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Cover Crops Helped Farmers Thrive During Difficult 2019 Weather

According to an annual farmer survey conducted by the Conservation Technology Information Center, cover crops improved yields and made farms more resilient to the especially wet spring weather last year.

If you walk into any gathering of farmers, you will most likely hear at least two topics being discussed at some point: the weather and the markets. Weather is a huge variable that farmers face each year — it affects planting in the spring, plant growth in the summer, and harvest timing and yields in the fall. In 2019, weather was a bigger challenge than normal; as the year started with heavy snow cover and continued with the wettest spring on record in many areas.

Despite widespread, weather-induced delays in planting last year, some farms recovered better than others. One survey found that average 2019 soybean yields — measured in bushels per acre — at farms with cover crops were 5 percent higher than yields without cover crops.

Yield improvements are just one of the potential benefits of cover crops, according to annual national farmer surveys conducted by the non-profit Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC).

Cover crops are grasses, legumes and other plants that are used between harvest and planting seasons. They have attracted a lot of interest because the agricultural industry is focused on sustainable farming practices and improving soil fertility. Cover crops have shown to reduce erosion, and the loss of nitrogen and other nutrients from the soil. They also help suppress weeds, control pests and diseases, and even provide wildlife habitats, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

The conservation practice is growing in popularity. According to a 2017 USDA census, cover crops in the US totaled 15.4 million acres in 2017, up 50 percent from 10.3 million acres in 2012.

In the latest CITC survey, more than 90 percent of the 1,172 respondents reported using cover crops. Farmers in all 50 states took the survey, including 98 farmers from Illinois. About 80 percent of the respondents grow commodity crops — such as soybeans, corn and wheat — and the remaining farmed horticultural or vegetable crops.

One of the new insights from the survey is that cover crops made farmers more resilient to the wet spring weather.

“Farmers are using cover crops for a variety of reasons and many have tried new approaches to cover cropping,” said Mike Smith, who managed the national survey for CITC. "This year's survey also 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 — in fact, in many cases, cover crops helped farmers plant earlier in the very wet spring of 2019."

Farmers also are learning about different ways to integrate cover crops into their farming practices. Previously, many farmers waited for cover crops to terminate, or die, in the spring before planting their main crop. Last year’s wet spring forced farmers to look at “planting green” — which is when farmers seed a cash crop (ex: corn, soybeans or wheat) into a still-living cover crop and allow both to grow at the same time for a certain period. The survey reported that about half of respondents planted green somewhere on their farm, and more than two-thirds reported better soil moisture management.

Interestingly, more than 70 percent of the farmers who responded said that planting green also improved weed control. Managing weeds is critical for crop production, as weeds can steal nutrients and water from crops. Weeds reduce yield and farmer profitability.

While cover crop seed purchases and planting do represent an extra cost for farmers, they are seeing a return on their investment, the survey said.

The previous five national cover crop surveys have all reported yield boosts from cover crops, most notably in the drought year of 2012 when soybean yields were 11.6 percent improved following cover crops and corn yields were 9.6 percent better. In 2019, corn yields improved 2 percent on average and spring wheat yields increased 2.6 percent.

Other economic benefits included:

  • Soybeans – 41 percent saved on herbicide costs and 41 percent on fertilizer costs

  • Corn – 39 percent saved on herbicide costs and 49 percent on fertilizer costs

  • Spring wheat – 32 percent saved on herbicide costs and 43 percent on fertilizer costs

  • Cotton – 71 percent saved on herbicide costs and 53 percent on fertilizer costs

“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,” said Rob Myers, a regional director for Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education. His organization and the American Seed Trade Association provide financial support for the annual surveys.

In the Midwest, the Soil Heath Partnership promotes the adoption of soil health practices for environmental and economic benefit. The farmer-led organization educates growers on when to plant cover crops, what type of varieties to plant, the impact of weather on cover crops, and best practices for planning green.

The partnership stresses the importance of collecting in-field data and observations to help farmers learn from each other because there’s no one-size fits all approach to cover cropping.

Since more than half of Illinois farmland is rented, opportunities exist to help manage farmers’ risk of planting cover crops for the first time. Illinois farmer David Wessel notes that most landlords are open to learning from farmers, and farmers are also interested in working with landowners on no-till, cover crops and other conservation practices. When growers integrate cover crops into their farming practices, they can reap both economic and environmental benefits.

Click here for the full survey report and many additional insights on farmer experiences with cover crops.