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Tag Archives | cover crops

Soil Restoration: 5 Core Principles

Soil restoration is the process of improving the structure, microbial life, nutrient density, and overall carbon levels of soil. Many human endeavors – conventional farming chief among them – have depleted the Earth to the extent that nutrient levels in almost every kind of food have fallen by between 10 and 100 percent in the past 70 years. Soil quality can improve dramatically, though, when farmers and gardeners maintain constant ground cover, increase microbe populations, encourage biological diversity, reduce the use of agricultural chemicals, and avoid tillage.

Soil restoration begins with photosynthesis.

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Soil Conservation Yields Economic Gains

Soil conservation practices such as growing cover crops and going no-till can result in an economic return of over $100 per acre, according to a set of case studies jointly released by the National Association of Conservation Districts and Datu Research, LLC.

Cover crops, like tillage radish, can improve soil health and structure.

Cover crops and no-till can limit soil loss, reduce run-off, enhance biodiversity and provide other benefits. Naturally, farmers who are considering adopting these soil conservation practices are keen to know how they will affect their farm’s bottom line.

“These case studies quantify for producers, policy-makers and researchers alike what the economic advantages of using no-till and cover crops are, and why it makes good sense for farmers to try them and for organizations like NACD to support and even incentivize their use,” said Jeremy Peters, NACD CEO. “We have loads of anecdotal data that says conservation practices benefit the land and producers’ pocketbooks, but now we have run the numbers and know how much.”

During the three-year study period, corn-soybean farmers experimented with cover crops and/or no-till, and quantified the year-by-year changes in income they attributed to these practices compared to a pre-adoption baseline. They found that while planting costs increased by up to $38 per acre: Fertilizer costs decreased by up to $50 per acre; erosion repair costs decreased by up to $16 per acre; and yields increased by up to $76 per acre.

The studies also found that with adoption of these soil conservation practices, net farm income increased by up to $110 per acre. Included in the farmers’ calculations was the considerable time they spent attending workshops or searching the internet to learn about no-till or cover crop practices.

“That time turns out to be an excellent investment, when bottom lines start improving,” said Marcy Lowe, CEO of Datu Research, which conducted the case studies in partnership with NACD. “Farmers who switch to these practices can see losses at first. But thanks to these case study farmers who are generously sharing what they’ve learned, that learning curve will speed up for other farmers.” Continue Reading →

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.

cover crops on the farm

A mix of rye, clover and vetch. Farmers have steadily increased their use of cover crops over the past five years.

The fourth annual SARE/CTIC Cover Crop Survey collected data from more than 2,000 growers from 48 states and the District of Columbia. The survey provides insight into cover crop usage and benefits and explores what motivates farmers to include cover crops in their farm management and soil health plans.

Respondents reported a steady increase in the number of acres they have cover cropped 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 reported key benefits of using covers are weed and insect control, nitrogen fixation, attracting pollinators and providing deep taproots.

North Central SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) and CTIC (Conservation Technology Information Center) sought data on how farmers use cover crops to manage their fertilizer inputs. Growers 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.”

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Cover Crops in Grazing Systems

cover crop winter pea, clover, cereal ryeNoble Foundation researchers are studying how cover crops could be part of a year-round grazing system that provides economic and environmental benefits to farmers and ranchers. Noble Foundation research agronomist James Rogers, Ph.D., received a three-year conservation innovation grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service to conduct the research. The grant will support Rogers in determining how much moisture is used and/or conserved by summer cover crops and how those crops impact production of grasses and legumes consumed by livestock (commonly called forages) during the winter months. Moisture is a key  component of crop and forage production. Sufficient moisture levels boost pasture quantity and provide benefits to soil, which ultimately helps farmers and ranchers. “We need to determine whether the cover crops take moisture away from or preserve moisture for winter pasture,” Rogers said. “Preserving moisture will allow for earlier fall production. However, if the cover crops use up the moisture, winter pasture production is limited.”

This article appears in the February 2016 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Integrating Sheep into Organic Production

Flock_of_sheep

Using domestic sheep rather than traditional farming equipment to manage fallow and terminate cover crops may enable farmers who grow organic crops to save money, reduce tillage, manage weeds and pests and reduce the risk of soil erosion, according to Montana State University and North Dakota State University researchers.

The preliminary results are from the first two years in a long-term USDA research, education and extension project, which is showing several environmental and economic benefits for an integrated cropping and livestock system, according to Perry Miller, MSU professor of land resources and environmental sciences.

The project featured a reduced-till organic system, where faculty researchers used domestic sheep to graze farmland for cover crop termination and weed control. Placing sheep at the heart of the project helped MSU scientists find out that an integrated cropping system that uses domestic sheep for targeted grazing is an economically feasible way of reducing tillage for certified organic farms. Continue Reading →

Cover Crops Mean Big Business

Business opportunities in cover cropsThere’s a new opening for rural America to create jobs and make farming more future-friendly, according to a new report from the National Wildlife Federation. The Growing Business of Cover Crops details new business opportunities arising from a resurgence in the ancient practice of cover crops. Over the last decade, many farmers started using cover crops, creating a niche market for rural entrepreneurs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports a 38 percent increase in cover crop acres from 2012 to 2013, with the average farmer willing to pay $40 per acre on cover crops. For the average-sized farm (420 acres) that means $16,800 per farm spent on cover crops each year. The Growing Business of Cover Crops highlights the small business opportunities created by the upsurge in the use of cover crops, including crop advisers, seed production and sales, planting and even livestock grazing, with salaries reaching $62,000 per year. To read the report, visit www.nwf.org.

This report appears in the October 2014 issue of Acres U.S.A.