Farmers in the United States are being encouraged to implement cover crops, also known as plant cover, in order to improve soil health, benefit the environment, and combat climate change.
Although they were offered incentives and encouraged to do so for years, Midwest farmers only planted cover crops on approximately 7% of their land in 2021.
The percentage has grown in recent years, but it is still relatively low due to farmers’ concerns. Despite receiving additional payments and experiencing various advantages from using cover crops, they are hesitant. There is a fear that this practice may negatively impact their profits, which was supported by a study conducted last year.
Researchers who used satellite data to examine over 90,000 fields in six Corn Belt states found cover crops can reduce yields of cash crops — the bushels per acre. The smaller the yield, the less money farmers make.
“I am hesitant to give up on it, but committing to planting cover crops entirely is a challenge for me,” stated Doug Downs, a farmer in Illinois. He only plants cover crops on a small portion of his land, which is located in the flat area of east-central Illinois.
Cover crops are plants grown on farmland that otherwise would be bare. While crops like corn and soybeans are growing or soon after harvest, farmers can sow species such as rye or red clover that will grow through winter and into spring. They stabilize soil, reduce fertilizer runoff, store carbon in plant roots and potentially add nutrients to the dirt.
It is crucial for the government to implement practices that will capture carbon in farmlands, in order to combat climate change. It is widely accepted that planting specific crops during off-seasons can effectively remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it in plant roots underground.
The United States Department of Agriculture encourages the use of cover crops through various initiatives. This includes allocating $44 million in payments during the 2023 fiscal year from the agency’s Natural Resources Conservation Service for over 4,700 contracts to plant cover crops on 850,000 acres (344,000 hectares) of land. The Inflation Reduction Act also provided additional funding for conservation practices, including cover crops. Additionally, a program offered $100 million in additional benefits through federal crop insurance to farmers who implement cover crops.
The use of cover crops for carbon storage has sparked increased attention, but its success is influenced by variables such as soil quality, plant type, and temperature.
The Natural Resources Defense Council is heavily promoting the use of cover crops and even enlisted actor Nick Offerman from Parks and Recreation for a social media campaign. The group is also advocating for Congress to offer farmers greater financial rewards for implementing this practice.
The NRDC points to studies that have found cover crops don’t necessarily reduce cash crop yields and can boost growth. And Lara Bryant, the group’s deputy director of water and agriculture, notes that while the overall percentage of farmers planting cover crops is small, acreage increased by 50% to about 5% of U.S. cropland from 2012 to 2017, the most recent year USDA data is available.
Bryant stated that there is still a considerable journey ahead, but we have made significant progress in a short period of time.
According to the 2022 satellite analysis, there was an observed decrease in crop production of 5.5% in corn fields where cover crops had been implemented for at least three years. The study also found a 3.5% decrease in soybean fields. The specific amount of decline varied based on factors such as the type of cover crop used, soil moisture levels, and soil quality.
David Lobell, an agricultural ecologist from Stanford University, expressed his surprise at the negative findings of the study published in the journal Global Change Biology. He collaborated with researchers from Illinois and North Carolina, and upon double-checking their work, they were still taken aback by the results.
According to Lobell, the research revealed that rye, the most commonly utilized cover crop, is particularly susceptible to decreasing yields. Rye is a cost-effective option compared to other cover crops and thrives in various types of soil.
The research analyzed agricultural areas in Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, and Ohio by utilizing satellite imagery. Lobell noted that information on a single field may not be as precise as on-site investigation, but by studying numerous fields, the findings can be deemed accurate.
The study suggested that farmers require additional assistance in selecting and maintaining cover crops, along with increased support from the government or food industry to compensate for any potential decrease in crop yield. Currently, both the federal government and 22 states offer financial incentives to farmers, while companies like General Mills and PepsiCo offer higher payments to those who incorporate cover crops into their farming practices.
Terry Cosby, the head of the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, recognized that it may take time and trial and error to successfully implement cover crops, but assures farmers that they will reap significant rewards if they persist. He also mentioned the Biden administration’s commitment of $19.5 billion towards climate-friendly initiatives over the span of five years, and emphasized that technical guidance can be obtained from federal, state, and university outreach services.
“It may require some experimentation,” stated Cosby. “While there is a possibility of failure, it has been demonstrated that incorporating a cover crop can lead to long-term success.”
Downs, a farmer from Illinois, has attempted to integrate cover crops into his farming practices in order to manage weed growth. However, he admits that it has been a challenging endeavor.
In 2019, Downs sowed rye in one plot of land, but chose not to sow it in an adjacent plot separated by a road. Due to heavy rainfall in the spring, the rye field became extremely saturated, preventing him from accessing it for several weeks to eliminate the cover crop and plant soybeans. This ultimately led to a reduced harvest.
According to Downs, planting a cover crop amounted to $250 per acre, while the expenses for doing so were $50 per acre.
Farmers usually do not harvest and sell cover crops. Instead, they often rely on herbicides to eliminate them before planting their main crop.
Curt Elmore, a fourth-generation farmer, has been experimenting with cover crops for 10 years on his 2,000-acre farm located less than 20 miles (32 kilometers) away. He has been planting oats and rye to cover parts of his land.
Elmore utilizes aerial seeding to plant cover crops before harvesting his main crop. However, the growth of the cover crops has been uneven and does not justify the cost of $40 per acre.
Elmore expressed his determination to continue attempting, but it appears that in his region of Illinois, it will require increased funding from governmental or corporate entities to persuade more farmers to adopt the practice.
He stated that if this is a requirement, someone will be responsible for it.
Joe McClure, director of research at the Iowa Soybean Association, expressed that the findings of the Stanford study align with the research conducted by his organization. However, he suggested that the university researchers should conduct a field study in order to confirm their analysis based on satellite data.
According to McClure, providing additional financial assistance could prevent farmers from having to decide between planting cover crops and suffering financial losses.
According to J. Arbuckle, a faculty member at Iowa State University who focuses on sustainable agriculture, it is crucial to communicate with farmers about potential decreases in crop yields and ways to lessen their impact over a longer time frame, such as six to seven years.
Despite the positive impact on the environment, it can still be challenging to persuade farmers to experiment with cover crops. This is due to the fact that even a slight decrease in cash crop yield can result in significant financial losses, as stated by Arbuckle.
“He mentioned that even a single bushel loss can result in significant financial impact when considering a bushel per acre across a thousand acres.”
The name of the Natural Resources Defense Council has been corrected in this updated version of the story.
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