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More farmers plant cover crops for higher yields and soil health

America’s biggest farmers are unchanging skeptics of climate change but they slowly are adopting cover crops, mostly to improve crop yields and soil health, said Purdue University on Tuesday. Only one in 20 growers say they planted the soil- and water-holding crops for carbon sequestration.

Some 75% of farmers and ranchers responding to a Purdue telephone survey said they have made no change in their operations because of climate change. The figure this fall was almost the same as it was in December 2019, said the Ag Economy Barometer, a monthly Purdue gauge of the farm economy.

“Farmers’ usage of cover crops appears to be increasing with 57% of respondents reporting that they use cover crops on at least some of their farmland,” wrote agricultural economists James Mintert and Michael Langemeier, who oversee the barometer.

A year ago, 52% of producers said they currently planted cover crops. A sizable block, 26% this year and 28% last year, said they never used cover crops. Roughly one in five said they planted the crops in the past.

Cover crops have received prominent attention as a potential way to earn money from carbon contracts while mitigating climate change. Carbon markets are still in their infancy, however. This summer, 1% of producers questioned by Purdue said they had a contract. The common complaint among farmers was that payment rates were too low.

USDA’s voluntary land stewardship programs were allotted an additional $20 billion in the climate, health and tax law enacted in August, with priority to be given to practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase climate resiliency.

Although more farmers said they planted cover crops in 2022, there was little change from 2021 in the portion of cropland that was involved. Half of farmers said they sowed cover crops on 25% or less of their land and 27% said they had cover crops on up to half of their land. In 2021, the figures were 54% and 25%, respectively. And newcomers, with five years or less experience, were the largest segment, 40% this year vs. 48% last year.

A combined 70% of growers said they utilized cover crops to improve soil health and reduce erosion. Five percent chose “carbon sequestration” when asked, “What are your motivations for planting cover crops (check all that apply)?”

Advocates say cover crops are a long-term investment in soil health that reduces erosion and nutrient runoff, smothers weeds, helps to control pests and diseases, and increases biodiversity. They add a layer of complexity and expense to farm operations, since they are sown after harvest to reduce erosion and nutrient runoff but must be killed to make room for cash crops in the next growing season.

Higher interest rates are a rising worry among farmers. Some 23% of producers listed it as their top concern for the coming year, up from 14% a month earlier. Input costs remain the No. 1 concern, selected by 44% of respondents, down from the previous 53%.

The Ag Economy Barometer of 102 was down by 5 points from the previous month, said Purdue.

The barometer is based on a telephone survey of 400 operators with production worth at least $500,000 a year. USDA data say the largest 7.4% of U.S. farms top $500,000 in annual sales. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 5%.

The Ag Economy Barometer is available here.

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