Cover Crops

Seth Bodine / Harvest Public Media

Jimmy Emmons has all sorts of things growing in his fields in Leedey, Oklahoma. There’s peas, beans, millets and varieties of grain sorghum, but none of it is for harvest. 

He’s growing what’s known as cover crops — plants meant to cover the ground and preserve it. Over the past seven years, he says he’s watched the difference in the soil. He’s often carrying a shovel on his fields, looking and even smelling the dirt.

“Smells real earthy and sweet,” Emmons says. 

Dana Cronin / Harvest Public Media

Amid a push from the Biden administration for U.S. agriculture to help slow climate change, a new study shows farmers in the Corn Belt are dropping the ball on adopting a climate-friendly practice.

 

A mountain of research shows the benefits of planting cover crops -- from sequestering carbon from the environment to keeping waterways cleaner. 

 

Dana Cronin / Harvest Public Media

Lin Warfel puts farmland owners in central Illinois into two categories: Those with a deep connection and desire to preserve their land, and those obsessed with short-term money.

 

The 80-year-old still owns the land that’s been in his family since his great-grandfather arrived in Champaign County in the 1800’s. After farming it for decades, he now rents the corn and soybean operation to his neighbors down the road.

Courtesy of USDA

Last month, the Illinois Department of Agriculture opened applications for its second annual Fall Covers for Spring Savings Program -- which provides a crop insurance discount for each acre of cover crop a farmer plants.

 

It filled up in less than 24 hours.

 

Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

At the edge of a corn field on a clear but windy June day, microbiologist Tom Moorman lifts a metal lid and reveals a collection of bottles, tubes, meters and cables in a shallow pit. The system is designed to capture runoff from 24 plots. 

Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media file photo

Iowa Learning Farms and Practical Farmers of Iowa conducted a 10-year study on the conservation benefits of planting cereal rye as a cover crop on corn and soybean fields. Their results show the practice improves soil health. The cover crop may cause a slight dip in yields the first year or two, but that can be overcome and eventually small increases in soybean yields may occur.

GARDEN CITY — Three years ago, rancher and farmer Jay Young got intrigued by a YouTube video.

A North Dakota farmer championed the idea of cover crops — plants that would be considered weeds in many other contexts — as robust plants for his cattle to graze on.

Young applied the cover crop strategy – rotating rye, radishes, turnips, oats and barley – to his land just east of the Colorado border. The plants held the soil in place, trapped nutrients in the ground and made the ground nicely spongy.

Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

More farmers are using cover crops to keep water, soil and nutrients from running off fields. But while many studies have shown the agronomic and environmental benefits of the plants that come up after cash crops such as corn or soybeans get harvested, it’s been harder to determine whether a farm business will recover the initial planting cost.

A new report says there’s evidence the conservation strategy brings economic benefits, too.