Ag Policy Blog
Chris Clayton DTN Ag Policy Editor

Wednesday 02/19/14

Cover Crops: Health Care for the Soil

Yes, I drank the Kool-Aid.

I got an email from my office on Tuesday declaring "Don't drink the Kool-Aid!" just as the National Conference on Cover Crops and Soil Health began.

But I was all in with the conference. Most of the major apostles for cover crops were there speaking, including Howard G. Buffett, Gabe Brown, Ray Archuleta, Dave Brandt and Gail Fuller, just to name a few. The conference was a great way for Buffett to advance his "Brown Revolution."

Disclosure here: Not only was I drinking the Kool-Aid, but I also played a role as a discussion facilitator on federal policy and cover crops.

As I stated before, the goal of the event is to build synergy to get cover crops to 20 million acres by 2020. Currently, farmers plant roughly 3 million acres. That's an estimate because there doesn't seem to be good data on exactly how many acres of covers are out there. USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service can tell how many acres the agency has enrolled in its programs, but then there are separate state initiatives as well.

Also, there are the farmers who receive no program payment whatsoever. That may have been one of the bigger surprises from a survey of 1,500 farmers by the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program. The survey found 63% of farmers growing cover crops receive no financial support for doing so. Another 14% of farmers received cost-share to help them get started. Eight percent of farmers polled are growing cover crops only because they are paid for it.

Nonetheless, we had this incredibly exciting meeting in Omaha for a cropping practice that might be used on 2% of the nation's farmland, likely less. The benefits, however, are hard to ignore for both farmers and the public. Cover crops increase organic matter in the soil, water infiltration and holding capacity. In dealing with water-quality challenges, cover crops may be one of the easiest areas to demonstrate long-term improvement. Maryland can attest to that, given that cover crops are one of the main tools used to help reduce nitrate leaching in the Chesapeake Bay.

Indiana is held up as a model state where federal, state, university, farmers and agribusiness people have worked together over the past 15 years to boost cover crops. There is consistent messaging and outreach about the benefits and value to producers who grow them. Crop consultants and agri-retailers play key roles and are willing to sell both seed and machinery, as well as labor for planting covers.

There's a strong belief that cover crops improve nutritional value in food and feed. It would seem logical that if cover crops and soil-health practices add nutrients and micro-nutrients to the soil and produce healthier plants that the grains and oilseeds would be healthier too. However, more research is needed to provide solid data to back up such statements. That's a game changer. If data shows covers translate into healthier food on the grocery shelves then consumers and food companies are going to seek out farmers who can deliver more nutritious food.

Cover crop champions should be heralded. Some certainly are praised for their work, but they are not recognized the same way as commodity yield winners. Maybe the guy who most deserves recognition is the guy building the most organic matter in his soil.

As was repeated over and over, the biggest problem promoting covers is getting mindsets on the farm and in industry to change. Cover crops must be stressed as a long-term risk-management strategy to improve soil health rather than a short-term risk that must be scrapped if cover termination gets in the way of next spring's planting season. Crops have to show that cover crops pay. Some surveys and studies show long-term yield gains and/or a reduction in input costs. Yet, one of the bigger bangs for the buck with covers is integrating livestock into the mix and gaining income through grazing.

More partnerships are developing. Farm Foundation and the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation in Oklahoma has developed a soil-health initiative. Next week at Commodity Classic, a soil-health partnership will be rolled out with National Corn Growers Association, Monsanto and the Walton Family Foundation. What's the connection there? Well, Walmart is pushing for lower nitrogen fertilizer usage from commodity corn that goes into food on Walmart shelves. Cover crops are going to play some role in these various efforts.

Key to these initiatives is the importance of making farmland more resilient.

When it comes to federal policy, everybody wants to see what the new farm bill will bring for cover-crop practices and research opportunities. Since resiliency is important, it would seem logical USDA's new climate hubs will play a role in both of those areas.

USDA's Risk Management Agency has come a long way, but there are still problems in areas that summer fallow that must be addressed. The crop insurance industry needs to get on board. People at the conference suggested premium discounts or rebates for farmers without insurance claims or are proven to apply strong conservation practices.

One participant came up with the idea that cover crops are "health care for the soil."

We just don't want that to turn into "Obamasoil."

