Study Weighs Cover Crop Use
By Ann Perry
November 7, 2007
Sowing cover crops between rounds of cash crops can protect fields and
enrich Midwest soils. So
W. Singer, an Agricultural Research Service (ARS) agronomist, wanted to find out how many
farmers in the Corn Belt actually use cover crops. Singer works at the
Soil Tilth Laboratory, Ames, Iowa.
Collaborators at Iowa State
University sent a survey about cover crop use to a random sample of 3,500
crop farmers in Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and Minnesota. They ended up with more
than 1,000 usable responses.
When their results were analyzed, they found that farmers who
cultivated a greater number of different crops were more likely to use cover
crops. But only 18 percent of farmers in the region reported ever using cover
cropsand only 8 percent had planted them in the fall of 2005.
The survey results showed a majority of farmers believed cover crops
improve soil conditions by reducing erosion and increasing soil organic matter.
Eighty percent were using some type of conservation practice, even if they were
not participating in government conservation programs.
Sometimes it just came down to money; more than a quarter of farmers
perceived that cover crops are too expensive, and more than a third believed
that planting cover crops took too much time.
Singer and his colleagues are incorporating the survey results into
their research to develop more user-friendly annual and perennial cover crops
that farmers would be willing to use. For instance, farmers could realize a
double payoff if they used the lull between cultivating annual cash crops to
grow cover crops.
The cover crops could maintain or even enhance soil productivity, and
some of the cash crop residue could be harvested for bioenergy production,
which would increase producer profits. Finding ways to minimize the cost and
time needed to establish and manage cover crops will support the expansion of
cover crop use in all types of farming.
This study was partially funded by the
Leopold Center for Sustainable
Agriculture at Iowa State University in Ames.
ARS is the U.S. Department of
Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.