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Soil health practices boost bottom line over $100 per acre

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Soil health practices such as cover crops and no-till can result in an economic return of more than $100 per acre, according to a set of case studies jointly released by the National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD) and Datu Research LLC.

Cover crops and no-till can limit soil loss, reduce run-off, enhance biodiversity and more. Farmers who are considering adopting these practices are keen on knowing how they will affect the farm’s bottom line.

“These case studies quantify for producers, policy-makers and researchers alike what the economic advantages of using no-till and cover crops are and why it makes good sense for farmers to try them and for organizations like NACD to support and even incentivize their use,” NACD chief executive officer Jeremy Peters said. “We have loads of anecdotal data that say conservation practices benefit the land and producers’ pocketbooks, but now we have run the numbers and know how much.”

During the three-year study period, corn and soybean farmers experimented with cover crops and/or no-till and quantified the year-by-year changes in income they attributed to these practices compared to a pre-adoption baseline. While planting costs increased by up to $38 per acre, they also found that:

  • Fertilizer costs decreased by as much as $50 per acre.
  • Erosion repair costs decreased by as much as $16 per acre.
  • Yields increased by up to $76 per acre.

The studies also found that with adoption of these conservation practices, net farm income increased by up to $110 per acre. Included in the farmers’ calculations was the considerable time they spent attending workshops or searching the internet to learn about no-till or cover crop practices.

“That time turns out to be an excellent investment, when bottom lines start improving,” said Marcy Lowe, CEO of Datu Research, which conducted the case studies in partnership with NACD. “Farmers who switch to these practices can see losses at first, but thanks to these case studies and farmers who are generously sharing what they’ve learned, that learning curve will speed up for other farmers.”

Frank Moore, who farms 2,300 acres in northern Iowa, said he saw no yield improvements attributable to cover crops in the first year, but he understood the necessity of long-term soil health practices before seeing significant returns.

“It will take time before we see any impact on yield. As with no-till, the benefits are not immediate. You have to be committed to it before it pays of,” he said.

Moore did not need post-emergent weed control in his third year year, since he saw that cover crops suppressed the herbicide-resistant weeds. In addition to lower termination costs, he saw improved erosion control.

Another of the case study subjects, Michael Willis, farms 1,000 acres in northwestern Missouri with his family. His advice for future cover crop adopters is: “Start small enough so it doesn’t freak you out but large enough to matter.”

Datu Research and NACD intend to continue contributing to the scientific literature on the economic advantages of implementing conservation practices and systems on working lands.

Read the full case studies here.

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