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Where are all the cover crops?

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Cover crop & soild.jpg

Last spring I was surprised to see in a Successful Farming magazine reader survey that 28% of farmers said they were growing cover crops, and that another 38% said they would in the future. That seems like a lot of cover crops that you can’t exactly see from the road.


But, the benefits of cover crops must be driving some pretty rapid adoption, according to recent farmer survey by one of USDA’s SARE programs. Cover crop acreage expanded by 350% from 2008 to 2012 on the farms surveyed, according to a new SARE report.


And, under last year’s drought conditions, corn following a cover crop showed a 9.6% yield increase, soybeans a 11.6% boost, compared with side-by-side fields without cover crops. In fields where drought was the worst, the benefits were even greater—a 11% advantage for corn following cover crops and 14.3% for soybeans.


Where are all these cover crops? The Successful Farming reader panel is a representative sampling of 420,000 farmers. Twenty-eight percent of that group means that 117,600 farmers (mostly in the Midwest) are growing cover crops, right?


I was thinking about the issue one week this spring while driving from Des Moines to Chicago and back, then during a round trip to Kansas City from Des Moines the following week. I believe I might have spotted four or five fields of cover crops over those thousand plus miles.


The SARE survey involved some 750 farmers, mostly from the Upper Mississippi watershed--right in the Successful Farming sweet spot. So, again, where are all these cover crops, if you can't see them from the Interstate highways? Are farmers testing a few acres on the “back 40” and keeping their experiments with cover crops under cover so to speak? That’s what I asked Rob Myers, a University of Missouri agronomist involved with the USDA SARE program. (SARE = Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program.) 


“Cover crop adoption is indeed growing rapidly, but I think you're right that they are sometimes put on fields back away from the road, at least until new users of cover crops get comfortable with what they are doing!” he wrote in an e-mail.


Two Oregon cover crop seed growers told me pretty much the same thing recently--that more farmers are using cover crops, but starting out with a test on a field or two. They also assured me that their business is picking up in the Midwest. 


Other than the phenomenal benefits of cover crops last year, another surprise in the SARE survey is the extent to which farmers are talking about soil health and other conservation benefits from cover crops, Myers said.


"In addition to general improvements in soil health, farmers cited the fact  that cover crops helped reduce soil compaction and erosion while improving nutrient management and water quality," Myers said.


Cover crops, in other words, may be working under cover on many farms, but they are proving to have very visible benefits. I find that to be one of the more encouraging trends in all of agriculture these days. 


More on the SARE farmer survey: Cover crops paying off