Cover Crop Challenges: A Reminder That In Agriculture, Even Small Changes Can Be Hard

March 17, 2017
Andrea Basche
Former contributor

Why don’t more farmers plant cover crops? This is a question I am asked all the time when I talk about my research on the topic. Cover crops are not new—their historic use in agriculture includes many ancient civilizations and even our Founding Fathers. Cover crops simply mean growing a plant to “cover” and protect the soil when it would otherwise be bare. Live plant roots can reduce erosion and water pollution, and lead to more productive soil with time.

To a non-farmer it might seem like a no-brainer, but talking to agricultural producers helps highlight how complicated even seemingly simple best management can be. In a peer-reviewed paper published this week, several former colleagues and I describe the “Trouble with Cover Crops” based on focus group discussions we facilitated with Iowa farmers.

In spite of increasing attention on cover crops in the popular press, agricultural industry and in academic research circles, cover crops only make up about 2% of the overall landscape of the U.S. Midwest “Corn Belt.” Helping scale up the practice was the main motivation of our work: what could we learn from the pioneering farmers who are making cover crops work? A few key points emerged as the most salient:

The unforgiving winter season in the Upper Midwest is inhospitable to almost anything other than the most cold-tolerant cover crop, cereal rye, seen growing here in between rows of soybean. The farmers we spoke to are very interested in other cover crop species such as radishes (with deep tap roots that help reduce soil compaction) and legumes such as vetch or clover (which act as a biological plant fertilizer).

Overcoming barriers is possible with a “whole systems” approach

Our conversations with farmers highlighted the conflict they face between doing what might be best in the long term and what is needed to keep business afloat in the short term (a problem we can all relate to). So many decisions come down to economics, but the story is more complicated than just dollars and cents. Agricultural landscapes in many regions have grown increasingly simplified over the last several decades—in Iowa more than 90% of farmed acres are planted to just two crops: corn or soybean.

This means that these farmers are generally very busy when they are getting ready for corn and soybean planting periods (April and May) and during crop harvest (September and October). Those are the same part of the growing season that a producer using a cover crop would need to find the time to get cover crop seeds planted and then terminated in the spring (by using an herbicide or plowing the cover crop into the soil). That simply doesn’t leave a lot of time for a cover crop to grow adequately, especially in a cold winter season; so, not a guarantee with that narrow “window” that it was worth a producer’s monies and effort. This challenge with timing, and the labor needed to complete the tasks needed, are a definite challenge expressed by producers.

This may explain why many of the farmers we spoke to who were actually using cover crops described their approach to farm management as operating a “whole system”, where including a cover crop wasn’t an isolated tweak to their production, rather it was part of a more comprehensive approach to management. It also meant other important changes such as applying fertilizer more efficiently and utilizing equipment differently. Here is the voice of one farmer who articulated this idea so well:

I look at it as a system. You got to do the whole system. You can’t nitpick. You got to manage your nitrogen. You got to get good soil/seed contact cause you’re planting into a mass of roots sometimes and you need to do everything. Just to do one piece? One piece…it doesn’t work, they get discouraged and say that’s no good and they’re not going to do it anymore. You need to do everything.

It was an encouraging point of our conversations that soil conservation drove a desire to make the economics and timing work. Many other farmers saw the practice of cover cropping as critical to longer-term sustainability, particularly as a way to manage risks associated with growing rainfall variability.

More diverse agricultural landscapes are needed if we want to see more cover crops

Since it was founded in 1985 by farmers seeking alternatives during the Farm Crisis, the Practical Farmers of Iowa have cultivated an extensive network of thousands of farmers in the state who support each other with information on practices like cover cropping. They also created the clever campaign “Don’t Farm Naked” to promote soil protection through cover crops.

Even the pioneering farmers that we spoke to, who had years (if not decades) of experience growing cover crops, expressed doubt that their neighbors would be willing to spend the extra time and money to do the same. One suggestion to increase cover crop use that we frequently heard is that there is a need for more diverse cash crop options and better integration of livestock in operations. This has everything to do with the narrow window for cover crop management and for making the dollars and cents work.

For example, if there were better markets for small grain crops such as wheat or oats that are planted in the spring or summer, it would mean more opportunity to grow cover crops outside of the busy fall and spring seasons. Also, cattle or other livestock that graze on cover crops as a feed source make the economics more attractive to producers with crops and livestock. More diverse cash crops or more integrated crop-livestock operations would create opportunities for more cover crops, a point that numerous farmers reiterated.

This is a “chicken or the egg” type of tension that we picked up on in the conversations. What should come first: More cover crops bringing landscape diversity or more diverse cash crops that help cover crops grow?

Luckily, this is a problem that improvements to agricultural policy can solve. We suggested several ideas to facilitate more cover crop use, including:

  • Increasing funds for networks of farmers to allow for learning from other innovators on how best to make new practices work
  • Creating markets for more livestock and diverse cash crops in states such as Iowa, where very few cash crop options exist
  • Better synchrony of cover crops with crop insurance programs (since it is widely known that this can be a challenge for producers and that conservation can reduce climate risks!)

Even though there are troubles with cover crops, they are an important piece of the sustainability puzzle in agricultural systems. With improved policy, more cover crops can create greater landscape diversification, and ultimately, farming systems that benefit farmers, eaters and the environment.