Cover cropping: Small Missouri farmers, federal and state government invest in fostering better soil

The most consequential agricultural practice to the environment in Missouri, arguably, is cover cropping. And there’s good news – around the state it’s on the rise.  

The most recent 2017 Census of Agriculture listed cover crops as the third most planted crop in Missouri. At 850,000 acres, cover cropped land had doubled in a 5-year period.  

Cover cropping is the practice of planting crops during growing off-seasons to aid soil quality and capture carbon dioxide. In Missouri, this means a lot of corn and soybean growers are also cereal rye and crimson clover growers. Planting these crops can prevent soil erosion and create more efficient water and nutrient cycles.  

But for many farmers, barriers to getting started with the practice persist. 

One Missouri corn and soybean farmer, Jon Hemme, said that farmers look for practices with a clear “economic and agronomic benefit to their farm.”  

And, Hemme has found, these benefits are clear. 

Natural Incentives 

Walking between one of his corn fields and his neighbors, Hemme pointed out that his leaves are curling less. At another field he noted the rare appearance of weeds throughout the crops, rare enough that he mostly won’t have to use heavy herbicide spraying or tilling. At the border between one of his soybean fields and a conventionally tilled field he sticks a spade into the ground. On one side the soil is dark and firm right from the top; the other is loose and grey for about three quarters of an inch, only a couple days after the last rain.  

There’s a layer of flattened cereal rye on Hemme’s soybean field, the remnants of barley interspersed in the corn. It looks confusing, a little messy, but the difference they’ve made is written in the quality of the fields.  

Once cover crops are planted, they begin to economically support themselves, according to David Doctorian, a Soil Health Specialist with the U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service. 

The biggest benefit, said Doctorian, is to the water cycle on the land. 

Hemme noted this too, saying the most important thing this has done for his farm is allow him more control over water management. 

One corn field, for example, he’s had for three years. When he’d bought the land, it’d been left in terrible condition by previous mismanagement, he said. 

The first year, without the use of a cover crop, he’d grown corn in a muddy basin, and the yield reflected the conditions. After only two years of growing with a barley cover crop – a crop he’s found particularly useful on more tricky corn fields because it doesn’t tie up the nitrogen as much as some others – he said his neighbors, who’d taken much better care of their land for many years prior, are wondering how his corn looks so healthy. Right across the road, they’ve had to replant a large chunk of their field – he hasn’t. 

But, Hemme emphasized, using cover crops isn’t easy and his process isn’t perfect. Though he hadn’t replanted that field, another a couple miles away hadn’t fared so well. 

He’s been learning and revising for all four years of his cover cropping experience. He called it an art form that required a lot of care and attention, which, he said, is why a lot of bigger farms aren’t yet taking part. 

$70 dollars an acre, though, is a pretty good incentive. Between the herbicide savings and the cattle feed from the grain, Hemme estimated, that’s about what the direct economic benefit comes out to per year. Cover cropping, because of the natural weed and pest prevention, also makes it easier to grow organic, which could lead to a price boost. 

This doesn’t include the less measurable price of agronomic benefits, which include long-term soil health, mitigation of flood or drought risk and yield size and quality. Overall, it makes the land more useful. 

It also helps capture and store CO2, which helps offset climate change and contribute positively to more long-term environmental health. Restoring soil means more cropland carbon sequestration, returning atmospheric greenhouse gases to the ground. 

Hemme explained it as learning to “grow more in nature’s image,” which makes things work a little better in the long-term. 

He also said he hasn’t seen much use of the practice in his area. In the farms using cover crops – some of which, he noted, have much more experience with the practice – they aren’t used to the extent, in terms of biomass, of his fields. He predicts more and more use of the practice in the future, but there are also financial and knowledge barriers to getting farmers interested and planting.

Left: Dug up soil from Jon Hemme’s field sits ontop of dead rye. Right: Soil from a field without cover crops on Wednesday, June 16, 2021. Cover crops help retain moisture in the soil, which allows the intended crop to go longer without water. This can be very helpful in times of drought. Hemme’s soil holds more planting soil than the dry soil on the right. Kit Wiberg

Incentive programs 

On some of his fields Hemme gets an additional $30 from the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and $5 an acre on his crop insurance premiums from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). These programs come with caveats regarding whether he can harvest the cover crops for profit and some other restrictions and limits, so he doesn’t use it for all his fields.  

But with the immediate financial incentive and promise of offsetting initial seeding costs, this program and others like it, Hemme said, are good ways to “grease the wheels” to get farmers into cover cropping.  

In Missouri, both the state DNR and the USDA run cost-share incentive programs.  

 The DNR program is run through the one-tenth of one percent parks, soils and water sales tax in Missouri – a measure which was passed by about 80% of the vote in 2016 and, Doctorian said, represents a unique conservation funding priority here unlike any other state in the country.  

The USDA cost share program is run through the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) in Missouri. Farms can apply for the program continuously through Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQUIP) signups. 

Funding amount and qualifications largely depend on the county and application. Hemme said in his case, there was only enough funding to cover some of his acres and using the program makes more sense for some than others – like fields he’s interested in grazing his cattle on. 

Doctorian explained that the extra money is to provide an incentive and get people in the door.   

“The interesting part about cover crops and regenerative ag in general is that once producers have an opportunity to use the concepts, the principles,” continued Doctorian, “they rarely need any support after they get started, because it makes sense financially.” 

Hemme said more than the financial hump though, he’d like to see more help getting farmers through the learning curve.

“More needs to be done on field days,” he said, referring to events in which farmers share practices and techniques. “And just trying to get producers to see the value in the cover crops — with or without the cost share program.”

During his process, he’s had to build custom machinery, messed up fields by pulling cover crops too early, tried different crops on different fields and done intensive research on strategies. There’s some risk involved with trying a less commonplace, intuitive strategy, he said, and he could see a lot more people getting involved if there were more experts in this field of agriculture available for introduction and troubleshooting throughout the process. 

Environmental incentives 

There’s a saying, Hemme said, that once you lose an inch of topsoil, it takes 100 years to build it back. According to the NRCS, it’s more like 500 years

The vast majority of regenerative agriculture practices are used by smaller, local farmers. Doctorian said that though there’s been continually growing interest in the practice since around 2013-2014, anecdotally, he’s seen most use of cover cropping is by smaller farms. According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture data, 62.7% of harvested cropland in Missouri is owned by over 1,000-acre farms, meaning that many of the issues of soil degradation and growth potential for cover crop usage and carbon capture lie in larger farms.

Most of Hemme’s land has been damaged by farming practices from before his grandfather started their farm here decades ago.  

If he continues to use regenerative practices and build the soil’s health, Hemme said, he wouldn’t see the soil quality back to its pre-farmed state within his lifetime — it might not ever get to that same quality.

But the soil operates like a much healthier soil for the time being. And more importantly, he said, stopping the destruction of the land is a vital first step. 

Grace Zokovitch, reporter, is a senior at Mizzou studying investigative print and digital reporting, as well as economics.

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