More Cover Crops Please
Jul 28, 2017
According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, there were 10.3 million acres of cropland that had been planted to cover crops in that year outside of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), on about 133,000 farms. In general, use of cover crops, especially on a continuous basis, helps to build soil carbon, retain soil moisture, and reduce soil erosion as compared to land that is left bare after harvest. Broader adoption of this practice can help farmers to both mitigate climate change--by reducing carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions--and adapt to its impact on growing conditions by making the cash crops that follow cover crops more resilient to dry or hot weather.
Farmers in the 12-state Midwest region, where row crops dominate the landscape, accounted for about 43 percent of all the cover crop acres reported in the Census. Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin ranked in the top three in the Midwest in both total cover cropped acres (about 530,000 acres on average in each state) and share of cover crops in total cropland acres (about 5 percent). North and South Dakota were at the other end of the rankings, with cover crop acres accounting for less than 0.8 percent of all cropland acres in both states.
The 2017 Census of Agriculture, which is currently being filled out by farmers, also includes a question about cover cropped acres. Once compiled, Census data will provide a comprehensive national snapshot of how use of this practice may have changed over the last five years. While we await the new data, a survey of more than 2,000 farmers nationwide conducted by the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension (SARE) program and the Conservation Tillage Information Center (CTIC) for the 2015-16 crop year, shows that farmers using cover crops have increased the acres on their farms under that practice by more than 50 percent since 2011, primarily because of the positive benefits it generates. For example, the survey indicates that on average, farmers utilizing cover crops in 2015 experienced modest yield gains in corn (1.8 percent) and soybean (2.7 percent) on cropland that followed cover crops.
The results of four years of SARE/CTIC surveys, starting in 2012/13, strongly suggest that most farmers who were already using cover crops in their operations are now using that practice even more extensively than they were a few years ago. What is not yet known is how many of the nearly 2 million farms where cover cropping was not used at all five years ago have now adopted the practice, even to a limited degree. That answer will be forthcoming when the results of the 2017 Census of Agriculture are released, likely sometime in the spring or summer of 2018.
A significant share of the adoption of cover cropping in recent years came about as a result of financial assistance provided through USDA’s main working lands conservation programs, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). For example, between 2009 and 2016, about 6 percent of the 86 million acres under EQIP contract had cover cropping as one of the practices involved in the contract, although that share increased over the last few years. Cover cropping is also a practice that is often implemented under CSP agreements, although data on its prevalence in the program is not available publicly.
However, to make a more significant dent in adding cover cropping to more of the 380 million acres of cropland that did not use the practice as of 2012, it will be necessary to look to incentives available outside of participation in a USDA voluntary conservation program. The House and Senate Agriculture Committees have been holding hearings to gather input for the upcoming farm bill, to replace the Agricultural Act of 2014 which expires on September 30 of next year. None of the written testimony submitted for the hearings focused so far on conservation programs held by the two Committees has really addressed this issue.
An important first step would be for the Risk Management Agency (RMA) to abandon its discriminatory treatment of farmers participating in the federal crop insurance program who want to use cover cropping on their land prior to planting an insured crop. The agency has taken incremental steps in recent years to reduce the complexity of how it handles this issue, but a better approach would be to simply address this issue under the broader rubric of Good Farming Practices and let local conditions dictate how to handle terminating the cover crop prior to spring or fall planting.
In the FY17 omnibus appropriations bill, Congress urged USDA to devote more resources to the agronomics of cover crops, including the types of seeds used to grow cover crops in various regions of the country. In addition, USDA should conduct research to better establish the economic relationship between the adoption of conserving practices like cover cropping and conservation tillage and yield averages and variability. If more farmers can be confident that adopting such practices actually can improve their net revenue from cropland over time, more of them will be willing to do so without needing assistance from a government program to take that leap.