Aug 9, 2023
Cover crops survey challenges assumptions on incentives

A new national cover crop survey report challenges assumptions on the role of incentive payments in cover crop adoption.

Incentives play a key role in getting some farmers started on cover crops — 49% of the cover crop users participating in the survey reported receiving some sort of payment for cover crops in 2022, and 77.8% of cover crop non-users said incentive payments would be helpful. However, 90.3% of the farmers who were receiving cover crop incentives reported that they would definitely or probably continue planting cover crops after the payments ended, while only 3.3% said they definitely or probably would drop cover crops at the end of the incentive program.

Among farmers using cover crops, 70.3% said cover crops were helpful when transitioning to no-till, according to a nationwide survey of nearly 800 farmers. Photo courtesy of the Conservation Technology Information Center.

Just 15.6% of cover crop users said receiving incentive payments was one of their goals for cover cropping.

These findings were among many conclusions drawn in the 2022-23 National Cover Crop Survey Report, issued jointly by the USDA-National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) and the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA), based on insights from nearly 800 farmers in 49 states.


“Some people mistakenly assume that farmers only stick with cover crops because of payments, but this year’s National Cover Crop Survey provided a very different perspective,” Rob Myers of SARE and lead researcher on the report, said in a news release.

Myers said insights from the report make it a valuable tool to understand the effects of cover crops, the motivations to plant them (or not) and the need for additional information.

“What the survey showed is that cover crop incentive payments are an important factor in encouraging and helping farmers to transition into cover cropping, but once they see the soil health improvements and other cover crop benefits, most stick with cover crop planting long after the incentives end,” he said in the release.

Users and non-users

The 2022-23 report is the seventh from the three organizations. The first survey was in 2012, and data from past surveys has been used in academic research, educational programs, policy planning and testimony to Congress.

Ryan Heiniger, executive director of CTIC, said the survey goes beyond acreage statistics and explores what growers want to achieve with cover crops, and how they relate to other soil-building practices.

“We are also just as interested in the perspectives of non-users of cover crops,” Heiniger said in the release. “Understanding their concerns and information needs provides direction for developing better outreach materials, and can help policymakers clear obstacles that hamper adoption or create more attractive incentives.”

cover crops acreage trends
Acreage has steadily increased among cover crop users who participated in the 2022-2023 survey.


Andy LaVigne, president and CEO of ASTA, said the survey provides seed producers with valuable insight on cover croppers’ needs.

“Our members are extremely interested in learning about the needs of growers when it comes to which varieties they’re seeking and when and how they make cover crop planting decisions,” LaVigne said in the release. “These perspectives help the seed industry plan ahead to ensure that farmers have the species they want as well as genetics that help them manage their cover crops effectively to achieve their goals.”

Additional insights

The 2022-23 report summarizes data from 795 farmers divided into user and non-user groups. Among the findings in this year’s survey:

  • Cover crop users participating in the survey — including producers of grain, other commodities and horticultural crops — planted an average (mean) of 413.6 acres of cover crops in 2022. Cover crop acreage has been increasing steadily since the first survey in 2012.
  • One hundred and eighty participants — 23% of the total — said they grow “horticulture crops or vegetables,” the second-largest group, behind the nearly 47% who grow commodity crops.
  • Improved soil health was a key goal for 95% of the cover crop users and a high-priority research item for 87%.
  • Though 91% of cover crop users selected “add soil organic matter/sequestering carbon” as a key priority, just 16% of the users in the survey who received payments in 2022 reported participating in a carbon market program.
  • 61% of the cover crop users reported planting green—seeding cash crops into a growing or just-terminated cover crop—somewhere on their operation.
  • This was the first survey in the SARE/CTIC/ASTA series to explore livestock in cover crops. One in four respondents integrated livestock into their cover crop program. Of those who grazed cover crops, 76% reported a net increase in profit from the practice.
  • Of the farmers using cover crops, 70.3% said it was helpful when transitioning to no-till, in part because of reduced soil compaction, better weed control and better soil moisture management.

Available for free online

The 2022-23 National Cover Crop Survey report, and the six that preceded it, are available free online.

“These data are helpful for both communicating with farmers about cover crop opportunities and also instructive for policymakers evaluating the role of cover crops in farm policy,” Meyers said in the release.

The full report and additional resources on cover crops are available through the CTIC and SARE websites. Information on cover crop seed dealers across the U.S. is available from ASTA’s website.

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