USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC), and American Seed Trade Association (ASTA) recently published their findings from the 2019 cover crop survey.
By nearly any account, 2019 was a brutal year for many American farmers. The year started with heavy snow cover and continued with the wettest spring on record in many areas, delaying planting across vast stretches of the country for weeks. Against a backdrop of low commodity prices, the rate of planting U.S. corn and soybeans
was the slowest it has ever been. This year’s national cover crop survey by USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC), and American Seed Trade Association (ASTA) explored farmers’ experiences with cover crops in those especially challenging circumstances. Through the responses of 1,172 farmers from across the country, we found that cover crop users are committed to the practice and believe cover crops deliver a wide range of benefits.
Among respondents to the 2019-2020 national survey, 78.6% reported that wet weather had delayed planting in their county. It was interesting to see that 78% of the cover crop users did not have a prevent plant claim – reflecting failure to seed a cash crop before a final planting date specified by crop insurance rules – despite the
challenging growing season. Among those who did, 36% said prevent plant was more common in conventionally managed fields compared to cover cropped fields, 55% said the incidence of prevent-plant was equal regardless of whether the field was cover cropped, and just 9% felt prevent plant was less common in conventional fields.
This year, we dug deep into “planting green,” the practice of seeding a cash crop into a live cover crop and letting both grow simultaneously for a length of time. About half (52.5%) reported that they had planted green somewhere on their operation, which may have been motivated in part by an effort to better manage wet spring soils. Of the farmers planting green, 68% reported better soil moisture management. In fact, despite the crippling spring rains of 2019, 54.3% of respondents said they were able to plant cash crops
sooner in their green-planted fields than in fields where cover crops were either terminated early or were not present, versus 9.7% who had delayed planting; 36% reported that they seeded green-planted fields and other fields at about the same time. It is possible that growing cover crops were actively transpiring moisture from wet
soils at planting time, a benefit that the dead biomass of a terminated cover crop could not deliver.
In addition, 70.5% of the respondents said planting green improved their weed control. The vast majority said levels of early season diseases, slugs, and voles—often feared as the potential downsides of planting green into cover crops—were about the same or better after planting green into cover crops. Though many farmers noted
that they did not have problems with voles, several pointed out challenges with cutworms when planting green— something worthwhile to note as more people explore the practice.
While the drought year of 2012 showed the biggest yield increases from cover crops, farmers in 2019 still reported modest boosts in soybean, corn and wheat yields of 5.0%, 2.0% and 2.6%, respectively. While farmers appreciate the yield benefits of cover crops, additional questions in the survey clearly indicate that they are
also motivated by cover crops’ abilities to deliver other benefits, like weed control, soil health, erosion control, livestock grazing and so many others. Besides the slight revenue boost from modest yield increases, cover crops can help pay for themselves in other
ways, such as reduced input costs. In terms of fertilizer savings, 49% of corn producers reported reduced fertilizer costs, as did 41% of soybean producers, 43% of wheat farmers, and 53% of cotton producers.
A similar pattern emerged with herbicide savings, with reduced herbicide costs in soybeans (38.7% of producers), corn (39%), wheat (31.9% of producers) and cotton (70.6%). Among the farmers who did not report a cut in herbicide applications or costs, a majority still reported improved weed control from cover crops. A new line of questions explored the crop insurance investments made by cover crop users. Three out of four respondents covered at least a portion of their crop with some form of federally subsidized crop insurance, with 53% of the total respondent pool covering 100% of their 2019 crop acres. Revenue Protection was the choice of 64.8%, while Revenue Protection with Harvest Price Exclusion (RPHPE) was employed by another 19.6%. Understanding the insurance preferences of cover crop users can help guide the further evolution of federally subsidized crop insurance programs to better accommodate cover crop practices. Horticulture users of cover crops represented 19.2% of the respondents to the survey, representing fruit, nut and vegetable operations around the country.
Among the primary motivations for planting cover crops, 94% of the horticulture producers identified improved soil structure or soil health, 81% cited improved weed management, 71% sought to reduce erosion and 63% aimed for improved water infiltration. A majority of the horticulture crop producers also reported economic
benefits from cover crops. Of the producers with cover crops, 34.8% reported a 5%-or-greater increase in net profit and 23.4% said their profits increased 2 to 4% due to cover crops. Only 3.8% said their profits were reduced by cover crops.