Results are in from the 2015 National Cover Crop Survey conducted by CTIC (Conservation Technology Information Center) with funding support from USDA-SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) program and ASTA (American Seed Trade Association).
Of the 1,248 farmers who responded, 84% planted some cover crops and 16% have not. The survey sheds light on farmers’ motivations for planting cover crops, their expectations of the benefits, users’ concerns about cover crops and barriers to adoption among non-users.
For the third year in a row, this survey charted an increase in the number of acres planted to cover crops by users—an average of 300 acres—and an overall increase in cover crop acreage.
The top benefits that farmers believe they gain by using cover crops are:
- increased soil health (22%)
- increased soil organic matter (20%)
- reduced soil erosion (15%)
- weed control benefits (11%)
- reduced soil compaction (8%)
- provides a nitrogen source (5%)
- provides nitrogen scavenging (4%)
- increases yields in the following crop (2%)
- fibrous root system (2%)
- added economic return from yield/haying/grazing/biofuels (2%)
- deep tap roots (2%)
While yield isn’t a main benefit factor cited, the survey showed corn yields rose 3.66 bushels per acre, or 2.1%, following cover crops, while soybean yields increased a mean of 2.19 bushels per acre, or 4.2%.
“We were pleased to see an increase in corn and soybean yields after cover crops for the third year in a row,” says Karen Scanlon, executive director for CTIC. “There are so many benefits to cover crops in terms of soil health, nutrient cycling and weed suppression, but it is great to also see consistent yield benefits, too.”
Nutrient value missed
According to Chad Watts, CTIC project director, one of the most interesting elements was finding that fewer than 10% of the cover crop users listed nutrient management benefits – that some cover crops provide a nitrogen source, or other species scavenge nitrogen to keep it from leaching below the root zone. “That tells us that there's a huge opportunity to communicate about those nutrient program benefits, and to help farmers identify cover crops that could help them even more than they currently realize.”
Survey respondents revealed their biggest challenges with cover crops are establishment (22%), seed costs (20%), time/labor required for planting and managing (19%) and seeding the right species (14%).
From the 2012 survey to the 2014 survey, Watts says that the challenges and the benefits of using cover crops have changed very little. “The same few options in both categories always tend to rise to the top in terms of being the biggest challenge or being the most sought after benefit.”
- Top 3 challenges
- Establishment of cover crops
- Cover Crop seed cost
- Time / labor required for planting and managing cover crops
- Top 3 benefits
- Increases soil health
- Increases soil organic matter
- Reduces soil erosion
The survey also asked non-cover crop users what factor prevent them from trying cover crops:
- 19% time/labor involved to plant and manage cover crop
- 18% cost to plant and manage
- 11% to wet in spring that delays planting
- 9% establishment success
- 9% seed costs
- 7% no measurable economic return
Seeding methods, timing
What type of seed?
- 61% planted brassica, mustard or cole crop families (radish, turnips, rapeseed, canola)
- 84% seeded cereal grains or grasses families (annual ryegrass, cereal rye, triticale, winter barley, oats)
- 57% planted legume family species (crimson clover, red clover, other clovers, winter pea, hairy vetch, other vetches, sunnhemp, cowpea)
- 67% seeded a summer annual (millet, buckwheat, sorghum sudan)
- 67% planted a mix of cover crops
Watts says that this year’s survey revealed an increase over last year in the number of respondents planting brassicas and cover crop mixes. “In addition to hinting at a growing sophistication among cover crop users, the data on the most-planted cover crop species—led strongly by cereal rye, but also including a range of grasses, brassicas and legumes—will help seed producers and dealers focus their development, training and promotional efforts.”
Seeding methods, timing
Vast majority of farmers plant their own cover crops (70%), another 23% hire aerial applicators and 6% use their retailer. The bulk of seed is purchased from a cover crop seed company (36%) or an ag input retailer (31%). Other sources include regular seed dealer (13%), another farmer (12%) and other (9%).
Majority of farmers seed after harvest (68%), but 32% seed before harvest to gain more cover crop establishment time. Two seeding methods are dominant (38% drill and 23% use aerial seeding). Other methods include broadcast seeding with light tillage (14%), broadcast with fertilizer spreader (11%), broadcast with high-clearance rig (7%), with corn/soy planter (4%).
Termination, rotation, cost and landlords
How to terminate
59% of farmers use herbicides to terminate a cover crop, 23% plant cover crops that winter kill, 10% use tillage, 4% mowing.
Crop rotation fit
25% of surveyed cover crop farmers seed them before both corn and soybeans, 21% use cover crops following small grains, 16% follow soybeans before corn, 16% follow corn before soybeans, 6% seed in continuous corn program.
Majority of farmers plant cover crops (59%) without any cost-share assistance, 21% have received some cover crop money, 11% received some in the past but now fund their own cover crops. Only 9% only plant cover crops when financial assistance is available. However, the incentive is more important to non-cover crop users. 92% say cost-share or incentive funds would always or somewhat influence cover crop adoption.
When asked hypothetically if reduced crop insurance premiums would impact their number of cover crop acres, 45% said they would increase acres.
Impact of lower grain prices?
When asked if grain price outlook has an impact on use of cover crops, farmers who use cover crops are split. 48% say market prices will have no impact on their cover crop use. The other half say it will have a slight impact (25%), moderate impact (17%) or heavy impact (10%).
One-third of farmers (37%) say their landlords are very or somewhat supportive of cover crops on rented or tenant-share land. Another 15% have no opinion, 11% don’t know they have cover crops, 4% are opposed and 2% require cover crops. The remaining one-third who responded to the survey didn’t have rented acres.
“Sometimes, I think we discount the impact of landowners on cover crops. This survey shows that they are more supportive of cover crops and soil health practices than some might surmise,” Watts adds.