A substantial research project concerning cover crop use and involving farmers across the nation gives farm equipment dealers some positive light to shine on the practice as they work with customers incorporating the fast-growing practice into their management plans.
Conducted by the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC), USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Agency (SARE), the American Seed Trade Assn. (ASTA) and some of their member companies, the fourth annual Cover Crop Survey for 2015-16 tapped the opinions of 2,020 respondents, 81% of whom identified themselves as cover crop users. The remaining 19%, who reported not using cover crops, were tracked to a separate set of questions.
Respondents reported yield gains of 1.9% in corn and 2.8% in soybeans following the use of cover crops — usually a single species planting of cereal rye. A majority saw no loss in profit or lacked the detail to determine losses. Nearly one-third reported increased profits because of cover crop use, while only 5.7% reported a loss in profit. Additionally, two-thirds of respondents credited the use of cover crops with reducing yield variability during weather extremes.
Increases in profits from cash crops following the use of cover crops are likely due to reduced fertilizer inputs or better use of nutrients in cover-cropped fields.
For questions concerning the impact on nutrient use, the statement that got the highest level of agreement was, “Using cover crops has enabled me to reduce the application of nitrogen on my cash crop.” Of the 1,012 responses to that question, 37% answered “agree” or “strongly agree.”
Respondents said the most important benefits of cover crops, however, were improved soil health, reduced erosion and increased soil organic matter.
Cover Acreage Growing
Cover crop users surveyed report a steady increase in the number of acres they have planted to covers over the past 5 years. They predicted acres seeded in the late summer and fall would increase in 2016.
A majority of cover crop users report increased corn and soybean yields behind even a single-species cover crop.
The latest survey shows a continued upward trend in acres moving into cover crop management.
Cover crops are reported to be helpful in combatting herbicide-resistant weeds and in overall weed control.
Much of the growth of cover crop acreage comes from growers who report 7 or fewer years of experience with covers.
Cover croppers cite improvements in soil-health, reduced soil erosion and increased soil organic matter levels as the most important results for cover crop use.
Of the 1,379 responding growers, the mean number of cover crop acres planted in 2015 was 298, a 25% increase in acreage over 2014. The respondents expected to increase that figure to a mean of 339 by the time 2016 was history. Researchers say the projections from the latest survey represents a slower rate of increase compared to the previous study, but point out the adoption curve maintains a “fairly consistent upward slope since 2011.”
USDA’s 2012 Census of Agriculture pegged cover crop acreage at 10.3 million acres that year. Based on the 2015-16 survey’s trend line, today’s current cover crop acreage could be projected as several million acres higher than in 2012, the researchers explain. Those figures, however, will not be known until the next Census of Agriculture is conducted later this year.
The survey also indicated a natural progression — with increasing grower experience — from single-species cover crops. This includes over-winter planting of cereal rye, to multi-species plantings of 2 or more cover crops designed for natural tillage, soil erosion control, nutrient scavenging or, in the case of legumes, the fixation of atmospheric nitrogen.
Survey respondents exhibit a strong conservation bent, with 75% of the 1,574 farmers who answered the question, using some type of reduced tillage. Of that 75%, more than one-third reported they farm continuous no-till, 17% report using rotational no-till, while 23% say they use reduced tillage.
Of the reduced tillage group, 62% of respondents agreed with the statement, “I consider myself to be more likely to adopt conservation practices than my neighbors.”
While 25% of cover crop users responding to the survey say they’ve been using the practice for 8 or more years, 75% say they have only 1-7 years experience, testimony to the uptrend in the adoption rate — an important period for vendors of equipment designed to grow and harvest crops in tandem with cover crop use.
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