Cover crops may play a role in easing drought's effects, a survey from the Conservation Technology Information Center and the USDA North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program found.
More than 750 farmers – primarily from the Upper Mississippi River watershed – participated in the survey. It was distributed at several farmer conferences in the Midwest over the 2012-2013 winter, and was also sent out in an online format to individuals across the U.S.
Most notably, corn and soybean yields improved following cover crops during the 2012 drought. Corn planted after cover crops during the fall of 2012 had a 9.6% yield increase when compared side-by-side to fields with no cover crops. Soybean yields improved 11.6% following cover crops.
The survey found also that yield differences were even larger in the hardest hit drought areas of the Corn Belt, with 11% yield increases for corn and 14.3% increases for soybeans.
"It is especially noteworthy how significant the yield benefits for cover crops were in an extremely dry year," noted Rob Myers, a University of Missouri agronomist and regional director of extension programs for North Central Region SARE.
"The yield improvements provided from cover crops in 2012 were likely a combination of factors, such as better rooting of the cash crop along with the residue blanket provided by the cover crop reducing soil moisture loss," he said.
Farmers surveyed agreed with Myers, citing reduced soil compaction, improved nutrient management and reduced soil erosion as key benefits of cover crops. Over 40% of respondents plant cover crops primarily for nitrogen benefits.
That translates into rapid adoption of cover crops in the last five years, with an estimated 1.5 to 2.0 million acres of cover crops planted in the U.S. in 2012.
The farmers who completed the survey used cover crops on about 218,000 acres in 2012, and expected to increase that to over 300,000 acres in 2013. On average, they planted 303 acres of cover crops per farm in 2012, and intend to plant 421 acres of cover crops in 2013.
Total acreage of cover crops among farmers surveyed increased 350% from 2008 to 2012.
Just over 70% of farmers selected winter cereal grains as a cover crop, while 62% choose brassicas and 58% choose legumes. Roughly one-third of respondents plant multi-species mixes.
As for the cost of cover crops, farmers surveyed noted they were willing to pay an average of $25 per acre for cover crop seed and an additional $15 per acre for establishment costs.
Click here to view the full survey.