WASHINGTON, Mar. 15, 2017 - Midwest farmers aren’t planting cover crops extensively enough to significantly reduce nutrient runoff in rivers and streams, according to a study that used satellite maps to track the prevalence of cover crops in 2015 and 2016.

“At current rates of progress, it will take decades to get use of cover crops at the scale   needed to make a real difference. That’s too long to wait,” says the report by the Environmental Working Group and Practical Farmers of Iowa.

The groups call for increasing federal funding for planting cover crops and suggest shifting some money from crop insurance and two commodity programs, Price Loss Coverage and Agriculture Risk Coverage.

The report studied three states, Iowa, Illinois and Indiana, all of which have used state funds to help promote cover crops, supplementing the federal assistance that is available through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and Conservation Stewardship Program.

The report found that 2.6 percent of corn and soybean acres in Iowa were planted to rye, oats or other cover crops in the winter. In Illinois, cover crops were identified on 2.3 percent of the state’s corn and soybean acreage.

Cover crops were more common in Indiana, having been planted on 7.1 percent of corn and soybean acres there. Another 4 percent of agricultural land in Indiana is planted to winter wheat, which has similar environmental benefits to cover crops, About 2 percent of Illinois cropland is planted to winter wheat. There are only negligible amounts in Iowa.

The authors estimate that it would take Iowa at least 30 years at current state and federal funding levels to reach the statewide target for cover crops, even if all farmers continued to use cover crops after getting the initial state and federal funding, and the study claims that usually doesn’t happen. The analysis estimated that 40 percent of farmers who received funding to try out cover crops continued to use them when they no longer had the federal or state assistance. 

Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey said the report wrongly assumes that 60 percent of farmers stop using cover crops once their funding ends. “It is much more likely many of those farmers are trying cover crops on a different field on their farm,” he said. “From our surveys and interactions with farmers we are seeing most farmers continue with cover crops and expand acreage, not abandoning the practice.”

Northey also disagrees with cutting farm programs to increase assistance for cover crops. “The federal crop insurance program is too important to farmers and should not be undermined. That said, I do think there are opportunities to provide additional resources for water quality efforts.” 

Iowa is the only state to make its cost-share data publicly available and to also have a goal for cover crops. Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy includes several scenarios. One such scenario estimates that planting cover crops on 12.6 million corn and soybean acres, coupled with wetlands restoration and other measures, would reduce nitrate losses by 42 percent and phosphorus runoff by 30 percent. Cover crops are estimated to reduce nitrate leaching by 35 percent and reduce soil erosion by more than half.

Rick Robinson, who is environmental policy adviser for the Iowa Farm Bureau, emphasized that the Iowa strategy relies on more than cover crops. Iowa farmers have more acreage enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program through the targeted continuous signup, 1.09 million acres.

The state also has 629,000 acres of prime pollinator habitat, second only to Kansas, he said. “More sustained growth will happen as additional funding is identified by the legislature for all of the strategy’s practices,” he said. “Our conservation programs are certainly working better, smarter. Better days are ahead.”