Daily Archives: July 18, 2014

What do Cover Crops have to do with Wildlife?

By Lara Bryant
NWF’s Wildlife Promise

National Wildlife Federation has been working hard for the past few years to overcome barriers and support champions of cover crop adoption. In fact, we just released two new reports on cover crops: Counting Cover Crops and Clean Water Grows. When I explain my work to people, they often ask, “What are cover crops, and why is National Wildlife Federation promoting them?”
Cover crops are grown in between cash crops, to cover the soil when it would ordinarily be bare or fallow. Cover crops hold the soil in place on the land, and keep it from washing away into rivers and streams. Cover crops improve water quality and soil quality, and they also sequester carbon, which helps mitigate climate change. Climate change has been identified as one of the greatest threats to wildlife, and clean water is a key ingredient for wildlife habitat. Some cover crops, such as buckwheat, may also benefit wildlife as winter forage and cover, while others, such as red and white clover, are great for pollinators. So, as far as wildlife is concerned, cover crops are the bee’s knees.


Cover crops make bees happy. Photo: flick user steveburt1947

Wildlife and Cover Crops in the Mississippi River Basin (MRB)
The Mississippi River Basin is the world’s fourth largest watershed. Did you know that parts of 30 states from the Appalachians to the Rockies drain into the Mississippi? Thousands of species live near or depend on the 12 major rivers that drain into the Mississippi – black bears, alligators, and map turtles, to name a few. Needless to say, clean water in the MRB is a priority for wildlife.
Yet, Counting Cover Crops shows that cover crops are grown on only 1.8 million acres, or less than 2% of cropland in the Mississippi River Basin (MRB). Instead of looking at the glass like it’s half empty, let’s say that there is a tremendous opportunity to improve wildlife habitat on working lands and in rivers and streams by getting more cover crops on the ground.
By 2025, NWF would like to see 100 million acres of cover crops planted across the United States; 60 million acres would be in the MRB. But how can that vision become reality? We wrote Clean Water Grows to provide some examples of successful efforts to grow more cover crops.
I interviewed 14 hard-working people who are improving water quality in the MRB, the Great Lakes, and the Chesapeake Bay. It was inspiring to hear about water utilities and state agencies working with local conservation districts and farmers to reduce water pollution with cover crops.
For example, in Indiana, three counties banded together and used funding from Clean Water Indiana to provide expert assistance and partially fund the cost for farmers in their districts to plant cover crops. They planted 7,000 acres of cover crops across the three counties in two years. This kept 2,380 tons of sediment, 2,942 lbs of phosphorus, and 5,880 lbs of nitrogen from reaching rivers and streams, annually. Imagine how much cleaner the Gulf of Mexico would be if 60 million acres of cover crops were planted in the MRB?
Read more inspiring stories in Clean Water Grows, and think of how cover crops could clean lakes, rivers, and estuaries near you.

Meet the Cover Crop Champions

By Lara Bryant

NWF’s Wildlife Promise


Last year NWF began a new program for cover crop expert farmers and agricultural professionals, called the “Cover Crop Champions.” The champions receive small grants to pay the cost of their travel, time, and various expenses to share their expertise and passion for cover crops with farmers in their region. Recently, NWF staff took a look at the champions’ first year reports and found that so farour champions have directly reached nearly 2,500 farmers and over 100,000 more indirectly through media. We calculate that this will result in at least 42,651 new acres of cover crops in the Mississippi River Basin – which is great for wildlife and reducing pollution in the Gulf of Mexico! Cover crops not only help hold soil in place and clean water, but they can also provide forage and cover for wildlife.  Read more here.


Is there a cover crop champion near you? NWF accepted applicants from Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin to share their expertise. Map created by NWF staff using Batchgeo.

According to the 2012 Agricultural Census, 10.3 million acres of cover crops were planted nationwide in 2012. USDA has a goal to get 20 million acres of cover crops planted by 2020. The cover crop champions can help pave the way to reaching that goal.

We had time to catch up with a couple of our champions and hear their stories, which I have shared below.


Bobwhite photo donated by National Wildlife Photo Contest

entrant Douglas Elsaesser.

Mark Peterson, Iowa

Mark Peterson farms approximately 400 acres of row crops in a corn and soybean rotation. Mark started growing cover crops two years ago, after learning about their benefits from experts at Practical Farmers of Iowa, a farmer-led non-profit organization that values good agricultural stewardship.

Since he started growing cover crops, Mark noticed that there was less erosion after a rainfall where he had cover crops planted.

As an unexpected bonus, Mark found a covey of quail on his farm for the first time in 8 years.Cover crops create a place for quail to raise their young.

I asked Mark what the highlight of the champions program was for him and he told me a story about some farmers who approached him after a meeting where he spoke about using cover crops. They said they had been thinking about growing cover crops for a long time, and listening to you today finally got us motivated to do something.” Kent Solberg, Minnesota

Kent runs a rotational-grazing dairy and pastured hog farm in central Minnesota. Adding cover crops to his operation provides feed for livestock and builds soil health.

When Kent first purchased the farm, the soils were coarse and worn out. During drought time, the pastures would dry up and the price of irrigation was too high to make a profit. Kent started looking for alternatives and started the farm on a path to improve soil health. He takes some pasture out of production and plants it to a complex cover crop mix to boost soil microbe activity. This improves the soil for the next crop or pasture. Kent uses cover crops for mid-summer and fall forage. “If I could change anything, it would be that I wish I had started sooner. Every year I use covers, I wish I had done more.”

Kent says that being a part of the champions program has created an opportunity to bring the message of soil health to other producers.

“If not for the program, I don’t think I would have been able to speak to as many people as I have in the past 6-8 months. It has also helped build a network I can tap into to help multiply the adoption of cover crops,” Solberg said.


Photo courtesy of Kent Solberg

Eventually, I hope to tell more stories about the cover crop champions on this blog, but in the meantime, feel free to check out this portfolio of their inaugural year, or read more about NWF’s work on cover crops.