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Conservation farmer shares cover crop economics

Will cover crops pay? It’s an often-asked question today. While it sounds simple, it’s complex. For example, will cover crops pay the first year? Will they return more profit per acre through more yield? Through lower input costs? Are you willing to put value on soil health improvements? In that case, will they pay long term?

At a recent meeting, an agricultural economist and an agronomist tag-teamed to attempt to answer these questions. The economist didn’t assign value to soil health benefits. He didn’t give credit for pounds of nitrogen retained in cover crops, since it was unclear when they would return to the soil. Yield based on a compilation of Midwest studies over time was negative, so he showed a loss. Only when he added back yield for corn based on experiments showing an increase in yield following cereal rye when nitrogen was added as starter did he show a breakeven for cover crops.

The result? At least one farmer who was questioning the value of cover crops before the meeting felt justified after hearing the presentation. His takeaway was that cover crops are, at best, a wash.

That’s not what Carter Morgan tells people, and he has yield and cost data from his own farm to back it up. Morgan farms with his family, including his brother Brent, dad Brian and uncle Darrell, in Vermillion County, Ind. The farming operation went to 100% no-till in 2006 and started sowing cover crops in 2011. Today, they’re 100% no-till and use cover crops on 90% of their acres.

Morgan, a 2013 Purdue University graduate, also works part time for the Vermillion County Soil and Water Conservation District. He visits farmers and encourages them to try no-till and cover crops.

Economic message

“I share our numbers,” Morgan says. “Everything we try certainly doesn’t work every time, but you keep trying new things. 2019 was a difficult year, but we still learned some things.”

Check the table below to see how their corn yielded planted into various cover crops, or no cover crop, in 2019. Corn planted into cereal rye, not always his No. 1 choice for corn, produced the highest yield and most profit — $93.40 per acre more compared to corn planted after no cover crop. Corn planted after a six-way cover crop mix bested no cover with an over-$60-per-acre profit.

A three-way mix of oats, radishes and crimson clovers was $25 per acre better in profit than no cover. Corn planted following a summer mix of cover crops yielded less and showed a net loss compared to no cover crop.

 Morgan Farms 2019

“We’ve cut back on cereal rye seeding rate when we use it ahead of corn, from 30 to 15 pounds per acre,” Morgan says. “We try to keep cover crop seed costs to a reasonable level.”

Cover crop seed costs have risen slightly over the past few years. Still, the mixes they typically use, even at 2019 prices, cost only $12 to $15 per acre.

Morgan invites people to reach out to him at [email protected].

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