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Cover crops paying off, survey shows

Jeff Caldwell 07/09/2013 @ 9:27am Multimedia Editor for Agriculture.com and Successful Farming magazine.

Cover crops work. That's the message from the results of a recent study released this week.

Last year's drought gutted corn and soybean yields. But that yield hammer was much lighter on those crop acres that were preceded by a cover crop. The study, conducted by the USDA North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program and Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC), sought opinions from more than 750 farmers in the Corn Belt on cover crops, how widely they're adopted, their payback, and challenges.

In a year like 2012 especially, their benefits far outweighed any challenges they posed. In general, the study revealed corn yields in corn acres following a cover crop netted a 9.6% higher yield than comparable acres without a cover crop. The same was true with soybeans to the tune of 11.6% higher yields. Those gains sharpened in the driest of the drought-hit areas last year; corn yielded 11% more in the driest spots, while soybeans made 14.3% more, the study shows.

Charts courtesy SARE.

"It is especially noteworthy how significant the yield benefits for cover crops were in an extremely dry year," says University of Missouri agronomist and regional director of Extension programs for North Central Region SARE Rob Myers in a SARE report. "The yield improvements provided from cover crops in 2012 were likely a combination of factors, such as better rooting of the cash crop along with the residue blanket provided by the cover crop reducing soil moisture loss. Also, where cover crops have been used for several years, we know that organic matter typically increases, which improves rainfall infiltration and soil water holding capacity."

Those yield improvements likely stem from a number of factors that farmers identified as soil health benefits from cover crops, according to the SARE study, including:

  • Reduced soil compaction
  • Improved nutrient uptake and management
  • Declined soil erosion

Planting cover crops does cost more money than doing nothing, obviously. But the benefits to soil health -- not to mention 10% more corn and soybeans at the end of the year -- make it worthwhile, many farmers said in the SARE study. So much so that many say they're ramping up their cover crop acres this year.

"Farmers are willing to pay an average (median) amount of $25 per acre for cover crop seed and an additional $15 per acre for establishment costs (either for their own cost of planting or to hire a contractor to do the seeding of the cover crop)," according to a SARE report. "Surveyed farmers are rapidly increasing acreage of cover crops used, with an average of 303 acres of cover crops per farm planted in 2012 and farmers intending to plant an average of 421 acres of cover crops in 2013. Total acreage of cover crops among farmers surveyed increased 350% from 2008 to 2012."

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