Cover crops can offset risk and improve your bottom line

submitted by Eric Novey, Project Coordinator, Allamakee SWCD

Producing a profit over the past several growing seasons has been a challenge for most farmers. According to Iowa State University’s Department of Economics, “The financial situation of farm proprietors has been erratic over the past decade yielding both historic highs and historic lows. Volatility has been the most striking feature of Iowa agricultural sector performance.” The recent climb in commodity prices has been a welcome sight. However, producers should still seek to protect themselves from market volatility by finding innovative practices that add to their bottom line. Cover crops might be the answer.

Some benefits of cover crops include erosion control, weed suppression, improved soil structure, increased water infiltration, and nutrient capture from leaching. Many producers are aware of the benefits however, the added cost is still enough to deter many producers.

In a recent study conducted by The Soil Health Partnership, spanning seven states and various operation sizes, producers who utilized cover crops made an additional $40 per acre compared to conventional producers. Additionally, producers who had used cover crops for five years or longer, were seeing reduced expenses on fertilizer, seed, fuel, equipment, and maintenance.  

One innovative way in way to add cover crops, as well as profit, to your operation is to harvest them for forage. Adam Schulte, an organic dairy farmer near Dorchester, Iowa seeded twelve acres of multispecies cover crop mix on September 23rd last fall. The mix consisted of 50 lbs./ac rye, 1.5 lbs./ac radish, and 1.5 lbs./ac rapeseed.

Prior to seeding, Schulte injected seven thousand gallons per acre of liquid manure. The cover crop was chopped for silage this spring May 11 when the rye reached the early boot stage. Rye can be harvested earlier than the boot stage for higher forage quality with reduced yields.

“I know we could have harvested it sooner, but we were after the best of both worlds and I think we hit it this year”, said Schulte. “We chopped at a one-inch cut length and 70% moisture, that filled the bag like a dream” Schulte added.

The cover crop mix produced 2.25 tons per acre of dry yield. Forage analysis results showed a 115 relative feed value (RFV), 155 relative feed quality (RFQ), 64 total digestible nutrients (TDN), and 14.1% crude protein.

“We really lucked out with the weather; you go into the season with a plan, but you just never know what’s going to happen. The cover crop put on a lot of growth last fall and that continued into this spring” said Schulte.

This system allows Schulte added flexibility and additional windows to apply manure. He plans to go back on the same acres yet this spring and seed a mix of field peas and oats, one of his personal favorites.

Uncertainty has been the theme so far this year. Volatile commodity markets and weather patterns have made farming difficult. Please consider adopting cover crops to offset the risks and increase your bottom line.

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