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Using cover crops can benefit the climate and environment, but the majority of farmers do not utilize them.
Science & Health

Using cover crops can benefit the climate and environment, but the majority of farmers do not utilize them.

Known as cover crops, they are considered the top priority for U.S. farmers, as they are believed to promote soil health, aid in environmental conservation, and combat climate change.

Despite receiving incentives and encouragement for several years, only around 7% of Midwest farmers actually planted cover crops on their land in 2021.

The proportion has gone up in recent years, but is still relatively low. This is partly due to the fact that while farmers may receive additional payments and experience various advantages from using cover crops, they are still hesitant. A number of them are concerned that this practice will negatively impact their profits – and a recent study suggests they may be correct.

Scientists analyzed satellite imagery of more than 90,000 fields across six states in the Corn Belt and determined that implementing cover crops can result in decreased yields of cash crops, measured in bushels per acre. This ultimately leads to lower profits for farmers.

Farmer Doug Downs from Illinois stated that while he doesn’t want to give up on it completely, fully committing to planting cover crops is a difficult task for him. He currently only plants cover crops on a small portion of his land, which is located in a mostly flat area of east-central Illinois.

Cover crops are vegetation cultivated on agricultural land that would otherwise be left uncultivated. During the growth or immediate aftermath of crops like corn and soybeans, farmers have the option to plant crops such as rye or red clover that will continue to grow through the winter and into the spring. These cover crops serve to stabilize the soil, decrease fertilizer runoff, store carbon in plant roots, and potentially enrich the soil with nutrients.

The implementation of this practice is crucial for the government’s initiatives to store carbon in agricultural land in order to mitigate the effects of climate change. It is widely accepted that planting appropriate crops during off-seasons can effectively extract carbon from the atmosphere and store it in plant roots underground.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture encourages the use of cover crops through various initiatives. In the 2023 fiscal year, the agency’s Natural Resources Conservation Service will allocate $44 million in payments for over 4,700 contracts to plant cover crops on approximately 344,000 hectares. The Inflation Reduction Act also offers additional funding for conservation practices, including cover crops. Additionally, farmers who plant cover crops can receive an extra $100 million in benefits through federal crop insurance coverage.

FILE - A combine harvests corn, Oct. 10, 2023, at a farm near Allerton, Ill.

On October 10, 2023, a farm near Allerton, Illinois had a combine harvesting corn.

There is a growing focus on utilizing cover crops to store carbon, although their efficacy is influenced by various factors such as soil conditions, plant type, and temperature.

The Natural Resources Defense Council has placed significant emphasis on the use of cover crops. In fact, they even collaborated with Parks and Recreation actor Nick Offerman to launch a social media campaign, where he is shown buried in dirt to promote the practice. The organization has also urged Congress to provide farmers with greater financial incentives for planting these crops.

According to the NRDC, studies have shown that cover crops do not always decrease yields of cash crops and can even improve growth. Lara Bryant, the deputy director of water and agriculture at the organization, highlights that although the percentage of farmers using cover crops is low, the amount of land they cover has increased by 50% to approximately 5% of U.S. cropland between 2012 and 2017, the latest year for which data from the USDA is accessible.

Bryant stated that we have made significant progress in a short period of time, but still have a long road ahead.

The study conducted in 2022 using satellite data revealed that the use of cover crops for three or more years resulted in a decrease in yields by an average of 5.5% for corn fields and 3.5% for soybean fields. The extent of the decline varied depending on factors like the type of cover crop, soil moisture, and soil quality.

David Lobell, an agricultural ecologist from Stanford University who collaborated with researchers from Illinois and North Carolina on a study published in the journal Global Change Biology, expressed his surprise at the unexpectedly negative findings. “We thoroughly reviewed all our data and were somewhat taken aback,” he stated.

According to Lobell, the research showed that rye, the most commonly used cover crop, has a higher likelihood of decreasing yields. Rye is a cost-effective option compared to other cover crops and is adaptable to various soil types.

Researchers utilized satellite imagery to analyze agricultural land in six Midwestern states: Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, and Ohio. Although the data for each individual field may not be as exact as data collected on-site, the study of thousands of fields allows for reliable findings, according to Lobell.

The authors of the study suggested that farmers require additional assistance in selecting and caring for cover crops, as well as more financial support from the government or food industry to compensate for potential decreases in crop yield. Currently, the federal government and 22 states offer monetary incentives to farmers, and companies like General Mills and PepsiCo provide 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 some time and trial and error to establish effective cover crops, but farmers who remain committed to them should see noticeable advantages. He also highlighted the Biden administration’s commitment of $19.5 billion towards climate-friendly programs over the course of five years, and mentioned that federal, state, and university outreach services are available for technical guidance.

According to Cosby, there will be a need for experimentation and mistakes. While there is a possibility of failure, it has been demonstrated that implementing a cover crop can lead to long-term success.

The Illinois farmer, Downs, has attempted to integrate cover crops into certain aspects of his farming in order to manage weeds. However, he states that it has not been a straightforward process.

FILE - Dust fills the air as a combine harvests corn, Oct. 10, 2023, at a farm near Allerton, Ill.

On October 10, 2023, a farm in Allerton, Illinois was covered in dust as a combine harvested corn.

In the year 2019, Downs sowed rye on a particular field, but did not do so on a similar field located across the road. Due to heavy rain in the spring, the rye field was extremely waterlogged, preventing him from entering for several weeks to eliminate the cover crop and sow soybeans. This ultimately led to a decreased harvest.

According to Downs, cultivating a cover crop cost $250 per acre, with an additional $50 per acre spent on the process.

Usually, farmers do not harvest and trade cover crops. Instead, they often opt to use herbicides to eliminate them before planting their main crop.

Within a radius of 32 kilometers, Curt Elmore, a fourth-generation farmer, has been experimenting with cover crops for ten years. He has been planting crops such as oats and rye on a portion of his 809-hectare farm.

Elmore uses aerial seeding to plant cover crops before harvesting his main crop, but the growth of these cover crops has been inconsistent and does not justify the expense.

Elmore stated that he will persist in his efforts, but it appears that in his region of Illinois, it will require additional payments from governments or companies to persuade more farmers to adopt the practice.

He stated that if this is a command, then someone will be responsible for it.

According to Joe McClure, director of research for the Iowa Soybean Association, the findings of the Stanford study largely align with their own research. However, he believes that the university’s researchers should conduct a field study to validate their analysis based on satellite data.

According to McClure, increased financial assistance would assist farmers in avoiding the dilemma of having to decide between planting cover crops and suffering financial losses.

A professor at Iowa State University’s sustainable agriculture program, J. Arbuckle, emphasized the need for farmers to be informed about potential decreases in crop production and strategies for mitigating these effects over extended time frames, such as six to seven years.

According to Arbuckle, persuading farmers to experiment with cover crops can be difficult. Despite the positive impact on the environment, even a slight decrease in the yield of cash crops can result in a significant financial loss.

He stated that even a small reduction of one bushel per acre, when considering a thousand acres, can result in significant financial losses.