Do Cover Crops Pay?

September 9, 2019

Do Cover Crops “Pay”?
By Kent Solberg, Understanding Ag, LLC
We have all seen the articles and heard the claims: Cover crops have many great benefits. However, from land grant universities to rural cafes people are asking “Yeah, but do cover crops pay?” In other words, is there an immediate return on investment?
You should know that what you are hearing in response to that question may not be accurate.
Many producers using cover crops for the first time have not answered why they are using covers in a particular field. Some simply want to “try covers”, having heard that using covers is “good”, or they are enticed by a cost-share program built under the assumption that anything is better than nothing. Unfortunately, these justifications do not address resource concerns or context.
It’s also important to note that not all cover crops are the same, as issues vary from field to field. Trying “covers” under the assumption all will work the same has led to poor results and unintended consequences. Being unfamiliar with cover crop application, farmers often choose covers based on the “cover crop du jour” as seen in popular articles, advertising, seed companies, what their neighbor used, at a field day, or from bad, uninformed advice. Cover crops must be applied in the context of a particular field and farm.
Context is everything
What do I mean by “context” of the field and farm? You may have heard the claim “all farms are not the same”. This is context. Soil type, crop rotation, topography, available markets, available equipment, labor, availability of custom hire services, farm infrastructure, other farm enterprises, owned or rented land, time of year, and willingness to adjust management will all influence decision making. Prior herbicide use can greatly restrict what we use for covers, particularly if we want to use them as forage or for grazing. Is the farm looking to move to no-till, add a livestock enterprise, bring the next generation into the operation, or expand the crop rotation? All of these factors affect our day-to-day decisions on the farm and will ultimately impact our cover crop selections.

There are instances where soils are so degraded that anything covering the soil is better than nothing, but this is a poor means of making management decisions. We wouldn’t select herbicides or fertilizers based on a “something is better than nothing” philosophy, especially under recent commodity prices, and if we expect to remain in farming for very long.
So, do cover crops pay? The short answer is – it depends. As noted above, context is everything. And not all cover crops are the same. We must choose wisely. We must also assess the value of covers to the resource concerns we are trying to address in a particular field. If we don’t, cover crops can (and probably will) show up simply as just another cost to the operation, especially if attempting economic analysis based on overall improved profitability to the farm. Cover crop use, like other management, must be custom designed to a particular field and farm. One size does not fit all.
Compounding and cascading consequences
We have learned a single tillage pass can negate the soil aggregate building benefits of covers. This management decision negates any ROI to that field and the farm. Under reductionist thinking we are accustomed to making singular decisions and expecting singular results. This reductionist mindset has led us to make decisions that may or may not be true. For example, add more nitrogen, see a higher crop yield. Feed more corn, the steers gain quicker. But the world we live and work in is much more complex. There are compounding and cascading consequences to singular decisions, influencing the more complex system toward the positive or negative. Cover crops function best in the context of the whole. Cover crops are about influencing an entire ecosystem – the soil ecosystem beneath our feet. Our other management decisions will influence the effectiveness of those covers for the positive or negative.

Many have tried to answer the question “do cover crops pay” using a broad brush approach. This approach assumes all cover crops are equally effective in providing a return on investment to the farm. Selecting high carbon cover crops (often perceived as cheap seed on a per pound basis and desirable for someone just starting) can lead to difficulties with subsequent cash crops due to nutrient tie up. While this may be good for a watershed, it can be problematic for the famer. Selecting cover crops with too low a carbon:nitrogen ratio can accelerate residue decomposition, lead to nutrient loss and additional fertilizer costs for the producer. We must look at the broader context beyond simply seed price and “any cover crop is good”.
Contrary to popular belief, cover crops, for all their potential benefits, are not the stand alone fix for every soil related issue, no more than no-till alone is a solution. As illustrated above, misapplication of covers will show up as a bad investment. Cover crops are not soil health; they are a valuable part of the answer if applied in context. Similarly, there is not a single cover crop that will address all concerns in any given field. Dozens of plants can serve as cover crops. Selecting covers is similar to selecting herbicides in that we need to know exactly what are we addressing.
Choose wisely for targeted, positive ROI
Unfortunately, and even dangerously, cover crops are looked upon as the end game for soil health. Cover crops alone will not address degraded soils, despite huge efforts attempting to make that happen. Farmers are often advised to start with a certain cover crop because it may be simple, relatively inexpensive, or hardy. That cover might be the worst cover crop for your situation or it might be the best cover crop. How are we to know? First, we must answer two important questions: What resource concerns am I trying to address on a particular field? How do I address this within the context of my farm?
Broad farm financial analysis will likely not show much positive economic impact when it comes to assessing generic cover crop use. However, if we want to address specific issues within a field such as water infiltration, weed pressure, nutrient cycling to reduce fertilizer costs, or improve soil aggregate structure to utilize no-till planting, we can more accurately select cover crops to help us overcome those issues and document success. We have numerous success stories where adjusting crop management through targeted utilization of cover crops, within the principles of soil health, has attained the goals for a particular field and improved farm profitability.

In short, when we accurately answer what resource concerns we want to tackle on a particular field and formulate that answer within the context of our farm – then, yes, we will see a positive return on investment.
About the author
Kent Solberg and his wife Linda own and operate an award-winning, grass-based livestock farm in west-central Minnesota. He has his B.S. degree from the University of Montana and an M.S. from South Dakota State University. Over the years he has worked with hundreds of farms and served as a college instructor on organic transitions, forages, cover crops, fencing, grazing, livestock management and soil health. Kent currently serves as a consultant with Understanding Ag, the Sustainable Farming Association, Minnesota Dairy Initiatives, and as a Master Grazier for Dairy Grazing Apprenticeships.s.

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