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

A recent 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?” Of those, 43% said they had and 57% said they had not.

“A lot of farmers are definitely trying them and seeing how they fit on their operation,” notes Pete Fandel, a professor of agronomy with Illinois Central College and regional cover crop specialist for Illinois.

Fandel says cover crop research is interesting because there is still much to explore. 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 “recipes” can affect microbial levels in the soil, he says.

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

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

Still, according to Suzy Friedman, senior director of agricultural sustainability with the Environmental Defense Fund, says the percent of farmland with cover crops could be very low. And it does take a bit of time and effort to get the best results, she says.

“Cover crops is 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 practices 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 more extreme weather and improves soil health for crop productivity.”

These reasons and more means cover crops are a big priorities for programs such as Land O’ Lakes SUSTAIN program and the Midwest Row Crop Collaborative, Friedman says.

The Farm Journal Pulse polls farmers and ranchers for their straight-from-the-farm opinions and crop progress updates. By partnering with Commodity Update, the leading provider of agricultural information to mobile phones.

To learn more, visit www.agweb.com/farmjournal/farm-journal-pulse