Survey documents yield boost and soil health benefits of cover crops
Farmer survey identified benefits of cover crops in corn and soybean rotations.
A national survey of farmers conducted in the winter of 2013-2014 for the second year in a row has documented a yield boost from the use of cover crops in corn and soybeans. The 1,924 respondents included both users and non-users of cover crops. Of the total, 639 provided data comparing corn yields on similar fields with and without covers. They reported an average yield increase of 5 bushels per acre or 3.1 percent on fields that had been planted to cover crops before corn. In soybeans, 583 farmers reported an average boost of 2 bushels per acre or 4.3 percent following cover crops.
The survey was funded by the North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension (SARE) program and carried out by the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC). In addition to the yield information, the survey also detailed the challenges and benefits farmers expect for using cover crops, data in seed and establishment costs and provided information on how farmers learned to manage cover crops. The benefits identified by farmers in the survey included increase in soil organic matter, reduced erosion and compaction, improved weed control and the availability of “free” nitrogen by legumes and others.
Cover crop acres have increased dramatically over the past five years by farmers responding to the survey. Survey participants indicated they planted 143,798 acres in 2009 then increased to 377,536 in 2013. The many benefits are reflected in the rapid increase in farmers adopting cover crops in their rotations. Michigan farmers planted 437,200 acres of cover crops in 2012 according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture. This ranks Michigan fifth in the nation in most cover crop acres planted.
The survey also identified the challenges of using cover crops. Both users and non-users ranked that time and labor required to plant and manage cover crops are their biggest concern. Establishment, seed costs and selecting the right cover crops for their farms ranked high for both groups as well. Michigan State University Extension educators are working to provide farmers with the necessary information and identify research needs to overcome these challenges. The full report can be found at the CTIC Cover Crops webpage. Additional cover crop information can be found at the Midwest Cover Crops Council (MCCC) website.