Cover crop acres increased by 5 million acres from 2012 to 2017, according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture. In 2012, farmers planted a little over 10 million acres of cover crops. In 2017, they planted over 15 million—15,390,674 acres, to be exact. That’s about a 50% increase nationwide.
- Twenty states increased their cover crop acreage by more than 50% and eight of those more than doubled cover crop acreage since 2012, including Missouri, Illinois, Ohio, Mississippi, Nebraska, Vermont and Arizona.
- Iowa had the greatest increase in cover crop acres, growing 156.3% since the last census.
- A few states, including Rhode Island, Wyoming, New Mexico and Alaska, decreased their cover crop acreage. Other states, including California, increased their cover crop acreage by less than 5%. California, for example, increased its cover crop acreage by 3% since 2017.
“In visiting with my fellow farmers all over the United States, it’s been incredibly gratifying to see so many people committed to the stewardship of our soils,” says Steve Groff, a Pennsylvania farmer and one of a growing number of enthusiastic cover crop experts. “In too many places our soils have become degraded, and we really need to reverse that trend and rebuild the health of our soils going forward. Cover crops are one of the most effective tools we have to restore soil carbon and regenerate our soils.”
The expansion of cover crop acreage is a result of countless efforts by conservation advocates and others across the country. “This significant growth in cover crop acreage is providing major dividends in soil health and conservation on many types of farms and in all regions of the United States,” says Dr. Rob Myers, director of Extension programs for North Central Region SARE. “My hope is that this pace of increase will continue and even accelerate, leading us to 40 or 50 million acres of cover crops in the next decade.”
“Getting significant additional growth in cover crop adoption will take continued interest by farmers and a coordinated effort among many different partner organizations and agencies, which I believe we can accomplish," Myers says. "The need for additional protection and improvement of our nation’s soils is paramount, as our whole food system depends on having healthy soils."
According to Myers, a number of factors have contributed to this growth in cover crop acreage:
Perhaps most notable is the growing interest by farmers in increasing soil health. Along the way, a number of organizations have contributed to education on soil health, including USDA NRCS, the Soil Health Institute, the Soil Health Partnership, SARE, other conservation and farm organizations, and the agricultural media.
Awareness of how to best use and manage cover crops has grown in part through the innovative work done by leading farmers. The SARE program has supported some of these farmers directly with grants, while other farmers have gained incentive funds to try cover crops through NRCS or state agency programs.
Farmers are recognizing that cover crops can help with the efficiency and performance of their cropping system, including under extreme weather conditions. A national cover crop survey, conducted by the Conservation Technology and Information Center and funded by SARE and the American Seed Trade Association, found that soybean yields increased 11.6% and corn yields increased 9.6% in the drought year of 2012 following use of cover crops versus no cover crops.
The SARE program has funded close to 1,000 research and education projects on cover crops in the 30 years since SARE was first funded by USDA, including grants awarded directly to farmers to try new ideas such as different cover crop management approaches on their land. Program staff and grantees have also developed a wealth of educational materials on cover crops, much of which can be found at www.sare.org/covercrops.
Cover crops, by acreage
In a nutshell, Mid-Atlantic states with smaller cropland areas and/or Chesapeake Bay funding for water quality practices have covered more of their cropland than other states. Midwestern states with a large area of cropland to cover still have a long way to go to get cover crops on a high percentage of land. This is not a reason to be discouraged; the past five years have shown what the broader agriculture and policy-making groups can accomplish together with effort.
For several of these states, the effort really shows. Iowa moved to second place from ninth place in 2012, and Nebraska and Ohio both moved into the top 10. Georgia and North Carolina lost their spots in the top ten but still improved their cover crop acreage by 43% and 23%, respectively.