Authors Alejandro Plastina and Ed Adcock of Iowa State University published their recent findings, analysis, and conclusions about the use of cover crops. With a stroke of practicality a real world example of this study’s findings are detailed by Sonja Begemann of AgWeb in her article titled ‘Striking a Balance with Cover Crops and Grazing’. In the ISU study and the example farm, both cite livestock grazing as a critical element to having a positive ROI with cover crops
Key findings from the ISU cover crop research:
- But it’s likely that the number of acres planted won’t substantially scale up if the practice doesn’t at least break-even in the short term.
- The researchers found substantial variability in net returns.
- They found that farmers who grazed livestock on cover crops or harvested them for forage or biomass generated sufficient additional revenue or cost savings to result in overall positive returns, in addition to receiving cost-share payments. Promoting the use of cover crops for livestock grazing or forage would help a farmer’s bottom line.
- Cost-share payments are a critical incentive to support the practice of cover crops, but [they] found that for most farmers, these payments are insufficient to cover all costs associated with cover crops.
This research article comes on the heels of a bipartisan proposal to grant better access to data so farmers can make better decisions on cover crop utilization.
The ISU extension article begins
AMES, Iowa — Despite farmers’ positive perceptions about cover crops and the availability of cost-share programs to incentivize their use, an Iowa State University study shows the return on investment may be the biggest hurdle to overcome for widespread adoption of the practice.
In 2017, Iowa fields planted to cover crops grew to 760,000 acres, with less than half receiving federal or state cost share. But with millions of acres of crops, Iowa — and other Midwestern states — has yet to see widespread adoption of cover crops to reduce nitrates in water from crop fields and to conserve and build healthy soils.
“We have a substantial body of research that shows cover crops have positive long-term benefits for water quality, soil health and the environment,” said Alejandro Plastina, assistant professor of economics and extension economist. “Farmers also have positive perceptions about the value of cover crops and can take advantage of cost-share programs that incentivize their use.”
“But it’s likely that the number of acres planted won’t substantially scale up if the practice doesn’t at least break-even in the short term,” he added.
Overall, the researchers found substantial variability in net returns, driven by the costs of planting and terminating cover crops, feed cost savings from grazing cover crops, cost-share program payments, and the difference in yields obtained in fields with and without cover crops.
The AgWeb story introduces us to a father son farm operation in Missouri. This operation is experiencing a long-term pay off in cover crops after some initial trial and error.
Kyle Grumke and his father Ross employ cover crops on every one of their 550 owned acres. It’s a practice Ross scoffed at in the beginning but five years in he sees the pay-off in better soil health and an additional feed source for the family’s cattle.
Caught somewhere in the middle of conventional and organic farming, the family started using no-till 10 years ago. They plant an eight-species mix of cover crops after wheat and cereal rye following corn and soybeans. Kyle says the benefits he sees more than pay for the $25-or-so investment on each acre.
“Livestock is where we really net back the cost,” he says. “In addition, if we can keep nutrients out of watersheds and in our soil and prevent algal blooms that keeps the government from telling me to what to do.”
Be realistic if you try cover crops, Kyle notes. It’s a lot of trial and error and Mother Nature will try to throw curve balls—be prepared to react and adapt quickly.
“The No. 1 failure I’ve seen is when producers are interested in cover crops and just jump in without knowing what they want to accomplish,” says Paul Jasa, University of Nebraska Extension engineer. Common goals are to build soil health, prevent erosion, provide weed control or add grazing opportunities on new acres.
Continue reading about the Grumke farm at agweb.com.
Sharing the Grumke cover crop story may promote some short-term patience that the ISU study believes will be hard to come by.
Update March 19, 2018
Financial incentives for cover crops may become a reality as bipartisan Senate GROW Act introduced. Read more about the cover crop incentive in the story below.
Image Courtesy ISU Extension and Outreach