More and more growers are seizing the numerous benefits that cover crops can provide. Growers are also finding additional ways to make cover crops put more money in their pockets. The results of the second annual Cover Crop Benchmark Study support both statements — and reveal many other interesting tidbits.

Cover Crop Strategies editors assembled responses to the 2nd annual Cover Crop Benchmark Study from more than 400 U.S. growers. The analysis of the 2020 cropping year compared cover crop experience, seeding methods, variety selection and more. This is the first article in a series that will discuss the findings of the study.

Many growers responded that they are relatively new cover crop users, with 40% stating that they have less than 5 years of experience. In 2019, 42% of growers indicated that they had seeded covers for 1-5 years.

A little more than one-third of respondents (35%) have used cover crops for 6-10 years, while only 11% have more than 2 decades of experience with covers, up slightly from the 2019 total, where 9% of growers responded that they were veteran cover crop users.

Financial incentives from local conservation districts and state departments of agriculture have encouraged more growers to try cover crops in their operations. However, it takes at least 3 years for growers to see longer-term results from using cover crops.

“You have to change your mindset if you’re going to make cover crops work,” says Bill Buessing, a grower from Axtell, Kan., who farms on 440 acres. “Implementing cover crops is a process that does not always show immediate rewards.”

In the 18 years that Buessing has been using cover crops, he has transitioned to using cover crops as forage for livestock, in addition to reducing nutrient runoff, retaining more water, slowing down wind erosion, improving weed control, building soil organic matter, recycling nutrients, and building nitrogen in the soil.

In line with last year’s survey results, 48% of growers used cover crops on less than 300 acres in 2020, while 14% of growers had 300-499 cover crop acres. Only 15% of cover crop growers implemented the practice on more than 1,000 acres, a figure that was up 4% from 2019 cropping data.

“I played with cover crops, made mistakes and it took me about 14 years to really learn how to do it successfully,” says Tom Cotter, a fourth-generation grower who farms 1,100 acres near Austin, Minn. “My ground was addicted to tillage, chemicals and fertilizers.”

By implementing cover crops, Cotter has rejuvenated his farm, increasing yields, generating more income from the same number of acres and improved the quality and health of his soils, livestock, and crops in a challenging region of the U.S.