24. Maria Bowman & Vincent Gauthier – Why Digging Into Farm Financial Data Makes a Difference in Conservation Agriculture

Conservation practices sound nice…but what is the financial impact?

That is a question we get asked about a lot. While there’s a lot of discussion in agriculture, environmental and policy circles about implementing conservation practices, the reality is that sustainability goals have to match up with farmers’ need to run profitable operations. That is why Soil Health Partnership recently embarked on a project – in partnership with Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and agricultural accounting firm K·Coe Isom – to analyze the financial impact of these practices on real, working farms.

In this episode of The People of Soil Health, host John Mesko sits down with Dr. Maria Bowman of SHP and Vincent Gauthier of EDF – lead authors on the new report, Conservation’s Impact on the Farm Bottom Line – to discuss their findings.

“There’s been a lot of interest from SHP farmers, our funders, and our partners to do more work to understand some of these financial challenges and opportunities related to soil health practices and conservation practices,” Bowman said. “Although we already collect some economic and management data from farmers at SHP, we are still a long way from getting very precise information about farm budgets across all of our farms. I had already had some conversations with Vincent and Maggie Monast about the work that EDF was doing and some of the work [they were] interested in doing. I knew that they shared our take on the need to do a deep dive into the numbers to understand some of these complex systems, and the financial dynamics associated with them.”

As the project team did that deep dive into the financial records of seven Midwest farmers, they identified three big takeaways around:

“We hope that, by showing it in a full budget form like we have – showing all of the line items like we have in the report – that this will help farmers plan and have better expectations ahead of time of what the financial outcomes [of conservation practices] look like,” Gauthier said.

Check out the full episode of The People of Soil Health in the player above or in your favorite podcast app. You can also dig into the report Conservation’s Impact on the Farm Bottom Line by visiting soilhealthpartnership.org/farmfinance or watching a replay of our January 2021 Soil Sessions webinar.  

Using conservation programs to offset the cost of cover crops

Business Case: Dwight Dial


Dwight Dial farms with his family in Iowa where they grow corn and soybeans and raise hogs and sheep. The data shared below were collected as part of a 2021 report, Conservation's Impact on the Farm Bottom Line.

Farmer Profile

  • Owner: Dwight Dial
  • Farm size: 640 acres
  • Crops grown: corn, soybeans
  • Conservation practices: no-till, strip-till, cover crops
  • Conservation goals: implement cover crops in a way that is profitable

Dwight Dial achieves a profitable conservation system by implementing reduced tillage and leveraging conservation program funding while he adopts new practices and identifies the most economical approach for his farm.

About the Conservation System

  • Uses no-till to reduce passes and challenges with rains before planting
  • Began cover crops on fields that were eligible for conservation funding support – has now increased to cover cropping over 300 acres
  • Continually improves his cover crop seed mix by testing what will work with his management system and also meet NRCS and other program requirements – primarily uses cereal rye and rapeseed due to cost-effectiveness, but has also used turnips and oats in the past
  • Cost factors heavily into cover crop choice – Dwight uses “the cheapest cover crop that will do the job and meet requirements” of NRCS and Iowa Soybean programs
  • Has started planting the cash crop directly into the cover crop (i.e., planting green) and then terminates the cereal rye at a time when he is already spraying for weeds in order to keep cover crop management costs down
Dwight Dial shows crop residue in his conservation system. Photo credit: Iowa Corn

profitability impacts

Dwight Dial operates one of the lowest cost operations in our study, while maintaining comparable yields. As Table 1 shows, Dwight’s direct costs for corn fields with cover crops range between $320/acre and $345/acre, almost $100 below the average cover cropper in our study. Dwight has achieved such low costs for a few different reasons. First, his no-till system has very low fuel and equipment costs compared to the rest of the sample. Second, his herbicide costs are much lower than his peers at $13/acre for corn and $17/acre for soybeans. This low herbicide cost may be due to his practice of planting green (although, in some cases, this may also reduce yields).

Table 1. Dwight Dial's 2019 corn crop budgets

MetricsNo-Till + Cover Crops + Manure ApplicationNo-Till + Cover Crops (Field 1)No-Till + Cover Crops (Field 2)
Yield (bu/acre)196205233
Gross Income/Acre$695.80$727.75$827.15
Cover crop seed$13.90$13.90
Seed treatment/tech fees$31.93$31.93
Fertilizer – N$34.00$68.00
Fertilizer – P&K$0.00$33.17
Fertilizer – Other$92.83$0.00
Machine hire/application$13.50$13.50
Direct costs per acre$345.78$320.12
Net returns per acre$350.02$407.63$507.03

Dwight took a stepwise approach to adopting cover crops based on availability of funding to support new adoption. He has tapped into additional revenue for cover crops by tailoring his approach to meet conservation program requirements (e.g., planting dates, termination timing). He started out using cover crops on a small number of acres to help manage costs and, over time, expanded cover crops to acres that were eligible for specific programs once he better understood the most cost-effective approaches to seed and termination expenses.

