A new study utilizing satellite-based remote sensing shows Midwest farmers have tripled the number of cover crop acres to help protect the soil and reduce runoff. The University of Illinois study shows cover crop adoption across across 140 million acres of cropland reached 7.2% in 2021, up from just 1.8% a decade prior. 

The study found most significant gains in cover crop adoption occurred in recent years and were strongly correlated with the onset of state and federal cover crop assistance programs. For example, funding for cost-share programs increased from $5 million in 2005 to $156 million in 2018, with the greatest rate of investment after 2015. Cover crop adoption doubled across the region between 2017 and 2021.

“We analyzed the area of cover crops in each year with that year’s funding and we found that it’s highly correlated. We also checked the investments across different states, showing some states have higher cover crop percentages that are related to their funding investment,” says Sheng Wang, University of Illinois research assistant professor and study co-author. 

Innovative programs could help speed cover crop adoption, said study co-author Jonathan Coppess, associate professor in the Illinois Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics. 

He noted that programs in Illinois and Iowa that offer a discount on crop insurance premiums for adopting cover crops have proven popular at a relatively low cost. 

“Much more innovation in the policy is needed if we are to help transition to widespread adoption and successful management of this practice,” he said. “The policies need to incorporate risk components and do more than merely cover a portion of the cost.”