Second Cover Crop Survey Confirms Yield Boost

On Tuesday, November 18, USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program released the results of the 2013-2014 Cover Crop Survey, which assesses the benefits, challenges, yield impacts, and scale of adoption of cover crops. The North Central Region of the SARE program worked with the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) to survey more than 1,924 farmers across the country (44 states in all), many of whom have grown cover crops. The results of the survey confirm that farmers are seeing multiple benefits from cover crops, including increased yields of corn and soybeans following the cover crop.

Of the 1,924 farmers who responded to the survey, 630 provided data comparing corn yields from fields that did have cover crops to corn yields from fields that did not have cover crops. Similarly, 583 farmers provided data comparing soybean yields from fields that did and did not have cover crops. When a cover crop was planted before corn, corn yields increased by an average of five bushels per acre, or 3.1 percent. Farmers who planted a cover crop before planting soybeans saw an average soybean yield increase of 4.3 percent.

These yield increases, while significant, are lower than the yield increases found in last year’s Cover Crop Survey (9.6 percent for corn, and 11.6 percent for soy). According to Rob Meyers, Regional Director of Extension Programs for SARE, “much of the difference in yield impact between the two years of surveys may be attributed to the drought in 2012, which highlights the moisture-management benefits of cover crops.”

Key Findings

According to SARE, key findings of the survey include:

♦ Of 1,427 cover crop users who identified the three cover crop benefits they desired most, 74 percent chose increased soil organic matter, 51 percent cited reducing soil erosion and 35 percent said they hoped cover crops would reduce soil compaction. Controlling weeds appealed to 28 percent, while providing a nitrogen source was chosen by 23 percent and nitrogen scavenging by 17 percent. Increases in yield in the following cash crop came in close behind with 16 percent.

♦ The most popular cover crop species were winter cereal grains—including winter wheat, cereal rye and triticale—used by 73 percent of the 1,600 farmers who answered this question. Legumes, which could include clover, winter pea, vetch and others, were used by 55 percent, while an equal percentage planted brassicas such as oilseed radish, mustards, rapeseed, turnips and related plants. Annual grasses (which could include annual ryegrass, sorghum, sudangrass, oats and similar plants) were planted by 53 percent of the respondents, and multi-species mixes were used by 34 percent of the growers.

♦ Nearly half, or 48 percent, of 1,691 farmers reported using a herbicide to terminate their last cover crop. Tillage was the choice for 21 percent of the respondents. Selecting cover crops that winter kill was the top strategy for 20 percent, and mowing was employed by 10 percent. Only one percent reported using a roller-crimper, and 6% replied “Other.”

♦ In the 2013-2014 survey, the mean difference in yield for corn among farmers with 0 to 3 years of experience in cover crops was an increase of 2.04 bushels per acre, while farmers with 4 or more years of experience in cover crops reported a mean increase of 6.76 bushels per acre.  A similar pattern was evident in soybeans. Farmers with 0 to 3 years of cover crop experience reported a mean increase of 1.09 bushels per acre, while growers with 4 or more years of experience in cover crops saw a mean increase of 2.84 bushels.

♦ Median seed costs, with data “tails” removed, were $25 per acre. As with the seeding/establishment costs, regional data breakdowns of seed costs showed a wide range by geography, from a median seed cost of $25 per acre in the Midwest to a median of $40 per acre in the West.

♦ 88 percent of respondents who answered a question about barriers to adoption said that cover crop adoption is always limited or somewhat limited by the cost of cover crops; 81 percent said that cover crop adoption is always limited or somewhat limited by a perception that they are tough to terminate; and 72 percent said that adoption is always limited or somewhat limited by a perception that cover crops reduce yields in the following cash crops. Other barriers include a lack of access to planting equipment and lack of information about the practice.

♦ The top three challenges identified by cover crop users were time and labor required, establishing the crops, and seed cost. Time and labor was also the leading barrier to cover crop adoption among non-users.

♦ Of 419 respondents who answered a question about whether they managed their farm to provide forage for honeybees, 70 percent said they either planted bee-attractive plants to provide forage or managed their cover crops to provide forage for pollinators.

♦ In the three years preceding the survey year of 2013, cover crop acreage had increased by an average of about 30 percent per year among surveyed cover crop users. When farmers were asked to project their 2014 acreage, they forecast adding about 10 percent more acres of cover crops.

The increasing popularity of cover crops points to the great work that SARE has been doing for many years to assess, demonstrate, and publicize the benefits of cover cropping. We look forward to working with USDA and partner organizations to build upon the survey’s findings and promote the widespread adoption of cover crops.