Follow me on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN

Posted at 7:46PM CST 02/19/14 by Chris Clayton
Comments (9)
Chris I have a few problems with this article and the one you featured earlier today. In that article write about tying cover crops to crop insurance. Wow what kind of agenda are you pushing? Towards the end of that feature article you write that in 2013 the SARE survey had the average respondents seeing a 8 bushel increase in corn and 2 bushel increase in soybeans. Latter in the next paragragh you write that it took an average of $37/acre to grow the cover crop. Then you write that it showed a $35/acre net return for corn and a $28/acre net return for soybeans. Well my math using 8 bushel corn times $4.00 equals $32.00 minus the $37/acre cost leaving a NET LOSS of $2.00 an acre for corn. The math for soybeans using 2 bushel/acre times $12.00 equals $24.00 for a NET LOSS of $13.00 an acre. That might work in Warren Buffet's sons world but it don't in the real world. I would advise you all to work on your math skills. Maybe you should be talking to more "real world" farmers, ones that know 2+2=4. I don't know what kind of Kool Aid you have been drinking.
Posted by Unknown at 9:28PM CST 02/19/14
Your cover crops are nice but in the Rolling Plains of Texas water is the limiting factor for producing a crop. Before this year regulations in crop insurance recognized that but now a person is able to harvest headed wheat as long as it was certified for cover crop and leave bio mass there to make NRCS able to say that it was legal. All this is doing is encouraging and setting up a loss on the cotton which will follow because the moisture will have been drawn out! I don't doubt that cover crops help but there has to be a long enough period after termination to allow water to be redeposited in the soil after growing that crop.
Posted by Don Heller at 5:45AM CST 02/20/14
Let make a correction to the above comment... You are able to harvest headed wheat for hay or silage, not grain. The results are the same... The moisture which is the limiting factor has been used up and a loss for that following crop is almost certain without an unusually heavy rainy season that spring and summer
Posted by Don Heller at 6:26AM CST 02/20/14
I won't argue that cover crops are an no-brainer for chopped silage ground and places south of the Mason-Dixon line. However, Iowa State U. is recommending that farmers further north fly on the seed in standing crops. The cost for me to do cover crops, including the plane, would be about $65,000 on all my land. ISU also reports a 6% yield reduction for corn following cereal rye. ISU advises to kill the rye two weeks before planting when in our area it will only be about 3 or 4 inches tall. My cost, including the predicted yield drag, would be something like 100k annually. Taking "years to build soil health" could decrease my bottom line by a net half million dollars. BTW, here's a line from an organic web site; "One way to offset yield reductions from rye's immobilization of nitrogen would be to increase your N application". Walmart should stay out of farming!!!
Posted by Curt Zingula at 7:25AM CST 02/20/14
Diverse Cover Crop mixes reduce soil temperature and soil evapotranspiration. Cotton Farmers are the same folks who said that no till would not work. Cotton Farmers in the Texas panhandle still experience the highest rates of wind erosion in the U.S. Tying crop insurance premiums to soil loss is an outstanding idea (thank you Gabe Brown for the idea). There are plenty of real world farmers that are "out there doing it", and many more are on the way. If you are locked in on one paticular species of cover crop that you say "wont work", then perhaps you are not looking at the vast number of other options that are out there.
Posted by Sammy Soilsaver at 2:43PM CST 02/20/14
Chris, thank you for the article. It has been our experience that our fields with cover crops managed properly will have more soil moisture than without a cover come summer. The mulch and cooler temperature seem to help. Farmers in North Dakota seem to make it work. The trick is to get the right species and know when to terminate it for your area that year. We are still learning. I believe the results are additive. It may take several years to develop the system.
Posted by Steve McGrew at 6:40PM CST 02/20/14
For what it is worth, Curt. As most of the benefit of cover crops is below ground, 4"-6" is ideal for rye. Shallow tillage to kill or no-till(with r-up) works like a champ. Fall seeded Rye after silage or small grain for soy beans the following year. No till the rye which will save tillage, fuel and chemical as well as get a yield bump. When we started farming years ago, the neighbors were planting sweat clover and rye for plow down. Instant gratification with cash is nice but not everything. Be carefull with crusting if minimum tilling.
Posted by Bonnie Dukowitz at 6:51AM CST 02/21/14
Chris great job on the article keep it up!! I farm in east central kansas and have been using cover crops for awhile now. The reason for doing so is to protect the land and make it better each year than the year before. To me that should be the reason to do it not government payouts. There are a host of other reasons to grow covers but one of the more important ones is to produce the most nutrient dense, healthy food we can. We have seen way more positive aspects of the system than the negatives. By the way that Kool-aid they warned you about was it the GMO or NON-GMO variety!!
Posted by Darin Williams at 8:01AM CST 02/21/14
Am a very small farmer, 120 acres, leave corn stubble for cover, seed wheat after the beans, seed oats after wheat, for some of the feed for my 6 cow beef herd, which will usually grow back enough for winter cover but question who would grow the seed for large scale use of cover crops and at what cost.
Posted by David Gerwin at 6:16PM CDT 03/09/14
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