Table 2. Dwight Dial's 2019 cover crop costs



Dwight participates in four different programs that provide payments for implementing specific cover crops or cover crop mixes. Two of these programs – the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) – are administered at the federal level. Although both of these programs are run through NRCS, they differ in that EQIP is designed for acres that have not previously had a cover crop implemented, and CSP is designed to keep acres cover cropped that had previously been cover cropped by encouraging farmers to “enhance” their existing practices.

In addition to federal programs, Dwight also participates in the North Raccoon Farm to River Partnership, a state program targeted at improving water quality through cover crops and other practices, and receives a $5/acre crop insurance premium discount for cover cropping. Aside from the $5/acre crop insurance premium discount, Dwight can’t receive two conservation payments on the same acre – so different portions of his operation are enrolled in EQIP, CSP, and the Farm to River Partnership. 

Collectively, these programs mean that, on a number of acres, Dwight receives approximately $25/acre in financial assistance for cover cropping. While this doesn’t fully cover the costs of implementing the cover crop, Dwight notes a number of other benefits from his soil health management system and sees participating in these programs as one way to partially offset the costs of implementing the practice.

Table 3. Conservation programs that Dwight Dial participates in to offset costs of implementing cover crops/be compensated for his cover crop practices

Even with these expenses, Dwight estimates that his no-till and cover crop system has provided important cost savings compared to the conventional system he used in the past. Table 2 describes the savings he estimates are due to his conservation practices.

Table 4. Dwight Dial's estimated cost savings from conservation tillage and cover crops (negative numbers represent a negative cost savings (i.e., an expense) associated with conservation practices for the crop)

Want to learn more about conservation practices and farm finances?

Dig into our report Conservation's Impact on the Farm Bottom Line!

Finding the most cost-effective approach to cover crops through experimentation


This Indiana farmer was featured in our recent report, Conservation’s Impact on the Bottom Line. He has requested that his financial information is reported anonymously, so he will be referred to only by his state and ‘Indiana Farmer.’ Learn more about findings from that report here.

Farmer Profile

  • Farm size: 5,800 acres
  • Crops grown: corn, soybeans, seed beans, wheat
  • Conservation practices: no-till, strip-till, cover crops
  • Conservation goals: reduce overall tillage, improve soil structure while reducing machinery and overhead costs

Indiana Farmer sees cover crops as a long-term investment, but recognizes that timing and logistics can be challenging. That's one of the reasons he has prioritized data collection efforts with SHP.

“The big thing we were interested in was trying out strip-tillage and cover crops. We didn’t want to just jump into it and go full bore. We wanted to see how things worked for us, rather than just spending a lot of money up front." – Indiana Farmer

About the Conservation System

  • Started working with strip-till, no-till and cover crops three years ago
  • Evaluating cover crop management before expanding to additional acres
  • Began experimenting with cover crops on 25 acres, but have expanded to 5% of their ground
  • Cover crops are targeted to acres that could benefit the most from erosion control
  • Partnering with SHP on a 70-acre strip trial comparing conventional tillage, strip-tillage with cover crops, and no-till with cover crops

profitability impacts

With only three years of experience with cover crops, Indiana Farmer is still identifying the best recipe for his farm and weather conditions. Figure 1 denotes Indiana Farmer’s crop budgets for corn fields with conventional tillage, strip-till without cover crops, and strip-till with cover crops.

While he does have cost savings from conservation tillage, as compared to his conventionally tilled fields, he has not yet found the input savings seen by experienced cover croppers. Indiana Farmer pays $30 per acre for his cover crop seed, higher than most farmers in our study, and has made one extra burndown pass on both corn and soybeans to terminate cover crops and clean up the seedbed.

As Indiana Farmer tests different cover cropping methods, he is financially supported by USDA cost-share payments of $10.80 per acre for cover crops through the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP).

Indiana Farmer 2019 crop budgets

Indiana Farmer is working directly with SHP staff to identify ways to improve his cover crop system and save costs. One of the biggest adaptations he is considering is moving from aerial application (which costs $10/acre) to a more direct method, either through a high-boy applicator to get the seed directly on the ground, a fertilizer spreader truck, or through a high-speed disk and box. In addition to cost savings, Indiana Farmer believes a change in seeding method could also increase stand count and plant vigor, ultimately increasing nitrogen uptake and minimizing nutrient loss to the environment.

