How do you know what cover crops are best for your farm? No-Till Farmer has shared a new resource for farmers to help guide them through the decision-making process of adding cover crops to their operations. Two economists, Lauren Cartwright of Missouri and Bryon Kiran of Illinois, created a tool for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
It’s called the Cover Crop Economics Decision Support Tool, and is a free Excel spreadsheet document download that allows farmers to plug in data to calculate positive and negative impacts of various cover crop decisions. There’s also a free webinar that shows how to use it. The tool asks questions about the costs of establishing a cover crop- and includes seed, planting and termination costs. It also allows farmers to input grazing data.
It is a science-based model. It focuses on the costs and benefits from inputs by the user. Adding cover crops may bring many other benefits beyond what the tool is capturing, such as reducing wind erosion, filtering of run-off, and improvements to off-site water quality, or restored wildlife habitat.
The tool is fairly conservative and doesn’t calculate all of the benefits of planting cover crops, but it does allow farmers to see the potential impacts of different scenarios.
The flexibility and producer-input portion of this tool is perhaps a double-edged sword. On one hand, the flexibility is there to be as progressive or as conservative as preferred by the farmer. They can develop multiple “what if” scenarios, from very optimistic to pessimistic changes over a given rotation and look at the results for each.
Starting with cover crops adds costs, which initially, can be more than the benefits. Why not use all the tools available to you before planting cover crops? Knowing the risks makes economic sense. And even if you’re already planting cover crops, the Cover Crop Economics Decision Support Tool can allow you to see how something different might impact your operation.
If you don’t have time to sit down and plug-in your options into the Cover Crop Decision Support Tool, consider watching a short YouTube video. Eileen Kladivko of Purdue University spoke at the 2017 National Conference on Cover Crops and Soil Health about cover crop selection. Her 25-minute talk is matter-of-fact and informative. Before you start looking at what cover crops you’d like to plant, she first advises figuring out what you’d like to achieve by planting them.
She suggests asking the following 5 questions:
- What do you hope to achieve by planting cover crops?
- What is your tillage system?
- What time windows are available for cover crops?
- How will you seed your cover crop?
- Are there special considerations for your particular operation?
The bottom line is that there is no perfect cover crop for all operations- but online tools can help you choose the right combinations for your farm.
Kladivko highlights another cover crop selection tool called the Midwest Cover Crops Council- Cover Crop Decision Tool. The tool allows you to change different variables, and provides reliable planting dates by county.
The video of her talk is below.