How to Benefit from Cover Cropping? Give it Time!

Guest Authors:  Marie Veyrier and Sarah Mine, Datu Research, LLC.

When Iowa farmer Frank Moore decided to try cover cropping in 2013, he knew he would face up-front costs. As a long-term adopter of no-till—which he has done successfully with corn and soybeans for more than 20 years—he didn’t expect the benefits to be immediate. His hunch was reinforced when a fellow producer at a cover crop show told him: “I’ve never seen a guy doing cover crops three years in a row that isn’t still doing it. So give it three years.”

In 2013, when excessive and constant rains prevented him from planting his cash crop, Frank seized the opportunity to grow cover crops on 115 of his 2,300 acres. He seeded 20lb/acre of annual rye grass in September 2013 on three of his fields.

Cover crop seeding in 2013

Cover crop seeding in 2013

Incurred costs for producers starting out with cover crops vary depending on the cultivar, seeding, and management methods. Frank’s budget data from the first year of adoption validates the common perception that net costs will be heaviest at the outset. Establishment costs, which consisted of buying annual rye grass seeds and running a prairie grass drill or three-point seeder to plant them, represented the bulk of cover crop-related charges—about $27 per acre seeded (see Figure 1). A change in his herbicide program enabled Frank to avoid any additional cover crop termination costs.

Additionally, research and learning activities—the time Frank spent getting advice and attending field days and conferences—¬amounted to $10 per acre in 2013 – 2014. In Frank’s case, these costs had started to accrue even before cover crops were bought and seeded—$4 per acre were incurred in 2012 – 2013. He had to seek out practical guidance on how to decide which cultivar was the most appropriate for his farm and how to manage chosen cover crop species. Frank attended cover crop related events, and deliberated regularly with a friend from the Oregon Ryegrass Commission. Such preliminary research represented an investment of 18 hours before adoption and 24 hours in 2013 – 2014, each hour of Frank’s time valued at $20.

Figure 1: Frank's Cover Crop Cost Breakdown in the 2013 – 2014 crop year

Figure 1: Frank’s Cover Crop Cost Breakdown in the 2013 – 2014 crop year

But before you conclude that cover crops entail too many costs, consider the following! First, learning costs are not disbursed out-of-pocket, they rather mostly represent an opportunity cost—the money Frank could have earned doing another activity. Second, this initial investment in research—$1,181 in total—will benefit the whole farm, as Frank will be able to apply what he learned on more acres. Indeed, Frank already leveraged this research when he expanded to 800 acres covered in the 2014 – 2015 crop year. And, third, Frank recovered some of these costs through his participation in two government programs, the “Iowa Financial Incentive” program administered by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship and the USDA-NRCS Conservation Stewardship Program.

Other producers’ experiences with cover crops mirror Frank’s thinking, as they often have reported a lag of at least two seasons before cover crops start making a difference. Frank expects his per-acre costs to decrease as his acres under cover crops continue to grow and his learning costs subside as he becomes more familiar with the practice. Concurrently, he anticipates the benefits of cover crops—including reduced nitrogen needs, better yields, and less erosion damage—to begin to accrue. When you take the long view, as Frank does, quitting after one year is a waste of money.

Thanks to a NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant, Datu Research and the National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD) will be tracking Frank’s budget for the full three-year experiment with cover crops. Look for our full report in fall 2017!


About Whitney Forman-Cook

NACD Director of Communications

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This entry was posted on January 15, 2016 by in Soil Health and tagged , , , , , .
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