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No-till and Cover Crops in Pennsylvania

Since 2002, no-till adoption in Pennsylvania has increased, from just over 20 percent of planted acres Compactionto more than 60 percent today (See figure at the No-Tii in PAleft). The statistics do not show whether no-till was used continuously, but presents a snapshot of no-till use in a particular year. However, an increase of continuous no-till is to be expected if more than 60 percent of the planted acres are planted using no-till. Unfortunately, the county transect surveys also show that 13-25 percent of the no-till acres do not meet minimum residue standards for erosion control. In addition, only half of the no-till acres had more than 50 percent crop residue cover after planting. This level of residue cover is considered minimum to maintain or increase soil health. There is still a lot of room for increased adoption of continuous no-till and better management to increase residue levels for soil health improvement.

Cover crops improve soil health. Cover crops are crops grown between two economic crops with the primary aim to protect and improve the soil. Cover crops reduce runoff, build soil organic matter, retain nutrients, fix atmospheric nitrogen, reduce and alleviate compaction, provide weed control, and improve soil health (See the figure below - Sunflowers).Sunflowers

Cover crops can be used for livestock feed which may provide an economic benefit to farmers. This is an important consideration for Pennsylvania farmers. Cover crops can be grazed or harvested as forage, reducing the purchase of imported feed. This results in more nutrients cycled on the farm and reduced nutrient build-up in the soil. Although above-ground growth is removed when the cover crop is harvested, the root system stays in the soil. Root systems have been shown to be more important than surface residue to increase soil organic matter. Overall, using cover crops for feed is considered to be a win-win situation for farmers and the environment.

Cover cropCorn acres followed by cover crops statistics have been collected in the last two years in selected counties but are not yet gathered as part of a state-wide effort. In a 2014 transect survey in five counties, cover crop use varied from 22-37 percent of crop acres. This is a major increase over earlier estimates that suggested only 10 percent of crop acres were followed by cover crops. In a study done by the US Geological Survey and Penn State University in south-central Pennsylvania, cover crop use after corn was estimated using satellite images. The images selected enabled the researchers to estimate cover crop use after corn crops in four counties by analyzing how green the fields appeared. The data suggest that cover crop use after corn increased from 40-66 percent over the years 2009-2013 (See the figure to the right - Corn acres followed by cover crops). Much of this cover crop acreage followed corn silage.