About two years before Paul Ackley’s Conservation Stewardship Program contract expired, for soil-building and environmental protection reasons, he knew he wanted to continue with the wheat, multiple species cover crops and grazing system he’d added to his corn-soybean rotation as a CSP enhancement. But he wanted to be confident of the economics of continuing without the CSP payment.
The southwest Iowa farmer took a close look at his inputs in 2011 and 2012, and hasn’t looked back since. “When I compared my costs per bushel with this system, it told me all I needed to know,” Ackley says. Input costs for corn after including winter wheat, multiple-species cover crop and grazing in the crop rotation in those two years totaled $258 per acre, compared to $382 per acre for his corn following soybeans and a cereal rye cover crop.
The $124-per-acre savings came from using:
- no phosphate or potash ($65 per acre)
- no cereal rye cover crop ($35 per acre)
- slightly less corn seed ($6 per acre)
- 25-pound reduction in sidedressed 32% liquid N ($18 per acre).
Costs per bushel to grow corn were 74 cents less in 2011 and $1.46 less in 2012, after the wheat and cover crop option compared to the corn-soybean rotation.
The cost to grow wheat was $205 an acre, with a 60-bushel-per-acre yield. The cost for burndown, seed and drilling the cover crop mix (forage sorghum, sunflower, buckwheat, brassicas and other species) was $71 an acre. Ackley figured it would take 60 animal unit days of grazing at $1.18 per day, versus buying hay to match the cost of the cover crop. The cover crop mix more than paid for itself.
“There’s no flexibility in a corn-soybean rotation,” Ackley says. “Wheat isn’t a perfect crop, but I have the flexibility to bale it for hay or to graze it out and get rid of crop insurance. Last year I grazed the wheat and calved on it; the cows loved it.”
He adds, “A number of years ago, it became apparent to my wife, Nancy, and to me that society expects us farmers to make a profit, with production practices that are acceptable to our neighbors, whether they live beside us or 500 miles downstream. They expect us to produce enough forever, too, which requires we rebuild a degraded soil resource.
“When I put these three concepts together, that led to adding winter wheat to our rotation and adding in the diverse, soil-building cover crop following wheat harvest.”