Iowa cover crop acres grew about 16 percent last year, reaching roughly 880,000 total acres, according to recent data by Iowa Learning Farms.
While such growth is notable at a time when farmers are reporting shrinking profit margins, this represents a 6 percent decline in new cover crop acres compared to last year’s estimate and a 19 percent cumulative decline in new cover crop acres since 2015, a year in which 35 percent of all the cover crop acres were new. This number is still well below the goal of 12.5 million acres of cover crops called for in Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy.
Since 2009, Iowa Learning Farms, based at Iowa State University, has been tracking cover crop data reported by farmers and landowners who attend ILF workshops and field days. In recognition of its 15-year anniversary, ILF also conducted a mailed survey of all farmers and landowners who had participated in field days since 2005. A total of 899 people responded to the survey, reporting 131,389 acres of cover crops on their land or 15 percent of the overall estimated cover crop acres in Iowa.
6 percent try covers for first time
Many of the new acres were planted by experienced cover crop farmers. The majority (85 percent) of respondents to the 15-year evaluation questionnaire started seeding cover crops at least three years ago. Only 6 percent of respondents reported implementing cover crops for the first time on their land last fall. Those respondents with cover crops reported an average of 44 percent of their total row crop acres in cover crops, representing a consistent value over the last three years.
“It is encouraging to see growth in cover crop use among experienced cover crop farmers, even with low crop prices and a fall with less-than-ideal weather,” said Jamie Benning, ISU Extension water quality program manager and ILF adviser. “I am concerned the rate of growth has declined for the third year in a row and the number of first-time cover crop users declined significantly this year. For this reason, ILF is already ramping up this spring with cover crop events to reach new farmers.”
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66 percent of cover crop acres use cost-share
All respondents who planted cover crops for the first time in 2018 used cost share and planted an average of 100 acres, higher than last year’s average of 89 acres. Overall, 66 percent of the total reported cover crop acres were planted with cost share, while 78 percent of the new acres were planted with cost share.
Iowa Learning Farms has held 265 conservation field days and workshops since 2005 on cover crops, strip tillage, saturated buffers, prairie strips and more. These events drew an attendance of 13,621 people; 72 percent are farmers and landowners. Cover crop field days in 2019 will stress the benefits and best practice management for cover crops.
ILF continues to work with ISU Extension and other Iowa partner organizations to raise awareness of beneficial conservation practices such as cover crops among landowners and farmers.
The complete 15-year ILF report was released in early April and can be found at iowalearningfarms.org.