Sustainable agricultural practices have been steadily gaining momentum nationwide. Many farmers have switched to reduced- or no-till agriculture, which can provide a variety of environmental benefits, and a new survey suggests that farmers are increasingly adopting cover crops as well.

Last month, Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SARE) released its latest Cover Crop Survey in partnership with the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC), the fourth installment since the first study in 2012. SARE is supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The survey asks farmers nationwide about their cover crop use and the effects they see of the cover crops. Over 2,000 farmers, from 48 states and D.C., answered the 49 question survey.


What are Cover Crops?

Cover crops are usually planted in the off season from the traditional economic crop. These crops cover the soil rather than leaving it exposed, and are generally not harvested. Cover crops allow for improved nutrient management, which can increase soil health, minimize nutrient runoff, and promote higher yields by promoting continuous living cover on the soil. They also reduce erosion, soil compaction, and weeds. Common cover crops include cereal rye, winter wheat, radish, and clover.

A USDA study released in December 2015 reports that in 2010-2011, approximately four percent of farmers used cover crops in some capacity. Of those farmers, only 3.3 percent adopted cover crops throughout their entire farm. However, the SARE survey suggests that adoption of cover crops is increasing from year-to-year.


Who Responds to the Survey?

Of farmers surveyed, 81 percent reported using cover crops as part of their farming practices. Seventy percent identified as commodity crop (corn, wheat, soybean, sorghum, cotton, etc.) farmers, and 64 percent reported farming on more than 180 acres.

The survey was somewhat self-selective of those who are already familiar with cover crops. Respondents tended to be farmers who have more experience with cover crops—over half of the cover crop users reported more than four years of use. Only six percent were using cover crops for the first time.

While the SARE surveys cannot statistically be compared year-to-year because of some different questions and different participants, they show a general trend of increasing cover crop acreage. On average, respondents are planting twice as many acres with cover crops than in 2011, and they anticipate planting more in coming years. A greater number report planting cover crop mixes as well.

Most of the survey respondents reported using other sustainable agricultural practices as well. Reduced-till agriculture, which lessens soil disturbance, was the most popular, practiced by 75 percent of those surveyed. More than half strongly or moderately agreed that they are “more likely to adopt conservation practices than my neighbors.”


Benefits of Cover Crops

One of the main areas of focus for the survey is to determine which benefits motivate farmers to adopt and continue planting cover crops. The surveyed farmers reviewed a list of 17 potential benefits and identified them as major benefits, minor benefits, or not a benefit for their farm.

Consistent with the previous year’s survey, the top three benefits were improved soil health, reduced soil erosion, and increased soil organic matter. Those ranked as least beneficial included pest control, economic return, and not requiring spring burndown. Minor benefits included increased yields for the economic crop, weed control, and disease reduction. Other benefits considered include increased profitability and better resiliency to extreme weather.

Several respondents included other benefits in a write-in category. Top among them was the reported use of cover crops for livestock grazing. Farmers also reported using the cover crop for livestock bedding, and a small amount reported selling the cover crop for biofuel production. One farmer reported that using cover crops “gives the neighbors someone to talk about at the coffee shop,” a benefit that certainly can’t be overlooked.

The benefits ranked highest by farmers —improved soil health, reduced erosion, and increased soil organic matter—were also top ranking reasons for farmers choosing to adopt cover crops in the first place. Reduced soil compaction was another key motivator for farmers.

Some farmers also reported that using cover crops allowed them to reduce fertilizer use on the following economic crop, though most respondents were neutral on the issue. Most of those who reduced application did so for nitrogen fertilizer, followed by phosphorous and potassium.

The survey also suggests that using cover crops provides small yield benefits for the next economic crop planted. Farmers reported an increased corn yield of 1.9 percent and an increased soybean yield of 2.8 percent after planting cover crops. Cover crops also reduce yield variability, so farmers can better plan year-to-year.


Overcoming Barriers to Cover Crop Adoption

Farmers also identified several of the challenges they faced in adopting cover crops. The top three challenges were “Establishment,” “Time/Labor required for planting and managing cover crops,” and “Seeding the right species for my operation.” This is consistent with a study cited by the 2015 USDA report, which pointed to time, labor cost, seed cost, and crop choice as the primary perceived barriers to implementing cover crops among Indiana farmers.

However, several USDA programs are available to help farmers interested in pursuing cover cropping. USDA provides funding through programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). In Fiscal Year 2015, cover cropping was the second-largest practice supported by EQIP, which provided $53 million in support. Cover cropping was also included in more than 5,000 CSP contracts.

The survey hopes to help overcome some of the barriers as well. Andrew LaVigne, President and CEO of the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA), said, “Understanding the opinions, influences and practices such as what cover crop users find important when they purchase seed will be extremely informative for crop advisors, seed companies, policymakers, agricultural retailers and other people interested in increasing the adoption and success of cover crops.”


Author: Rebecca Chillrud

For more information see: