January 2011
// Vol. 29 // No. 1
Dec 14, 2010
Nitrate loss through tile drains, like this outlet in Iowa, is expensive to the farmer and detrimental to water quality.
Photo courtesy of: USDA
Cover crops, such as this one of oats and radishes, provide efficient weed control, less soil compaction and greater soil porosity among other benefits.
CTIC Photo
Cropping Decisions Survey & Focus Group
By Lindley Vollmer

More than half of producers who participated in a survey conducted by CTIC and partners do not use cover crops, citing time and economic constraints. In summer 2010, CTIC, with support from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and Corn & Soybean Digest, surveyed 809 farmers about interest in and use of cover crops, and then gathered them together to discuss cover crop issues in detail.
Radishes are commonly used cover crops in producers' rotations. CTIC Photo.

Survey questions gathered information about desired characteristics of cover crops, challenges of cover crop management and types of assistance needed to implement cover crops. Twenty-one percent of survey participants use cover crops every year or every two to three years. Of those who do not use cover crops, 64 percent report not having enough to time to get a cover crop established (refer to graph). Seventy-eight percent of producers surveyed expect positive results, such as reduced soil erosion, from using cover crops, while 62 percent favor nitrogen fixation.

Many growers understandably hesitate to add input costs without knowing how they will benefit. Survey results show 57 percent of farmers report cost of cover crop seed to be the biggest challenge of implementing cover crops (refer to graph). Seed cost can vary between $12 and $40/acre. Aerial seeding costs $10-15/acre, and a no-till drill costs about $16/acre. Bottom line: cover-crop seed and seeding may cost $30/acre. Focus group participants also discussed time and financial constraints as well as other aspects of cover crop management. 

Focus Group

After the survey, CTIC and the Howard G. Buffet Foundation invited survey participants to a focus group discussion to gain a better understanding of the benefits and challenges producers face when implementing and managing cover crops. Nine farmers from Illinois, Indiana and Michigan gathered in West Lafayette, Ind. on Dec. 9, 2010, to share cover crop experiences, identify specific challenges, and suggest information, technical and financial assistance to help increase cover crop adoption.

During the focus group discussion, participants reiterated time and financial constraints cited in the survey. They expressed difficulty in understanding the best management practices of cover crop adoption. Producers talked about the importance of sharing information--between successful cover crop managers and producers needing more information. Based on feedback from the survey and focus group, CTIC intends to organize more forums such as these.

Midwest Cover Crops Council sponsored lunch at the focus group discussion. Dean Baas, Midwest Cover Crops Council, spoke with producers after the focus group, providing information about resources and tools available to help with cover crop adoption. Baas commented, “We want to assist interested producers in gaining information about the benefits and management of cover crops.”

Survey results allowed CTIC to understand cover crop challenges facing producers and identify the types of information that producers need.  CTIC's current cover crop initiatives include Using Cover Crops to Facilitate the Transition to Continuous No-Till and Cover Crops and Conservation Tillage Reduce Nonpoint Source Pollution. To learn more about CTIC’s cover crop initiatives, or other CTIC projects, visit the CTIC Initiatives page.

About the author:  Lindley Vollmer, CTIC Intern, is a senior at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind.