Growing Returns

Cover crops reduce cropping input costs, with other benefits farmers “can’t put a price on”

This blog is authored by Bethany Baratta, senior writer at Iowa Soybean Association. It originally posted on the Iowa Soybean Association Newsroom.

Cover crops have proven benefits for soil health. A recent Iowa Soybean Association study shows that cover crops can also reduce the input costs associated with growing crops.

“Cover crops are an added cost to the operation. However, this study shows a subset of participants in a corn-soybean rotation are able to offset those costs by finding a yield advantage, reducing inputs or both to improve overall profitability,” said Heath Ellison, ISA senior conservation agronomist who led the study in partnership with the Walton Family Foundation, Environmental Defense Fund and Iowa-based Regional Strategic, Ltd. Read More »

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Monetizing cover crops improves profitability for Iowa farmers, study shows

This blog is authored by Bethany Baratta, senior writer at Iowa Soybean Association. It originally posted on the Iowa Soybean Association Newsroom

While many farmers add cover crops with the goal to improve soil health, some participants in an Iowa Soybean Association (ISA) study are turning cover crops into new business opportunities. Capturing profit opportunities could result in expanded cover crop use in the state, the study showed.

Twenty Iowa farmers were chosen for the study during the 2018 crop year to take a closer look at the relationship between conservation adoption and farm production and profitability. Study participants were chosen based on their use of conservation practices such as cover crops and conservation tillage. Combined, participants raised 27,535 acres of corn and soybeans, and were geographically dispersed throughout the state. Read More »

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What are cover crops doing on a pecan orchard? Hopefully attracting bugs.

You don’t typically hear farmers saying they want to attract bugs to their farm, but that’s what a unique conservation project in California’s Sacramento Valley is doing – determining whether cover crops can attract more at-risk native pollinators, like monarch butterflies, in addition to insects that serve as pest control, like ladybugs.

The project came about thanks to a $3-million monarch and pollinator recovery bill (AB 2421) designed to establish habitat restoration projects for important pollinator species facing steep population losses. Read More »

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Cover crops: a new opportunity for ag retailers

Corn planted in cover crops. Photo courtesy of SUSTAIN.

Corn planted in cover crops. Photo courtesy of SUSTAIN.

For the fourth year in a row, a nationwide farmer survey found a boost in soybean and corn yields following the planting of cover crops. That’s in part why cover crop usage increased 350 percent from 2008 to 2012 among the farmers surveyed.

Cover crops are also great for the environment, since they help keep excess nutrients in the field and out of waterways. Yet only around 2 percent of all U.S. farmland uses cover crops, an alarmingly low figure.

That leaves a ton of room for improvement, which could result in huge environmental gains – and a new business opportunity for ag retailers.

Ag retailers that offer expertise on and sell cover crops to their famer customers can get in on this rapidly growing trend. And in so doing, gain customer loyalty and stand out from competitors. Read More »

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How cover crops can help growers beat droughts and floods

Cover crops can include grasses like cereal rye.

Cover crops can include grasses like cereal rye.

Corn is trying to fight this summer’s extreme weather, and unfortunately, the weather is winning.

There are serious floods in the Midwest, devastating droughts in California, and brutal heat waves along the eastern seaboard. Ohio for example had a record June rainfall of 11 inches, which stunted corn roots and prevented many growers from planting any corn crops. In Northwest Ohio alone, 100,000 acres were left unplanted. At the same time, places in my home state of North Carolina experienced a June heat wave during the critical corn pollination period, significantly damaging corn yields.

These extreme weather events leave many farmers searching for ways to make the best of a challenging growing season. Although June’s weather was the opposite in Ohio and North Carolina, cover crops offer a proven solution to deal with both conditions. Read More »

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Cover crops nourish the soil through winter

Bees enjoy the buckwheat cover crop in the author’s kitchen garden.

Bees enjoy the buckwheat cover crop in the author’s kitchen garden.

The harvest season is ending, but for many growers concerned about the health of their soil, it is time to plant cover crops. I am not a farmer, but I wondered: if cover crops work for farmers, would they improve the soil in my North Carolina kitchen garden?

So late this summer I planted a buckwheat cover crop on half of my garden. I’ll be honest. My record as a gardener is spotty. This year we had a bounty of tomatoes and volunteer pumpkins, while nothing else thrived. A cover crop could improve my soil and my harvest next summer.

