The New York Times published an interesting story on cover crops on the front page of the Business Section in Sunday’s paper (“A Revolution with Deep Roots in the Past.”)
The article explained that cover crops are “fields of noncash crops like hairy vetch and cereal rye that act on soil like a nourishing facial after the harvest.”
Sunday’s article added that, “The practice of seeding fields [with cover crops] between harvests not only keeps topsoil in place, it also adds carbon to the soil and helps the beneficial microbes, fungus, bacteria and worms in it thrive.
“These properties have led philanthropies like the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation to underwrite research on cover crops, while Monsanto, together with the Walton Family Foundation, recently put up the money to support the Soil Health Partnership, a five-year project of the National Corn Growers Association to identify, test and measure the impact of cover cropping and other practices to improve soil health.”
Although cover cropping practices are currently used by a small number of farmers, the use of cover crops is growing. A 2014 survey regarding cover crop issues noted that, from 2010 to 2013, cover crop acreage among survey respondents increased by 30 percent per year.
The survey also contained this interesting graphic on cover crop acreage.
And, the survey pointed out that yields generally improved when cover crops were used: “For the second year in a row, a national survey of farmers has documented a yield boost from the use of cover crops in corn and soybeans, as well as a wide variety of other benefits.”
Sunday’s New York Times article explained that, “The federal government is mulling ways to persuade farmers to adopt cover cropping. There is a small subsidy system; Rulon Enterprises [a family farm located in Arcadia, Indiana], for instance, gets $40,000 to help offset the cost of cover crops and support other conservation practices.”
In the future, lawmakers may provide increased attention to cover crop issues with public policy proposals that give producers additional incentives to use these crops. Examples could include increased cost share programs to help defer farmers cost for seed, or crop insurance incentives, like premium discounts, for enhanced organic matter in soil.
In fact, the President’s recently proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2017 indicated that, “Crop Insurance and Resiliency. The Budget includes proposals for USDA’s crop insurance program that would incentivize farmers to choose production practices that minimize climate-change impacts, discourage farming on environmentally sensitive lands and highly-erodable soils, and enhance resiliency in the future through soil protection. These include reducing the farmers’ subsidy by 10 percentage points for harvest price revenue coverage and reforming coverage for prevented planting.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has provided a helpful online tool for Illinois farmers to “assess the economics and focus on new costs and benefits” of cover crops and help them evaluate the use of cover crops on their specific operation. The NRCS tool is available here.