February 26, 2015

What’s causing the surge, and how can you get in on the action?

By Alex Scheer, Entira Associate

Cover crops are not just for winter forage anymore—they’re cropping up as a soil conservation method and seem to be gaining popularity across the country.

It’s hard to tout cover cropping as “the next big thing” because it’s not a new practice; but perhaps it’s one that’s waking from slumber, or one that’s just taking on a new life form.

I grew up on a family farm in central Missouri, and we’ve used cover crops as winter forage for our cattle herd for 15 years. Over the past several years, cover crops have grown in popularity as a soil conservation strategy for numerous reasons. Cover crops help with soil fertility by keeping the soil “alive” throughout the year. The practice reduces soil compaction, because plant life keeps top soil loose through their root systems and by shielding the soil from rain that packs it tightly. It also helps with weed control by shading new growth and acting as a mulching agent in the spring, preventing weeds from growing through. All of these benefits can help increase yields over time. There are also benefits to the public from a water quality standpoint, as cover cropping has shown to increase water retention--the plants soak up water, resulting in less run off.

According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, which captured statistics on cover cropping for the first time, operators of 133,124 farms planted cover crops on 10.3 million acres in 2012 (not including land in USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program). Leading states in terms of acreage were Texas, Indiana, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan.

Because this was the first time the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) had recorded data for cover crops in its census, there’s no statistical comparison to be drawn. But, the USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program has funded research projects on cover crops since 1988, and last year released a joint study with the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) showing the total acreage of cover crops among close to 2,000 farmers surveyed increased 30 percent per year between 2010 and 2013. The report also showed 2013 corn yields increased 3.1% when planted after a cover crop, and soybean yields improved 4.3% following cover crops, among those surveyed. (Source: SARE Cover Crops Survey 2013-2014)

Barriers to Adoption

Like any new idea, there are challenges that come along with the benefits. Here are some of the challenges that may slow the growth of cover cropping:

  • Lack of statistical evidence. As I mentioned previously, NASS only recently began including a cover crops measure in their census taken every five years, so we don’t have concrete national statistics available yet on adoption. And while the smaller-scale SARE studies on cover crop usage have pointed to growing adoption in recent years, what’s lacking is the dollars-and-cents story around cover cropping and the economic benefits to farmers of bringing this to their operation. Certainly, more farmers would take interest in cover crops if we could “show them the money.”
  • It’s a new idea for many. There are perceptions that cover cropping is a costly endeavor, which could be true given the costs of seed and inputs would be higher for the year. Also farmers who responded to the most recent SARE study on cover crops said they’re concerned it makes planting difficult in the next rotation, and that it can decrease yields on cash crops. And even if one farmer is ready to give it a try, getting his partners in the operation on board can be yet another hurdle.
  • Knowledge of best practices, products and tools. Using cover crops as a conservation method brings a whole slew of new challenges for farmers in managing their operations. When you look at it from a soil conservation standpoint, it’s hard to dispute the benefits; but being successful requires planning and making the right choices. Having an advisor helps. Farmers interested in a cover crops strategy for their operation can benefit from someone who can provide guidance. Retailers can help farmers adjust how they manage nutrients with changing soil conditions, and guide their purchase decisions when it comes to cover crop seeding and related products. And we can all help with education and overcoming the misperceptions.

Does your company have an interest or stake in cover crops? Entira can help you identify market opportunities for cover crop products, analyze who is using them and why, and help identify who your competition is in the cover crop space. Please contact Entira at info@entira.net if you’d like to discuss the possibilities.