Profitability is what all growers are aiming for, no matter the crop. However, profitability is a term that is relative when it comes to evaluating the effectiveness of using cover crops.
Over time, covers are giving more in terms of profitability than can be quantified — through improved soil health, increased water holding capacity, organic matter, earthworm activity, more supportive bacteria in the soil, cooler soil temperatures, and more. How do you put a price tag on some of those intangible, but extremely beneficial, qualities?
Determining profitability means that growers must evaluate cover crops over a multi-year timeline, not a one-year cost-and-return analysis. Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SARE) released a report earlier this year titled, “Cover Crop Economics: Opportunities to Improve Your Bottom Line in Row Crops.”
The report says there are a couple of benefits that can be seen in the first year of cover crop use, such as grazing livestock or controlling herbicide-resistant weeds. Depending upon the intended use of the covers, it may take at least 3 years to see quantifiable results. Returns on an investment in cover crops builds year over year, SARE adds, noting the species of cover matters as well.
Another important but difficult-to-measure financial benefit from using cover crops is an increase in cash crop yields. Research done by SARE found growers who used covers had higher yields on both corn and soybeans, even following years with extreme weather conditions such as drought. Because covers also address nutrient imbalances in the soil, covers can help reduce costs for inputs, as less fertilizer may be needed.
Taking a different angle, some cover crops are excellent at helping control weeds. Just think — how many cash-crop plants were enabled to grow and yield because covers were holding back the weeds? SARE research shows planting green into living cover crops reduces weed density by 90% in corn. When considering impact of weeds, growers should also include reduced weed seed contamination dockage at the elevator and labor and equipment costs in addition to reduced input costs.
There are many financial incentives available for planting covers, and those payments should also be factored into any financial analysis. As more landowners become aware of the many benefits of planting cover crops, growers who implement the practice may have an advantage when it comes to securing farmland leases. That edge would certainly help increase profitability.
For those growers who also raise livestock, research by Bismarck State College in North Dakota showed significant financial benefits to grazing livestock on covers. If livestock graze on covers and not baled hay, it can save $200 per head, including seed costs, equipment costs, land rental and other costs needed when raising livestock.
When growers rely on covers for forage instead of hay, there is less need for haying and feeding equipment, less cost for fuel and equipment repairs and maintenance, and less wear and tear on equipment overall. While these factors may not seem like much, over time, they do add up into dollars, which means more dollars in your pocket.
It’s not enough to look at the profitability of cover crops from one angle, or even one year. The investment in covers is a long-term venture that continues to pay back in numerous ways, for years to come.