Calculating the Value of Cover Crops

Published online: Aug 12, 2019 Articles Julia Gerlach
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Source: Cover Crop Strategies

Cover crops and other regenerative agriculture practices have been getting a massive amount of attention lately. There have been stories about them in major news outlets like Forbes and The New York Times, and politicians have been working these concepts into their speeches and climate platforms, spreading the word about the benefits of keeping the soil covered with diverse living plants.

Big food brands like General Mills, Dannon and Land-O-Lakes and the blue jean company Wrangler are getting in on it as well, announcing regenerative initiatives left and right. If it didn’t seem crazy, I’d say it almost seems like talking about soil health has become sexy. GQ hasn’t addressed it yet, but as soon as they do, I’m making it official!

A recent study by Michigan State University found the ability to sequester carbon in the soil may have much more to do with the presence of a diverse plant population than with aggregation or decomposing residue, suggesting that a multi-species cover crop will do much more for building soil health than a single-species mix.

But many producers are still struggling to define the payback on using covers. After all, there is a cost associated with establishing them and they require farmers to learn new management techniques. And soil health benefits don’t necessarily happen immediately.

Recently, I had the chance to visit La Crosse Seed in La Crosse, Wis. The CEO, Dan Foor, shared a really interesting graphic that showed the positive environmental impact their cover crop, turf, and pollinator habitat seeds are having. I won’t show their graphic because it pertains to private company information, but I’ve extrapolated the basic concept, enhanced it with greenhouse gas emissions equivalencies from the EPA, and applied it to the overall use of cover crops in the U.S.

According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, there were 15.3 million acres of cover crops planted in 2017, which amounts to:

  • 30.6 million tons of top soil retained (1 acre = 2 tons)
  • 765,000 tons of sequestered nitrogen
  • 102 million bags of fertilizer
  • 4.6 million tons of sequestered carbon
  • Greenhouse gas emissions from 3,581,033 vehicles driven for one year or CO2 emissions from the energy use from 2,019,718 homes for one year or CO2 emissions from 39,049,899 barrels of oil consumed.

This may be a big generalization based on averages. Some cover crops are better at sequestering nitrogen than others, for instance. In addition, some of the carbon that is sequestered remains underground only a short time due to the release of CO2 that occurs with decomposition.

Nevertheless, these figures definitely suggest that using cover crops is as big a win for the environment as it is for the farmers planting them.

So are you using cover crops? What factors are most important to you when deciding whether to plant them?