Iowa’s cover crop acreage continues to grow despite low commodity prices and tight margins for farmers, according to a report released last week by the Iowa Learning Farms.

Farmers planted cover crops on 760,000 acres during the fall 2017, almost 22 percent more acres than a year earlier, according to an estimate compiled by the Learning Farms from responses to a survey of farmers who attended the organization’s field days in 2017.

"It’s exciting to see cover crop usage continue to grow," said Rick Robinson, environmental policy advisor at the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation (IFBF). "It shows that Iowa farmers are stepping up to the challenge of improving water quality and reducing soil loss."

The 2017 gain continues a strong upward trend for cover crop acreage in the state. Cover crop acreage has more than doubled since the launch of Iowa’s Water Quality Initiative in 2013. Prior to the initiative, only some 10,000 acres of cover crops were regularly planted in the state.

Cover crops are a key part of a conservation and water quality initiative, officially called the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. The added cover be­­tween harvest and planting helps reduce soil loss and can absorb nutrients, especially in the late winter and early spring. That helps keep nutrients from reaching streams, rivers and other surface waters.

Iowa State University research shows that planting a rye cover crop can reduce nitrogen losses, on average, by more than 30 percent.

The latest Iowa Learning Farm survey showed that 69 percent of the respondents were veterans at cover crop planting and have been seeding them at least three years. For 11 percent of the respondents, 2017 was the first year they had planted cover crops.

"It is encouraging to see growth in cover crop use among experienced cover crop farmers, even with low crop prices," said Jamie Benning, Iowa State University Extension Water Quality Program manager and Iowa Learning Farms advisor. "This growth indicates that farmers are finding value in planting cover crops and want to see those benefits on additional acres."

Covering row crop acres

Farmers responding to the Iowa Learning Farms survey reported an average of 46 percent of their total row crop acres were planted to cover crops, a 6 percent gain from 2016.

The survey also showed that the overall percentage of farmers who are using state and federal cost-share programs to offset the costs of seeding cover crop acres rose by 7 percent during the four years that the Iowa Learning Farms has conducted the survey. Of the respondents seeding cover crops in 2017, 65 percent said they had the assistance of cost share programs.

IFBF’s Robinson said that, in the future, Iowa needs to better document the economics of cover crops for farmers. "If cover crops can provide an economic return to farmers in more management situations, it will help increase long-term adoption," he said.

Iowa Learning Farms sponsored 29 conservation field days and workshops in 2017 on cover crops, strip-tillage, saturated buffers, prairie strips and more. These events drew an attendance of 1,280 people, primarily farmers and landowners.