Cover crop

AMES, Iowa — According to Iowa Learning Farms 15-year evaluation data, Iowa cover crop acres grew last year by approximately 16%, resulting in approximately 880,000 total acres.

While the positive growth at a time when farmers are reporting shrinking profit margins is notable, this represents a 6% decline in new cover crop acres compared to last year’s estimate and a 19% cumulative decline since 2015, a year in which 35% of all the cover crop acres were new, according to an ILF news release.

This number is still well below the goal of 12.5 million acres of cover crops called for in Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

Since 2009, Iowa Learning Farms, based at Iowa State University, has been tracking cover crop data reported by farmers and landowners who attend an ILF workshop and field day. In recognition of its 15-year anniversary, ILF also conducted a mailed survey of all farmers and landowners who had participated in field days since 2005.

Eight hundred ninety-nine people responded to the survey, reporting 131,389 acres of cover crops on their land or 15% of the overall estimated cover crop acres in Iowa.

Many of the new acres were planted by experienced cover crop farmers. The majority (85%) of respondents to the 15-year evaluation questionnaire started seeding cover crops at least three years ago. Only 6% of respondents reported implementing cover crops for the first time on their land last fall.

Those respondents with cover crops reported an average of 44% of their total row crop acres in cover crops, representing a consistent value over the last three years.

“It is encouraging to see growth in cover crop use among experienced cover crop farmers, even with low crop prices and a fall with less than ideal weather,” said Jamie Benning, Iowa State University Extension water quality program manager and Iowa Learning Farms adviser. “I am concerned that the rate of growth has declined for the third year in a row and that the number of first-time cover crop users declined significantly this year. For this reason, ILF is already ramping up this spring with cover crop events to reach new farmers.”

All of the respondents who planted cover crops for the first time in 2018 used cost share and planted an average of 100 acres, higher than last year’s average of 89 acres. Overall, 66% of the total reported cover crop acres were planted with cost share, while 78% of the new acres were planted with cost share.

Iowa Learning Farms has held 265 conservation field days and workshops since 2005 on cover crops, strip-tillage, saturated buffers, prairie strips and more. Cover crop field days in 2019 will stress the benefits and best practice management for implementing cover crops.