Want to learn more about conservation practices and farm finances?

Dig into our report Conservation's Impact on the Farm Bottom Line!

With cover crop experience comes efficiency

Business Case: Gaesser Farms


Chris Gaesser, alongside his family, owns and operates Gaesser Farms in Iowa. The data shared below were collected as part of a 2021 report, Conservation's Impact on the Farm Bottom Line.

Farmer Profile

  • Owners: Chris Gaesser
  • Farm size: 4,855 acres
  • Crops grown: corn, soybeans
  • Conservation practices: no-till, cover crops
  • Conservation goals: implement cover crops on a large scale in a cost-effective manner without significant external funding programs, prevent erosion

One of Chris’s primary goals in working with cover crops was to implement them in a cost-effective way across large areas of his farm – and he wanted to know that the cover crop system was financially sustainable without large financial incentives.

About the Conservation System

  • Committed to identifying cost efficiencies in their system, which has been key to getting cover crops on more acres
  • Tailors cover crop usage across farms they operate based on time constraints and cost-effectiveness, prioritizing owned fields and fields under long-term contracts
  • Originally planted annual ryegrass, but eventually transitioned to cereal rye
  • Moved from aerial application of cover crop seed to broadcasting and drilling
  • Trialing seeding cover crops into standing soybeans toward the end of the season
Chris Gaesser evaluates cover crop growth in his conservation system. Photo Credit: Iowa Corn

profitability impacts

One of Chris’s primary goals in working with cover crops was to implement them in a cost-effective way across large areas of his farm – and he wanted to know that the cover crop system was financially sustainable without large financial incentives. “We wanted to know that the management system would work, even without program funding,” Chris told us. In order to make cover crops financially sustainable, he has:

Selected a species that gives the biggest bang for the buck.

Although they began working with annual ryegrass, they found it to be difficult to terminate and not very cold tolerant. They also tried oats, but finally settled on cereal rye due to its ability to overwinter, strong growth in the spring, ease of termination and cost effectiveness.

Reduced cost of application by moving away from aerial seeding and using existing equipment.

Over time, Chris moved from aerial application of cover crop seed, which he found to be costly and inconsistent, to broadcasting and drilling the seed himself. He is trialing seeding cover crops into standing soybeans toward the end of the season, using the same tracks as the last spray pass to protect soybean yield. These efficiencies have been key to getting cover crops out on more acres.

Reduced costs by growing their own cover crop seed.

Chris’s seed costs are lower ($7/acre) than most of the farmers we worked with for this study because he grows his own cereal rye cover crop seed on approximately 100-150 acres (he also generates additional income by selling the seed they don’t use). Keeping seed costs down also drives savings when considering the large number of acres Gaesser Farms cover crops. In order to offset the opportunity costs of growing their own seed, Chris notes that they grow cover crop seed on acres they want to make improvements on or marginal ground they are trying to bring into the cash crop rotation.

Gaesser Farms 2019 crop budgets

“We wanted to know that the management system would work, even without program funding.” – Chris Gaesser



While Chris prioritizes owned land and ground under long-term contracts because it makes the most sense cost-wise, he is committed to communicating the benefits of cover cropping to the landowners he rents from. He highlights cover cropping as a way to preserve their assets through better soil health – making the land more manageable and forgiving, both in drought and wet conditions.

Want to learn more about conservation practices and farm finances?

Dig into our report Conservation's Impact on the Farm Bottom Line!

What the Iowa Derecho Taught Us

In the weeks and months following the mighty winds that swept through central and eastern Iowa in August – known as a ‘derecho’ event – many farmers have been left with devastation to both crops and property. Many fields were completely destroyed. Of Iowa’s 99 counties, 36 were hardest hit and an estimated 3.57 million acres corn and 2.5 million acres soybeans were damaged, accounting for approximately 20% of Iowa’s cropland. Estimates range from 200-400 million bushels of grain was lost from the event. Additionally, the sustained winds of 60-100 mph caused damage to numerous grain storage facilities, totaling approximately 100 million bushels of storage potential just ahead of harvest time.

While derechos don’t happen regularly, severe weather events seem to be more and more frequent. So, in this post, I wanted to share a few lessons we learned, in the hopes that they might help someone else in the future.

Insurance options on crop land

While short-term questions were answered by local agronomists and insurance adjusters, many growers are interested in future events and how to best mitigate against crop loss. Based on insurance determinations, corn growers were offered to harvest at a severe loss or crop-destruct and collect based on a range of recent crop production data points.

