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Cover crop acreage has doubled since 2012

Acreage planted in cover crops has nearly doubled over the past five years, according to nationwide survey results released in September.

The fifth annual cover crop survey by the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program and the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) draws on the insight of 2,102 U.S. farmers—88 percent of whom reported using cover crops.

Cereal rye remained the top choice of farmers for cover cropping, followed by oats and radish. Sixty-five percent of the cover crop users reported planting mixes in 2016.

Following the use of cover crops, farmers reported increased yields of corn, soybeans and wheat. The report shows:

  • Corn yields increased an average of 2.3 bushels per acre;
  • Soybean yields increased 2.1 bushels per acre;
  • Wheat yields increased 1.9 bushels per acre.

“In addition to yield increases, farmers reported other benefits to cover crops, ranging from improved soil health to better control of herbicide-resistant weeds,” said Rob Myers, regional director of Extension Programs for North Central SARE at the University of Missouri. “That reflects long-term thinking and a growing understanding of the enduring value that cover crops deliver.”

Myers said 69 percent of the respondents said cover crops always or sometimes improved control of herbicide-resistant weeds. Soil health was noted by 86 percent of the respondents to be a key benefit of cover crops, and more than half believed that soil health benefits began in the first year of use.

Since SARE and CTIC began the annual cover crop survey in 2012, there has been a steady increase in cover crop acreage among participants. In this year’s survey, farmers said they committed an average of 400 acres each to cover crops in 2016, up from 217 acres per farm in 2012. They expected to increase their cover crop planting in 2017 to an average of 451 acres.

The timing of cover crop planting is also evolving. Approximately three out of four cover crop acres in the survey were planted after harvesting a cash crop, but the practice of inter-seeding covers into growing cash crops is an emerging trend—27 percent of the respondents said they seeded cover crops at sidedress fertilization time or in late summer.

At the other end of the cycle, “planting green” had been tried or used by 39 percent of the respondents. They said the approach—in which cash crops are seeded directly into living cover crops, and then the covers are terminated—helped suppress weeds, manage soil moisture and maximize other benefits of cover crops. Planting green was uncommon just a few years ago.

More details are online at www.sare.org/covercropsurvey.

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