Why aren’t we planting more beneficial cover crops?

Why aren’t we planting more beneficial cover crops?

In my last column, Planning for Cover Crops, I wrote about the 101 percent increase in cover crop acres in Ohio over the past five years. While this is great progress, we still have a long way to go, as only about 7-10 percent of Ohio’s crop land is being seeded to cover crops.

I found this somewhat surprising considering the many benefits of cover crops and the increased focus on water quality and soil health.

Some of those benefits include preventing erosion, reducing soil compaction, improving rainfall infiltration (especially this year), scavenging nutrients and providing nitrogen (legumes), building soil organic matter, controlling weeds, encouraging pollinators and beneficial insects, and economic returns.

So why aren’t farmers planting more acres to cover crops? As I thought about it, I was almost sure it had to do with the last benefit on the list: economic returns. This is because a simple, one-year budget analysis of cover crops, one that just compares the cost of seed and seeding to the impact on the next crop yield, may indeed show a loss.

When evaluating average fields in average weather conditions, it can take three or more years for cover crops to pay off if no incentive payments are obtained and no special circumstances exist.

When it comes to making management decisions such as planting a new crop or buying equipment, farmers are running a business, and the bottom line is always a huge consideration. If the idea doesn’t work out on paper, either by cutting costs or raising revenue, then it likely won’t happen.

Determining the economic impact of planting a cover crop is not as simple as a one-year cost and return analysis. There are several factors to consider: How do I determine the dollar value of all these cover crop benefits in my operation? What does it really cost to include cover crops in my cropping system? How long does it take before cover crops start to pay? In spite of all the benefits, what is the bottom line?

Last week our staff read a very informative technical bulletin from Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education that does a great job of answering those questions based on research and farmer experience. The bulletin is titled “Cover Crop Economics, Opportunities to Improve your Bottom Line in Row Crops.” The link to this bulletin is https://www.sare.org/Newsroom/Press-Releases/When-Do-Cover-Crops-Pay-New-USDA-SARE-Report-Addresses-the-Question.

It is rather long, but it is a great resource to calculate the bottom line of cover crops in your operation, and the last page has a good summary. It explains the factors involved in economic returns from cover crops and assigns dollar values to those factors. It will help you make cover crop management decisions based on the bottom line for your farm.

This bulletin describes seven situations in which the profitability of cover crops can be accelerated.

Cover crops can pay their way more quickly when:

—Herbicide-resistant weeds are a problem.

—Cover crops are grazed or harvested.

—Soil compaction is an issue.

—Cover crops are used to speed up and ease the transition to no-till.

—Excess soil moisture in the spring (like this spring).

—Fertilizer costs are high or manure nutrients need to be sequestered.

—Incentive payments are received for using cover crops.

The farmers profiled in this bulletin have found cover crops are most profitable when they provide benefits in multiple areas such as compaction and weeds.

Most farmers who have long-term experience with cover crops and who carefully keep their books have discovered cover crops do in fact pay. These farmers usually look at cover crops from the broad, holistic standpoint of how they will improve the efficiency and resiliency of the entire farm over time.

One of the most-often-cited economic benefits of cover crops by experienced users is their impact on the resiliency of the cropping system. Farmers are finding that by helping to minimize drought-related yield losses or sometimes allowing earlier planting in a wet spring, cover crops serve as a type of crop insurance.

As with ordinary crop insurance, the premium you pay for cover crops will pay off big in some years but not every year. “Look at cover crops as an investment rather than a cost,” said Justin Zahradka, who farms 900 acres in North Dakota and has been planting cover crops since 2011.

The deadline to sign up for potential cost share on cover crops through a Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District program is July 9. Participants may choose to participate in the aerial application program or drill/broadcast by a planting deadline date.

Call Karen Gotter or Joe Christner at Holmes SWCD at 330-674-SWCD for more information on how cover crops can fit your farming operation and provide opportunities to improve your bottom line.

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