Skip to main content Accessibility help

Organic and conventional farmers differ in their perspectives on cover crop use and breeding

  • Sandra Wayman (a1), Lisa Kissing Kucek (a2), Steven B. Mirsky (a3), Victoria Ackroyd (a3), Stéphane Cordeau (a1) (a4) and Matthew R. Ryan (a1)...


Cover crops play an important role in agricultural sustainability. Unlike commodity cash crops, however, there has been relatively little cover crop breeding research and development. We conducted an online survey to evaluate: (a) the perspectives of organic and conventional farmers in the USA who use cover crops and (b) the specific cover crop traits that are important to farmers. We recruited participants from both organic and conventional agriculture networks and 69% of respondents reported that they farmed organic land. In addition to demographic data and information on management practices, we quantified farmer perspectives on four winter annual cover crops: (1) Austrian winter pea, (2) crimson clover, (3) hairy vetch and (4) cereal rye. Overall, respondents represented a wide range of states, farm sizes, plant hardiness zones and cash crops produced. Of the 417 full responses received, 87% of respondents reported that they used cover crops. The maximum amount farmers were willing to spend on cover crop seed varied by farmer type: 1% of conventional farmers versus 19% of organic farmers were willing to spend over US$185 ha−1 (US$75 acre−1). Organic and conventional farmers differed in terms of the reasons why they grew cover crops, with organic farmers placing greater value on the ecosystem services from cover crops. More organic (63%) than conventional (51%) farmers agreed that participatory breeding was important for cover crop variety development (P = 0.047). Both groups shared strong support for cover crop research and considered many of the same traits to be important for breeding. For the legume cover crops, nitrogen fixation was considered the most important trait, whereas winter hardiness, early vigor, biomass production and weed suppression were the most important traits for cereal rye. Our results illustrate common interests as well as differences in the perspectives between organic and conventional farmers on cover crops and can be used to inform nascent cover crop breeding efforts.


Corresponding author

*Corresponding author:


