Put Cover Crops to Work in Your Watershed

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A couple of weeks ago, Patricia Sinicropi wrote an excellent blog on the new opportunities for water and agricultural interests to work together in the new Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) included in the 2014 Farm Bill. It is well known in water quality circles that investing in agricultural best management practices can be a more cost-effective way to achieve nutrient reductions. Today, I want to highlight one highly effective tool for reducing sediment and nutrient loading to streams and decreasing nitrate leaching to groundwater: cover crops.

Cover crops are non-cash crops planted in between rows of cash crops or during the fallow season to provide environmental and soil productivity benefits. By protecting the soil from rain and wind erosion, absorbing nitrogen left behind in the soil, and increasing organic matter, cover crops prevent nutrients and sediment from reaching streams.  Cover crops can also improve the soil’s water holding capacity, which in turn mitigates the effects of flooding. Improving soil health benefits farmers as well, through increased crop yields and reduced fertilizer costs.

Yet, despite the many benefits of cover crops and rising interest in recent years, cover crops are still grown on less than 2% of cropland in the Mississippi River Basin (MRB), due to certain policy barriers, a lack of regionally specific information or technology, and the extra amount of time and effort required to manage them. There is tremendous potential to reduce nutrient loading to the Gulf of Mexico by getting cover crops planted on as many acres in the MRB as possible.

National Wildlife Federation recently produced a report, Clean Water Grows, which highlights six case studies of local and regional groups that use cover crops to achieve water quality goals. The Yahara Watershed Improvement Network (WINs) in Wisconsin and the Great Miami River Water Quality Credit Program are two cases in which POTWs and agricultural stakeholders work together to achieve nutrient reductions at a lower cost than would be possible with expensive upgrades to infrastructure.  For example, the cost of reducing phosphorus in the Clean Water Grows case studies ranges from $0.36-40/lb. In comparison, the average cost for Wisconsin POTWs to meet water quality standards by adding advanced filtration plants ranged from $240-304/lb of phosphorus.

Cover crops can have long term effects on water quality if they become standard practice in modern cropping systems.  According to a recent survey by USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE), 63% of farmers who planted cover crops have not received financial assistance to do so. This indicates that farmers will grow cover crops without receiving financial assistance, if they are able to reap the benefits of cover crops for their farms.

The Clean Water Grows report found that there are several common elements of success in partnership projects with agricultural stakeholders: easy implementation and enrollment, emphasis on a farmer-to-farmer approach, building trust, visual evidence, and technical assistance from qualified experts, to name a few.

If your region is considering engaging in an RCPP project or other program to work with agricultural stakeholders, I highly recommend reading Clean Water Grows and borrowing from the great examples of those planting cover crops in Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Maryland.  The great thing about cover crops is that they are a very versatile practice that can work just about anywhere.  Put them to work for you!

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