A new national cover crop survey shows that an overwhelming percentage of farmers said they plan to continue using cover crops even after they are no longer receiving incentive payments. 

The survey found incentives play a key role in getting some farmers started on cover crops — 49% of the cover crop users reported receiving some sort of payment for cover crops in 2022 and 77.8% of cover crop non-users said incentive payments would be helpful. 

However, 90.3% of the farmers who were receiving cover crop incentives reported that they would definitely or probably continue planting cover crops after the payments ended, while only 3.3% said they definitely or probably would drop cover crops at the end of the incentive program.

In all, just 15.6% of cover crop users said receiving incentive payments was one of their goals for cover cropping. The findings were among many conclusions drawn in a new report issued jointly by the USDA-NIFA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) and the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA), based on insights from nearly 800 farmers in 49 states.

“Some people mistakenly as­sume that farmers only stick with cover crops because of payments, but this year’s National Cover Crop Survey provided a very different perspective,” says Dr. Rob Myers of SARE, lead researcher on the 2022-2023 National Cover Crop Survey Report.

“What the survey showed is that cover crop incentive payments are an important factor in encouraging and helping farmers to transition into cover cropping, but once they see the soil health improvements and other cover crop benefits, most stick with cover crop planting long after the incentives end,” Myers notes. 

Gaining understanding

The survey goes beyond acreage statistics by providing insights into what farmers want to achieve with cover crops, what motivates them to try and continue the process, how cover crops relate to other soil-building practices like no-till, and their approaches to using the practice, says Ryan Heiniger, executive director of CTIC. 

“We are also just as interested in the perspectives of non-users of cover crops,” he added. “Understanding their concerns and information needs provided direction for developing better outreach materials and can help policymakers clear obstacles that hamper adoption or create more attractive incentives.”

The current report summarizes data from 795 farmers.

Among the findings in this year’s survey:

• Cover crop users participating in the survey — including producers of grain, other commodities and horticultural crops — planted an average (mean) of 413.6 acres of cover crops in 2022. 

• Cover crops continued to show benefits for corn and soybean yields for experienced users of cover crop. The farmers with 10 or more years of cover crop experience had yield gains of 6.3% on soybeans and a similar 6.27% yield gain on corn.

• Farmers with two years or less of cover crop experience had modest soybean yield gains of 3.37% following cover crops; for those inexperienced cover crop users, average corn yields weren’t statistically different between cover crops and no cover crops.

• Improved soil health was a key goal for 95% of the cover crop users and a high-priority research item for 87%.

• Though 91% of cover crop users selected “add soil organic matter/sequestering carbon” as a key priority, just 16% of the users in the survey who received payments in 2022 reported participating in a carbon market program.

• 61% of the cover crop users reported planting green — seeding cash crops into a growing or just-terminated cover crop —somewhere on their operation.

• This was the first survey in the SARE/CTIC/ASTA series to explore livestock in cover crops. One in four respondents integrated livestock into their cover crop program. Of those who grazed cover crops, 76% reported a net increase in profit from the practice.

• In corn, 42% of cover croppers reported saving money on herbicides after cover crops, and 55% saw no change in herbicide expenditures. Among the “no change” group, 3 out of 4 observed better weed control in corn after cover crops.

• Of the farmers using cover crops, 70.3% said it was helpful when transitioning to no-till, in part because of reduced soil compaction, better weed control and better soil moisture management.