Cover crops and the knowledge barrier

Practical Farmers of Iowa endorses the use of cover crops with this campaign. (Courtesy Practical Farmers of Iowa)

Universities, nonprofits and government agencies are promoting the use of cover crops across the Midwest because they help keep nutrients in the soil (good for crops and watersheds), improve soil organic matter, and prevent erosion.  Practical Farmers of Iowa even launched a “Don’t Farm Naked” campaign -- complete with T-shirts -- to convince more members to take on the practice.

But what do farmers really think about planting small grains, legumes or tubers in the late summer and fall to nurture their soil in the “off” season? Iowa State University extension sociology J. Arbuckle decided to find out. Arbuckle conducts the Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll, a wide-ranging survey that goes to 2,000 farmers in Iowa each year.  In 2010, he added some questions about cover crops.

“One of our assumptions was that farmers weren’t as knowledgeable about cover crops as some of the groups promoting cover crops might wish,” Arbuckle said. “And indeed that’s what we found.”

But the majority of farmers did know the basics: that cover crops can benefit both the environment and farming. They lacked details about how to use them and what kind of equipment is necessary, and the survey sought to identify the barriers that kept farmers from learning more.

Arbuckle said climate is one barrier. In a typical year, there’s not a lot of time to get a cover crop in the ground before it freezes, though some farmers fly on the seed while corn is still standing. This year’s drought expanded the window because harvest started earlier than usual.

The survey also asked farmers whether a 50 percent cost-share incentive would sway them to try cover crops.

“Interestingly, only about a quarter of farmers indicated that they would consider cover crops if the cost share were available,” Arbuckle said. “So that indicates to me that it’s not necessarily the cost at this point in time that’s the major barrier, it’s more the knowledge.”

Arbuckle collated his results into a report, Attitudes Toward Cover Crops in Iowa: Benefits and Barriers, which he says has been shared via the Midwest Cover Crops Council website and has generated feedback from cover crop supporters in other states.

The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service does offer incentives and supports for farmers to try cover crops. Preliminary data from NRCS offices in Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas show that in the past few years use of cover crops across the region has grown significantly. Still, Arbuckle and others say there’s not enough definitive research yet to answer one of the most pressing questions from farmers: How will using a cover crop affect my bottom line? 

For more on cover crops, take a look at my recent Harvest story, "More farmers running for cover crops."