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100
engaged partner organizations in the Conservation Infrastructure Initiative
110,000
acres treated across Iowa by bioreactors, saturated buffers, and CREP wetlands in 2017
973,100
acres of cover crops planted across Iowa in 2017

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NRCS/SWCS photo by Lynn Betts

Cover Crops
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Cover Crops Analysis

Identifying Four Key Trends Related to Cover Crops

Acreage

Iowa farmers planted an estimated 760,000 acres of cover crops during the 2017-2018 crop year. This amounts to slightly more than 3% of all the row-cropped acres in Iowa.

Graph showing cover crop acres

                                                                                                              (Iowa Learning Farms, 2018) 

Adoption 

In 2010, there were only approximately 10,000 acres of cost-shared cover crops in Iowa. There has been more extensive adoption of cover crops on land that is classified as Highly Erodible Land (HEL) and land farmed by owner-operators. An area of low adoption for cover crops is northwest Iowa, where there is a large percentage of land that is rented.

Public and Private Financial Assistance

Since 2013, Iowa Department of Land and Stewardship (IDALS)  and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) have provided financial assistance to approximately 10,000 farmers to use cover crops. Since 2018, two companies (Unilever and PepsiCo) have been offering a privately funded cost share opportunity to growers in their supply chain.

Rye is Leading the Way

Cereal rye is the dominant cover crops species used in Iowa, followed by (in order of extent of use) oats, winter wheat, radish, and rapeseed.

Key Issues, Opportunities, and Challenges

The following key issues, associated opportunities, and challenges were identified.

Economic Benefits

The long-term economic benefits of cover crops (reduced erosion, improved soil health, reduced nutrient loss, improved weed control, etc.) are not always apparent in the short term. This reduces the demand signal from land owners and farmers and the willingness of many ag service providers to include them in their recommendations, investments in equipment and to provide supportive services.

Ruminant Feed Source Opportunity

The most immediate and compelling positive return on investment (ROI) for cover crops is using them as a feed source (e.g., grazing, silage, hay) for ruminant livestock (e.g., beef, dairy, sheep, goats).

Energy Feedstock Opportunity

There is a potential long-term opportunity for cover crops as a feed stock for methane digesters.

Rented Land

There are challenges to identify and convey the economic benefits of planting cover crops on land that is rented. The trend towards an increasing percentage of acreage under absentee land owners makes this even more important.

Cost Share Support from Downstream Companies

There is a significant opportunity for downstream companies (e.g., Unilever, PepsiCo, other consumer packaged goods companies and retailers) to privately fund cost share to growers in their supply chain.

Leveraging Federal Programs

Federal investments in financial assistance for cover crops (e.g., the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) and EQIP) continue to create significant opportunities for farmers and landowners.

Leveraging State Investments

State investments in financial assistance for cover crops (e.g., Water Quality Initiative (WQI) State Funding, WQI watershed projects, the Crop Insurance Cover Crop Premium Discount program and special projects) continue to create significant opportunities for farmers and land owners.

Technical Knowledge

There is a gap in the research needed to improve the technical knowledge and best agronomic practices related to cover crop management including: crop diseases, weeds, insects, optimization of nitrogen management (commercial fertilizer and manure application), soil health, nutrient cycling and no-till/reduced tillage systems.

Farmer-to-Farmer

The tried and true method of farmers being engaged in on-farm research trials and then sharing their insights with other farmers is critical to achieve increased adoption rates for cover crops.

Practical Research

Practical Farmers of Iowa, Iowa Learning Farms, ISA and the Soil Health Partnership (SHP) are creating opportunities by performing practical research.

Additional Research Needs

There are significant needs and opportunities for additional research to better understand the impacts of cover crops on soil health, nutrient cycling, optimization of nitrogen management (commercial fertilizer and manure application), crop disease, weeds, water quality, water flow, and pests and integration with no-till/reduced tillage systems.

Educational Awareness and Understanding

There is a lack in adequate population and dispersion of Certified Crop Advisors (CCAs), as well as farmers and landowners with the awareness and understanding of how to plant, grow and manage cover crops in a predictable and profitable manner.

