The Indiana Conservation Partnership worked to complete conservation cover transects last fall. Stephanie McLain, state soil health specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, says this transect is completed in all 92 counties in Indiana, and collects data on plant cover, tillage methods and crop residues.
In both 2015 and 2016, the survey found more than 1 million acres of cover crops seeded on cropland across the state! Cover crop acres have increased over five times from 180,000 acres in 2011, when cover crop data was first collected, McLain says.
Information for this Salute Soil Health column is prepared by Indiana Conservation Partnership personnel, led by a team of USDA’s NRCS staff, including Don Donovan and Clint Harrison, district conservationists; Susannah Hinds, grazing lands specialist; Kris Vance, public affairs specialist; Tony Bailey, state conservation agronomist; Victor Shelton, grazing specialist; Shannon Zezula, state resource conservationist; and McLain.
Every year the survey collects information from the same georeferenced points, making the data statistically valid, McLain says. Indiana is unique because transect data has been collected since the 1990s. Information on acres of cover crops planted in 2017 will be ready for distribution in early summer of 2018.
Many farmers adopting cover crop practices are also using no-till, precision nutrient management, integrated pest management and other valuable conservation practices, McLain notes.
“These farmers are reaping rewards of improved soil health,” she says. “Various programs are available to help offset costs and potential risks of cover crops and other soil health practices.
“The real exciting news is that of the 1.08 million acres of cover crops planted in 2016, only about 216,000 of those acres were planted using conservation program funding,” McLain says. “For every acre of cover crops planted with program funding, Indiana farmers planted 5 acres as part of their everyday farm management business decisions.”
The fact that farmers are doing this on their own is a true sign of conservation success, McLain says. Cover crops are becoming part of farmers’ typical operations and are incorporated into budget planning.
To reap rewards of improved soil health on your own farm, contact your local NRCS office, or find a local USDA Service Center near you.
Farmers experience a tremendous amount of stress from unpredictable weather, markets, pests and other factors. But Shannon Zezula, NRCS state resource conservationist, has talked to many Indiana farmers who have less stress today than in the past. These farmers use soil health management systems by not tilling, planting cover crops, and using precise nutrient management and other practices that improve their soil health, he says.
These farmers didn’t all start out farming this way. Most were brought up using the plow. But when asked what they would change from the past, they all say they wish they would’ve stopped tilling years ago and brought cover crops into their rotations sooner, Zezula says.
After they made that switch, they had more time to manage the markets and other farm business tasks. They’ve seen improved resilience from droughts, excessive rains, insect pests, weeds and other stressors.
These farmers still have stress, Zezula notes. “But they’ll tell you it’s not anything like they used to experience when rains shut off like they used to,” he says. “If you're ready to improve your farm and rest easier at night, contact your local USDA Service Center to get solid advice on how to start.”