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Cover Crops on the Farm

Cover crops are increasingly being used by farmers across the country to suppress weeds, conserve soil, protect water quality and control pests and diseases.

A mix of rye, clover and vetch.

The fourth annual SARE/CTIC Cover Crop Survey, collected data from more than 2,000 growers from 48 states and the District of Columbia and provides insight into cover crop usage and benefits as well as farmer motivation for including cover crops as components in their farm management and soil health plans.

Responders reported a steady increase in the number of acres they have planted to cover crops over the past five years. They said the most important benefits of cover crops include: improved soil health, reduced erosion and compaction and increased soil organic matter. Other key benefits of using cover crops include: weed and insect control, provides a nitrogen source, attracts pollinators and provides deep taproots.

In the 2015-2016 survey, SARE and CTIC sought data on how farmers manage their fertilizer inputs as a result of their cover crop practices. Cover crop users were asked to indicate their level of agreement with a series of fertilizer-related statements, using a scale ranging from 1 (strongly agree) to 5 (strongly disagree). The statement that got the highest level of agreement was, “Using cover crops has enabled me to reduce application of nitrogen on my cash crop,” with 134 of 1,012 respondents strongly agreeing and 244 checking “agree.” The statement that had the highest level of disagreement was “Using cover crops has required me to use additional crop fertility inputs over time to meet the needs of my cash crop.”

Cover Crops & Yields

For the fourth year in a row, the survey found yield increases in both corn and soybeans after cover crops (1.9 percent in corn and 2.8 percent in soybeans). According to the survey analysts, “Those are modest bumps, but they are statistically significant. A new angle of exploration — on the effects of a cereal rye cover on a subsequent crop of soybeans — revealed that a majority (52 percent) responded that their soybeans often or always rise after a cover crop of cereal rye. Notably, 82 percent said cereal rye cover crops helped with weed control. In all, the popular practice of planting cereal rye cover crops before soybeans was validated in this year’s survey.”

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While a majority of those surveyed saw no loss in profit or lacked the data to tell, about one-third found a profit increase from cover crops, and two-thirds of the respondents said cover crops helped yields remain steady during extreme weather events.

Cover Crop Mixes & Timing

Cereal rye was the most popular cover crop species in the survey overall, followed by radish. However, cover crop mixes were planted on nearly as many acres as cereal rye. More than half of participants in the survey reported that they started with single species of cover crops and “graduated” to mixes, while another 17 percent started with mixes and increased their use of blends (61 percent of the respondents said they designed their own blends and 22 percent relied on their crop consultant or cover crop seed dealer to work with them on developing a mix).

Legumes are popular among many cover crop users because they fix nitrogen in the soil, among other benefits. Crimson clover led the legume category in average acreage per user, followed by winter pea, hairy vetch, other clovers, cowpea, red clover, other vetches and sunn hemp.

Cover crops have traditionally been planted after harvesting cash crops. However, many farmers have found that seeding cover crops into growing cash crops can provide a vital head start in establishing the covers.

by Tara Maxwell

Tara Maxwell is managing editor of Acres U.S.A. magazine. She is a graduate of Virginia Tech with a background in journalism and animal science and a passion for sustainable farming.

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