Published in Seed World – October 2020; Editor – Alex Martin
As cover crop seed continues to ramp up in popularity, will there be enough land to produce to meet the demand?
What have you heard in terms of cover crop news? Have you heard that the demand is increasing?
Well, did you happen to read a news story that suggested there might not be enough land to meet the demand for cover crop seed in the coming years?
In June 2020, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, in tandem with researchers from the University of Minnesota, University of Southern California, Saint Louis University, University of Hawaii and the Alliance of Biodiversity released a paper suggesting that sustainable agriculture has one major limitation facing it: the land to produce cover crop seed.
According to their press release in June, researchers believe between 3% to 6% of the 92 million acres of cropping land currently used for corn in the United States may be required to produce cover crop seed for that land area. The researchers estimated this range based on a study completed on 18 cover crops currently used on corn farmlands.
But, is this something that cover crop seed companies are worried about?
Cover Crop Demand
According to Risa DeMasi, co-founder and director of marketing of Grassland Oregon, cover crops aren’t anything new, even though the demand has been increasing year after year.
“Cover crops aren’t new by any means,” she says. “They’ve morphed and changed through the millennia. You may be familiar with the Three Sisters from Native American Traditions. Even our ancestors like Thomas Jefferson talked about cover cropping in their writings.”
And since then, DeMasi says people are really coming back to cover crops because of two reasons: the increase of fertilizer costs and regenerating soil resources.
“There’s a desire to control as much as you can in a natural system with fertilizer and other inputs,” she says. “However, we’ve learned since then that there are some consequences. Soils are wearing out, and it’s taking more and more inputs to get the same production.”
Not only that, but with the increase of fertilizer comes the increase in fertilizer costs.
“Farmers started to feel like they were losing control of their farms,” DeMasi says. “Cover crops help farmers take back that control, become more profitable and protect one of their most valuable assets, the soil.”
Terry Schultz, CEO of Mustang Seeds, says they’ve been seeing an increase in education and demand in cover crops as well.
“In the last five years, we’ve seen an increase in demand in folks using cover crops to help their land be more productive,” he says. “However, so far in 2020, we haven’t seen a large spike in demand.”
Schultz says one trend he’s seen in 2020 was that profitability was being stretched thin in terms of commodities, and due to that, there’s been a lackluster of enthusiasm for cover crops.
“In 2019, we had such a wet year, there was a lot of prevent planting in South Dakota,” he says. “In 2020, we saw more prevent plant in North Dakota. There are a lot of acres here that didn’t get farmed both years.”
Similarly, DeMasi notes a similar trend in demand.
“We’ve seen more people talk about cover crops lately,” she says. “And there have been some spikes in demand, such as in 2019.”
DeMasi says overall, COVID-19 hasn’t affected cover crop production majorly this year, but they are about a month late on some harvests due to weather and other conditions.
“Everything’s coming in well, but we are seeing a few issues in certain species,” she says. “We still see plenty of demand.”
All-in-all, Schultz notes that it certainly hasn’t been their biggest cover crop year.
“Last year, many farmers wanted to plant cover crops, but it was too wet for them to get in the ground,” he says. “This year, we’re moving some cover crops, but I really believe demand is tied to cash flow from farmers.”
Pulling the Trigger
Both DeMasi and Schultz note one major thing about cover crops — it can be fickle for a farmer who’s never used cover crops before to pull the trigger.
“Putting a cover crop on the farm won’t give a grower a ROI this calendar year,” Schultz says. “It gives it to them the next year. It gives those farmers a hard decision to make when it comes to those restraints.”
Schultz says when reaching out to growers, particularly in the Eastern corner, he’s hearing a lot of feedback that farmers are finding it tough to make the decision to spend money on cover crops.
“We’ve got a very good inventory of cover crops, and there’s no shortage,” he says.
Schultz notes that one reason, besides prevent plant acres, they saw a spike in 2019 was a large USDA payout for planting cover crops.
“In 2020, that payment isn’t out there,” he says. “That was helping to drive cover crop sales in 2019. The producers that have been cover cropping for several years continue to do so. Even though it’s agronomically the right thing to do, growers new to cover crops find it difficult to pull the trigger.”
And unlike the research might suggest, currently, DeMasi isn’t worried about the land to cover crop seed ratio yet.
“Some of our seed is already sold out,” she says. “We aren’t close to overall shortages yet.”
However, DeMasi says one of the most important things that the cover crop industry can do right now is coach and educate growers new to cover cropping to plan ahead.
“We need to be communicating better and plan better,” DeMasi says. “We have people who want to buy the seed the day before they plant it. You can’t grow, produce, clean and harvest seed in 24 hours.”
Instead, DeMasi says ideally they should plan 18 months in advance.
“The more we plan, the better we can communicate and meet demand,” she says. “We’re not going to run out of opportunities to plant for the need, as long as we know what the need is.”
To find more information and data about cover crops in the U.S., please visit The Cover Crop Information Map developed by GO SEED at gocovercrops.com.