Most farmers in the Midwest have crop insurance in one form or another to protect themselves and their crop from naturally occurring events like flood, drought, hail and wind. However, not all growers purchase all options for every acre. Incremental-occurrence insurance can get costly, especially when margins are lower like they have been the past few years. Trying to cover all possible scenarios in a growing cycle can quickly outweigh returns. Multi-peril options can cover a variety of combinations up to complete coverage for a farm to mitigate against yield loss and loss of revenue.

Attributing actual yield loss for the crop this year was difficult. Much of Iowa had already been under severe drought conditions leading up through June, July and August. Though the derecho caused significant damage to the plant with widespread lodging, the corn plant’s seed-set had been established. Projected yield was already determined by the time of the event – August 10 – and the growth stage was transitioning within R3 (milk) and R4 (dough) stages. A rough estimate of the plant’s yield potential was already projected up until the event, but still needed help finishing out.

My big takeaway from Iowa’s experience was to always have a good relationship with your insurance partner, but also know that they’re always happy to sell you something new. Make sure you are clear on what each product covers (some products sound like they cover what you’re looking for, but they actually don’t) and double-check that all scenarios are spelled out before making a decision to purchase. Be smart about it, but remember: extreme weather events are becoming more frequent, and insurance against those can help protect your operation’s long-term viability. 

Management decisions after mid-season destruction

Growers were challenged with how to handle their acres after receiving confirmation numbers from insurance claims. If a field was determined to be ‘totalled’ or ‘zeroed’ by the adjuster, he could till the crop in and collect the insurance or wait for a suitable harvest window and combine, haul, and store the grain. Those who opted to till in the downed corn will face a challenge next season with volunteer seed germinating and becoming a weed in the next cash crop. Those who attempted harvest saw more challenges with a significantly slowed harvest pace from one-directional harvesting, greatly increased disease pressure from hail-damaged ears and lodged corn stalks, as well as the added volunteer corn risk the next year from fallen ears at harvest.

“Expect the unexpected” is thrown around a lot but – in this type of situation – it’s true. What we learned with the derecho is, while we want to continue planning for the year like normal, we need to have enough knowledge and flexibility to adjust the plan in case of loss due to flood, wind or drought (at any time of the year). Remember that trying to maximize economic returns on your farmland (beyond simply chasing yield) requires agility and preparation throughout the year – not just in the spring.

Soil health: tillage decisions with downed corn

One thing to consider when challenged with a downed-corn scenario is the potential to improve or maintain soil health. We know having live roots in the soil, maintaining ground cover, and minimizing tillage are significant tools to help build good soil health. When challenged with flat corn mid-season (after pollination), growers need to break open the stalks to promote decomposition while also minimizing soil disruption. 

Remember: we do not want to sacrifice long-term soil health for a one-time event. A grower may be tempted to incorporate the downed crop into the ground to accelerate breakdown of plant biomass and germinate downed grain. However, turning over the soil can destroy the work of building good soil structure and negatively impact the biome for our beneficial microbes. Additionally, an early season (V2-V6) herbicide pass to control the volunteer corn will almost certainly be a part of the following year’s management plan (with a second pass highly likely), so burying the seed is not critical to ensuring a quality crop the following year.

Vertical tilling offers the chance to chop and size the residue while also leaving the ground largely untouched. Crop destruction earlier in the life cycle – further from maturity – also alleviates the growth potential of the corn seed the following season. The challenge this year was the timing of both the event and the delayed response and confirmation from insurance companies. The large volume of service calls meant that many growers did not have their answer in writing early enough after the event to move quickly. You should never till under a crop with just a verbal confirmation from the adjuster – always have it in writing!

Soil health: cover crop seeding options in high residue

The second opportunity to build soil health in a downed-corn situation is with cover crop seeding. The sooner the cover crop can be seeded and start establishing roots, the better. Many growers like to fly on cover crops with aerial seeders or high-clearance ground seeders. When a crop is destroyed mid-season, we have a lot of residue to consider. Ensuring good seed-to-soil contact is critical when seeding cover crops, so drilling may be a better option if a grower must contend with significant residue on top of the ground. Some research has shown that aerial applying the cover crop seed PRIOR to tillage in a downed-corn scenario has good results. This is because, while the corn is lodged, it is not yet flat on the ground and seeds dropping from altitude can still reach the soil. Chopping the stalks shortly thereafter can help put some soil on top while also creating space for the plant to grow. Dropping seed on top of the chopped residue does not let the seed get that good soil contact.

A good density of cover crops will help keep the soil and residue from eroding, tie-up the nutrients in the soil and help with some weed competition the next season. Planning for a corn-selective herbicide the following year would be a good decision as volunteers should be expected. All these elements will help build the soil health of the field and protect the resiliency of the following crop year. Some growers noticed an increased standability in acres where cover crops had been used for several years versus those that had been conventional. Though the ground with high soil health may not prevent complete loss in events like sustained straight-line winds, they do provide the foundation for resiliency of long-term farming success.

