Wednesday, April 11, 2018

April 2018 Science Journal Article Summary

Red clover as attempted cover crop
Easter Greetings,

Farming is really hard! Cover crops (which cover farms after the primary crop is harvested) can offer benefits to both farmers and nature, but incorporating them is hard too. The photo above is the biggest patch of my attempted red clover cover crop in my tiny garden. So to get ready for the coming year, I've focused on several articles about cover crops, plus one new giant study on improving agriculture in China.

I can also finally share a book chapter I wrote 3 years ago which has languished "in press" after being accepted (it should be actually published late 2018). The first half is OK, but I'd skip to the 2nd half (start with the "Can Corporate Sustainability reporting be a force for improved agricultural practices?" section). There's some interesting content I haven't seen anywhere else on corporate sustainabiltiy and food labels. The chapter is available from:

Finally, fed up with people not finding your science journal articles, or having them inaccessible due to a paywall? I have answers to both problems in a new blog post:

Let me know if you need a copy of any of the articles below.

Cui et al 2018 reports on the results of an ambitious study that worked with 21 million farmers (!) of maize, rice, and wheat over 10 years. China currently has some of the least efficient farms in the world, presenting a huge need to improve. This study used a soil & crop management framework that resulted in ~11% improved yield while reducing N application by ~16% (and reactive N losses by ~25%), and GHGs by 14-22% depending on crop. The scale is impressive: altogether they influenced 37.7 million ha. Interestingly, extension staff impacted over 10 times the area per staff person (471 ha / person) compared to agribusiness partners (see Fig 2). Regardless, this is good news in showing that it's possible to achieve "win-win" outcomes at scale even with smallholders. On the other hand, nitrogen efficiency is so poor in China, that much larger changes are needed to bring them in line with world averages, let alone truly sustainable targets (highlighting that policy changes are likely needed as well). Fig 1 has a great breakdown of impacts by crop and region.

Why don't more farmers use cover crops? Roesch-McNally et al. 2017 asked them: what are the barriers, and how do cover crop users overcome them? Cover crops add complexity at very busy times for farmers, which is a key issue. They report concern about having time to plant cover crops in fall, and time to terminate them in spring without impacting cash crop planting. Lack of markets and equipment, narrow profits margins, and prevalence of rented land were also limiting. Farmers who overcame these barriers generally saw their farm as a "whole system" and were willing to experiment and modify other practices (e.g. tillage and fertilization). The authors wrap up by exploring several policy interventions (cost-sharing, new markets, promoting crop / livestock systems, and economic incentives).

Bergtold et al. 2017 dive more into the economic aspect of cover crops in Kansas (direct costs, indirect & opportunity costs, direct & indirect benefits, risk & crop insurance, and policy incentives). They find that on average cover crops will net farmers $7.04/ac on irrigated land, but cost them $28/ac on dryland (potentially $20/ac under less conservative assumptions). That difference is driven mainly by lower yields in drylands reducing the opportunity for a % boost in yield to add up to much. They honestly don't explain the rationale behind their calculations very well, so I wouldn't put too much stock in those specific numbers for net costs (and see Baschle below for different findings), but it's a useful reference for thinking through types of costs and benefits. It's long but even skimming the section headings will likely be informative.

Snapp et al. 2005 is a thoughtful review of cover crop benefits and costs, adding a key factor often overlooked. Different cover crops perform very differently in different contexts! The authors break down cover crop performance into USDA Hardiness Zone categories, and summer and winter crops. The whole article is a good resource, but I hadn't heard much about summer cover crops so was intrigued to read about their use to rehabilitate fields with poor performance. The main options were sorghum sudangrass and alfalfa in the north (although mixed grass-legume systems also show potential) and in the south sudangrass and a range of legumes (including pigeon pea, cowpea, and sunn hemp). This all reinforces the idea that cover crop selection is complicated and that a one size fits all approach won't work well.

