Cover Crop Leadership: Findings Show Ontario Is Leading The Way In Cover Crop Adoption

The University of Manitoba recently released the results of their 2020 cover crop feedback project, which includes a wide range of encouraging and insightful information. 

To complete the study, researchers surveyed farmers across Ontario about whether or not they used cover crops in 2020 and how those cover crops impacted the functions and expenses of their farms. They received significant engagement from both farmers who reported using cover crops and farmers who did not. Farmers who did not use cover crops were asked about the barriers keeping them from doing so, providing useful data that has the potential to help increase cover crop use in Ontario. The survey ran from February to April in 2021 and used social media, radio and print newspapers to get in touch with farmers. 731 farmers participated in the study: 520 were using cover crops and 211 weren’t. This high level of engagement makes the 2020 Cover Crop Feedback Project the largest study of its kind in Canada. 

What Are Cover Crops? 

Cover cropping is the process of planting a crop in a field that would otherwise be bare or left fallow. Although they are most often used as green manure, cover crops can also be interseeded with a cash crop or planted in a field that will eventually be grazed by livestock. In some instances, the cover crop can also be sold (sunflowers, for instance, can serve as both a cover crop and a cash crop), but harvesting is not its main function. 

Cover crops have many soil benefits and are a valuable tool for rebuilding soil health, preventing erosion, breaking up weed and pest cycles, supplying nutrients needed for the next cash crop and more. Farmers may use cover crops for a variety of reasons: some view cover crops as insurance to improve the longevity of their farmland while others value their environmental benefits and ability to improve on-farm biodiversity and limit off-farm pollution. Some farmers also consider cover crops to be a cost-saving measure since the added nutrients they supply to the soil limit the need for agrochemicals and synthetic fertilizers. 

Posted by Gain Farmers of Ontario, December 14, 2021

Study Findings 

The majority of surveyed farmers either grew field crops or raised livestock, and more than 25% had a farm size of 180-499 acres. Most field crop farmers reported incorporating cover crops but most livestock farmers reported not.

Of those who used cover crops:

  • Most reported using cover crops for either 3-5 or 6-10 years. 
  • Most reported keeping their cover crops simple, using only 1-3 types of cover crops
  • The most common reported cover crops were oats, fall rye and radish
  • The most common reported cash crops grown before cover crops were winter wheat, soybeans, and grain corn
  • When asked what percentage of their farm was used to grow cover crops, over 70 percent reported between 0 and 39 percent
  • The vast majority of farmers planted after harvest 

What Benefits Were Found? 

The majority of farmers (91 percent) reported seeing benefits from cover cropping. Most impressively, 77 percent of those who grew cover crops reported experiencing benefits within the first three years of practicing cover crops (and of that group, over 40 percent reported benefits within one year). More than half of those who grew cover crops reported seeing no changes in profits or experienced a profit increase directly linked to the use of cover crops. Another 18 percent reported they were unsure of the benefit and another 10 percent said it depended on the year—only 4 percent reported experiencing any financial loss as a result of using cover crops. The majority of cover cropping farmers experienced a decreased need to till their fields, which is a pleasant added benefit considering that reduced tillage also leads to many benefits including improved soil health. 

Of those who planted cover crops, the top reasons identified for doing so included: 

  • Building soil health 
  • Increasing organic matter 
  • Reducing erosion 
  • Suppressing weeds 
  • Keeping roots in the ground year-round

The following were reported to be the main benefits observed from planting cover crops: 

  • Improved soil health 
  • Less erosion
  • Increased organic matter 
  • More earthworms and 
  • Increased infiltration

What Kept Farmers From Adopting Cover Crops?  

Of those who reported using cover crops, 82 percent said they experienced at least one problem over the years they have been doing so. The most commonly reported challenges were: 

  • The cover crop was sparse and didn’t grow 
  • The cover crop resulted in a late cash crop harvest 
  • Additional costs 
  • A shorter growing season
  • The cover crop resulted in too much plant biomass residue than the farmer needed or could work with

21 percent of respondents also reported experiencing no issues, and out of all 520 cover cropping farms, only one reported that their previous system worked better. This shows that despite challenges, farmers who use cover crops are still enthusiastic about their benefits and see them as having a meaningful place in their rotation.

Farmers who did not grow cover crops were asked to identify the barriers keeping them from doing so. The top five reasons identified were: 

  • Additional costs 
  • Lack of equipment
  • Late harvest prevented the planting of cover crops 
  • Didn’t know where to start  

One of the main goals of the project was to identify measures and supports that could help farmers further adopt and employ cover crops. Both farms that did and did not grow cover crops were asked what measures would help enable cover crop use. Across both groups, measures identified included:

  • Tax credits for planting 
  • Payments for storing carbon
  • Technical assistance
  • Payments from conversation programs
  • Discounted insurance premiums

Several respondents also expressed a need for more information (economic, technical, agronomic and more) to enable further cover crop use. The lack of currently available resources is an area that can be addressed as research evolves and demand grows. It is exciting to see that the Midwest Cover Crops Council has a cover crop decision tool to help farmers make decisions about which cover crops to use based on the farm’s location and goals. The Ontario Cover Crop Action Plan also has a plan to incentivize farmers to plant cover crops to help improve the health of the Erie watershed. 

Learn More

Hear from Ontario farmer Dean Martin as he explores the benefits of cover crops and learn from his suggestions for how beginners can get started cover cropping!

Check out OCO’s Organic Climate Solutions campaign, funded in part by the Government of Canada, to learn more about how farmers can reduce the environmental impact of agriculture and be part of the climate solution.

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