Digging In

Continuing to look forward to future events allows growers to start making plans. With the adjusting climate conditions, we should continue to expect to see more severe weather events that have potential to negatively affect crop production. Mitigating your risk to these events will ensure long-term viability of your operation. Be sure to strategize with your team of professionals to build a plan that best suits your operation, but does not leave you vulnerable to one-off scenarios. Crop insurance plans can vary in size and scope and may not cover what occurs, but building soil health maximizes your land’s resiliency. Consider including the use of cover crops for both the protection of your land and your bottom line.

Increasing profitability through decreasing tillage

Business Case: Ryberg Farms


Brian and Sandy Ryberg farm 5,300 acres in south-central Minnesota. Farming since 1986, Brian took ownership of the operation in 1997 and today they grow corn, soybeans, and sugar beets. Soil health and conservation are important to the Rybergs. They enrolled in an SHP on-farm trial in 2018 and were recognized in 2019 with SHP’s Seeds of Change award for their contribution to collaborative efforts to educate farmers about soil health practices.

The data shared here were collected as part of a 2021 report, Conservation's Impact on the Farm Bottom Line.

Farmer Profile

  • Owners: Brian and Sandy Ryberg
  • Farm size: 5,300 acres
  • Crops grown: Corn, soybeans, sugar beets
  • Conservation practices: Strip-till, no-till, cover crops
  • Conservation goals: Save costs, improve soil health through reduced disturbance and increased cover

Brian and Sandy Ryberg care deeply about soil health and conservation. As a part of the recent report, Conservation's Impact on the Farm Bottom Line, they shared their financial data to help others learn about the economic impacts of their soil health approach.

About the Conservation System

  • Use an ETS SoilWarrior® XS 24-row/22-inch strip-till bar with two fertilizer tanks and variable-rate capabilities 
  • Strip-till in the fall with P&K and sometimes micronutrient applications 
  • Plant directly into the strips in the spring with no additional tillage passes
  • Interseed a mix of annual ryegrass, hairy vetch, turnip, and rapeseed into corn (at V-6, approx. eight inches tall) while sidedressing nitrogen
  • If the cover crop is well established after corn harvest, they no-till the following spring’s soybeans
  • Seed cereal rye after sugar beet harvest to protect against wind erosion
Brian Ryberg evaluating soil health
Brian Ryberg the soil in a no-till field with an emerging corn crop.

profitability impacts

The Rybergs have a profitable strip-till and cover crop system, primarily due to fuel and equipment cost savings combined with conservation program revenues.

25% reduction in field passes led to a 60% decrease in fuel consumption (approx. $52.50/acre saved)

Further savings (approx. $20/acre) realized when cover crop is well established and Brian can no-till soybeans

Moved from two four-wheel-drive (4WD) tractors at 400 hours/year to one 4WD tractor at 200 hours/year (approx. $25.31-$36.59/acre – or $103,800-$150,000 per year – saved)

Estimated using Machinery Cost Estimates from The Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics at the University of Illinois.

For using cover crops, USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) provides $18/acre and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) provides $40,000 for 1,500 acres (~$27 per acre)

Estimated strip-till equipment savings for Ryberg Farms

Financial InformationConventional TillageStrip-Till
Total cost per acre (overhead, labor, fuel)$173-$250 (lower end assumes a 370 HP tractor; higher end assumes a 620 HP tractor)
Number of hours400200
Number of tractors21
Number of acres4,1004,100
Total cost per acre$33.75-$48.78$8.44-$12.19
Cost savings per acre$25.31-$36.59
Cost savings per year$103,800-$150,000

“By using conservation tillage practices and cover crops, we've been able to save substantially on fuel, equipment and repair costs. Plus, this practices have had may other soil health benefits, including improved water holding capacity and better drained seedbeds.” – Brian Ryberg



In addition to cost savings from reduced tillage, Brian has seen other benefits from conservation practices including improved water holding capacity, more water infiltration, improved soil structure, better drained seed beds and weed suppression. He hopes that, by connecting soil health to financial data, farmers can have more intentional conversations with lenders. 

“If I am showing an entry for cover crop seed, how do I show something on the income side to offset that?” Ryberg said. “There are hidden numbers there, and I hope someday we can quantify that.” SHP and EDF believe that, by measuring financial outcomes of conservation production systems, it will help farmers work with their financial partners to recognize the cost savings that are associated with cover crops, and not just the upfront costs.

Want to learn more about conservation practices and farm finances?

