Friday, March 27, 2015

Free NRCS Tool Helps Farmers Determine Economics of Using Cover Crops

By now most farmers have heard about cover crops and how incorporating them into rotations can increase yields and reduce input costs while providing other valuable benefits. But there still are many farmers who have not tried cover crops because they are unsure about the costs.

To help answer that question, the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS, has developed a simple digital tool. The Cover Crop Economic Decision Support Tool is a spreadsheet that helps farmers, landowners and others make informed decisions when considering whether to add cover crops to their systems. It was developed by two NRCS economists, Lauren Cartwright, of Missouri, and Bryon Kirwan, of Illinois.

Missouri State Conservationist J.R. Flores explained that the tool offers a partial budget analysis. It focuses only on operational changes that farmers make, things that affect the actual costs and benefits that farmers see when they add cover crops.

“The tool focuses on benefits and costs that can easily be expressed in dollars,” Flores said. “As a natural resources agency, we are excited about the resource benefits realized when farmers utilize cover crops and no-tillage. But we also understand that farmers need to be profitable. We hope that this tool will help farmers see that they don’t have to sacrifice one of those two things to realize the other.”

Cartwright said her inspiration for developing the tool came from attending some of the many soil health workshops throughout the state.

“I would hear the main speakers, farmers who have been using cover crops for many years, talk about how they have no runoff and they are producing corn for less than $2 per bushel. And I found myself thinking ‘That’s good. But how did you get to that point, and how much did it cost to get there?’” she said.

Cartwright said she teamed up with Kirwan to develop the tool because they each brought a different skillset to the process. Kirwan has a strong economic and agronomic background, and owns a farm. Cartwright has degrees in environmental science and economics and is strong in programming. She has used her skills to develop seven other economic tools for NRCS.

The spreadsheet tool that Kirwan and Cartwright developed is designed to measure:
  • Direct nutrient credits
  • Input reductions
  • Yield increases and decreases
  • Seed and establishment costs
  • Erosion reductions
  • Grazing opportunities
  • Overall soil fertility levels
  • Water storage and infiltration improvements
The tool’s analysis depends on data that farmers enter. They can run “what if” scenarios if they want to evaluate a range of values. The tool offers results in both dollars and graphs, showing short-term and long-term benefits.

Cartwright said for most scenarios, the tool shows a clear financial benefit for those who learn to manage cover crops and stick with them. There is a significant jump in benefits over time, primarily because of increased organic matter in the soil. The tool also indicates that short-term costs can be offset by farmers who incorporate grazing of cover crops.

According to NRCS and other research, long-term use of cover crops offers improved profitability because of higher yields and lower input costs. Healthier soil also improves water quality, infiltration, weed and pest control, wildlife habitat, and more.

“Some people view cover crops as a trend,” Flores said. “I think it is much more than that. Farming in ways that improve soil health is coming to the forefront now, but those ways will eventually become commonplace.”

Farmers can download the spreadsheet at:

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