May 22, 2024

Survey indicates cover crops are gateway to reduced tillage

LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Farmers can choose from more than 40 different cover crop varieties that are sold today in the United States.

“Cover crops support the overall sustainability and efforts of growers and livestock producers,” said Andrew LaVigne, CEO of the American Seed Trade Association. “They play a vital role in supporting farmers’ economic livelihood and productivity.”

Understanding cover crop acreage goals over the short- and long-term will help the industry plan ahead to make sure there is enough seed available, said LaVigne during a webinar that included the results of the 2022-2023 National Cover Crop Survey Report conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension group, the Conservation Technology Information Center and the American Seed Trade Association.

This is the seventh survey released by the groups that was open to farmers across the country that grow any crop.

“We received 795 responses from across the country and 80% of them were cover crop users,” said Ryan Heiniger, executive director of CTIC. “Eight percent of the farmers had previously used cover crops, but were no longer and 11% were non cover crop users.”

The responses came from throughout the country, including two from Alaska and five Hawaiian farmers.

“The average age for all respondents was 59, which closely mirrors USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service data,” Heiniger said.

For tillage, Heiniger said, there is a pretty stark difference.

“There is over a 2 to 1 difference in farmers that use cover crops and adopt continuous no-till,” Heiniger said.

“That reveals cover crops can be a gateway to helping reduce tillage and ultimately helping to preserve that valuable top soil and add to the soil organic matter among many other benefits,” he said.

For the survey, 251 farmers said using cover crops significantly decreased tillage on their operation and 119 farmers slightly decreased the tillage they were using compared to before applying that practice.

“When transitioning from a conventional operation to no-till and then to no-till and cover crops, each step represents new equipment, new technologies and new fertility programs among many other things that a farmer would have to research and become proficient in to be successful,” Heiniger said.

“Adding cover crops on top of the transition to no-till is one more moving piece in the planning and execution,” he said. “The survey showed 154 farmers felt that adopting cover crops made that transition easier.”

Soil structure, less soil erosion and less soil compaction are among the top benefits farmers are observing using cover crops.

“Also better weed control and perhaps even the potential cost savings in the herbicide programs, as well,” Heiniger said.

This was the first year the survey included detailed questions on cover crop grazing.

“There is a lot of untapped potential because more than three-quarters of the farmers are not integrating livestock into their farm fields,” Heiniger said.

“Cereal rye was used almost three times as much as any other individual species,” said Rob Myers, national liaison on cover crops and soil health for USDA’s SARE group. “Radish is in second place followed closely by winter wheat and crimson clover.”

About two-thirds of the farmers in the survey planted mixes of cover crops in 2022.

“There are lots of approaches for number of species — some farmers are doing two species, some three species and quite a few farmers four or more species in a mix,” Myers said. “The pattern we see is the longer farmers use cover crops the more they shift to mixes and more the more complex their mixes get.”

For the mixes, the survey shows cereal rye is used about the half the time and radishes are used just under half the time. Crimson clover is the most popular legume.

“Farmers with 10 or more years of experience are getting a 6.3% yield gain on soybeans with cover crops and a similar number for corn,” Myers said.

“Farmers with two years or less cover crop experience had modest yield gains with soybeans just over 3% and corn yields were not statistically different,” he said.

Some farmers plant their cash crop while the cover crop is alive and green.

“A decade ago, that would have been rare,” Myers said. “In 2022, 58% of the soybeans were planted green and it was a little less common with corn.”

Weed control improved for farmers planting green, Myers said, because the cover crop has more chance to suppress the weeds.

Two-thirds of the farmers in the survey said planting green helps with moisture management.

“In 2023, many areas in the Corn Belt had a relatively dry spring so by planting green this year they may have run short of moisture to get the cash crop growing,” Myers said. “This was a good year to terminate the cover crop early if you had dry spring conditions.”

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Martha Blum

Martha Blum

Field Editor