Cover cropping is a viable strategy for farmers to improve soil health and mitigate climate change. A recent USDA report shows that farmers in the Northeast are ahead of the national average when it comes to implementing this practice.
Published in November 2018, the Agricultural Conservation on Working Lands report examines national and regional trends in the adoption of climate-smart farming practices between 2004 and 2016. Specifically, it focuses on “working-lands conservation practices” that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and sequester carbon in the soil. The report identifies cover cropping as one of several practices that mitigate climate change while providing additional agronomic and environmental benefits to farmers.
The authors use survey data generated by the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) and Economic Research Service (ERS) to track adoption of climate-smart farming practices in 10 geographic regions across the continental U.S. The Northeast region comprises 11 states: CT, DE, MA, MD, ME, NH, NJ, NY, PA, RI, and VT. With about 7.2 million acres of farmland, New York State makes up about a third of the total farm acreage in the Northeast region.
Cover crops, including grasses, legumes, and brassicas, can be grown in the field during fallow periods, or simultaneously with cash crops. Cover crops are not harvested, so their value is primarily measured in terms of improvements to soil health, nutrient management, and subsequent cash crop yields.
Under sound management, cover crops can have multiple positive impacts, from reducing erosion and slowing nitrate leaching to improving soil structure and enhancing biological activity. Some cover crops may also provide forage for farm animals, as well as habitat and food for pollinators and other wildlife.
Farms in the Northeast region planted 14% of total farmland to cover crops in 2015, up from 8% in 2010. This represents an increase of nearly one million acres in cover crops in the Northeast between 2010 and 2015.
Relative to all other regions, the Northeast had the highest percentage of crop acres used for cover cropping. On a national basis, farmers used only 4% of the total crop acreage to grow cover crops in 2015, compared to 14% in the Northeast.
The USDA report attributes the increasing adoption of cover crops in recent years to two main factors. On the one hand, federal and state agencies have invested in programs to promote this practice. On the other, cover cropping has positive impacts on crop yields and soil health, which can translate to economic gains for farmers. The report concludes that educational programs and economic incentives are both important drivers of cover crop use.
If you’re interested in using cover crops in your operation, check out the following resources for additional information.
- The book Managing Cover Crops Profitably is available as a free download that “explores how and why cover crops work, and provides all the information needed to build cover crops into any farming operation.”
- The USDA Cover Crops Chart offers a farmer-friendly taxonomy of the most commonly used cover crops, and summarizes the key characteristics of each one.
- The Northeast Cover Crops Council provides information about a range of cover cover crops and associated management strategies.
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