National cover crop survey documents farmers’ resilience

by Edith Tucker

Nearly 2,000 busy farmers across the U.S. took the time to answer survey questions about cover cropping trends, such as “planting green” into living cover crops, using cover crops for weed control and the impact of cover crops on cash crop planting dates during the very wet spring of 2019.

American farms increased their cover crop acreage by some 50% between the USDA’s 2012 and 2017 Ag Census. This is a jump from roughly 10 million acres on 133,500 farms to more than 15 million acres on 153,400 farms.

The 2019-20 National Cover Crop Survey Annual Report primarily queried commodity/row crop growers, but 19.2% of the respondents were horticulture (fruit, nut and vegetable) crop growers. That is almost exactly the same ratio – 80/20 – as in the 2016-17 Cover Crop Survey.

The survey was created and funded by USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE), Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) and American Seed Trade Association (ASTA). Representatives of this trio participated in a remote press conference in August.

“By nearly any account, 2019 was a brutal year for many American farmers,” the report begins. “The year started with heavy snow cover and continued with the wettest spring on record in many areas, delaying planting across vast stretches of the country for weeks. Against a backdrop of low commodity prices, the rate of planting U.S. corn and soybeans was the slowest it has ever been.”

Slightly over 75% reported that wet weather had delayed planting in their county. Nevertheless, 78% of cover crop users did not file a prevent plant claim, which would have reflected failure to seed a cash crop before a final planting date specified by crop insurance rules.

The latest survey delved deeper than earlier ones into “planting green,” defined as the practice of seeding a cash crop into a live cover crop and then letting both grow simultaneously for some time.

About half (52.5%) reported they had planted green somewhere on their farm operation, which may have been motivated (in part) by an effort to better manage wet spring soils. Of these, 68% reported better soil moisture management.

Despite the crippling spring rains, 54.3% of those surveyed reported they were able to plant cash crops sooner in their green-planted fields where cover crops were either terminated early or not present, versus just under 10% who had delayed planting. The balance (36%) reported that they seeded green-planted fields and other fields at about the same time. It’s possible that growing cover crops were actively transpiring moisture from wet soils at planting time, a benefit that “the dead biomass of a terminated cover crop could not deliver,” the report pointed out.

In addition, 70.5% reported that planting green improved weed control. The vast majority of those planting green into cover crops said that levels of early season diseases, slug and voles – often feared as potential downsides – were about the same or better. But, although many said voles were not a problem, several farmers were challenged by cutworms – a potential side effect that should be recognized.

“While the drought year of 2012 showed the biggest yield increases from cover crops, famers in 2019 still reported modest boosts in soybean (5.0%), corn (2.0%) and wheat (2.6%) yields,” the report noted. Farmers not only value the yield benefits of cover crops, but also say they are motivated by cover crops’ other benefits, such as weed control, soil health, erosion control, livestock grazing and others.

“Besides the slight revenue boost from modest yield increases, cover crops can help pay for themselves in other ways, such as reduced input costs,” the report stated. “Nearly half of corn producers (49%) reported reduced fertilizer costs, as did 41% of soybean producers, 43% of wheat farmers and 53% of cotton producers. Producers also reported herbicide savings: soybean (38.7%), corn (39%), wheat (31.9%) and cotton (70.6%).” Among farmers who did not report a cut in herbicide applications or costs, a majority reported that cover crops improved weed control.

Horticulture users of cover crops represented nearly a fifth of those who filled out the latest survey. Among their primary motivations for planting cover crops: improved soil structure or soil health (94%); improved weed management (81%); reduced erosion (71%); and improved water infiltration (63%). A majority of the horticulture crop producers also reported economic benefits from cover crops: a 5%-or-greater increase in net profit (34.8%) and profits increased 2% – 4% (23.4%). Only 3.8% said cover crops reduced profits.

The professionals involved in compiling this detailed survey hope it will “serve as a tool for farmers, crop advisers, conservation field staff, researchers and Extension personnel, agribusiness leaders, communicators and policymakers seeking to improve sustainable production through the expanded use of cover crops.”

This year there was a significant change in how crop farmers learned about the survey. The project no longer has a media partner that previously distributed links to a large audience that included both users and nonusers of cover crops. “Respondents in the 2020 survey were exclusively farmers and significantly more likely (93%) to use cover crops than farmers in past survey cohorts,” the surveyors noted. “Part of the growth in cover crop experience may be attributable to the expanding popularity of the practice, but it is fair to assume that a significant factor was that the survey links went out to audiences with a strong conservation bent.”

Farmers in all 50 states participated in answering survey questions. The top five states were all in the Midwest; farmers from each of 26 states contributed fewer than 1% of the responses.

“Not surprisingly for a group with a strong interest in a powerful soil health-building practice such as cover crops, no-till was the dominant residue management practice among respondents,” the surveyors reported. Ninety-four percent said “Yes” and only 6% “No” to the question “Have you ever used cover crops on your farm?”

The survey pointed out, “The most popular answer to ‘What tillage practice do you most use on your farm?’ was ‘Continuous no-till,’ practiced by 48%, while ‘Rotational no-till’ was used by another 14%, making a total of 62% using a no-till practice.

“The average acreage planted to cover crops participants in the 2019 survey has steadily increased over the past five growing seasons, from an average of 337 acres in 2015 to the 2019 average of 465 acres, for an increase of nearly 40%.”

The report detailed the many issues farmers must consider when planting cover crops, such as timing, inter-seeding, herbicide resistant weeds, cover crops species and mixes, from whom to buy them and cost issues.

The 2019-20 National Cover Crop Survey Report is available at https://tinyurl.com/y48qfaqn.

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