Most farmers have heard the good word about cover crops. Their benefits, from boosting organic matter to reducing runoff have been documented, cited, explained, presented and dissected in presentations, at conferences and in coffee shops. But how many farmers are actually using them? It’s a hard question to answer, but OMAFRA is taking a stab at it, and has some preliminary numbers. They show that cover crops are widely used in Southwestern Ontario but not in Eastern Ontario.
According to the latest data from the Census of Agriculture (the most recent was in 2016) and interviews with Certified Crop Advisors, in Southwestern Ontario about 30 per cent of farmers were planting cover crops pretty regularly. That was higher than any other region: Central Ontario averaged 20 per cent, and just 10 per cent of farmers in Eastern Ontario were planting cover crops regularly, said Andrea Dube-Goss with the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association, which is assisting in the research.
If anything, those numbers skew high, since farmers who work with CCAs tend to be the ones who plant cover crops, she said. The next step in the research will be to identify why there isn’t wider adoption of “something that is in theory straightforward,” she said.
Port Lambton-area farmer Dan Caron said he plants about 25 acres of red clover and has been for years. “It builds up the soil and doesn’t cost that much,” around $35 to $40 per acre. A number of his neighbours plant cover crops as well, but “not as many as you’d expect.” For Caron, an increased interest not just in cover crops but other soil management strategies like no-till dovetailed with him decreasing his acreage. He used to rent quite a bit but decided to pare down his acreage and put more management into it.
“Instead of doing things on property you might not have next year, do on your own, build up fertility,” he said. It’s paid off. “ I dumped 115 acres and I had as much the following year in total soybean bushels as the year before.”
Burgessville-area crop farmer and elevator operator Lindsay Menich has dabbled with cover crops. But the 600-acre crop farm is a no-till operation, which changes things. “I still find the cost kind of prohibitive, and our no-till practices make it more complicated. And because we’re no-till, we don’t have the same wind erosion. We have cover left on the field.”
It’s not that there are no benefits to cover crops. But they’re harder to quantify than the costs, she said. “Similar to no-till, it almost takes getting into that cycle for a bit of a longer term to see those benefits. So people like us, who do it here and there, probably don’t see that benefit.”
Cover crops are also not profitable for every crop. University of Guelph researchers reported last month that cover crops give processing vegetables a 5 % to 9 % profit margin boost. However, cover crops cost grains and oilseeds 1 % to 10 % of profit margin, the study found.