Farm Progress

Nailing down a dollars-and-cents return for next year is tough, but that doesn’t mean cover crops aren’t worth the investment.

July 31, 2017

3 Min Read
GET STARTED: You wouldn’t invest in a seeder for your high-clearance rig to seed cover crops into standing crops if it’s your first year. However, there are people who custom-apply at reasonable cost.

The gap between those who use cover crops and wouldn’t give them up and those who don’t want to try them seems to be widening. If you’re in no-till, it’s probably easier to add cover crops into your system. If you’re in conventional or minimum tillage, it may seem more difficult. Perhaps the biggest divide, however, is over whether you can afford to invest in cover crops when it’s difficult to measure direct returns.

Those who live by the system say returns come over time, and can amount to two to three times or more per acre than what you invest in seeding cover crops. Those who haven’t tried covers say they can’t afford to spend money on something that won’t generate a return immediately.

There seems to be interest brewing among soil conservation partners to stop preaching only to the choir with field days aimed at those already no-tilling, and to start extending invitations and subject matter to those who aren’t yet in a system with cover crops. Reaching out to farmers who still believe they need tillage is a good first step.

We asked three agronomists to share their views on whether or not cover crops provide payback. Since some farmers claim it would cost them up to $40 per acre to seed cover crops, it’s a fair question. The three agronomists are also Indiana certified crop advisers. They are Betsy Bower, Ceres Solutions, Terre Haute; Steve Gauck, Beck’s, Greensburg; and Jamie Bultemeier, A&L Great Lakes Labs, Fort Wayne.

What CCAs say
“I’m currently working with a tool that will allow a calculation of potential soil loss from a field by every square yard,” Bower says. “The tool allows comparison of current cropping and tillage practices to no-till alone and to no-till with cover crops. It provides a dollar value to the reduction in soil and fertilizer loss due to rill erosion. I hope to be using it with several customers in the future.”

Bultemeier says overall trend-line crop revenue on your farm will be the best measure of return on investment from cover crops, measuring both increased yield and reduced input costs. To establish a trend line, however, you need multiple years in each system to make comparisons. It’s not something you can answer overnight.

“The cover crop’s impact on soil structure may be reduced with tillage in the cropping system,” he adds. “A single poorly executed tillage pass could ruin a year, or more, of cover crop improvement.”

For those starting out with cover crops, Gauck suggests a mix of cover crops that will winterkill. “Set up some trials and plots in a few locations, and compare for yourself,” Gauck says. “This will give you a great opportunity to learn without getting in too deep, too fast.”  

If you start with species that winterkill, you won’t spend anywhere near the $35-to-$40-per-acre-figure some people banter about. In fact, Bower says you can do a lot of good with a cover crop that only costs $15 to $20 per acre to seed, with seed and application costs included.

“It all starts with your goals for cover crops,” she says. “Determine goals field by field, and work with your CCA to develop a strategy.”

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