By Todd Neeley
DTN Staff Reporter
OMAHA (DTN) -- Conservation funding to expand cover crops and farmer willingness to adopt those crops increased dramatically in three Corn Belt states during the past decade, but those states will need continued dramatic increases in both funding and adoption to achieve full water-quality benefits, according to a new Environmental Working Group study.
The EWG used satellite data to track how many farmers in Iowa, Indiana and Illinois who are part of programs to expand the use of cover crops continued to use cover crops. One-third of all the corn and soybeans produced in the United States comes from these three states.
"The data show that the use of cover crops and investments to promote cover crops are on the rise," the report concludes. "That is very good news and shows that more and more farmers are willing to make cover crops an integral part of their operations. The increased investment of public dollars over the past five years also indicates a growing understanding of the water-quality improvement cover crops can provide and a growing commitment to improving water quality."
On the downside, the EWG report said, there needs to be a "dramatic increase" in upfront funding for cover crops and possibly other policy changes to improve water quality.
"At current rates of progress, it will take decades to get use of cover crops at the scale needed to make a real difference," the group said. "That's too long to wait."
In its report, the EWG suggests that making a "small" shift in federal funds allocated to Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC), Price Loss Coverage (PLC) and crop insurance premium subsidies would help expand cover crops.
Satellite data showed that during the fall of 2015 and the spring of 2016 in Iowa, Indiana and Illinois, nearly 800,000 acres of cover crops were planted in Indiana, or about 7.1% of all corn and soybean acres in the state. About 2.6% of corn and soybean acres in Iowa included cover crops, or about 592,000 acres, and 2.3%, or about 489,000 acres, in Illinois were planted with cover crops.
The EWG also looked at which cash crops were followed by cover crops in those states. Cover crops tended to follow on 60% of soybeans in Illinois and 66% in Indiana. When it comes to Iowa, cover crops more often followed corn (53%). Iowa had the highest percentage of cover crops following continuous corn at 38%, followed by Illinois at 19% and Indiana at 10%.
In Iowa, where nutrient runoff problems led to the state adopting a voluntary nutrient reduction strategy in recent years, the study found 54% of all cover crops in the state were planted on highly erodible land. Illinois followed at 35% and Indiana at 29%.
EWG said cover crop expansion efforts have been successful, but said there's a long way to go.
"While dramatic growth in federal and state spending to promote cover crops has resulted in greater adoption, the scale at which cover crops must be used to meet water quality goals is daunting," the report said.
"Some nutrient-reduction scenarios require cover crops on nearly 60% of the cropland in order to resolve water quality issues. Current cover crop acres of 2% and 7% of the corn and soybean cropland, respectively, took 11 years of investment. At that rate, target cover crop rates won't be achieved for hundreds of years."
The EWG examined cover crops adoption through the Iowa nutrient reduction strategy.
A survey by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship found that 75% of applicants for assistance in growing cover crops in 2015 planned to continue their use. The EWG said that, based on the survey, it would take nearly 40 years at $25 an acre and a total $420 million to consistently protect 12.6 million acres.
EWG's review of satellite data found about 40% of farmers who received cost share continued to use cover crops, the group said in its report. "At that rate of adoption, it would take more than 74 years at $25 an acre, and $787 million to reach the 12.6 million-acre goal," the report said.
In the 2016 Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll by Iowa State University Extension and Outreach released this week, http://bit.ly/…, 20% of respondents said they used cover crops in 2015, while 33% said they might use cover crops in the future.
The poll asked rural residents about conservation practice use, changes in farming practices since the implementation of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy in 2013 and other issues.
Back in February, the Iowa Soybean Association released the results of a survey that found the use of cover crops and other conservation practices spiked in 2016 among 321 soybean farmers surveyed.
About 50% of farmers said they planted cover crops in 2016. That was a 20% increase from the previous year and more than triple the adoption in 2013. Seventy-seven percent of those farmers reported using four or more conservation practices.
The study found interest in cover crops and the funds spent to promote them, have been on the increase in recent years through programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP.
"In recent years, EQIP spending on cover crops has increased dramatically," the EWG report said.
"Support for cover crops in Indiana grew from 1% of EQIP funding in 2007 to 33% in 2015. Iowa's investment in cover crops grew from 1% in 2009 to 20% in 2015, and Illinois' spending increased from 1% in 2010 to 10% in 2015."
The EWG said cover crops also account for a growing share of acres treated by all conservation practices through EQIP.
In 2007, for example, 7,807 acres of cover crops accounted for less than 1% of the 504,192 acres treated in Indiana through EQIP. By 2015, the state's share of acres devoted to cover crops expanded by nearly 19%, the study found.
"Illinois and Iowa experienced similar increases in acres supported by EQIP," the report said.
"As of 2015, Iowa's 92,480 acres of cover crops supported through EQIP accounted for 18% of all acres treated. In Illinois, 14% of all acres treated were accounted for by cover crops."
The report also delves into some of the cover crop acres installed as part of USDA's Conservation Stewardship Program, or CSP.
The three states also have appropriated funds to farmers who adopt cover crops. In 2016, Indiana provided $2.9 million and Iowa $4.4 million to a variety of water quality initiatives supporting cover crops. EWG said Illinois doesn't have a program specifically targeted for cover crops but has previously provided cost shares to farmers adopting them.
Those efforts have led to expanded cover crops use in all three states from 2007 to 2015, the study said.
Read the EWG study here: http://bit.ly/…
Todd Neeley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow him on Twitter @toddneeleyDTN
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