Cover crops offer big benefits

On farms, cover crops include grasses and grains such as cereal rye, legumes such as crimson clover, and broadleaf plants like radishes. They are not harvested like corn or soybeans. Instead, they are left in the field or incorporated into the soil.

Read More »

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3 ways the farm bill can protect croplands from extreme weather

Photo Credit: Flickr user Benjamin Disinger (License)

Here’s a statement that everyone can agree on, regardless of politics: Farmers benefit from making their croplands more resilient to the effects of extreme weather.

Report after report, including a study this week in the journal Nature Geoscience, has shown that shifting climatic conditions will hit agriculture hard, threatening food supplies and farmers’ incomes. This week’s report found that in years when the Arctic was warmer than normal, the average decline in yields across the United States was as high as 4 percent – and in Texas, corn yields were as low as 20 percent of what they are in typical years.

Farmers can take steps to protect their operations from extreme weather – but they can’t do it alone.

The 2018 farm bill can and should play a powerful role in helping farmers adapt to changing climatic conditions by prioritizing and supporting public-private partnerships, innovation, and financial models that can accelerate deployment of conservation practices.

Read More »

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Birds, snakes and butterflies: Farming for more than crops and cash

Davis Ranch manager John Brennan pointed out a hundred year-old valley oak. Resting in the highest branches was a large nest about two feet wide, where a pair of hawks were nesting. As we dispersed about the ranch, one of the hawks greeted us by spreading its wings and soaring off into the blue sky.

A pair of Swainson’s hawk nest in a 100-year-old valley oak tree at Davis Ranch in Colusa, California. (Credit: Emily James)

The Golden State is well known for its robust and diverse agricultural output, even during times of drought. In 2014, California’s farms, ranches and nurseries turned out $54 billion worth of everything from oranges to rice, and milk to nuts.

Our farms and ranches are less renowned for the rich wildlife habitat they also provide, in some cases for threatened species like the Swainson’s hawk and giant garter snake, which have long struggled with the disappearance of their historic habitat in open grasslands and tule marshes.

The Swainson’s hawk population in California used to be close to 17,000 mating pairs. Today, that number is closer to 2,000. And the giant garter snake has faced the loss of 95 percent of its historic Central Valley wetland habitat. In both cases, landscape conversion and fragmentation, in addition to land management practices such as rodent control, have steadily worn away the suitable habitat for these species.

Fortunately, many species are adapting to these landscape changes and, with wildlife-friendly practices, are able to thrive on productive California farms and ranches. Farms like Davis Ranch. Read More »

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California takes giant step toward approving first crop-based carbon standards

CA rice farmA significant milestone was achieved today in the California cap-and-trade market. For the first time, the California Air Resources Board (ARB) considered a land-based carbon offset protocol that will allow U.S. rice growers to earn additional revenue for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from cultivation.

This is a big deal. U.S. agriculture has tremendous potential to not only provide the nation with the food we eat, but also the climate solutions we need to sustain our growth.

Farmers grow carbon credits

The protocol covers rice cultivation practices in both the Sacramento Valley of California and the Mississippi River Valley, which encompasses Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana. Growers here can implement any combination of three practices – dry seeding, early drainage or alternate wetting and drying – and collect data to be independently verified to create a carbon credit.

Nearly two dozen farmers have already expressed interest and are starting to gear up their operations to generate offsets in the spring of 2015. Read More »

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Improving water quality is a shared responsibility

Iowa farmer Denny Friest surveys his fields from his combine.

Iowa farmer Denny Friest (Photo credit: John Rae)

I spent the summer meeting with farmers, commodity groups and food companies in the Midwest to discuss collaborative conservation approaches. Whether we were in Missouri, Iowa or Minnesota, water quality was top of mind.

Agriculture has a large impact on water quality – the sector is the source of 70 percent of the nutrients that flow down the Mississippi River and cause dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico.

Farmers have made big strides on implementing and scaling conservation measures to improve water quality and agriculture’s overall environmental footprint. Unsung heroes like Tim Richter, Kristin Duncanson and Denny Friest are constantly fine-tuning nutrient and soil management with new efficiency tools, finding better ways to implement cover crops or reduce tillage, installing wetlands and buffers, and introducing new crops into their rotations. Read More »

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