USDA report takes stock of cover crop benefits

The report is available on the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education site

A new USDA report finds that farmers are likely to see returns from planting cover crops within three years if the practice is used to deal with herbicide-resistant weeds, to graze livestock or to reverse soil degradation. The report is based on an analysis of five years of survey data from about 500 farms — the largest multiyear data set that has ever been compiled showing how growers’ yields respond to cover crops, said lead author Rob Myers of the University of Missouri.

The report comes as policymakers, some farm groups and environmental advocates are encouraging producers to adopt the practice because of its environmental and climate mitigation benefits — such as preventing soil erosion, protecting water quality and sequestering more carbon. But an obstacle for farmers has been the added costs, particularly after five years of low commodity prices that have shrunk producers’ bottom lines.

Boosting yields: After the first year of planting cover crops, farmers on average saw their corn and soybean yields increase by 0.5 percent and 2.1 percent, respectively. After five years, corn and soybean yields increased by 4 percent and 5 percent.

Resilience to weather extremes: During the 2012 drought, most farms saw a “significantly bigger” yield boost from cover cropping. Corn yields increased by 6 percent and soybeans by 11.4 percent because of the effects on rainfall infiltration, reduced soil evaporation and improved soil quality.

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