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The success of a growing season is typically measured by yield, bushels per acre, actual production history (APH) and farm average. It’s commonplace to hear comparisons of these measurements in conversations at the local coffee shop this time of year. The higher the increase in a season, we tell ourselves, the more successful we were. However, I’m going to argue that not seeing a change in those measurements can actually be a good thing. 

When it comes to agriculture, business decisions are made more methodically and emotionally then in most business sectors. The way your farm operates goes back generations – my father did things this way, my grandfather did things this way – and those family ties make operational changes difficult. 

However, in 2020, consumers are demanding more from their products. They want sustainable, renewable, green, organic products that are not only perceived to be good for them, but also good for the environment. At the same time, farmers have begun to realize the importance of resilient soil and that soil health practices are a tool to manage the function of soil and crop productivity.  The bright side here is that, at the Soil Health Partnership, we are seeing positives in these shifts

Since SHP began in 2014, questions from farmers have been, “How have cover crops and no-till trials compared to the normal practices?” And when they talk about comparison to “normal,” they mean one thing: yield. 

Do cover crops pay? Can I afford to no-till? 

After six years of research and studies on more than 200 farms, we are seeing many farms able to maintain their yields when implementing soil health building approaches and, to us, that’s a good thing. Here’s why:

Maintaining yield from the get-go is important because a farmer can confidently make the switch to sustainable practices and know their production will still be there. They can market, plan ahead, and sleep at night knowing their APHs will stay put. Even though our trials show no significant yield loss or change, they are showing big differences when it comes to soil health management factors like soil quality, soil resilience, weed suppression and organic matter…just to name a few.

When we look at these factors, it’s easy to see that yield isn’t the only factor in these decisions anymore. I, for one, have growers who have eradicated herbicide resistant marestail by simply putting down a basic cereal rye cover crop. They’ve eliminated a fall burndown pass and, depending on establishment, a spring burndown when they plant soybeans green, as well. 

I have other growers who experience a more timely harvest and planting time frame on no-till fields – where the soil structure is better than on tilled fields, allowing them to get into the fields sooner and with less ruts and damage during wet harvests. The combination of cover crops and no-till are also helping growers prevent gullying and erosion, especially when weather patterns lately are bringing large quantities of rain at a single time frame compared to 1-2” rains in a timely manner. 

The time has come to reframe our measurement of success. It’s not always about more yield anymore. It can be about less – less weeds, herbicides, fuel, compaction…all while maintaining yield. It can be about more of other things, like lengthening the planting window, better water infiltration, and improved aggregate stability. This fall at the coffee shop, I challenge you to talk about less – as in, what you didn’t do while still maintaining your yields. Not only for our generation of farmers today, but for the generations to come in our ever-changing industry.

Alex Fiock
Alex Fiock
Alex Fiock is a Field Manager for Soil Health Partnership covering northern Indiana and Ohio. He also oversees farm economics work for SHP.