Improving water quality by reducing soil erosion is important to farmers when they’re thinking about planting cover crops. A 2018 survey of farmers who had worked with the Cannon River Watershed Partnership (CRWP) found that these farmers planted cover crops because they had an interest in improving water quality and reducing erosion. Of that group, 96% stated that improving water quality and reducing soil erosion were either “somewhat important” or “very important” reasons for them to plant cover crops. The availability of local or state funds to help offset the cost of planting and managing cover crops was also either “somewhat important” or “very important” to 85% of the respondents

These survey results are important because they show that farmers recognize their opportunity and ability to make beneficial impacts on water quality. They also show that citizens can share in that effort by supporting farmers with taxpayer-funded cost share programs to help maintain farm profitability.

“It’s important to recognize and accept our shared opportunity and responsibility to work together in enhancing water quality and our farm economy,” said CRWP Executive Director Kristi Pursell. “Investing in farm conservation programs benefits all of us with cleaner water.”

According to Dundas, MN farmer John Becker who has been planting cover crops since 2013, “Once the soil gets amended, the soil grows better crops. This is good for the soil, good for the crops and good for the stream.”

Tim Little also farms near Dundas, MN and says that his work with cover crops and no-till planting of corn and soybeans has virtually eliminated soil erosion on his fields. He is seeing better weed suppression, better water infiltration and better usage of applied nitrogen. According to Tim, “Tillage releases carbon dioxide into the air – no till and cover crops builds carbon in the soil. Instead of being part of the problem we can be the answer.”

The CRWP survey found that the availability of technical agronomic advice about the cover crop practice was another key motivator. All of the respondents placed some level of importance and 73% said technical advice was either “somewhat” or “very important.” The most important source for this advice was from seed dealers and agronomists when compared to educational or independent institutions.

As business owners, the profitability of planting cover crops was also important. Most respondents, (85%) responded that improved profitability was either “somewhat important” or “very important.” None of the respondents indicated that an economic return was not important at all, indicating that the economics of cover crops has at least some level of importance to all farmers, even if for a small group of farmers an economic return was not the most important motivator for planting cover crops. Farmers also thought that cover crops could reduce their production costs with 73% saying that the goal to reduce the cost of weed control was either “somewhat” or “very important” and 81% said that the effect of cover crops on corn and soybean yields was either “somewhat” or “very important.”

Cover crops are plants such as annual rye grass, winter (cereal) rye, radish and clovers that are usually planted after fall harvest. These plants keep vegetative cover on the landscape until the following spring’s planting of commodity crops like corn or soybeans. Cover crops improve water quality and reduce erosion by keeping nutrients in the soil and by keeping the soil in the field.

Federal, state and local Soil and Water Conservation District programs provide farm level cost share for conservation practices that lead to cleaner water and healthier soil. The Cannon River Watershed Partnership surveyed 39 farmers who planted cover crops from 2014-2017 in the Cannon River watershed. Twenty-six farmers responded, for a 67% response rate.