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Ag Census: Cover Crop Acres Surge From 2012 to 2017 

Cover crop acres between 2012 and 2017 surged despite declining crop prices as more farmers realized the positive attributes of seeding rye, peas, radishes, and other cover crops, according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture.

The Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education program, which disseminates information about sustainable agriculture, said cover crops are planted to reduce erosion and weed and insect pressure and curb pollution. In the long run, seeding the crops can cut fertilizer costs, reduce the use of pesticides and herbicides, and conserve moisture.

Producers seemed to take notice, seeding 15.4 million acres in 2017, up from 10.3 million five years earlier. While planting a cover crop isn’t without its risks, it seems to be catching on in many parts of the Corn Belt, according to the census.

“The benefits we’ve seen have been encouraging,” says Jason Britt, the president of Central States Commodities in Kansas City, Missouri, whose family has a farm in north-central Missouri. “We’ve had some pretty good results, so it’s not going to be a one-and-done deal.”

The number of farms on which cover crops were planted was reported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture at 153,402, up from 133,124 in 2012.

Every state in the Midwest saw an increase in cover crop acres census-to-census. Iowa producers led the charge by increasing their acreage to 936,118 from 379,614 in 2012, the USDA said. Not far behind was Illinois, where area jumped to 708,105 acres from 318,636.

The smallest amount of growth was in Wisconsin, where acres rose 11%, and in Minnesota, where cover planting was up by 42%.

Large farmers made up the bulk of the acres on which cover crops were planted. About 5.76 million acres of cover crops were planted on farms composed of 2,000 or more acres, the USDA said, followed by those with 1,000 to 1,999 acres at 3.59 million. Combined, they made up almost 61% of all acres seeded with cover crops, according to the census.

While the number of cover crops alone jumped, the number of acres left idle or planted with cover decreased slightly census over census. Iowa growers left idle or planted cover crops on 1.91 million acres in 2017, up from 1.47 million in 2012 and 1.66 million in 2007. The trend was the same in Illinois where idled or cover acres increased to 1.11 million vs. 1.05 million in 2012 and only 735,671 acres in 2007.

Costs vs. Benefits

While cover cropping may have its benefits, it doesn’t make sense for some when commodity prices are low.

Producers spent about $257 million on seed for cover crops in 2017, the first time the census has covered that figure. That’s money some producers aren’t willing to part with when they’re getting about half the price at the farm gate for their crops that they received five years earlier.

“In my specific region it hasn’t gained a whole lot of steam,” said Chad Davison, who along with his father owns a farm in central Minnesota. “Low crop prices do that to everything – a lot of people get back to the basics and stick with what they know.”

Todd Hubbs, an agriculture economist at the University of Illinois, said costs including purchasing the seed, fertilizer, and in some areas maintaining fields may deter farmers who are already struggling due to high input and low crop prices.

More people might try it if there were a government program of some sort that could insure the crops or give growers a financial incentive to plant cover acres. Regardless, smaller producers who don’t have the economies of scale may not be able to wait out the benefits that are “a very long-run thing,” he said.

Central States’ Britt said his family planted radishes as a cover crop, then allowed cattle to graze the field once the plants had finished growing.

“We’ve become big believers in the cover crop side of things,” said Britt, whose family planted radishes and then let cattle graze their fields. “The cattle we let out – they were hunting it almost like Easter eggs, for lack of a better term.”

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