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Serving: IA

'All I needed to know'

Jason Johnson Paul and Nancy Ackley looking at soil sample
HEALTHY SOIL: Wheat in rotation followed by a multispecies cover crop ramps up life in the soil and allows Paul and Nancy Ackley to cut input costs.
Input savings sealed Paul Ackley’s decision on wheat, cover crop and cattle grazing.

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.

Related: Faster fix for poor soils and Seed summer covers for fall grazing

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.

Ackley’s per acre cost comparisons to grow corn chart

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.

Flexibility key

“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.”




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