Even though raising cover crops costs Josh Yoder more for seed and chemicals, he seeing financial benefits from including them in his crop production system. He’s confident that conservation makes sense financially, although it took some trial and error to find a system that would work logistically on his family’s farm near Plain City, Ohio.
Conservation, Yoder says, is an ongoing experiment. As he considers changes to his farming practices, he looks for ideas that will work synergistically with practices he’s already using. “You’re trying to get continuous improvement, year after year.”
Yoder is one of three Midwest farmers who laid out their financial records for case studies by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), an international nonprofit organization that works on solving environmental issues. EDF worked on the project with the agricultural accounting and consulting firm K-Coe Isom AgKnowledge. In addition to the three case studies, AgKnowledge provided a comparative analysis of another 10 Midwest farms using information from the firm’s client database. Those farms use a variety of conventional and conservation production practices.
Maggie Monast, EDF senior manager for economic incentives and agricultural sustainability, says, “Overall, we found that conservation can pay.” The case studies showed financial advantages from lower overall costs, diverse revenue streams and resilient crop yields. The findings from the case study farms can be useful to other farmers who are considering conservation practices, she adds. “It does take time, effort and expense to figure out a new management system.” The information is also useful to people involved with the farm financial system, such as lenders, insurers and landowners, she says.
Alan Grafton, director of K-Coe Isom AgKnowledge, adds that landowners also profit from the improvements in soil quality and productivity that accumulate with conservation management. “The landowner really has an opportunity to benefit,” he explains. However, conservation benefits accumulate over a period of years. “This is about the future. This is a marathon, not a sprint,” he says.
More than half of U.S. crop ground is rented, and short-term rental agreements can act as a disincentive for farmers to practice conservation on rented land, Monast says. She’d like to see landowners modify the types and lengths of leases they use to promote conservation on their land. Land appraisals would also be more accurate if the methodology took conservation practices into account. In addition, lenders, crop insurers and other financial service providers have an interest in the financial health of the farmers they deal with, so they should take conservation practices into account as well.
OVERHEAD VIEW: A drone helps Josh Yoder keep an eye on crop progress on his family’s farm near Plain City, Ohio.
Yoders say it’s worth the effort
Josh Yoder, who farms 1,800 acres with his dad, Fred, raises no-till corn and soybeans. The Yoders also use cereal rye as a cover crop. They spend about $5 per acre for the rye seed, plus another $10 per acre to get it planted. They also spend an added $7 per acre for burndown herbicide to kill the cover crops in the spring. On the other hand, the Yoders save about $9 in herbicide expenses because the cover crops suppress weeds over the winter, replacing the need for a fall burndown application, Josh explains.
The Yoders are also benefiting from lower labor and fuel costs by using no-till and saving a few dollars per acre in fertilizer expenses, because the cover crops help improve the soil’s nutrient-holding capacity. The cover crops create a better seedbed, which contributes to better crop emergence, Josh adds. He estimates they’re averaging an extra 6 to 8 bushels per acre in corn yield and an extra 2 to 3 bushels of soybeans. Those estimates are based on side-by-side comparison trials done when they first started experimenting with cover crops.
The Yoders previously included wheat in their crop rotation and tried out a variety of cover crop mixes following wheat. Planting covers in the summer after wheat harvest gave the cover crops plenty of time to become well-established, but the Yoders decided to eliminate wheat from their rotation because it became less economically viable, Josh says. They liked the results they were seeing with cover crops, so they looked for ways to continue using them with a corn-soybean rotation.
The Yoders settled on cereal rye because it’s one of the few cover crops that can be established with later seeding dates. The seed is also much less expensive than some of the other cover crops they had tried, says Josh. They were convinced cover crops worked financially, but figuring out the logistics took some effort, he recalls. They tried broadcast seeding it, but they weren’t happy with their stands. They also tried seeding it with a grain drill, but that was too time-consuming during the busy harvest season. “You have a short window to establish it,” Josh notes.
Now the Yoders are using an air seeder mounted on their vertical tillage tool. They can cover about 30 acres an hour and plant 70 to 75 acres per fill-up, says Josh. As the combine rolls, one person can follow behind, planting the cover crop. “We’ve turned it into a one-man operation,” he explains. They plant rye on all ground following soybeans, and they also plant rye after corn if harvest is early enough. After the end of November, rye generally doesn’t have enough time to become established, he says.
In spring, for ground going into corn, the Yoders burn down the rye with herbicide about two weeks ahead of planting. Generally, the rye is about 12 inches tall at that point. On soybean ground, they may leave the rye growing a little longer. Burning down the rye ahead of planting reduces interference of the rye with the planter, and it also reduces the possibility of problems with slugs and armyworms, says Josh.
The goal in managing the cover crop is to maximize the benefits such as weed control, nutrient cycling and erosion prevention. At the same time, the Yoders don’t want the covers to interfere with planter efficiency or lead to pest problems. “It’s a trade-off,” Josh says.
Although they require some adjustments in management, the many advantages of cover crops make them worth the effort, he says. “There aren’t many ways you can do so many things in one pass.”