A new report highlights the benefits of cover crops for agricultural producers.
Researched and released by researchers from the University of Manitoba in collaboration with the Ontario Cover Crop Steering Committee, the report is the culmination of surveys sent out to farmers in 2020 that asked them about their experience using cover crops. According to the Ontario Cover Crop Strategy, cover crops are “plants seeded into agricultural fields… with the primary purpose of improving or maintaining soil quality.”
Participation was open to those in Ontario who used cover crops, as well as those who didn’t, in 2020 order to determine how those crops are being utilized in the province. The final tally of participants counted 731 different farms, with 520 farms encompassing 107,900 acres of cover crop growth and 211 farms that did not grow cover crops.
According to the study results, of the farms that grew cover crops in 2020, 91 per cent observed some benefit. The report notes that 68 per cent of those farms saw improved soil health, 59 per cent observed less soil erosion and 57 per cent reported seeing increased soil organic matter. More than three quarters of farms reported benefits within three years of adopting cover crops.
As much as the growth of cover crops appears to have benefits for those farms that did elect to plant them, the larger question is what larger benefits the growth of cover crops provide to farmers and the province. According to the report researchers and the Grain Farmers of Ontario (GFO), cover crops help to maintain ground cover on a year-round basis, which in turn provides greater protection for the soil from erosion from wind and water. Additionally, cover crops provide more nutrition to microbes within the soil, as well as helping to capture solar energy and fix carbon from the atmosphere into the soil, which helps to build organic matter.
“It is hypothesized that cover crops could play a role in increasing the profitability and resiliency of Ontario’s farms by increasing yield, nutrient cycling, and water use efficiency,” the GFO state.
“Cover crops may also play a role in nutrient management by reducing fertilizer costs when using legumes that fix nitrogen, or by growing cover crops that can scavenge excess nitrogen left in the soil after cash crop harvest which may otherwise be lost. Cover crops may also provide another management tool for weeds, insects, and diseases especially at a time of increasing resistance to current crop control products
Marty Vermey, senior agronomist at GFO and the chair for the Ontario Cover Crop Working Group, stated in the report that continuing research into things like cover crops help the province and country can help deal with things like climate change, but barriers remain.
“Ontario continues to innovate in farming practices that benefit the environment and adopt cover cropping as one strategy,” Vermey said.
“We know that to continue to build on these successes and continue to help Ontario and Canada meet climate change goals, farmers will need support for these practices to help overcome the barriers that farmers face in their implementation.”
The study revealed some of the challenges that farmers face when considering cover crops. Listed among them are poor establishment of the crops themselves, late harvesting of cash crops impacting when or if they can plant cover crops, as well as additional costs that are associated with growing cover crops. In order to combat those barriers, participating farms that did not grow cover crops in 2020 listed financial incentives like tax credits for planting cover crops, payments for storing carbon and payments from conservation programs would increase the likelihood of their growing a cover crop in the future.
The project and resulting report were developed to provide information to agricultural producers, agronomists, researchers, policy makers and government organizations that will all play a role in the future of cover crops in the province. Report author and University of Manitoba graduate student Callum Morrison said it’s crucial to be able to hear from farmers about the benefits and challenges they have experienced in growing cover crops, as well as what needs to be done in order to help more farmers adopt cover crops.
“It is an important time to hear from farmers about their needs for research and knowledge transfer,” Morrison said.
To see the results of the report, or to read more about the Ontario Cover Crop Feedback Project, head to gfo.ca/agronomy/soil-leadership/.