Given the benefits of cover crops for the environment and the soil, why aren’t they more widely used?

A recent survey from the Conservation Technology Information Center and Corn & Soybean Digest found that only about 20% of growers plant cover crops. In Iowa, farmers planted fewer than 50,000 acres of cover crops in 2010 – out of more than 23 million acres of corn and soybeans, says Sarah Carlson of Practical Farmers of Iowa, a farmer-to-farmer education and on-farm research group.

One of the biggest challenges for northern farmers is the short window to plant and establish cover crops in the fall, says Dwayne Beck, a South Dakota State University agronomist.

Cost is another barrier, Carlson says. Seeding expense runs about $25/acre, although there are ways to lower your costs by growing your own seed or concocting cover-crop cocktails from whatever you have left over in the seed bins, says Paul Jasa of the University of Nebraska.

It takes some time to reap the benefits of cover crops, too, Jasa adds. “It’s probably not going to pay in the short term.” For the first few years, “you are building up the soil. By years four, five or six, you are finally picking up yield increases.”

Yet economics may not be the main hurdle, Carlson says.

In 2008, the EQIP program offered Iowa growers $31.50/acre to plant a cover crop, “but there were few takers.” In 2009, the Mississippi River Basin Initiative offered growers in selected counties $60-108/acre to plant a cover crop. At that price, “I thought I’d see more cover crop acres this year,” Carlson says. “So I don’t think money is the main issue.”

As she sees it, the biggest barrier to adoption is a lack of know-how and experience. “There’s a ton of interest in cover crops,” she says, “but farmers haven’t had anywhere to go for information or help on how to do it.” A mature network of industry services and expertise doesn’t yet exist for cover crops, as it does for traditional crops, she adds.

Before growers will have the confidence to try cover crops, they will need detailed knowledge on cropping alternatives, best agronomic practices and economic risks, she says. “We need to get at the numbers, and we need long-term research. There hasn’t been much of that yet.”

Cover-Crop Resources

Information on cover-crop cost share and grant programs, and more: www.sare.org

Managing Cover Crops Profitably:

http://sare.org/publications/covercrops.htm

Midwest Cover Crops Council: www.mccc.msu.edu

Cover-crop selection tool: www.greencoverseed.com

Practical Farmers of Iowa Cover Crops Hotline: 515-232-5661 or www.practicalfarmers.org

 

January 2011