Most area farmers OK with not having a lot of cover

Most area farmers OK with not having a lot of cover

TUSCOLA — Cover crops are often touted as one of the best ways for farmers to reduce runoff and conserve nutrients in their soils.

But so far, only a small percent of farmers use the practice on their fields.

According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, 8.6 percent of farms use cover crops on 2.9 percent of total farm acres in the U.S.

In most of Illinois in 2012, less than 5 percent of farm acres used cover crops, and a 2017 study by the Environmental Working Group found that 2.3 percent of Illinois farm acres used cover crops in 2015-16.

While those numbers are expected to increase in the next ag census, the percentages are expected to remain low as farmers wait to see if cover crops are profitable.

"There's certainly a lot of interest," said Gary Luth, who farms near Allerton. "From my observation, maybe 15 percent of acreage" near him uses cover crops.

"It varies a lot by area," said Lin Warfel, who farms near Tolono. "Right in here, it's only like 5 or 10 percent."

"It's still low," said Dirk Rice, who farms near Philo. "At most, 10 percent."

"It's a pretty small percentage in Illinois," said Jed Gerdes, who farms in southern Champaign and Vermilion counties.

He was one of the first farmers in the area to try cover crops in the late 1990s.

"I just wanted to reduce erosion and improve my soil till," he said. "My yard always dug up better than the field. ... I wanted to get my field to work more like that, get it more like a pumice stone. Aerated, but still has structure."

He tried wheat and rye grass early on, planting it around this time of the year before corn was harvested. Other cover crops include cereal rye, oats and radishes.

"Rye grass is similar to what's in your yard," Gerdes said. "By Nov. 1, it had roots 40 inches deep. It worked really well for years."

By planting a cover crop in the offseason, farmers hope to keep nutrients in that plant material rather than it washing away in runoff.

The cover crop will die either in the winter or at the hands of chemicals applied in the spring, at which point the cash crop can take over.

Cover crops also are supposed to improve soil structure, reduce erosion and break up weeds.

Gerdes said that's been the case for him.

"It definitely improves soil health and yield capabilities," he said. "For the majority of our acres now, we do cover crops in the corn stalks ahead of planting beans."

After the drought in 2012, Gerdes said, cover crops helped keep nitrogen in his fields during the rains that fall.

"They sucked up much of that nitrogen," he said. "Which can be used next year. It's turned into organic matter, then recycled through the soil."

But Gerdes said it took five to seven years for cover crops to pay off.

"It's a long-haul sort of thing," Gerdes said, not something that would be easy to calculate return on investment year over year. "You can look at profitability as how many dollars you turned a profit this year, while this is more of a 10-years-down-the-road thing. Do I have a field that is more productive and worth more than when I started this process?"

Andy Brantner, a district conservationist in Tuscola for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, said there's likely a bell curve for adoption of conservation techniques.

"I think there's a bell curve of producers of how much they're willing to try or do something new or something different," he said.

Brantner said cover crops can be a challenge to get established in the fall as they're trying to harvest their cash crop.

"Some of these things could be additional financial expenses that possibly weren't budgeted for," he said. With low crop prices, "farmers are just getting better at pencilling out if it works for them or not."

Dirk Rice has been using cover crops since 2013 and figures "at worst, I'm breaking even on it."

He said it's helped suppress a weed called marestail and reduced how much tillage he does.

"Between the cost of seed and getting the seed applied, it's costing me about what a pass of a chisel plow would," Rice said.

After experimenting with cover crops the last five years, Gary Luth said he's still not sure whether they're worth it.

"I have had mixed results, I guess," he said. "I still haven't decided whether it's something I want to do on a permanent basis."

Luth hasn't seen a substantial reduction in nitrogen runoff, "but it's only been two years. Perhaps conditions haven't been favorable."

As for improving yields, that's been sporadic as well.

"Occasionally we'll see a yield increase, but more often than not we haven't seen a change," Luth said.

Last fall, Lin Warfel planted 50 acres of oats and radishes and said he's definitely seen the benefits, but perhaps not enough to cover the cost of the cover crop seeds.

"The yield was up on that particular 50 acres, but not enough to pay for the whole operation," he said. "I'll do it again when the price of corn times yield gets better."

When Gerdes started planting cover crops in the '90s, he had to convince his dad he wasn't crazy.

"Even my dad at the time, he wanted nothing to do with it whatsoever," he said. "Nowadays, he does everything that he can. It took him four or five years to come around."

Cover crops are now touted by the ag trade magazines and consumers are demanding it, Gerdes said.

When he meets with General Mills or Frito Lay, they are asking farmers to be more sustainable, especially because their customers like Walmart are pushing for it.

"If you're growing for food-grade, they're all saying, you guys have to fill out paperwork on how you're cutting back on fertilizer, or using cover crops, or all these other items," Gerdes said.

But it could take awhile for widespread adoption.

"When you've got a system that you know works for you, it's kind of hard to change, especially when prices are low," Rice said. "It's hard to not see this as an added expense, added risk."

And he said planting seeds into a field that's about to be harvested goes against what a lot of farmers were taught.

"We grew up all our lives with the goal to have a clean field," Rice said. "Now we're planting the next crop into it. That in itself to a lot of guys feels completely anachronous to everything they grew up doing, and it is."

Warfel said most farmers care about sustainability, but that adoption will come down to return on investment.

"I think the biggest number of farmers by far are very conscientious about the soil and about pollution and about sustainability," he said. "It's very likely that use will increase, as soon as commodity prices recover."

Covering the bases

Estimated acres of cover crops by state (2015-16) via the Environmental Working Group:

State Corn/soybean acres (2015) Cover-crop acres Percentage
Illinois 20,795,277 488,626 2.3
Indiana 11,136,683 794,724 7.1
Iowa 22,651,703 591,880 2.6


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Topics (1):Agriculture