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For Iowa farmers, profiting from cover crops may unlock potential

State's cover crop acres meager but quickly expanding

May 17, 2019 at 6:00 am
    Rye grows on 35 acres of Terry Ward's farm in La Porte City. Ward, pictured May 6, plants rye after his main crop is harvested in the fall. He will harvest the rye by mid-June to feed to cattle he raises for another farmer, then plant soybeans there. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

    Iowa nearly doubled its acres of cover crops between 2015 and 2017, but the share of farmland with the offseason crops that reduce pollutants flowing into waterways still is less than 4 percent, new data show.

    As the government spends tens of millions of dollars subsidizing cover crops, farmers and experts wonder if they instead should encourage offseason cover crops that can be harvested for a profit — not just killed off before the traditional cash crop is planted.

    Terry Ward, 68, of La Porte City, will harvest a rye crop in June and turn it into food for 125 heifers he feeds for a local dairy farmer. Once the rye is gone, Ward will sow soybeans, a practice known as double cropping because he gets two crops from the same land in one year.

    “We think it’s cost effective because we get a year’s worth of feed and a crop besides,” Ward said. “We had 51 bushels per acre (of soybeans) last year, which we think is pretty good.”

    Slow growth in cover crop adoption

    Iowa had 907,000 acres planted in cover crops over the 2017-2018 winter season, or about 3.9 percent of all farmed acres, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group’s 2017 cover crop study of Iowa, Illinois and Indiana. This is up from 592,000 acres, or 2.6 percent of Iowa’s farmed land, in 2015-2016.

    “I think it’s pretty amazing they doubled the footprint,” said Soren Rundquist, the group’s spatial analysis director and study coordinator. “But the sobering reality is that 1 million acres is just a drop in the bucket.”


    The study’s results were similar to the 880,000 acres of cover crops estimated for 2018 by the Iowa Learning Farms, based at Iowa State University.

    Illinois had 760,000 acres of cover crops last year, or 3.6 percent of agricultural land. This is up from 2.3 percent in 2015-2016.

    Indiana, which has an ambitious goal of 5 million acres of cover crops by 2025, saw only a slight increase between 2015 and 2017, according to the study. The Hoosier State had 878,000 acres, or 7.8 percent of farmed land, last year compared with 7.1 percent two years earlier.

    The slow pace has regional and national implications as states, particularly those in the Mississippi River Basin, struggle to reduce nutrient and sediment runoff into waterways that contributes to toxic algal blooms and a “dead zone” that can kill fish in the Gulf of Mexico.

    What happened in Eastern Iowa?

    Western Iowa largely is responsible for Iowa’s jump in cover crop acres, with 27 western Iowa counties adding more than 5,000 acres between 2015 and 2017, the study shows. Woodbury County had the largest increase with nearly 26,000 more acres in 2017.

    “Northwest Iowa could have gained because there previously was not much there,” Rundquist said.

    But many Eastern Iowa counties — especially Linn, Johnson and Washington — actually planted fewer acres of cover crops in 2017.

    Washington County, long a statewide cover crop leader, had 15,600 fewer acres of cover crops, dropping the county from 12 percent of farmed acres in 2015 to just 4 percent in 2017, the study shows.


    Steve Berger, who has been growing cover crops on his farm near Wellman since the 1990s, said he doesn’t know why Washington County’s cover crop acres fell off in 2017. Reports from the state climatologist show temperatures and rainfall statewide were close to normal that fall.

    But low commodity prices and trade concerns may have taken a toll on local cover crop acres, Berger said.

    “When there are too many challenges, cover crops will be the first things to go,” he said.

    The declines occurred despite huge government aid for cover crops.

    The U.S. Department of Agriculture paid more than $90 million for cover crop assistance in 2015-2016. The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship paid Iowa farmers about $5 million a year in 2017 and 2018 to share the cost of planting cover crops. The Iowa Ag Department estimates farmers contributed $9 million a year to match the state grants.

    Double cropping could reduce climate change effects

    Some Iowa farmers are growing multiple crops a year to spread out the risk. Double cropping is seen as a way to reduce the effects of climate change because it allows the same parcel of land to produce more food without degrading the soil, according to a 2018 article in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics.

    Double cropping occurred on about 2 percent of U.S. cropland most years from 1999 to 2012, according to a 2014 USDA report.

    “Soybeans were, on average, the most common crop found on double-cropped acres over this time period, and, in 2012, winter wheat most commonly preceded these soybean plantings,” the report stated.

    Other viable for-profit cover crops in Iowa include oats, rye and canola.

    Gary Schnitkey, a University of Illinois Extension farm management specialist, told Illinois farmers in February a double crop rotation of winter wheat followed by beans is likely to turn a higher profit this year than full-season beans or corn, according to

    Bryan Sievers, of Stockton, grows three crops — corn, winter wheat and sorghum Sudangrass — over a two-year period. The winter wheat is a cover crop, but Sievers also uses it as feed for 2,400 cows or as biomass for his anaerobic digester, which produces methane used to generate electricity.

    “It gives us versatility, which really enhances the value of that winter wheat,” he said.

    New message needed

    Sarah Carlson, strategic initiatives director for Practical Farmers of Iowa and a Midwest cover crops expert, thinks farmers want to know how cover crops affect their bottom line.

    “We’ve probably gotten the majority of farmers who are motivated by improvements in soil health. It’s time for a new message,” Carlson said. “I believe farmers need to share more strongly about the positive short-term cost-saving benefits through improved weed control and greater ability to access the fields during wet spring conditions.”

    Terry and Rachel Ward will host a field day for Practical Farmers June 4 in La Porte City in which Eastern Iowa farmers can come see how the Wards grow and use rye as both a cover crop and feed for cattle.

    Rundquist, from the Environmental Working Group, said he’s encouraged that the Farm Bill directs USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue to prioritize spending on conservation practices that have a direct impact on improving water quality.

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    The Gazette’s Erin Jordan and the Indianapolis Star’s Emily Hopkins collaborated on this report.

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