Dig into our report Conservation's Impact on the Farm Bottom Line!

Cover Crops Can be Part of a Profitable System, Especially as Experience Grows

The role of experience in the profitability of cover crop systems was one of the key findings that arose from our 2021 report, Conservation’s Impact on the Farm Bottom Line. We found that:

Unlike the immediate cost savings of conservation tillage, cover crops have annual costs, and efficiencies and soil health benefits can take time to achieve

Farmers with many years of cover crop experience are more profitable than farmers who have recently adopted cover crops

Reducing cover crop and input costs is critical to cover crop profitability

Net returns on cover crop fields are affected by years of experience with the practice

Farmers in our study used a variety of cover crop species and planting methods. Table 1 below describes each farmer’s management goal, years of experience and management strategy for cover crops. On average, per-acre cover crop seed costs for our farmers were $14.86 plus $9.12/acre to apply (though these costs varied widely). This is consistent with a 2019 survey of more than 80 SHP farmers across 11 states who reported median seed and application costs of $15/acre and $12/acre, respectively.

Table 1: Cover crop goals and systems used by participating farmers from Soil Health Partnership
Farmer NameIssue they were trying to solve/management goalYears of experienceCover crop acresCover crop typeSeeding method
Ken Rosenow – WisconsinErosion control and community goals of improved water quality5204Cereal rye ($25/acre)Aerial, contracted ($20/acre)
Peter Rost – MissouriNot provided51,362Not provided($15/acre)
Ryberg Farms – MinnesotaSoil health and cost savings72,900Annual ryegrass, hairy vetch, turnip, and rapeseed mix ($4/acre)Interseeded by broadcast with incorporations, self-applied ($15/acre)
Minnesota FarmerIncrease water holding capacity and improve water quality4107Cereal rye ($16/acre)Drilled, self-applied ($16/acre)
Dwight Dial – IowaImprove soil health while reducing costs8317Cereal rye and rapeseed mix ($13.90/acre)Aerial, contracted ($12.75/acre)
Gaesser Farms – IowaErosion control104,855Cereal rye ($7/acre)Drilled, self-applied ($20/acre)
Indiana FarmerImprove soil structure and reduce erosion3188Oats, crimson clover, radish and rapeseed mix ($25.07/acre)Aerial, contracted ($10/acre)

We separated the experienced and recent cover crop adopters (>5 and up to 5 years of experience, respectively) to demonstrate differences in costs that may occur as farmers gain more experience with integrating cover crops into their management systems.

Figure 1 shows a graph of total revenues (tallest, light green part of the bar), production costs (negative, brown part of the bar), and net revenues (total revenues minus costs, indicated by the dark green portion of the bar). Said differently, the dark green bars are the difference between the top number on the graph (the total revenues) and the costs (indicated by the negative bar). This graph and the following one (Figure 2) show that decreased costs – not increased revenues – are driving profitability for experienced cover crop adopters.

When we look at Figure 1, we see that corn fields with cover crops had lower net returns ($307/acre) than fields without ($377/acre) when all farmers are grouped together. Experienced cover croppers had higher net returns ($363/acre) than recent adopters ($267/acre). The experienced cover croppers had higher net returns than fields with conventional tillage and no cover crops ($324/acre).

Figure 1: Net returns for corn, by tillage and cover crop groups

Soybean fields with cover crops also had lower returns ($173/acre) than conservation tillage ($251/acre) and conventional fields without cover crops ($216/acre), but experienced cover crop adopters show substantially higher net revenue ($251/acre) than recent adopters ($123/acre). For soybeans, experienced adopters of cover crops had some of the highest net returns in our study (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Net returns for soybeans, by tillage type and cover crop groups

A note on yield:
In this study, differences in profitability related to cover crops appear to be largely dependent on reducing input costs, since yield differences were not significant in most cases (regardless of whether the comparison was among cover crop users vs. non-users or experienced vs. recent adopters). SHP is conducting cover crop strip trials on several of the farms participating in this study, results of which are included in Figures 3. While these results indicate the potential for a yield boost with cover crops in SHP research trials, any yield differences at the farm scale were not large enough to drive profitability results in this study.

Figure 3: 2019 yield comparison for participating farmers with cover crop trials

The reality of up-front investments in cover crops can’t be ignored

The financial dynamics of adopting cover crops are less straightforward than for conservation tillage. Unlike the immediate equipment, fuel and repair savings found with conservation tillage, working with cover crops often means increased annual costs in the form of seed, labor and machinery – and it takes time to discover the right combination of practices for your farm.

