Cover crops may be on the verge of a new golden age as more farmers recognize the production and economic value of covering the ground with plant life in all seasons.
In March 2017, the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) and the Noble Research Institute announced a $6.6 million national research initiative, made possible by a $2.2 million grant from FFAR, to promote soil health through the development and adoption of new cover crops across the U.S.
“There is a renewed interest in the practice of using covers,” says Twain Butler, Ph.D., a research agronomist at the Noble Research Institute and project manager for the initiative.
The agricultural industry and consumers are showing a greater interest in farming practices, like cover cropping, that boost the soil’s ability to absorb water, sequester carbon and reduce soil erosion. Growing cover crops helps protect the environment by reducing the need for chemical fertilizers, thus lowering the potential of nitrogen and phosphorus runoff into nearby waterways. Excess nutrients in ground and surface water can contribute to the excess growth of algae and other aquatic plants. So-called green manure is green in more ways than one.
Based on a national farmer survey funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, cover-crop users in 2012 were planting just more than 200 acres per farm. By 2016, that number had doubled, reflecting a rapid rise in adoption. Still, the estimated 17 million acres of cover crops in the U.S. today represent just a small fraction of the 250 million acres of row crop fields in the U.S. as of the most recent census from 2012.
While cover crops are generally planted to improve soil health, not every variety will fit every producer. There are many factors to consider, including geographic location. As part of the research initiative, researchers from across the country have pulled together to answer questions producers have about what will work for them whether they farm or ranch on the East Coast or in the Midwest. This network of researchers will also work with farmers and ranchers to better understand what is needed in the field as well as with seed companies to expand effective options on the market.
In encouraging cover cropping, scientists like Butler and others stress the benefits to farmers. They are working to provide data to address some of farmers’ practical questions: Which is the best type of crop to use for which field? How do short-term costs compare with long-term gain? When is the best time to kill the cover crop? How do cover crops affect soil moisture?
“There’s not going to be one answer,” Butler says. “It’s going to be different in Oklahoma and this part of the country than elsewhere.”
Click here to learn more about the project and watch a recording of the announcement.