Lessons learned from four multi-year case studies by NACD and Datu Research:
· Missouri farmer Michael Willis spent an average of $31.23 per acre on cover crops each year, and received $47.20 per acre, a net budget positive impact of $15.97 per acre.
· While planting costs of cover crops increased by as much as $38 per acre, fertilizer costs decreased by as much as $50 per acre, erosion repair costs decreased by as much as $16 per acre, and income from higher yields increased up to $76 an acre. Net income from cover crops increased up to $110 per acre.
· Average corn yield increased from 120 bushels before cover crop adoption to 153 bushels an acre after. Average soybean yield increased from 38 bushels an acre to 52 bushels an acre.
It wasn’t a question of knowing there were benefits to cover crops, but when Michael Willis began using them in 2012 he was curious to see if hard numbers could be put to the economics of including them in the family operation.
He got his answer this year, after volunteering to be one of four multi-year case studies of the National Association of Conservation Districts and Datu Research for the past four years. The answer: Cover crops over 4 years on 4 different fields had a positive impact on average of $16 per acre.
The northwestern Missouri corn, soybean and cattle producer has no-tilled since 1986, and cover crops were the next logical step in improving soil health on their farm, Willis says. “I like to learn and share information with other farmers, and this was a way to get outside help in analyzing detailed economic information over several years,” Willis says.
Datu Research analyzed detailed budget results of four years of cover crops on four Willis Farms fields, using an average of the previous three years’ budgets (without cover crops) as a baseline, tracing income changes by category of expenditure. For the four-year period, Willis spent an average of $31.23 per acre on cover crops each year, and received $47.20 per acre, a net budget positive impact of $15.97 per acre.
In three of the four years, impacts of cover crops were positive, ranging from $16.48 to $18.43 an acre. The fourth year was a rain-filled spring, with heavy rains so prevalent that they prevented soybeans from being planted. That year, with no income, the net loss from using cover crops was $33.08 per acre. Despite no crop in that year, when conservation incentives were included as part of the economic analysis, cover crops resulted in net gains.
Datu Research found in the four case studies that while planting costs of cover crops increased by as much as $38 per acre, fertilizer costs decreased by as much as $50 per acre, erosion repair costs decreased by as much as $16 per acre, and income from higher yields increased up to $76 an acre. Net income from cover crops increase up to $110 per acre.
Higher yields with better soils
The case study analyzed all facets of the change to cover crops. Inputs for planting, termination, fertilizer application and use, erosion-related repairs, cattle grazing, yields, and even time for learning activity were put into the budget. Willis saw yields increase over the four years of cover cropping. Average corn yield on all four fields studied increased from 120 bushels an acre before cover crop adoption to 153 bushels an acre after. Average soybean yield (not including the year none were planted) increased from 38 bushels an acre to 52 bushels an acre. Willis believes the soil stability with reduced soil erosion and improved infiltration and water holding capacity with cover crops played a role in yield increases.
Immediate erosion benefits
Michael, his father Ron and brother Matthew grow corn and soybeans in rotation on 1,000 acres, and they have pasture and hay on 500 more acres to support a 120-head cow-calf herd. Their use of cover crops grew from 37 acres initially to 600 acres, including the 145 acres in four fields that were analyzed in the case study.
They farm with terraces and grassed waterways, but Willis thinks the long-term fix for soil erosion on steep land is no-till and cover crops. “Even if your slopes aren’t that steep, the long slopes will concentrate water and start ditches,” he says. “With the combination of no-till and cover crops, you can avoid the expense of building and maintaining terraces.”
Willis says he’s never had second thoughts about no-till. “I grew up with it. It feels weird to me to plant into tilled ground,” he says. Despite using no-till, ephemeral ditches have been a problem. Cover crops have been an immediate benefit there.
“You hear talk about waiting 10 years to see benefits to cover crops,” Willis says, “but we saw erosion control benefits right away. I hate those ephemeral erosion areas you have to fight and deal with year after year. The case study quantified the extra labor and expense we’ve eliminated by using cover crops to solve that problem.”
Covers improve no-till transition
Willis believes if you’re already a no-tiller, cover crops is a no-brainer. He also believes cover crops help in the transition to no-till; his advice to someone using conventional tillage who wants to do more to build soil health is to start no-till and cover crops at the same time. “I’d do both—not on all acres but on enough acres to have some skin in the game,” he says. “I think the living roots in the soil give it structure that helps with no-till. We didn’t change much on our planter with cover crops, just took the front coulters off in 2016 to get a more uniform furrow. We think the coulter grabs the root ball—double disk openers don’t disturb the surface as much.”
Willis plants soybeans and then sprays to terminate the cover crop. “The dead biomass locks in moisture and takes a lot longer to dry out,” he says. “We won’t delay soybean planting just to get more cover crop growth, but it’s fine by us to let the covers grow and wait until the ground is fit to plant.”
Cut herbicide, fertilizer use
The Willis family has experimented with growing their own cover crop seed, tried mixtures and several application methods, and are now trying earlier maturing corn varieties as planting progresses to get covers seeded earlier in the fall. They’ve learned cover crops have weed control benefits—they’ve cut herbicide use back to the same amounts used without cover crops. They’ve actually had a net decrease in termination costs because cover crops have eliminated the need for some post-emergent spot spraying on problem weed areas. They’ve also become comfortable planting soybeans into 5-foot high cereal rye.
But some initial experiments didn’t pan out, Willis says. “We learned in 2013 we couldn’t go cold turkey having covers supply all the nitrogen needs immediately—that hurt corn yields the first year we tried that,” he says. In 2016, they were able to cut fertilizer amounts and with good weather, increased yields significantly with cover crops.