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Report: Cover crops could be extreme weather management tool

Report: Cover crops could be extreme weather management tool
National Wildlife Federation makes the case for cover crops as a benefit to soil health and tool to mitigate effects of extreme weather

Cover crops have the potential to help rural America overcome effects of drought and flood, a new report out Wednesday from the National Wildlife Federation says.

Related: How No-till, Soil Health Help Crops Survive Drought

The report says degraded soils are vulnerable to effects of climate variability and extreme weather events because they are unable to soak up excess water during times of flood or retain water in times of drought.

The group suggests using cover crops to improve soil health by not only increasing water filtration and retention, but also improving organic matter.

The NWF report outlines three reasons why cover crops and resulting healthier soil could be a benefit:

No-till farmer Dave Brandt of Ohio calls these earthworms his 'tillage tools,' because they open soil pores and build organic matter. Brandt's success is cited in the NWF report. (Photo by Mike Wilson)

Preventing flood damage.  According to the USDA, for each 1% increase in soil organic matter, U.S. cropland could store the same amount of water that flows over Niagara Falls in 150 days. Unlike soil that promotes runoff, healthy soil could take up large amounts of water and mitigate some effects of heavy rain periods, the report says.

Lower crop and livestock loss. Healthy soil can protect individual farmers and surrounding rural communities in times of drought or flood because it ultimately will result in fewer lost crops, livestock, equipment and facilities, the report says.

Saving money. Consumers will avoid higher costs of food products if crop losses are avoided.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the 16 drought events between 1980 and 2012 cost America about $210 billion. Floods between 1980 and 2013 cost about $260 billion.

Related: USDA to observe 2015 'Year of Soils'

USDA's Economic Research Service also cited costs of the 2012 drought to be about $30 billion to the ag sector alone.

"We can never prevent drought or floods, but we can get smarter about them," said Patricia White, senior policy specialist at the National Wildlife Federation and report author. "In addition to predicting extreme events before and responding after, we can build soil quality to support farms when disaster hits. That healthy soil will act as a reservoir to hold moisture during a drought and a sponge to hold water during floods."

Related: 10 Tips for First-Time Cover Crop Success

According to the report, the U.S. could reach 20 million acres of cover crops with an investment of about $740 million.

Read the full report, Can Soil Save Us? Making the Case for Cover Crops as Extreme Weather Risk Management, which outlines agencies involved in weather and environmental policy-making as well as an overview of flood and drought events and their estimated costs.

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