Do cover crops pay for themselves?

Heidi Johnson

The number one presentation topic request that I get from farmer groups that want to learn about cover crops is the economics of cover crop adoption.

I have struggled with how to approach this request, mostly because in a one-year crop budget, most of the economics of cover crops are going to fall under the expenses side of the sheet.

Financial benefits from cover crops like these radishes, are often difficult to quantify because they don’t show up in a crop budget.

As with other production practices that improve the health and structure of our soil (like no-till), it takes a few years of implementation before you start to see definable economic benefits. And with the current lack of profit margins in all agricultural enterprises, any practice that will cost farmers more money in the short-term is a tough sell.

There are benefits that farmers report that they are getting from cover crops that are difficult to quantify because they don’t show up in a crop budget. Things like fields drying down more quickly in the spring, cover crop residue helping to hold up heavier equipment and cover crops creating a mellow seedbed that is easier to plant into. These things may not be directly related to the crop budget.

Many farmers that have gotten through those first few years of using cover crops do report economic benefits such as reducing the amount of fertilizer, pesticides and other crop inputs that they are using.

The scale of these economic benefits will depend on the cover crop species selected and the crop rotation. For example, diverse cover crop mixes grown after winter wheat harvest are going to have a greater overall impact on the structure and health of the soil than rye grown after corn grain and soybean harvest.

Growing cover crops for months versus weeks, gives the cover crops time to ‘work’ on the soil, increasing the positive impact on the system. It also makes a difference if cover crops are used in combination with other conservation practices like reduced tillage to help restore the soil’s structure.

Growing cover crops for months versus weeks, gives the cover crops time to ‘work’ on the soil, increasing the positive impact on the system.

Potential increases in organic matter often gets used as a selling point for cover crops. It is possible to nudge up your organic matter with practices like cover crops but it is, again, dependent on the system. How long are the cover crops grown? And are they used in combination with other conservation practices?

Other factors like the type of soil and how degraded the soil was to begin with also influences organic matter accumulations. Soils that have already lost a lot of organic matter tend to have more potential to gain while higher quality soils don’t tend to gain as quickly. There is also something to be said for not continuing to lose organic matter.

Although we don’t account for eroded soil and lost organic matter in our cropping budgets, it doesn’t mean they don’t have value. Maintaining soil so it can maintain maximum crop production is both important if you continue to farm it and to maintain the land’s value.

Improved water infiltration is another benefit that doesn’t find its way into a crop budget but can have a major impact on crop yield. Research at Arlington Research Station showed that cover crops significantly increased water infiltration in a corn silage rotation with a rye cover crop.

Water is one of the most limiting factors for yield so putting more water into the ground, rather than running off, is only going to benefit crops. In the drought of 2012, the farmers that responded to the SARE cover crop survey reported higher yields in cover cropped fields than noncover cropped fields.

Heidi Johnson

So how do we pay for cover crops in the short term while we accumulate the long term benefits? There is quite a bit of cost-share dollars available that farmers can take advantage of to offset costs while they are gaining soil health and structure benefits.

USDA provides cost share dollars through the EQIP program and farmer-led watershed groups like Yahara Pride Farms and Farmers for the Upper Sugar River provide cost sharing to farmers in their respective watersheds. It is better for farmers in the long run to continue to improve their soils so using available funding to get through the transition period can help offset the initials costs

Johnson is the crops and soils agent for Dane County UW-Extension. This article originally appeared in the Yahara Pride Farms Forward Farmer newsletter.