Covered cropland vs. cover crops

By Carl Zulauf, Department of Agricultural, Environmental and Development Economics, Ohio State University and Gary SchnitkeyKrista SwansonNick Paulson and Joe Janzen, Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics, University of Illinois

Cover crops have environmental benefits, with many resulting from cover crops that over-winter, thereby absorbing nitrates in the early spring and building organic matter in soils over time. Because they over-winter, winter wheat and hay have many attributes ascribed to cover crops. Even though cover crop acres have increased, the increase has been more than offset by declines in wheat and hay acres, implying a step backward, not forward.

Wheat and hay acres

The 1996 farm bill eliminated annual set asides. With a few exceptions, farms were allowed to plant whatever was desired, most likely resulting in the rotation with the highest expected return. Since 1996, aces planted to winter wheat have declined by -41% (-21 million) while acres of all hay harvested declined by -14% (-8.8 million).

Cover crops vs. covered cropland

According to the Census of Agriculture, 5 million more acres of cover crops were planted in 2017 than 2012. This 5 million acre increase in cover crops was more than offset by a 10 million acre decline in wheat and hay acres, resulting in a 5 million acre decline in covered cropland. The decline in covered cropland is likely to be even larger. An unharvested small grain planted as a cover crop, such as wheat, is included in acres planted to the small grain. Acres of other fall-seeded crops, such as winter oats and barley, may have also declined.

Concluding observations

Winter wheat and hay acres have many attributes portrayed as desirable in cover crops. Between 2012 and 2017, acres of winter wheat and hay declined more than acres of cover crops increased. In net, covered cropland acres declined by 5 million and thus took a step backward.

Unlike cover crops, winter wheat and hay generate environmental benefits while earning immediate economic returns. A winter wheat/soybean double-crop rotation may generate environmental benefits while enhancing economic returns per acre. This observation led to a policy proposal to change the goal of U.S. public research policy from enhancing yield to “growing 2 commercial crops per acre where 1 grew before.” Seeking to cover more cropland more often with commercial crops potentially offers a rare win-win public policy by increasing U.S. agricultural output while enhancing environmental quality.

The proposal raises important questions, including:

  1. What is the optimal rotation of crops in terms of economic returns and environmental benefits, including nutrient loading? For example, are environmental benefits and economic returns greater from planting two commercial crops per acre in a year or from planting one longer-season commercial crop plus an overwintering cover crop?
  2. What differential geographic impacts, if any, result from multiple commercial crops per acre vs. a commercial cover crop rotation vs. current crop rotations?

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