By Steve Davies
More than half of farmers who seeded their cash crop into a growing cover crop last year — a practice known as “planting green” — said it helped them plant earlier than than they could in fields that didn’t have cover crops, according to an annual survey.
“Despite the crippling spring rains of 2019, 54.3% of respondents said they were able to plant cash crops sooner in their green-planted fields than in fields where cover crops were either terminated early or were not present,” said the Conservation Technology Information Center’s annual survey report.
About 10% said the practice delayed planting, while 36% said they planted fields at about the same time, whether or not a cover crop was present.
The numbers reflect those who planted green, about 52% of the nearly 1,200 respondents in the survey of 2019 cover crop practices.
Seven in 10 of those farmers also said planting green improved their weed control, and about the same percentage said it helped with soil moisture management,
The survey “indicated that some of the concerns that many growers have had about the effects of cover crops on planting dates in a wet year turned out not to be true,” said CTIC’s Mike Smith, who ran the survey. “In fact, in many cases, cover crops helped farmers plant earlier in the very wet spring of 2019.”
The report also found significant percentages of farmers who said cover crops increased yields, resulted in better weed management, and helped them save on herbicides and fertilizer.
Cover crops are increasingly being touted as a way to save money and improve the environment, by reducing runoff from fields, cutting chemical use, and sequestering carbon in the soil.
Rob Myers, regional director of extension programs for North Central Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, said in a news release that “many farmers are finding that cover crops improve the resiliency of their soil, and the longer they use cover crops, the greater the yield increases and cost savings that are reported by producers.”
Farmers who plant cover crops continue to seed more acres. “The average acreage planted to cover crops by participants … has steadily increased over the past five growing seasons,” from an average of 337 acres in 2015 to 465 acres last year, an increase of about 38%, the report said.
That’s in line with findings from USDA’s Census of Agriculture, which found a 50% increase in cover crop acreage between 2012 and 2017.
Yield increases in 2019 were more modest than in past years, the report said. In 2019, soybean yields improved 5% and corn yields increased 2% and spring wheat yields were 2.6% higher following cover crops. The largest yield increases were recorded in the drought year of 2012.
The report said, “While farmers appreciate the yield benefits of cover crops, additional questions in the survey clearly indicate that they are also motivated by cover crops’ abilities to deliver other benefits, like weed control, soil health, erosion control, livestock grazing and so many others,” the report said.
“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 report said. “The most popular answer to ‘what tillage practice do you use most on your farm?’ was continuous no-till, practiced by 48% (466 of 981) of the respondents, while rotational no-till was employed by another 14% (138), for a total of 600 farmers (62%) practicing some sort of no-till.”
About 19% of the respondents were horticulture producers, defined as growers of vegetables, fruits and nuts. Asked to check any of five answers to the question – “What are your primary reasons for using cover crops?” – 94% cited improvement in soil structure or soil health; 81% said improving weed management; 71% said reducing soil erosion; and 64% said improving water infiltration.
Of the horticulture producers, 28.6% said use of cover crops had allowed them to significantly decrease their tillage, with about an equal percentage saying it had slightly decreased their tillage.
“More than half of the horticulture crop producers attributed an increase in profitability to their cover crops,” the report said. “Of 184 farmers who answered the question, 34.8% (64) reported a moderate increase in net profit — defined in the question as an increase of 5% or more — and 23.4% (43) reported a minor increase of 2 to 4% in net profit.”
The survey was conducted with with financial support from Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education and the American Seed Trade Association.
“We are pleased to see farmers appreciate the expertise of cover crop seed companies, with 46% saying they buy from them and another 42% buying from retailers,” said Jane DeMarchi, ASTA’s vice president of government and regulatory affairs.
“Professionally produced cover crop seed is grown for seed from the start and has been selected, harvested, cleaned and tested for performance. The study shows farmers are using a range of cover crop seed and mixes to address their individual needs, with 46% paying $15 or under per acre,” she said.
Here are some other highlights from the report:
- Forty-nine percent of corn producers reported reduced fertilizer costs, as did 41% of soybean producers, 43% of wheat farmers, and 53% of cotton producers.
- About 70% of the respondents who planted green said doing so improved their weed control. “The vast majority said levels of early season diseases, slugs, and voles — often feared as the potential downsides of planting green into cover crops — were about the same or better after planting green into cover crops.”
- Although 78.6% of respondents said wet weather had delayed planting in their county, 78% “did not have a prevent plant claim — reflecting failure to seed a cash crop before a final planting date specified by crop insurance rules — despite the challenging growing season. Among those who did, 36% said prevent plant was more common in conventionally managed fields compared to cover cropped fields, 55% said the incidence of prevent-plant was equal regardless of whether the field was cover cropped, and just 9% felt prevent plant was less common in conventional fields.”
- Nearly half of all corn producers said they saved money on fertilizer, “as did 41% of soybean producers, 43% of wheat farmers, and 53% of cotton producers.”
- About 71% of cotton producers were able to cut their herbicide costs. About 39% of corn and soybean growers reported savings, and 32% of wheat producers. “Among the farmers who did not report a cut in herbicide applications or costs, a majority still reported improved weed control from cover crops.”
- “Three out of four respondents covered at least a portion of their crop with some form of federally subsidized crop insurance, with 53% of the total respondent pool covering 100% of their 2019 crop acres. Revenue Protection was the choice of 64.8%, while Revenue Protection with Harvest Price Exclusion (RPHPE) was employed by another 19.6%. Understanding the insurance preferences of cover crop users can help guide the further evolution of federally subsidized crop insurance programs to better accommodate cover crop practices.”
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