WASHINGTON, Aug. 24, 2016 - A new survey shows cover crops get rave reviews from producers that plant them, but those that don’t still appear skeptical of their benefits.
The annual survey, conducted by the Conservation Technology Information Center, USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Agency (SARE), and the American Seed Trade Association, shows cover crop acreage has been on the rise since 2010.
Survey respondents said they expected to plant an average of 339 acres of cover crops in 2016, up 14 percent from last year. That shows a continuation of increases in acreage – 2015’s projections were 25 percent higher than 2014’s – and the survey says if not for smaller outliers, the averages could be even higher.
“It is worth noting that the figure for the average acres of cover crops per farm represents both grain farmers and smaller horticulture producers,” the report on the survey said. “If grain farms alone were considered, the average acreage of cover crops per farm would likely be significantly higher.”
With crop prices on a steady decline, the concept of buying an additional input and taking another trip across the field to plant it might not pencil out for penny-pinching producers. But the survey also reported slight yield bumps (1.9 percent in corn and 2.8 percent in soybeans) after cover crop use, and about one-third of survey respondents that used cover crops said they experienced a profit increase. Since only 5.7 percent of respondents experienced a profit reduction, the purported conservation and soil health benefits of cover crops appear to be showing dividends.
Seemingly everyone from USDA employees to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) trumpets the benefits of cover crops. In April 2015, NRDC published a report on the climate change mitigation of cover crops. It concluded that if cover crops were planted on half of the corn and soybean acres in the nation’s top 10 agricultural states, it would amount to sequestering more than 19 million metric tons of carbon annually. NRDC says that would be the equivalent of taking more than 4 million cars off the road.
If cover crops are so good for business and the environment, why aren’t they taking off like a strong showing of cereal rye?
Cover crops are experiencing an undeniable increase in acreage, but there’s still quite a way to go before their use can be considered widespread. In the 2012 Census of Agriculture, 10.3 million acres of cover crop use was reported. A firm number on more recent cover crop acres will be hard to come by until the census is updated in 2017, but some estimates put in in the ballpark of 15 million to 17 million acres. That’s a far cry from total row crop acreage of about 250 million acres.
So what needs to be done to get more producers growing cover crops? Rob Myers, an agronomist with the University of Missouri and the director of extension programs for SARE’s North Central office, told Agri-Pulse there’s room for some policy changes that might be beneficial – property tax credits and crop insurance premium discounts, to name a few – but education remains the biggest challenge.
“The people not yet using (cover crops) have questions, so they want to know more about which species of cover crops they should be using, the best time to plant them, how to terminate them, so there is still educational needs out there,” Myers said.
“I think that’s a big need going forward,” he added. “And not just for farmers, but also for the people that are advising farmers. The knowledge is building, but not everybody is equally informed.”
Meyers said the growth in cover crop use is strongest in the Midwest, but some Southeastern states are also experiencing rising acres.
An increase in research would also help in increasing cover crops, Myers said. Breeding cover crop varieties specific to certain areas or production systems could prove beneficial, as could research into issues with nutrient management altered by cover crops. Some producers are even experimenting with “planting green,” he said, and holding off on terminating their cover crops until after the spring crop is planted.
For the time being, cover crops are still viewed as a long-term play on soil health rather than a quick injection into the producer’s bank account. While the delayed gratification might make cover crops a tougher sell, Meyers hopes that producers that give them a try will get hooked.
“Once (farmers) get two or three years of experience, they get really committed to using the cover crops,” he said. “The big question is, what about the 90 percent of the farmers not yet using them?”
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