The utilization of cover crops has been touted as a way to manage soil fertility and quality, as well as weeds, diseases, pests and water. Last year’s drought put the water management advantages of cover crops to the test, and a survey indicates those benefits are as advertised.

Results of the survey conducted through a partnership between the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program and the Conservation Technology Information Center were released earlier this month.

More than 750 farmers were surveyed during the winter of 2012-2013, primarily from the Upper Mississippi River watershed. The farmers who completed the survey used cover crops on about 218,000 acres in 2012 and expected to increase that to more than 300,000 acres this year.

Questions on cover crop adoption, benefits, challenges and yield impacts were included in the survey. Key findings included the following:

* During the fall of 2012, corn planted after cover crops had a 9.6 percent increase in yield compared to side-by-side fields with no cover crops. Likewise, soybean yields were improved 11.6 percent following cover crops;

* In the hardest hit drought areas of the Corn Belt, yield differences were even larger, with an 11 percent yield increase for corn and a 14.3 percent increase for soybeans;

* Surveyed farmers are rapidly increasing acreage of cover crops used, with an average of 303 acres of cover crops per farm planted in 2012 and farmers intending to plant an average of 421 acres of cover crops in 2013. Total acreage of cover crops among farmers surveyed increased 350 percent from 2008 to 2012;

* Farmers identified improved soil health as a key overall benefit from cover crops. Reduction in soil compaction, improved nutrient management and reduced soil erosion were other key benefits cited for cover crops.

“Cover crops are just part of a systems approach that builds a healthy soil, higher yields and cleaner water,” a farmer said in the survey; and

* Farmers are willing to pay an average amount of $25 per acre for cover crop seed and an additional $15 per acre for establishment costs, either for their own cost of planting or to hire a contractor to do the seeding of the cover crop.

“It is especially noteworthy how significant the yield benefits for cover crops were in an extremely dry year,” said Rob Myers, a University of Missouri agronomist and regional director of extension programs for North Central Region SARE.

“The yield improvements provided from cover crops in 2012 were likely a combination of factors, such as better rooting of the cash crop along with the residue blanket provided by the cover crop reducing soil moisture loss.

“Also, where cover crops have been used for several years, we know that organic matter typically increases, which improves rainfall infiltration and soil water holding capacity.”

An estimated 1.5 to 2 million acres of cover crops were planted in the U.S. in 2012.