The past decade has brought about tremendous information and rediscovery of the benefits of using cover crops. The interest in this key component of increasing soil health is readily apparent with the number of workshops, field days, meetings, articles and success stories being shared.

With all of the benefits that cover crops provide, usually the first concerns are the added costs and if the cover crop will meet the budget. However, this focus is often a result of not accounting for both sides of the equation from an economic analysis standpoint.

To help guide the decision-making process of adding cover crops, two Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) economists — Lauren Cartwright of Missouri and Bryon Kirwan of Illinois — developed the Cover Crop Economics Decision Support Tool.

This Excel-based spreadsheet is free and walks farmers through the considerations of the positive and negative impacts of cover crops. Questions range from the costs to establish the cover crop (seed, planting, termination costs, etc.) and any expected yield drags or yield boosts on commodity crops, to the assigned values on the expected benefits.

Will cover crops reduce fertilizer, herbicide, or pesticide inputs? Will the cover crops be grazed? These costs and benefits are all there and can be tailored based upon the values that a producer feels are realistic.

The model is built as a partial-budgeting analysis of one change the landowner makes to his operation, i.e., adding covers versus no covers. It isn’t meant to capture or measure every intricacy of a complex operation, but rather the impact of making one change to the management system.

It is a science-based model. It focuses on the costs and benefits from inputs by the user. Adding cover crops may bring many other benefits beyond what the tool is capturing, such as reducing wind erosion, filtering of run-off, and improvements to off-site water quality, or restored wildlife habitat.

It is a very conservative model, as the aforementioned benefits are not directly calculated. Due to the conservative nature of the tool, immediate benefits may not be recognized until implementation of the practice is in place. This may take a few years to see positive results in the short-term.

However, the long-term financial benefits will be recognized. It is all based on increasing your organic matter which takes time. If you use this tool, you’ll see the results for yourself and they should be quite motivating!

The flexibility and producer-input portion of this tool is perhaps a double-edged sword. On one hand, the flexibility is there to be as progressive or as conservative as preferred by the farmer. They can develop multiple “what if” scenarios, from very optimistic to pessimistic changes over a given rotation and look at the results for each.

On the other hand, the tool may seem overwhelming. A webinar is available for viewing and if the instructions are followed, it will be less daunting.

To help get the most out of the tool, and make the best management decisions possible, there are a few resources available. The Cover Crop Economics Decision Support Tool is located here. A 60-minute video demonstration of the tool and other helpful resources are also available here.