In the short term, cover crop costs often outweigh the readily available benefits (as evidenced by one of the farmers in this study, Indiana Farmer, who is still in the early phase of cover crop adoption). However, when approached as a long-term investment that can provide sustained benefits from soil health and soil function over time, there is evidence1 that the profitability dynamics of cover crops begin to look more favorable.

Even though the long-term benefits of cover cropping are well established2, it is important to measure the short-term costs incurred, understand how these may prevent farmers from adopting this practice, and identify ways to support farmers through the short-term costs in order to realize the long-term savings and benefits. Some key things to keep in mind when it comes to cover crop transitions include:

Cover crops may require investment in new equipment, or modification of existing equipment, in order to plant or terminate.

It takes time to build soil health – although some improvements in soil health indicators can occur in the first few years of using a practice like cover crops, measurable improvements in soil health that can have an impact on crop production or farm management may take longer.3

Cover crops can have variable impacts on yield – especially in the short term (when farms are experimenting with the practice) and in relation to weather dynamics. However, cover crops can contribute to reduced yield variability over time and can buffer the impact of extreme weather events, like drought and extreme rainfall

Although management recommendations for cover crops are improving, there is no “recipe” to follow. Most farmers working with cover crops spend several years experimenting with species mixes, seeding rates, seeding methods, and termination strategies to find what works. Programs like SHP help farmers through this transition period by providing management recommendations, and working together to evaluate how cover crop management decisions are working on their farm.

1See “Cover Crop Economics”, a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education technical bulletin.

2See “Managing Cover Crops Profitably”, a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education handbook, for a summary of the research on cover crop benefits.

3Conway, L.S., Yost, M.A., Kitchen, N.R., Sudduth, K.A., Massey, R.E., Sadler, E.J. 2020. Cropping system and landscape characteristics influence long-term grain crop profitability. Agrosystems. 3:e20099.

Farmers With Many Years of Cover Crop Experience Make Cost-Saving Adjustments

Farmers who integrated cover crops and reduced tillage on their operations for more than five years seemed to have fine-tuned their systems and achieved cost savings. They had some of the lowest costs and highest profitability per acre, when compared to other combinations of practices, and had lower costs compared to recent cover crop adopters (Figure 4 and 5).

Figure 4: Per-acre costs by tillage and cover crop groups, corn
Figure 5: Per-acre costs by tillage and cover crop groups, soybeans

Differences in savings between experienced cover croppers and recent adopters came from cover crop seed, total fertilizer, fuel, machinery, and equipment costs. Experienced cover crop adopters saved $9.19/acre on cover crop seed on corn acres compared to recent adopters, $25/acre on fertilizer, and $25/acre on equipment. Experienced adopters had similar cost savings on soybeans, including $5.90/acre on cover crop seed, $48/acre on fertilizer and $28/acre on equipment. Table 2 and 3 present the cost differences associated with cover crop systems, broken up by experienced and recent cover crop adopters.

Table 2: Select input cost categories for experienced and recent cover crop adopters, corn
CategoryConventional tillageConservation tillageRecent cover crop adoptersExperienced cover crop adopters
Cover crop seed$21.16$11.97
Cover crop planting$8.79$6.58
Total fertilizer$123.39$134.14$136.87$112.10
Burndown + Herbicide$33.09$35.97$37.35$51.33
Machine hire/application$9.90$12.37$14.97$13.50
Total per-acre input costs$447.93$404.40$461.25$394.07
Table 3: Select input cost categories for experienced and recent cover crop adopters, soybeans
CategoryConventional tillageConservation tillageRecent cover crop adoptersExperienced cover crop adopters
Cover crop seed$15.03$ 9.13
Cover crop planting $11.50$8.92
Total fertilizer$56.84$29.43$62.67$14.67
Burndown + Herbicide$33.71$39.47$42.69$39.09
Machine hire/application$8.44$11.69$14.18$6.75
Total per-acre input costs$311.57$217.07$356.10$236.77

The cost savings experienced adopters see often comes from changes they’ve made over time in their seed mix, application, and equipment as they learned to adjust their systems, as well as potential input savings through cover crop impacts on weed pressure and other factors. Based upon the experiences of more than 100 farmers working with SHP to implement cover crops over a 3-5 year period, these types of adjustments can reduce costs over time through several pathways:

Reducing seed costs

Experienced adopters can find cost savings by changing suppliers or sources, growing cover crop seed on the operation, using a less costly mix that achieves management goals, or reducing seeding rates to a level that provides good coverage without excess seed cost. This choice is related to seeding method and several years of experience, which can both lead to joint cost savings. This is reflected in the $5-10/acre difference in cover crop seed costs between recent adopters and more experienced adopters.

Reducing cover crop planting and equipment costs.

