Cover crops are perhaps the most buzzworthy component of sustainable agriculture. But how many farmers are actually planting them?

Recently, Farm Journal Pulse surveyed more than 1,300 farmers and ranchers and determined there are more than a few dabbling in cover crops. Respondents were asked: “Did you plant a cover crop on your farm this fall?” In the survey, 43% said they had, and 57% said they had not.

According to Suzy Friedman, senior director of agricultural sustainability with the Environmental Defense Fund, it does take a bit of time and effort to get the best results.

“Cover crops are a practice that requires education and planning to adopt effectively,” Friedman says. “It is not easy or quick most of the time, and if the practice is not implemented well, it wastes time and money.

“But implemented effectively, it is fantastic for holding soil in place, enriching the soil and capturing nutrients left behind,” she adds. “It helps farmers improve their resilience to extreme weather and improves soil health for crop productivity.”

These reasons and more mean cover crops are priorities in programs such as the Land O’Lakes Sustain program and the Midwest Row Crop Collaborative, Friedman says.

 

Put In Place. Cover crops play a valuable role as one of several best practices in the Sustain program.

“It’s one of many tools in our toolbox,” says Matt Carstens, senior vice president with Land O’Lakes. “We want to link farmers with practices, products and technologies that will help them. I would say the No. 1 question they ask is how can cover crops be economical for them.”

That question could lead to partnership opportunities at the retail level. But Friedman adds that the industry as a whole should learn–and share–all that it can.

“We need to gather much more extensive data documenting the economic value of cover crops,” she says. “The economic case is still too ad hoc in documentation.”

Pete Fandel, a professor of agronomy with Illinois Central College and regional cover crop specialist for Illinois, says some of the more obvious benefits of cover crops, such as erosion control and nutrient sequestration, have been well-documented. But researchers are still discovering exactly how different cover crop mixes can affect soil microbial levels.

Yield increases are also possible, except it might take multiple years of cover crops to reap results.

“You could expect to see a 2 bu. to 3 bu. increase on soybeans and an 8 bu. to 12 bu. increase on corn,” Fandel says.

 

Cover Crop Cheat Sheet. A free Cover Crop Economic Decision Support Tool from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) helps determine the immediate costs and benefits of cover crops.

“This tool offers a partial budget analysis,” says NRCS state conservationist Ivan Dozier. “It focuses only on operational changes farmers make–actual costs and benefits farmers see when they add in cover crops.”

Reports and what-if scenarios put dollar amounts on long- and short-term benefits farmers can evaluate.

The tool is available to download here: http://1.usa.gov/225TjyR.