Indiana leading the way with cover crops

Goal of 5 million acres by 2025 could make big difference


Already a national leader for use of cover crops, Indiana wants a fivefold increase in cover crop acreage planted in the offseason grains by 2025.

If the Hoosier State pulls this off, nearly half the state’s 11 million acres of corn and soybeans will be growing something year-round. That degree of adoption could push the needle on reducing nitrate and phosphorus fertilizer runoff into rivers and lakes, according to research by Purdue University and Iowa State University.

But big questions remain, including how Indiana will get more farmers on board without more money for subsidies and whether the effort will be worth it.

“Time will tell,” said Jordan Seger, deputy director of the Indiana State Department of Agriculture. “The new area of growth is to get all the livestock groups aligned around those goals. Farm Bureau touches a whole different audience than our government groups do.”

Cover crops like rye, wheat and oats grown over the winter and spring between cash crops have been shown to reduce fertilizer runoff and boost organic material in the soil.

“It’s one of the most effective grass practices, especially at the scale of some of these larger fields,” said Soren Rundquist, director of spatial analysis for the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit focused on environmental health research and advocacy.

Cover Crop Growth Percentage in Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa

In a first-of-its-kind study, the group and Practical Farmers of Iowa used satellite images to detect cover crops grown in Illinois, Indiana and Iowa over the 2015-2016 season. The 2017 report showed nearly 800,000 acres of cover crops in Indiana, or 7.1 percent of all corn and soybean acres.


Cover crops blanketed just 2.6 percent of Iowa’s corn and soybean acres and 2.3 percent in Illinois, the study showed.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture paid more than $90 million for cover crop assistance in 2015-2016 and many states have their own subsidies that document the number of cover crop acres. Farmers who plant cover crops without aid often aren’t counted.

“For every 1 acre we pay for, Indiana farmers are planting another 4 acres without cost share,” said Shannon Zezula, state resource conservationist for the USDA’s National Resources Conservation Service in Indiana.

In a rare partnership, Indiana agricultural groups joined with government agencies, academic institutions and conservation groups, such as the Nature Conservancy, to form the Indiana Agriculture Nutrient Alliance in 2017. The group is gathering farmer testimonials and water monitoring data to persuade farmers to try cover crops, said Justin Schneider, Indiana Farm Bureau director of state government relations.

“We think we can continue to expand that number, talking about the economics and the long-term payoff you get with the use of cover crops,” he said.

Indiana, with more than 50,000 Amish, also is tailoring cover crop programs to reach more Amish farmers.

The Adams County conservation district has for rent two horse-drawn drills and a highboy seeder for planting cover crops without motorized equipment.

Because many Amish won’t accept government subsidies, the service has a program in which a dealer will sell the Amish farmer cover crop seed at a lower rate and then invoice the local soil and water conservation district for the rest, said Brian Musser, district conservationist for Adams County, south of Fort Wayne.

“I won’t say we’ve won over a majority of the population yet, but maybe 10 to 15 percent of the population is interested in cover crops,” he said. “The Amish population is keen on cover crops in their gardens, they just haven’t fully adapted it to field-scale level.”