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Nearly 18 million acres were planted into cover crops in 2022 compared to 15.4 million acres as by the 2017.

Mary Hightower

March 26, 2024

6 Min Read
Planting in Rye
Planting into rolled ryegrass is part of Greg Hart's use of cover crops and no-till tactics on his Conway County, Arkansas, farm. Greg Hart

At a Glance

  • Cover crops increase by 20,000 acres in Arkansas
  • No-till acres increase by 23,000 in Arkansas

More farmers seem to be adopting cover crops and no-till, according to data from the 2022 Census of Agriculture.

“Cover crops expense is up across the United States, which suggests farmers are adopting more climate-smart practices, whether it be for participation in the carbon market, participation in government programs, or to rebuild and maintain soil health to conserve the land upon which they farm,” said Hunter Biram, extension economist for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.

“According to the Ag Census, there were nearly 18 million acres that have cropland planted to a cover crop in 2022 compared to 15.4 million acres reported by the 2017 Ag Census,” he said. “In Arkansas, there were about 20,000 more acres planted to a cover crop on a little over 100 more farms compared to the 2017 Ag Census.”

Biram said the number of farms on which no-till practices were used increased by nearly 21,000 across the United States on about 750,000 more acres compared to 2017.

“There were also about 6.6 million fewer acres upon which intensive or conventional tillage practices were used,” he said. “These patterns were mirrored in Arkansas at 23,600 more acres under no-till practices and 379,000 less acres under conventional tillage practice.”

Arkansas reported 3.7 million acres of cropland acreage under conservation practices across all categories of cropland acreage. This is an increase of over a half-million acres compared to the 2017 Ag Census.

‘Something’s got to give’

One farmer who has made the change is Greg Hart, who grows corn, wheat and soy, and raises cattle in Conway County in the sandy bottoms of Cadron Creek.

“I'm always trying to find a better way of doing things,” Hart said. “Several years back when diesel fuel got to be $3 to $4 a gallon for farm fuel and fertilizer was up to $1,000 a ton, you look around and think, ‘how am I going to keep doing this? Something’s got to give.’”

He was already using cover crops in his cattle pastures and moved to cover crops and no-till for all of his crops. He’s seen the amount of soil organic matter increasing and has been able to reduce the amount of herbicides and fertilizers he puts into the fields.

However, “the single biggest benefit is the water-holding capacity,” he said. When the drought hit in 2023, “I thought these beans were going to burn up in no time. They stayed green and they kept growing for three weeks when a lot of people’s beans were just hurting bad.

“Two or three weeks of that flash drought is all it takes to kill a crop,” he said. Having that water holding capacity might mean losing “five bushels instead of 50 and that right there is the difference between making money and losing money.”

The increased water-holding capacity has decreased the “amount of times you have to water and how much diesel you’ve got to burn to water” ground set up for irrigation, Hart said.

Moving to no-till and cover cropping does require some changes.

“When people get done harvesting they kind of want to be done for the year,” Hart said. “But basically you have to plant another crop.”

Hart’s no-till approach has been so successful, “we actually have sold the tillage equipment and added better residue management to our combine.”

No-till doesn’t look like conventional farming which starts with a clean field.

“I was literally planting corn in rye that was as tall as the tractor cab,” Hart said. “Your mind is thinking, ‘this isn’t going to work.’”

The cereal rye, or other cover crop, then gets flattened by a roller.

“It looks like you laid a blanket on top of the ground and as soon as that soil warms up enough, little plants, they just start popping up through that mat and within a week I mean they're just off to the races,” he said.

Fewer tractor hours

Nick Moore, who grows corn, wheat and soybeans in the Arkansas River bottoms in Conway County, said no-till slows the flow of money out of his operation and “just saves hours in the day.”

“It’s not like I’m fishing more,” he said with a laugh, but “we went from putting 900 to 1,000 hours a year on a tractor. Now maybe you spend 100 to 300 hours. It’s due to not having to plow every acre like we used to.”

For Moore’s operation, tilling is now confined to smaller 20- to 40-acre plots — areas where he conducts row irrigation.

“My dad, Edward Moore, who’s in his late 60s, has been on the tractor all his life. He’s from that generation where you till everything,” Moore said. “He gets those little 20s and 40s and he’s like the kid in the candy store.”
Like Hart, Moore appreciates that the no-till residue “might slow the evaporation some,” even if it doesn’t protect against a two-month-long drought. He’s also good at keeping soil temperatures a little cooler in the summer, though in spring that same effect “kind of stunts the corn a little.”

Benefits to farmers

Trent Roberts, professor of soil fertility-soil testing, said both cover crops and use of no-till can be beneficial.

“I believe the biggest benefit from cover crops and increased soil health is input reduction,”  Roberts said. “Very few producers will see an increase in yield on irrigated ground, but many see yield increases in non-irrigated ground.”

For farmers, “inputs” include items such as fertilizer, irrigation, fuel, seeds and herbicides.

However, “after several years of cover crops and no-tillage, farmers are able to reduce inputs while maintaining yields — therefore increasing profitability,” Roberts said.

Roberts said that “no-till reduces fuel, labor and tractor wear, which is huge and almost always more than covers the costs associated with the cover crops.”

“In many places, farmers are reducing the number of times they have to irrigate from six to eight times down to three to four times, which is a huge cost and water savings,” Roberts said.

Weed management

No- and low-till systems can help farmers manage weeds, said Tom Barber, a weed scientist who is extension’s interim head of agriculture and natural resources for the Division of Agriculture.

 “Cotton and soybean farmers seem to be the most interested in cover crops for various reasons,” he said. “We have several years of data showing that cover crops, specifically cereal rye can be a very effective cultural practice to manage multiple herbicide-resistant Palmer amaranth, better known as pigweed. Cover crops such as cereal rye also aid water infiltration into the soil and prevent wind/sand damage when cotton and soybean are in seedling growth stages.  

“No-till is not as common as reduced tillage across the state, but both can help reduce weed emergence,” Barber said. The downside is that no-till systems rely mainly on herbicides for weed control, especially if a cover crop is not planted. 

“This significantly increases herbicide applications and exposure and thus, aids in the development of herbicide-resistant weeds, therefore it becomes more critical to utilize cover crops on these no-till acres,” he said. 

If farmers are considering shifting to no-till production practices, proactive management plans for troublesome herbicide-resistant weeds such as pigweed should be in place prior to making a major shift in current production practices.

Find more information about using cover crops online

The Census of Agriculture, published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, offers a very broad snapshot of the farming sector in its 757 pages. The latest version, 2022 Census of Agriculture, was released Feb. 13. The previous version was released in 2017.

Source: University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture

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