Embracing Conservation Has Plenty Of Benefits


   Growing up on a farm, I noticed that my Dad had always been interested in conservation. He installed terraces, grass waterways and ponds on our Iowa hills and practiced crop rotation. It was my first glimpse of learning about leaving the land better than you started with. 
   My outlook on conservation expanded when I first started my career in journalism. I was fortunate to meet many people who were involved in national conservation efforts, including Bill Richards who became head of the Soil Conservation Service (now the Natural Resources Conservation Service) at USDA in 1990. As an Ohio farmer, Richards truly understood the benefits of protecting soil and water. Often described as the “the Grandfather of No-Till,” he was thinking about soil health before it was cool.
   So, when I had the chance to buy and inherit parts of our family farm earlier this year- fields that have been in the family since my great grandfather started farming in the early 1900’s – I knew what type of landlord I wanted to be. I wanted to invest in making the farm better. Mother Nature had not been kind last year and the record rains in 2019 had taken a toll. There were washouts and gullies that needed some serious repairs, as did one of the terraces. I wanted to find a renter who was willing to embrace no-till and cover crops. 
   Luckily, I was able to find a young farm family who embraced many of the same conservation principles I did. They’ve got a great looking crop of no-till beans and if the weather allows, there will be cover crops planted this fall. 
   A recent report demonstrates that practices like planting cover crops are beneficial in a number of ways. The Conservation Technology Information Center's annual survey report, noted that more than half of farmers who seeded their cash crop into a growing cover crop last year – a practice known as “planting green” – said it helped them plant earlier than they could in fields that didn't have cover crops, according to an annual survey. 
   The numbers reflect those who planted green, about 52 percent of the nearly 1,200 respondents in the survey of 2019 cover crop practices.
   Seven in 10 of those farmers also said planting green improved their weed control, and about the same percentage said it helped with soil moisture management.
   The survey “indicated that some of the concerns that many growers have had about the effects of cover crops on planting dates in a wet year turned out not to be true,” said CTIC’s Mike Smith, who ran the survey. “In fact, in many cases, cover crops helped farmers plant earlier in the very wet spring of 2019.”
   The report also found significant percentages of farmers who said cover crops increased yields, resulted in better weed management, and helped them save on herbicides and fertilizer.
   Cover crops are increasingly being touted as a way to save money and improve the environment, by reducing runoff from fields, cutting chemical use, and sequestering carbon in the soil.
   Rob Myers, regional director of extension programs for North Central Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, said in a news release that “many farmers are finding that cover crops improve the resiliency of their soil, and the longer they use cover crops, the greater the yield increases and cost savings that are reported by producers.”
   Farmers who plant cover crops continue to seed more acres. “The average acreage planted to cover crops by participants … has steadily increased over the past five growing seasons,” from an average of 337 acres in 2015 to 465 acres last year, an increase of about 38 percent, the report said.
   That’s in line with findings from USDA’s Census of Agriculture, which found a 50 percent increase in cover crop acreage between 2012 and 2017.
   Yield increases in 2019 were more modest than in past years, the report said. In 2019, soybean yields improved 5 percent and corn yields increased 2 percent and spring wheat yields were 2.6 percent higher following cover crops. The largest yield increases were recorded in the drought year of 2012. 
   The report said, “While farmers appreciate the yield benefits of cover crops, additional questions in the survey clearly indicate that they are also motivated by cover crops’ abilities to deliver other benefits, like weed control, soil health, erosion control, livestock grazing and so many others,” the report said.
   “Not surprisingly for a group with a strong interest in a powerful soil health building practice such as cover crops, no-till was the dominant residue management practice among respondents,” the report said. “The most popular answer to ‘what tillage practice do you use most on your farm?’ was continuous no-till, practiced by 48 percent (466 of 981) of the respondents, while rotational no-till was employed by another 14 percent (138), for a total of 600 farmers (62 percent) practicing some sort of no-till.”
   The survey was conducted with financial support from Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education and the American Seed Trade Association.
   Here are some other highlights from the report:
   • Forty-nine percent of corn producers reported reduced fertilizer costs, as did 41 percent of soybean producers, 43 percent of wheat farmers, and 53 percent of cotton producers.
   • About 70 percent of the respondents who planted green said doing so improved their weed control. “The vast majority said levels of early season diseases, slugs, and voles – often feared as the potential downsides of planting green into cover crops – were about the same or better after planting green into cover crops.”
   • Although 78.6 percent of respondents said wet weather had delayed planting in their county, 78 percent “did not have a prevent plant claim – reflecting failure to seed a cash crop before a final planting date specified by crop insurance rules – despite the challenging growing season. Among those who did, 36 percent said prevent plant was more common in conventionally managed fields compared to cover cropped fields, 55 percent said the incidence of prevent-plant was equal regardless of whether the field was cover cropped, and just 9 percent felt prevent plant was less common in conventional fields.”
   • About 71 percent of cotton producers were able to cut their herbicide costs. About 39 percent of corn and soybean growers reported savings, and 32 percent of wheat producers. “Among the farmers who did not report a cut in herbicide applications or costs, a majority still reported improved weed control from cover crops.” 
   • “Three out of four respondents covered at least a portion of their crop with some form of federally subsidized crop insurance, with 53 percent of the total respondent pool covering 100 percent of their 2019 crop acres. Revenue Protection was the choice of 64.8 percent, while Revenue Protection with Harvest Price Exclusion (RPHPE) was employed by another 19.6 percent. Understanding the insurance preferences of cover crop users can help guide the further evolution of federally subsidized crop insurance programs to better accommodate cover crop practices.” ∆
   Editor’s note: Agri-Pulse Associate Editor Steve Davies contributed to this report. 
   SARA WYANT: Editor of Agri-Pulse, a weekly e-newsletter covering farm and rural policy. To contact her, go to: http://www.agri-pulse.com/

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