There is a new study on how no-till and cover crops impact producers’ bottom line

There is a new study on conservation efforts in the Midwest. The financial analysis covers seven Midwestern farms.

The Soil Health Partnership and the Environmental Defense Fund studied the farm balance sheets for more than 21,000 acres of corn and soybeans in the Midwest to see how no-till and cover crops impact the bottom line.

Chriss Gaesser says that conservation is always evolving on his farm in southwest Iowa, where they have been doing no-till for almost 30 years and cover crops since 2010.

“We had decided if we were going to do it, we had to find a way to make it profitable, like try to use the equipment we already had, and save costs were we could, like growing our own cover crop seeds, and we have our own grain cleaner and we can sell the extra to some neighbors and we make a little income there,” Gaesser explains.

The study found growers practicing conservation tillage had higher net returns and lower per acre costs than fields under conventional tillage.

Gaesser says it is easy to see the benefits: “No-till in general is a little easier because you’re using less equipment. So, your fuel costs and equipment savings, it’s easier to see that right away. There is a little bit of a lag time when you go from tillage to no-till, you’re going to have a couple years in there where your yields aren’t quite as good until you establish that soil environment. In the long-term it’s really easy to see the benefit, and there are even some benefits in the short-term.”

It also found profitability with cover crops improves as growers gain more experience with participants seeing a return on investment after an average of three to five years.

Gaesser suggests starting small to figure out what works best.

“Sometimes we kind of get in the habit of when we try something new or if we’re going to do something different-- ‘well, if we are going to do it, let’s just do it. Right?’ There’s always growing pains, you are going to make mistakes, I mean we’ve made tons of them,” he states. “Start small, pick a small field or part of a field and kind of go from there, kind of get it figured out just a little bit.”

From the policy side, the Environmental Defense Fund says that it is important to reshape how conservation is funded, to ensure it works for farmers trying to make the transition.

According to EDF Research Analyst Vincent Gauthier, “First, the financial support is necessary because there is a risk involved with taking on a new practice which hasn’t been proven to have immediate, private benefits. So, financial support that is based on a multi-year transition will be required in order for more farmers to feel comfortable taking on that risk.”

EDF and the Soil Health Partnership also say that more technical assistance is needed to help producers work through which practices are right for their operation.