Farmer-to-Farmer and Association

Farmer-led organizations (e.g., ISA, Iowa Corn, Iowa Pork, Iowa Beef, Iowa Egg) serve as the catalyst for farmer-to-farmer engagement at meetings, in the field, and at the community-level. This provides a significant opportunity to help achieve increased adoption of cover crops.

Service Provider Knowledge Gap

Crop consultants, CCAs, and retail agronomists can improve their knowledge of cover crop seeding rates and dates, establishment, termination, cash crop fertility management, variety selection, crop protection inputs, and machinery management as well as gain an improved understanding of soil health.

Landowner Incentive Gap

There is an incentive and knowledge gap among landowners on the effects cover crops have on the land as a long-term asset. Therefore, few landowners are requesting the use of cover crops in rental agreements. Two additional factors create significant challenges on rented land:

Short-term Leases

Leases on rented land tend to be short-term (often year to year), and farm operator investments in cover crops are unlikely to be recouped in a single year.

Long-term Benefits

The long-term benefits of cover crops accrue primarily to the landowner and not the tenant.

 

Landowners

Many landowners do not sufficiently understand the extent to which their land benefits from cover crops. Positive economic incentives and asset classes that value soil and soil health are lacking.

Progress:

ongoing

Current Projects

Conservation Systems Best Practices Training

Conservation Systems Best Practices Training project aims to change skillsets & attitudes of professional agronomists, farmers & agricultural students

Recommendations
(2) Multi-Stakeholder Training Workshops (20) Cover Crop Champion Boot Camp (21) Ag Retailer and Ag Professionals Cover Crop Program (22) Unified Cover Crop Messaging (33) Conservation Drainage Education and Training Needs Assessment (36) Conservation Drainage Education and Training
See the Full Project
Miller Creek Challenge

Recommendations
(26) Public: Private Cover Crop Cost Share
See the Full Project
Sustainability Cover Crop Initiative

summary text goes here

Recommendations
(21) Ag Retailer and Ag Professionals Cover Crop Program (24) Cover Crop Incentives for Landowners (27) Ag Retailer Cover Crop Business
See the Full Project

Cover Crops Recommendations

The 11 cover crops recommendations below are focused on creating more customer demand for cover crops, changing the perception of cover crops, increasing farmer and Certified Crop Advisors technical knowledge, and documenting the economic benefits of cover crops.

Economics

(23) Cover Crop ROI Calculator

Create a common cover crop ROI calculator. Publish complete information and simplified messaging that informs farmers and landowners of existing ROI information and how to calculate it for their farm. Engage with the ag retail sector to create a set of business case scenarios that show the benefits when they add cover crops to their portfolio and update the scenarios frequently.

Economics

(24) Cover Crop Incentives for Landowners

Create economic incentives targeted to landowners. Build and target economic incentive programs for landowners and land management companies for using cover crops practices.

Economics

(27) Ag Retailer Cover Crop Business

Generate income streams and customers for ag retailers/ag businesses.

Research

(29) Agronomic and Economic Research on Cover Crops

Fund, conduct, publish, and promote more Iowa cover crop-inclusive cropping system research focused on the intersection of agronomics and economics. Facilitate development of cover crop focused research projects throughout 2018, 2019, and beyond.

Research

(30) Align Precision Ag Platforms and Digital Farm Record Keeping Systems Cover Crop Impacts on Water and Temperature

Align precision ag platform tools with cover crop-inclusive cropping system recommendations. Leverage the growing popularity of ag platform programs to scope and conduct a pilot project that will identify the best way to incorporate cover crops' effects on water and temperature into two existing tools and models and evaluate changes in recommendations. Use the pilot project results to determine the best approach to incorporating cover crop effects into additional tools in 2019.
100
engaged partner organizations in the Conservation Infrastructure Initiative
110,000
acres treated across Iowa by bioreactors, saturated buffers, and CREP wetlands in 2017
973,100
acres of cover crops planted across Iowa in 2017