One of the biggest takeaways from our 2021 report, Conservation’s Impact on the Farm Bottom Line, was the reminder that profitable conservation systems do not look the same on every farm since growers implement different strategies to address their specific needs. Farmers in our study achieved profitable conservation systems by aiming to address specific management challenges with in-field conservation practices.

It is critical that we go beyond asking farmers what they are doing and expand to why they are using a certain approach and how that influences their decision making. In this study, this allowed us to uncover that:

Improving soil structure and minimizing passes across the field were some of the most common challenges addressed through conservation approaches.

Growers tend to take a stepwise approach to testing and adopting cover crops, but often transition to conservation tillage all at once.

Farmers had clear goals they wanted to achieve with conservation practices

When deciding which approach to take, how to tailor a practice, and evaluating success, our farmers benefited from clearly defined objectives. Two goals were especially prevalent:

Improving soil structure to help with erosion control and water holding capacity

  • Chris Gaesser explained that extreme rainfall events used to happen every 25 years, and now they seem to come annually. He adopted cover crops to reduce erosion and protect against excess rain.
  • Brian Ryberg uses cover crops and strip-till to help with soil aggregation and to reduce soil compaction/break up any plow pans.

Reducing hours on the tractor to save time, machinery and overhead costs

  • Indiana Farmer set out to reduce overall tillage and help improve soil structure, which he achieved with two fewer passes on soybeans and one fewer on corn. This allowed him to reduce machinery maintenance and overhead costs.
  • Dwight Dial set out to reduce field passes, fuel and time and is evaluating his conservation management practices by asking, “What is the cash outlay, and what will it cost me compared to the benefits?”

Each farmer reached these goals in their own unique way and all have seen positive outcomes as a result of clearly knowing where they wanted to head.

Table 1: Goals for adopting conservation practices
Farmer NameGoal
Ken Rosenow – WisconsinSave time, fuel, equipment and maintenance costs. Increase soil health benefits from no-till by including cover crops. Be able to get back into the field faster after a heavy rainfall.
Ryberg Farms – MinnesotaSave on operating costs and improve soil health.
Minnesota FarmerReduce overall tillage and help improve soil structure. Be more efficient with trips across the field and reduce machinery ownership and overhead costs.
Dwight Dial – IowaReduce fuel costs and time spent on the tractor by using conservation tillage. Improve soil health while keeping costs as low as possible with cover crops.
Gaesser Farms – IowaImprove erosion control with no-till and cover crops and achieve savings on time, fuel, number of field passes. Improve environmental outcomes.
Indiana FarmerDecrease time spent on the tractor while increasing soil water holding capacity and addressing water quality concerns.

Farmers took a stepwise approach to testing and adopting cover crops, while often transitioning to conservation tillage all at once

It is important to understand that there are different financial dynamics at play when comparing conservation approaches. Those dynamics impacted how our farmers implemented a practice, based on their financial goals and comfort levels. It is critical that we go beyond asking farmers what they are doing and expand to why they are using a certain approach and how that influences their decision making. In this study, this allowed us to uncover:

Conservation tillage

Most farmers made a wholesale change with associated equipment updates, with the knowledge that they could achieve short-term cost savings.

Cover crops

Most farmers took a stepwise approach to testing seed varieties, seeding methods, and weed pressure outcomes, with the knowledge that the cost savings and soil health benefits from cover crops take longer.

While we would love to see a broader shift to cover crops, in the same way we see those changes in tillage practices, we found that – as long as expectations are clearly set up front and in alignment with long-term goals – growers are comfortable taking their time to “get it right” so they are confident when they make the choice to rollout the practice on a larger scale. Programs like SHP help make this transition easier by providing support in testing and measuring the outcomes of their adoption of conservation systems.

Farmers prioritize conservation approaches based on specific field characteristics or time/weather constraints

Since most farmers face time and practicality constraints in adopting conservation practices across all acres, our farmers targeted specific fields or prioritized the biggest challenges needing a solution to maximize the effectiveness of their practices. Examples of this included:

Using cover crops in fields with swales to retain soil during heavy rain events

Changing conservation practices based on crop rotation

Choosing to cover crop owned or long-term contracted ground over land with high rent

Although farmers differed on tactics for tailoring their cover crop systems, they all identified the most effective ways to test, adopt, and scale their conservation practices.

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