Research Shows Cover Crops Pay

Weed suppression and reduced fertility costs are a few of the benefits you’ll see.

The decision to plant cover crops in the quest for improved soil health is not an easy one. Cover crop seed can be expensive, and without a long-term strategy, the practice can leave farmers wondering, “is that all?” 

However, long-term research from Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) shows that cover crops do a great job of suppressing herbicide-resistant weeds, according to results from the annual National Cover Crop Survey, administered by SARE and the Conservation Tillage Industry Council from 2012-16.  

After three years of adoption, growers saw $27 per acre in savings from using cover crops compared with a traditional herbicide program to suppress herbicide-resistant weeds. This assumes growers still apply residual and at least one postemerge herbicide application to deal with the weeds. 

There are myriad other benefits to cover crops, the report adds, including increased soil organic matter, reduced erosion, and economic opportunity from grazing cattle.

The key to making cover crops work is to have a goal in mind before you start, says Candy Thomas, soil health specialist for the state of Kansas. 

“Everyone’s journey is different. If you want to reduce your inputs, that’s another way. Over time, you can definitely start to reduce your phosphorous. If reducing inputs for weed control is your goal, cover crops can help with that,” Thomas says. “It just depends on you, and what you want to get out of it.” 

If you’re just starting out with cover cropping, start small, advises Ryan Moore, small seed product manager at Beck’s Hybrids. 

Cereal rye planted after corn harvest provides soil armor and kick-starts the soil biology. Also, farmers can plant soybeans right into the growing rye. The resulting mat of rye helps suppress weeds and keeps soil erosion in check, Moore says. First-timers planting corn into a cover crop may want to try planting 25 to 30 pounds of rye or winter oats in the fall, or bump up that rate as soon as you can get into the field in the spring. That not only cheapens up the mix, it still offers benefits to the soil and makes it an easier learning curve. 

READ MORE: 20 Strategies That Farmers Can Use In 2020

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