Report Details Impact of Conservation Tillage and Cover Crops on Farm Bottom Line

Agricultural conservation practices are pivotal to addressing a host of environmental and natural resource concerns including soil health, water quality and climate resilience. At the same time, it is critical that farmers run profitable businesses and that environmental stewardship priorities support farm profitability.

To expand on growing information around the profitability of conservation agriculture, Soil Health Partnership (SHP), Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and K·Coe Isom collaborated to evaluate the financial impact of conservation tillage and cover crop usage among Midwest corn and soybean farmers. Key findings from the analysis are presented in a new report, Conservation’s Impact on the Farm Bottom Line [PDF].

“Our analysis adds to a growing body of research on the profitability of agricultural conservation practices and helps farmers better understand what they can expect when they adopt these practices,” said Maria Bowman, Ph.D., lead scientist at SHP. “For example, conservation tillage saves farmers money on equipment and fuel and drives higher net returns, whereas increased profitability with cover crops is more common for farmers with more than five years’ experience with the practice, indicating a learning curve as growers identify their best recipe for success over time.”

The analysis also found that farmers achieved profitable conservation systems by aiming to address specific management challenges with in-field conservation practices, such as improving soil structure as a way to improve water management and reduce erosion, and minimizing passes across the field to save time, machinery and overhead costs.

“There is risk involved in adopting new practices and farmers need financial information that indicates what they might expect financially from adopting conservation practices,” said Vincent Gauthier, research analyst at EDF. “Working with farmers to understand how the adoption of conservation tillage and cover crops impacts their bottom line can help pave the way for other farmers and inform new kinds of financial support that align with the financial dynamics of these practices.”

The report included a detailed budget analysis of seven Midwest farmers growing corn and soy with at least three years’ experience with cover crops or conservation tillage.

Brian Ryberg is one of the farmers highlighted in the report. Brian and his wife Sandy farm 5,300 acres in south-central Minnesota, where they grow corn, soybeans and sugar beets. Brian has adopted strip-till, no-till and cover crops in his operation. His conservation goals included saving costs and improving soil health through reduced disturbance and increased cover.

“By using conservation tillage practices and cover crops, we’ve been able to save substantially on fuel, equipment and repair costs,” Brian said. “These practices have had many other benefits including improved water holding capacity, more water infiltration, improved soil structure, better drained seed beds and weed suppression.”

Brian uses an annual ryegrass, hairy vetch, turnip and rapeseed cover crop mix on almost 3,000 acres. His approach to adopting cover crops across these acres was gradual, as he tested different methods of seeding.

“It can take time to get it right with cover crops,” Brian said. “So testing seed mixes and application methods on a piece of your farm can help prevent large costs in your budget as you dial in the right system for your soil.”

For more information on this report, visit www.soilhealthpartnership.org/farmfinance.

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