce I. Knight, Principal, Strategic Conservation Solutions, was the Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from 2006 to 2009. From 2002 to 2006, Knight served as Chief of Natural Resources Conservation Service. The South Dakota native worked on Capitol Hill for Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Rep. Fred Grandy, Iowa, and Sen. James Abdnor, South Dakota. In addition, Knight served as vice president for public policy for the National Corn Growers Association and also worked for the National Association of Wheat Growers. A third-generation rancher and farmer and lifelong conservationist, Knight operates a diversified grain and cattle operation using no-till and rest rotation grazing systems.


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