Hide All
2012 Census of Agriculture. 2014. Organic Survey (2014). Volume 3, Special Studies Part 4.
Allen, I.E. and Seaman, C.A. 2007. Likert scales and data analyses. Quality Progress 40:6465.
Arbuckle, J.G. and Roesch-McNally, G. 2015. Cover crop adoption in Iowa: The role of perceived practice characteristics. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 70:418429.
Baumgart-Getz, A., Prokopy, L.S., and Floress, K. 2012. Why farmers adopt best management practice in the United States: A meta-analysis of the adoption literature. Journal of Environmental Management 96:1725.
Benjamini, Y. and Hochberg, Y. 1995. Controlling the false discovery rate: A practical and powerful approach to multiple testing. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society. Series B (Methodological) 57:289300.
Biernacki, P. and Waldorf, D. 1981. Snowball sampling: Problems and techniques of chain referral sampling. Sociological Methods & Research 10:141163. doi:10.1177/004912418101000205
Brummer, E.C., Barber, W.T., Collier, S.M., Cox, T.S., Johnson, R., Murray, S.C., Olsen, R.T., Pratt, R.C., and Thro, A.M. 2011. Plant breeding for harmony between agriculture and the environment. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 9:561568.
Bryant, L., Stockwell, R., and White, T. 2013. Counting Cover Crops. National Wildlife Federation, Washington, D.C. Available at Web site:
Caldwell, B., Mohler, C.L., Ketterings, Q.M., and DiTommaso, A. 2014. Yields and profitability during and after transition in organic grain cropping systems. Agronomy Journal 106:871. doi:10.2134/agronj13.0286
Carlson, S. and Stockwell, R. 2013. Research priorities for advancing adoption of cover crops in agriculture-intensive regions. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development 3(4):125129.
Clark, A. 2007. Managing Cover Crops Profitably. 3rd ed. Handbook series. SARE, College Park, MD.
Dabney, S.M., Delgado, J.A., and Reeves, D.W. 2001. Using winter cover crops to improve soil and water quality. Communications in Soil Science and Plant Analysis 32:12211250.
Dunn, M., Ulrich-Schad, J.D., Prokopy, L.S., Myers, R.L., Watts, C.R., and Scanlon, K. 2016. Perceptions and use of cover crops among early adopters: Findings from a national survey. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 71:2940.
Fife, D. 2014. fifer: A collection of miscellaneous functions. R package version 1.0.
Groff, S. 2015. The past, present, and future of the cover crop industry. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 70:130A133A.
Hartwig, N.L. and Ammon, H.U. 2002. Cover crops and living mulches. Weed Science 50:688699.
Hively, W.D., Duiker, S., McCarty, G., and Prabhakara, K. 2015. Remote sensing to monitor cover crop adoption in southeastern Pennsylvania. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 70:340352.
Hubbard, K. and Zystro, J. 2016. State of Organic Seed, 2016. Organic Seed Alliance. Available at Web site
Jacobsen, K.L., Gallagher, R.S., Burnham, M., Bradley, B.B., Larson, Z.M., Walker, C.W., and Watson, J.E. 2010. Mitigation of seed germination impediments in hairy vetch. Agronomy Journal 102:13461351.
Johnson, B. and Legleiter, T. 2015. Residual Herbicides and Fall Cover Crop Establishment. Purdue Extension Weed Science. Available at Web site:,-98,798
Lal, R. 2004. Soil carbon sequestration impacts on global climate change and food security. Science 304:16231627.
Maes, B., Trethowan, R.M., Reynolds, M.P., van Ginkel, M., and Skovmand, B. 2001. The influence of glume pubescence on spikelet temperature of wheat under freezing conditions. Functional Plant Biology 28:141148.
Maul, J., Mirsky, S., Emche, S., and Devine, T. 2011. Evaluating a germplasm collection of the cover crop hairy vetch for use in sustainable farming systems. Crop Science 51:26152625.
McGee, R.J. and McPhee, K.E. 2012. Release of autumn-sown pea germplasm ps03101269 with food-quality seed characteristics. Journal of Plant Registrations 6:354357.
Mirsky, S.B., Curran, W.S., Mortensen, D.A., Ryan, M.R., and Shumway, D.L. 2009. Control of cereal rye with a roller/crimper as influenced by cover crop phenology. Agronomy Journal 101:15891596.
Mirsky, S.B., Wallace, J.M., Curran, W.S., and Crockett, B.C. 2015. Hairy vetch seedbank persistence and implications for cover crop management. Agronomy Journal 107:23912400.
Parr, M., Grossman, J.M., Reberg-Horton, S.C., Brinton, C., and Crozier, C. 2011. Nitrogen delivery from legume cover crops in no-till organic corn production. Agronomy Journal 103:15781590.
Pavek, P.L.S. 2012. Pea Plant Fact Sheet. USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service, Pullman, WA.
R Core Team. 2014. R: A Language and Environment for Statistical Computing. R Foundation for Statistical Computing, Vienna, Austria.
Reicosky, D.C., Kemper, W.D., Langdale, G.W., Douglas, C.L., and Rasmussen, P.E. 1995. Soil organic matter changes resulting from tillage and biomass production. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 50:253261.
SARE. 2013. SARE 2012–2013 Cover Crop Survey. West Lafayette, IN: Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program.
SARE and CTIC. 2014. 2013–2014 SARE Cover Crop Survey Report. West Lafayette, IN: Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, Conservation Technology Information Center.
SARE, CTIC, and ASTA. 2015. 2014–2015 SARE Cover Crop Report. West Lafayette, IN: Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, Conservation Technology Information Center, American Seed Trade Association.
Sims, J.R. and Slinkard, A.E. 1991. Development and evaluation of germplasm and cultivars of cover crops. In Hargrove, W. L. (ed.). Cover Crops for Clean Water. Soil and Water Conservation Society, Ankeny, IA, p. 121129.
Singer, J.W., Nusser, S.M. and Alf, C.J. 2007. Are cover crops being used in the US corn belt? Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 62:353358.
Snapp, S.S., Swinton, S.M., Labarta, R., Mutch, D., Black, J.R., Leep, R., Nyiraneza, J., and O'Neil, K. 2005. Evaluating cover crops for benefits, costs and performance within cropping system niches. Agronomy Journal 97:322332.
Teasdale, J.R., Devine, T.E., Mosjidis, J.A., Bellinder, R.R., and Beste, C.E. 2004. Growth and development of hairy vetch cultivars in the northeastern United States as influenced by planting and harvesting date. Agronomy Journal 96:12661271.
Wallander, S. 2013. While Crop Rotations Are Common, Cover Crops Remain Rare. Amber Waves: The Economics of Food, Farming, Natural Resources, and Rural America. USDA ERS 21.
Wayman, S., Cogger, C., Benedict, C., Burke, I., Collins, D., and Bary, A. 2015. The influence of cover crop variety, termination timing and termination method on mulch, weed cover and soil nitrate in reduced-tillage organic systems. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems 30:450460.
Wilke, B.J. and Snapp, S.S. 2008. Winter cover crops for local ecosystems: Linking plant traits and ecosystem function. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture 88:551557.



Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed