Cover Crops Gaining Use

Farmers Planting More Acres for Soil Health, Weed Management, Yield

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Respondents to a survey on cover crops reported they get an average 2-bushel-per-acre bump in yield for corn, soybeans and wheat from using cover crops. (Chart courtesy of the American Seed Trade Association and USDA's Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education)

OMAHA (DTN) -- The latest survey on cover crop use shows more farmers are using cover crops on a larger set of acreage, and those farmers using cover crops state they have a variety of benefits.

The latest cover crop survey, done for the fifth consecutive year, was done by the Conservation Technology Information Center with help from Purdue University and funding from the American Seed Trade Association and USDA's Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SARE).

"Cover crops are becoming a broader, mainstream practice," said Chad Watts, executive director of the Conservation Technology Information Center.

The survey received results back from 2,102 farmers, of which 88% used cover crops while 12% of the respondents did not. The survey received responses from around the country with the largest concentration of responses coming from the Midwest and northern Corn Belt. About 80% of the farmers who participated are commodity producers, while 20% are involved in some form of horticulture or produce production.

The survey showed about a 50-acre bump in cover crops per farm over the past year, based on the respondents to the study. The average volume of cover-crop acres has steadily risen from 217 five years ago to 451 acres in 2017, "We're seeing a lot of interest in cover crops, we're seeing a lot of expansion in the number of acres per person who responded every year in cover crops," Watts said.

The study also showed a diverse mix of farmers planting cover crops, based on crops, tillage system, farm size and length of time the farmer has used covers.

The report stated cereal rye was the most popular cover crop, followed by oats and radishes. About 65% of cover-crop users stated they planted some form of cover-crop mix last year.

Respondents stated soil health is a key benefit for 86% of those using cover crops. Improved yield was also cited as a benefit. The report highlighted that small yield gains were seen again in corn and soybeans for producers following cover crops. Corn producers saw a 2.3-bushel-per-acre bump, and soybeans saw a 2.1-bpa increase following covers. Wheat farmers also reported a 2-bpa increase in yield.

Just under one-quarter of the farmers surveyed have at least 81% of their farm planted in cover crops during at least some part of the year. Another 26% of respondents have anywhere from 41% to 80% of their farms planted to cover crops.

Questions got more detailed on topics such as "planting green," meaning farmers drilled their cash crops into a standing cover crop. The survey showed 39% had done so. Of that group, 61% of those farmers who planted into a standing cover crop considered their weed control had improved. Just 8% stated that weed control was more challenging with that practice.

Another 25% said cover crops always help improve control of herbicide-resistant weeds for those farmers that use cereal rye as a cover. An additional 44% said they sometimes saw benefits controlling herbicide-resistant weeds. About 31% said they saw no benefit from that practice.

And, yet, among farmers who do not use cover crops, another 42% of respondents said one reason they don't use cover crops is their concern over the possible spread of resistant weeds.

Planting green also helps with soil moisture management, according to 62% of farmers who responded to the question. Meanwhile, 11% of those who responded said the practice dries out soil too often.

Crop insurance is often considered a barrier to planting cover crops, but the survey response did not bear that out. About 18% of respondents said it was their perception that crop insurance was a reason farmers do not plant covers.

Regarding advice, farmers who responded stated that beginners should start small, learn and build from there. They also recommended beginners experiment to determine what works, while being patient and waiting for benefits. Along with that, farmers should seek the advice of an experienced cover-crop user or crop adviser, survey respondents said.

For those farmers who do not use covers, expense is a concern for now, especially with largely stagnant commodity prices. The main concern with cover crops, however, remains time management and labor concerns. Another major concern, however, was that farmers who do not use covers do not see an economic return from planting them.

The full survey can be viewed at

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Chris Clayton