Sowing cover crops between rounds of cash crops can protect fields and enrich Midwest soils. So Jeremy 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 National 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.