So many stories these days talk about cover crops and soil health. But the question on everyone’s mind is the issue of cost and return — do cover crops really pay? 

“You want a firm answer that’s based on science, research and reality?” asks Ivan Dozier, State Conservationist for Illinois Natural Resources Conservation Service. “Here is the answer…’probably.’ But then, only if you follow the right guidance, manage the cover crops carefully, and are patient.” 

NRCS offers Illinois farmers this advice:

1. Follow the instructions/conventions.

There is no getting around it — growers and conservationists have identified successful methods for using cover crops.  You have to know why you’re planting them and what species will deliver the desired results. This is not a trendy decision; it is a goal and objective that you set. Do you need roots that bust through a compacted layer or are you scavenging nitrogen?  Identify your problem and pick the species or mix that solves it.

2. Manage carefully.

One of the toughest parts of cover crops is the short planting window when used in row crop operations.  These can be compounded by risk of rain or lack thereof, harvest delays and multiple other factors you cannot control.  Start ‘small’ to learn how these interactions will affect your operation.  And be sure to plan for termination of the cover crop. This is as crucial as getting it planted.

3. Be patient.

Many soil health concerns will require more than one year to correct. Other concerns, such as erosion, may provide gains within the first year. Understand that the processes regarding the soil are not fast and may be difficult to measure.

4. Consider livestock.

One of the fastest ways to generate economic returns is to have livestock be able to use and benefit from the cover crops in addition to the soil. The quantity and quality of cover crops can offset hay and pasture needs for a portion of the year. Some producers have reported first year economic gains due to livestock utilization.

5. Consider alternative rotations.

To try and take advantage of a longer growing season for cover crops and increase potential benefits from them, some growers add crops beyond corn and soybeans to their rotation. Forages, wheat and harvest of cover crop for seed are some options farmers pursue. 

6. Use modern tools. 

Take advantage of the expertise in the Midwest Cover Crop Council. Their website has specific seed, seed mixes and timing information, and offers a Crop Selector Tool for the following states/provinces: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Ontario and Wisconsin. Another helpful tool is the NRCS Cover Crop$ Tool. According to Dozier, this tool offers guidance for time frames, direct nutrient credits, inputs and potential reductions, fertility benefits, water storage, and erosion considerations. Growers can use their own data to generate financial estimates for site-specific operational changes based on their inputs.

7. Seek a mentor. 

Find someone locally who is successfully using cover crops and talk to them.  Find out what is working and what can cause difficulty.  

“Most farmers I’ve met who believe in cover crops and have seen soil improvements are usually pretty excited about what they have learned.  They’ll be glad to tell you about it,” Dozier adds.