US farmers boost the planting of cover crops, practice seen expanding

6 Oct 2022 | Mark Shenk

US farmers have been slowly increasing the planting of cover crops and the practice can be expected to advance in the years ahead if proposed changes are made to government policies. 

The majority of US agricultural producers surveyed as part of the CME Group and Purdue University’s Ag Economy Barometer for September said that they planted ground cover, according to the report released on October 4.

A total of 57% of the respondents said they currently plant cover crops, up from, 51% in 2021, and 26% said they had never planted cover crops, down from 28% last year, according to Michael Langemeier, one of the authors of the Ag Economy Barometer.

Bolstering the health of the soil was the motivation for planting a cover crop by 37% of those that planted them in 2022, up from 31% last year, while 33% said that mitigating soil erosion was the reason to plant cover crops this year, up from 28% in 2021, Langmeier said.

When those who planted cover crops were asked which statement best described their experience with the practice, 74% indicated that cover crops improve soil health and crop yield, down from 81% in 2021, while 18% said that cover crops improve soil health, but not crop yields, up from 14% last year.

“We are looking to encourage the planting of cover crops,” Lara Bryant, deputy director of water and agriculture at Natural Resources Defense Council, said in an interview.

The planting of cover crops may become more common in the years ahead if Congressional supporters are able to insert language encouraging the farming method in the next five-year farm bill, which will replace the present law that’s due to expire in September 2023.

“Some farmers have very tight margins, and they have to know they will get a return for the investment. It can take two to three years before they see an improvement in soil quality, while the seeds cost $25-$30 an acre, maybe more now,” Bryant said. 

Ceres, a nonprofit that works with investors to make companies more sustainable, is among the organizations that are pushing for the new farm bill’s insurance program to encourage the planting of cover crops and other sustainable practices.

Representatives Cindy Axne of Iowa and Sean Casten of Illinois introduced the Conservation Opportunity and Voluntary Environment Resilience Program Act that calls for a $5/acre insurance premium subsidy to farmers who plant cover crops to encourage the practice that can boost soil health, reduce soil erosion, and help with carbon sequestration.      

The Pandemic Cover Crop Program offered the $5/acre insurance premium subsidy in both 2021 and 2022, which coincided with an increase in the adoption of the practice.   

"After two years of the insurance premium being ad hoc, we hope it becomes part of the farm bill,” Bryant said.

The report did not go into detail on which cover crops were planted, but there is burgeoning demand from renewable fuel producers for oil produced from carinata and camelina seeds due to the low carbon intensity score from the cover crops.