Wilcoxen et al. 2018 (which includes TNC's Jeff Walk as a co-author) looks at a rarely studied aspect of cover crops: how do they impact birds? For both corn and soy, cover crops improved bird habitat / bird density. It's a small study and most fields were cereal rye, but their data seem to indicate the tall grass of rye was especially attractive. The authors note that terminating cover crops later would likely benefit birds, although as noted in the studies above that can prove challenging for farmers.

Basche et al. 2016 looks at how winter rye in the Midwestern US affects soil water capacity. The water paper asks whether cover crops reduce or improve water available for cash crops. They found the cover crop generally boosted plant water available to cash crops by ~21%, but did not impact crop yield (even during drought). At the end of p9 they have suggestions on how to manage cover crops to avoid water competition (e.g. terminate them early in dry years).

While not restricted to cover crops, Basche 2017 looks at how much different crop & grazing practices can affect water infiltration. Some of the recommendations aren't terribly practical currently, but Figure 3 shows which practices most consistently improve infiltration as a %, and Figure 4 shows which ones can lead to an absolute increase in infiltration of 1 inch during heavy rain storms. Cover crops were found to improve infiltration ~20-50%, and in about 1/3 of the studies that led to absorbing >1 inch of rain during heavy rain storms.

Woodard & Verteramo-Chiu look at how much better the Federal Crop Insurance Program (FCIP) could perform if it used soil data to establish rates and coverage. In other words, how could FCIP incentivize soil health practices that would reduce risks and costs of the program, while avoiding perverse incentives (e.g. in the past crop insurance was not available to farmers using cover crops). It's a fairly wonky economics paper, but they make a good case for much errors and bias exist in the current program. The key finding is that farms with high-quality soils are generally overpaying, and low-quality farms are underpaying. See Fig 3 for an example of how strong the pricing erors are (up to a factor of 6). By accounting for soils data (and perhaps current practices), this program could be an important driver to get farmers to start rebuilding healthier soils to keep premiums low. They focus on top corn producing states where soil quality is relatively homogeneous; benefits of accounting for soil should be higher in regions with more varied soil. With predicted volatility from climate change, improving crop insurance will be increasingly important.

Basche, A. D., Kaspar, T. C., Archontoulis, S. V., Jaynes, D. B., Sauer, T. J., Parkin, T. B., & Miguez, F. E. (2016). Soil water improvements with the long-term use of a winter rye cover crop. Agricultural Water Management, 172, 40–50.

Basche, A. (2017). Turning Soils into Sponges: How Farmers Can Fight Floods and Droughts. Retrieved from

Bergtold, J. S., Ramsey, S., Maddy, L., & Williams, J. R. (2017). A review of economic considerations for cover crops as a conservation practice. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, 1–15.

Cui, Z., Zhang, H., Chen, X., Zhang, C., Ma, W., Huang, C., … Dou, Z. (2018). Pursuing sustainable productivity with millions of smallholder farmers. Nature, 555, 363–366.

Roesch-McNally, G. E., Basche, A. D., Arbuckle, J. G., Tyndall, J. C., Miguez, F. E., Bowman, T., & Clay, R. (2017). The trouble with cover crops: Farmers’ experiences with overcoming barriers to adoption. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, 1–12.

Snapp, S. S., Swinton, S. M., Labarta, R., Mutch, D., Black, J. R., Leep, R., … O’Neil, K. (2005). Evaluating Cover Crops for Benefits, Costs and Performance within Cropping System Niches. Agronomy Journal, 97, 322–332.

Wilcoxen, C. A., Walk, J. W., & Ward, M. P. (2018). Use of cover crop fields by migratory and resident birds. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, 252, 42–50.

Woodard, J. D., & Verteramo-Chiu, L. J. (2017). Efficiency impacts of utilizing soil data in the pricing of the federal crop insurance program. American Journal of Agricultural Economics, 99(3), 757–772.



p.s. as a reminder, you can search all of the science articles written by TNC staff (that we know of) here
(as you publish please email to help keep this resource current).
If you'd like to keep track of what I write as well as what I read, I always link to both my informal blog posts and my formal publications (plus these summaries) at

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