2015 Cover Crop Survey Analysis
2015 Cover Crop Survey Analysis
A survey of more than 1,200 farmers across the country revealed that cover crops boosted corn yields last year by a mean of 3.66 bushels per acre (2.1 percent) and increased soybeans by an average of 2.19 bushels per acre (4.2 percent)—the third year in a row a yield increase following cover crops was recorded by the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) Cover Crop Survey. The survey, conducted by CTIC with funding from USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) and the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA), also registered a fifth year of steady increase in the average number of acres planted to cover crops. Average acres of cover crops per farm reported in the surveys have more than doubled over the past five years.
“It’s great to see the immediate benefits of yield increases from cover crops, and very exciting to see that the use of cover crops continues to expand,” says Chad Watts, CTIC program director. “What’s particularly interesting is that while seeing an immediate benefit like a yield bump from cover crops is great, the large majority of farmers who plant cover crops told us they actually rate improvements in soil health, increases in soil organic matter, reduced soil erosion and improved weed control far higher than yield increases when they list the benefits they enjoy from the practice. That shows a strong appreciation for the wide range of long-term benefits cover crops deliver.”
Watts points out that it was interesting to note that the nutrient management benefits of cover crops—including fixing atmospheric nitrogen in the soil, scavenging nutrients before they leached out of the root zone, and cycling nutrients for use by later cash crops—remain under-appreciated even by avowed cover crop fans.
“It shows us that we have more work to do in communicating about these nutrient management benefits,” he notes. “It also shows us that there’s great opportunity to create even more interest in cover crops as more growers start to see those benefits and think about how valuable they’d be on their farms.”
Insight on Incentives
Rob Myers, regional extension director for North Central SARE and a University of Missouri agronomist, says growers’ answers to questions on financial issues provide powerful insight on the role of markets and programs in influencing cover crop decisions.
“Nearly three-quarters of the cover crop users in the survey said commodity crop prices have little or no influence on whether they plant cover crops,” Myers says. “Many people speculate that low corn and soybean prices would stall the growth of cover crops, but the farmers in the survey are telling us—and demonstrating—that the benefits of cover crops outweigh lower commodity price considerations.
“It’s equally interesting to see that 59 percent of cover crop users said they have never received cost share or financial incentives to plant cover crops, 11 percent said they used to receive assistance but now fund their own cover cropping, and just 9 percent say they only plant cover crops if they receive a financial incentive,” he adds. “On the other hand, 92 percent of the farmers who do not currently plant cover crops say economic incentives would somewhat or always influence cover crop adoption. Similarly, while about half (46 percent) of cover crop users say they would be motivated to plant more cover crops if the practice reduced their crop insurance premiums, that number jumps up to 70 percent of non-users who said reduced crop insurance premiums could or would influence them to plant cover crops.
“These results illustrate that economic incentives can help encourage farmers to consider cover crops, but once they start using them, the multiple benefits they are seeing will motivate them to continue using covers,” Myers notes.
Jane DeMarchi, vice president of government and regulatory affairs for ASTA, notes that the survey results provide important perspective on the role of seed suppliers and on the demand for various types of seed as cover crops grow in popularity.
“We saw that specialized knowledge of cover crops is important to farmers when they buy cover crop seed. 38 percent of the farmers bought cover crop seed from seed companies that specialize in cover crops, 31 percent from their ag retailers and 13 percent from their commodity seed dealers,” she points out. “The survey is an important tool for companies as they prepare for growing demand for cover crop seeds.”
More cover crop users reported planting brassica species and cover crop mixes compared to previous surveys, DeMarchi adds. Sixty-one percent of respondents planted brassicas and 67 percent reported planting a mix of cover crops. “This indicates a growing sophistication among farmers who plant cover crops,” notes Watts at CTIC. “They are clearly learning more about species that work on their farms and deliver the kinds of benefits they’re looking for.”
The extensive survey, which was distributed with assistance from Corn and Soybean Digest, gathered perspective from more than 1,000 farmers, including 1,248 farmers who completed the entire survey, and hundreds more who answered selected questions. Of those who completed the survey, 84 percent have planted cover crops and 16 percent had not yet used them. The survey also presents data on a wide range of issues, from management practices to landlord attitudes about cover crops to the most influential sources of information on the practice.
Watts says it will be a valuable tool for farmers, ag retailers, conservation advisers, policymakers and many others interested in conservation agriculture.
“The survey results provide insight into the thinking behind cover cropping decisions and will help guide the research, education and promotion of the practice around the country,” he says.
Questions about the survey or finding can be directed to Dr. Rob Myers, regional director of extension programs for North Central Region SARE.
For dozens of educational materials on cover crops, visit SARE's Cover Crops Topic Room.
The 2015 Cover Crop Survey was supported by:
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This cover crop survey and analysis is available with support from the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture-National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA-NIFA). Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed within project products do not necessarily reflect the view of the SARE program or the U.S. Department of Agriculture. USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer.