Survey shows improved corn and soybean yields when cover crops were seeded before 2012 drought

Improving your soil health with cover crops may help counter the impacts of drought.

A report has just been released with detailed results from a farmer survey on cover crops. The survey was carried out in partnership between the USDA North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program and the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC). More than 750 farmers were surveyed during the winter of 2012-13, primarily from the Upper Mississippi River watershed. Questions on cover crop adoption, benefits, challenges and yield impacts were included in the survey. Key findings included the following:

  • During the fall of 2012, corn planted after cover crops had a 9.6 percent increase in yield compared to side-by-side fields with no cover crops. Likewise, soybean yields were improved 11.6 percent following cover crops.
  • In the hardest hit drought areas of the Corn Belt, yield differences were even larger, with an 11 percent yield increase for corn and a 14.3 percent increase for soybeans.
  • Surveyed farmers are rapidly increasing acreage of cover crops used, with an average of 303 acres of cover crops per farm planted in 2012 and farmers intending to plant an average of 421 acres of cover crops in 2013. Total acreage of cover crops among farmers surveyed increased 350 percent from 2008 to 2012.
  • Farmers identified improved soil health as a key overall benefit from cover crops. Reduction in soil compaction, improved nutrient management and reduced soil erosion were other key benefits cited for cover crops. As one of the surveyed farmers commented, “Cover crops are just part of a systems approach that builds a healthy soil, higher yields and cleaner water.”
  • Farmers are willing to pay an average (median) amount of $25 per acre for cover crop seed and an additional $15 per acre for establishment costs, either for their own cost of planting or to hire a contractor to do the seeding of the cover crop.

“It is especially noteworthy how significant the yield benefits for cover crops were in an extremely dry year,” stated Rob Myers, a University of Missouri agronomist and regional director of extension programs for North Central Region SARE. “The yield improvements provided from cover crops in 2012 were likely a combination of factors, such as better rooting of the cash crop along with the residue blanket provided by the cover crop reducing soil moisture loss. Also, where cover crops have been used for several years, we know that organic matter typically increases, which improves rainfall infiltration and soil water holding capacity.”

Michigan State University Extension recommends reading the full cover crop survey analysis.

For more information, contact Rob Myers, North Central Region SARE, at 573-882-1547 or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), or Chat Watts, CTIC, at 765-494-9555 or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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