Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll Shows Challenges to Increasing Cover Crops on Farmland

AMES, Iowa — Getting more cover crops on Iowa farmland faces substantial challenges, despite the potential environmental and agronomic benefits, according to the Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll.
Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll
Cover crops protect soils between the harvest and establishment of crops such as corn and soybeans, said J. Gordon Arbuckle Jr., a sociologist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. Arbuckle co-directs the annual Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll with Paul Lasley, another ISU Extension and Outreach sociologist.

Iowa State has worked for many years with partner agencies and organizations to conduct research on and promote cover crops as a means to maintain and increase soil productivity, while reducing agriculture’s environmental impacts, Arbuckle said. He has published a new report based on data from the 2010 Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll. Attitudes Toward Cover Crops in Iowa: Benefits and Barriers (PMR 1010) is now available for free download from the ISU Extension and Outreach Online Store.

“Our research and on-farm experience has shown that cover crops can play an important part in maintaining and improving soil productivity and water quality by reducing soil erosion, limiting nitrogen leaching, suppressing weeds and increasing organic matter,” Arbuckle said. “However, despite these potential benefits, few Iowa farmers use cover crops.”

To learn more about their opinions regarding cover crops, the 2010 Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll asked farmers about the potential environmental and agronomic benefits of cover crops, barriers to and facilitators of cover crop use and interest in learning more about them. The new report presents the results of the data analysis.

Arbuckle said 1,360 farmers participated in the 2010 Farm Poll. On average, they were 64 years old and 48 percent earned more than half of their income from farming. An additional 19 percent earned between 26 and 50 percent of their household income from the farm operation.

“Most farmers understand that cover crops can have important agronomic and environmental benefits,” Arbuckle said, “But they also view climatic factors such as a short window between harvest and winter as major barriers to their use. Many farmers also report that they lack the knowledge and equipment to use cover crops.

“Larger-scale farmers cultivate the majority of Iowa’s cropland, and corn and soybean farmers and farmers who plant crops on highly erodible land are precisely the groups whose land could benefit the most from using cover crops. Yet, farmers with these characteristics are less likely to agree that cover crops can lead to agronomic and environmental benefits. In addition, they are more likely to view climatic conditions, lack of appropriate equipment, and lack of cover crop knowledge as barriers to cover crop use.”

On the other hand, farmers who were more confident in their knowledge of cover crops and those who actually had used cover crops at some point in the previous five years tended to rate agronomic and environmental benefits more highly, Arbuckle said. “They also appear to be less concerned about barriers. These results indicate, as would be expected, that knowledge and experience are important predictors of attitudes toward cover crops. Nevertheless, it is important to note that substantial numbers of farmers who reported having used cover crops still perceive climatic, equipment and knowledge barriers to their use.”

Arbuckle noted several strategies for increasing the use of cover crops in Iowa. Cover crop research and outreach efforts should

  • address climate and equipment barriers, developing innovative solutions to these impediments;
  • increase knowledge and confidence of both farmers and the agribusiness networks that provide them with inputs and technical assistance; and
  • continue to share information and resources, both here in Iowa and across the United States.

Many Iowa State faculty and staff work on cover crops research and promotion activities in partnership with diverse groups such as the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Iowa Learning Farms, the National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment, the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and Practical Farmers of Iowa, Arbuckle said.

About the Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll

Conducted every year since its establishment in 1982, the Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll is the longest-running survey of its kind in the nation, Arbuckle said. ISU Extension and Outreach, the Iowa Agriculture and Home Economics Experiment Station, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, and the Iowa Agricultural Statistics Service are all partners in the Farm Poll effort.

Attitudes Toward Cover Crops in Iowa: Benefits and Barriers (PMR 1010), the 2011 Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll summary report (PM 3016) and previous Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll summary and topical reports are available to download from the ISU Extension and Outreach Online Store ( and Extension Sociology (