Cover crops grow in popularity, but still a niche

Extolled as a defense against erosion and nutrient loss during fallow seasons, cover crops are being planted on a larger portion of U.S. cropland than before, said USDA economists. Plantings expanded 50% in a five-year period, but still only 5% of cropland is sown with them — and incentive payments are an important factor in adoption of the practice.

Some 15.4 million acres were planted with cover crops in 2017, “larger than the area that is planted to spring wheat, cotton, sorghum, or rice,” said the Economic Research Service. “The recent growth in cover crop acreage has been rapid, with cover crop acreage increasing 50% between 2012 and 2017. Corn-for-grain and soybean fields accounted for most of this growth in acreage.”

Two USDA stewardship programs support the planting of cover crops. In addition, 22 states have programs that compensate farmers for planting cover crops. The largest are in Maryland and Iowa. Maryland farmer Trey Hill told the Washington Post that seed for cover crops costs from $25 to $65 an acre. He said the state incentive was the lure that got him started, and “he has since become a true believer.”

Cover crops create additional work for farmers. They are sown after cash crops are harvested and must be killed in the spring. “Managing for soil conservation and soil health requires more than just the use of cover crops,” said the report. “Conservation tillage, conservation crop rotations, and nutrient management are among the practices that can make up a soil-health-focused management system.”

The report, “Cover crop trends, programs, and practices in the United States,” is available here.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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