During the 2012 drought, corn and soybean yields improved following cover crops, according to a recently released report with detailed results from a farmer survey on cover crops. The survey was carried out in partnership between the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) and the USDA North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program. More than 750 farmers, primarily from the Upper Mississippi River watershed, were surveyed during the winter of 2012-2013. Questions on cover crop adoption, benefits, challenges and yield impacts were included in the survey. Key findings include:
- During fall 2012, corn planted after cover crops had a 9.6% increase in yield compared to side-by-side fields with no cover crops. Likewise, soybean yields were improved 11.6% following cover crops.
- In the hardest hit drought areas of the Corn Belt, yield differences were even larger, with an 11% yield increase for corn and a 14.3% 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 35% 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. One farmer 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 of $25/acre for cover crop seed and an additional $15/acre for establishment costs (either for their own cost of planting or to hire a contractor for cover crop seeding).
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“It is especially noteworthy how significant the yield benefits for cover crops were in an extremely dry year,” Rob Myers, a University of Missouri agronomist and regional director of extension programs for North Central Region SARE, said. “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.”
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