Although cover crop planting costs do not differ between recent and more experienced cover crop adopters in this study, on average, SHP farmers typically experiment with different species and seeding methods in their first 3-5 years of cover crops. Some find that saving time and labor by broadcasting cover crop seed or contracting the aerial seeding of the cover crop is the best fit for their operation; others find that drilling the seed provides the biggest bang for the buck given their geography, soils and labor constraints. These decisions over time could be related to the reduced equipment costs we see in Tables 8 and 9. For example, a decision to contract out cover crop seeding or application can save wear-and-tear on equipment, as well as expenses associated with maintenance. One common method to reduce cover crop planting costs is to combine cover crop seeding with other field operations, such as broadcasting seed with a fall fertilizer application and incorporating with a fall tillage pass that was already occurring.

Reducing fertilizer costs over time

Fertilizer costs can be reduced through attention to nutrient management or through improved nutrient cycling. Although most farmers in this study were not using legumes as part of their cover crop mix, which provide nitrogen through fixation, cover crops can contribute to keeping soil (and nutrients) in place, as well as to improve nutrient cycling through improved soil health. In addition to these factors, it is common that farmers in the Soil Health Partnership are adjusting soil health practices and nutrient management practices over time – which can contribute to improved nutrient use efficiency as farmers move away from fall applications of fertilizer and toward in-season applications that can be used more efficiently by the growing crop.

Conservation funding programs help farmers make cover crop investments

Farmers in our study used federal, state, and local conservation program funding to support their cover crop systems. These programs include the USDA NRCS Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), the Iowa Cover Crop Crop Insurance Demonstration Project, and state and local watershed programs. EQIP provides per acre cost-share funding for conservation practices, while CSP provides lump-sum cost-share amounts for a total number of conservation acres. The Iowa Cover Crop Crop Insurance Demonstration Project is a collaboration between the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) and the USDA Risk Management Agency. IDALS provides $5/acre for cover crops through a crop insurance premium discount applied by RMA. The table below shows approximate value per acre from these programs received by farmers in our study.

Conservation funding provided by these programs helps reduce risk for recent cover crop adopters as they navigate the process of establishing the best cover crop recipe for their operation. One of our farmer participants, Dwight Dial, demonstrates the important role conservation program funding can play in helping cover crop adopters manage new costs and risks.

Table 4: Conservation Funding Sources
Funding sourceApproximate value/acreDescription of program
Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP)$18-20/acreUSDA’s EQIP program provides cost-share payments (based on state practice rates) to farmers that undertake conservation practices.
Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP)$4-$27/acreUSDA’s CSP program provides five-year contracts for the adoption of new conservation practices and supplemental payments for extended crop rotations.
Iowa Cover Crop Crop Insurance Demonstration Project$5/acreProvides a $5/acre discount on crop insurance premiums for acres not already receiving a payment for cover crops from some other source. https://apply.cleanwateriowa.org/
State or local watershed programs$20/acreWatershed-level programs provide cost-share payments for conservation practices that improve water quality.

You can find a PDF version of this report page by clicking the button below.

Have questions about this report? Contact Vincent Gauthier, Research Analyst with Environmental Defense Fund.

Curious how farmers are implementing cover crops in a cost-effective way?

Learn more about the cover crop experiences of an Indiana farmer who is new to the practice, an Iowa farmer who has focused on profitability through efficiency, and another Iowa farmer who has made cover crops more cost effective with conservation program support.

Success with Conservation Practices is Optimized with a Targeted, Stepwise, Tailored Approach

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.

You can find a PDF version of this report page by clicking the button below.

Have questions about this report? Contact Vincent Gauthier, Research Analyst with Environmental Defense Fund.

Achieving Profitability with On-Farm Conservation

Balancing On-Farm Conservation and Economic Priorities

Agricultural conservation practices are pivotal to addressing some of agriculture’s most important natural resources concerns. At the same time, it is critical that farmers run profitable businesses and that environmental stewardship priorities support farm profitability. 

To expand on growing information around the profitability of conservation agriculture, Soil Health Partnership (SHP), Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and K·Coe Isom collaborated to evaluate the financial impact of conservation tillage and cover crop usage among Midwest corn and soybean farmers.

The goals of this project were to:

Compare crop budgets for fields using conventional vs. conservation practices

Identify benefits, opportunities and limiting factors associated with common conservation approaches

Help farmers and their business partners better understand the financial dynamics of conservation practice adoption

Throughout 2020, the project team collected information about farm operations, management practices, and financial data, which was then analyzed to identify the impact on each farmer’s bottom line.

Findings At a Glance

Based on the information collected, we identified three key financial impacts of implementing conservation practices among our participating farmers.

Click on the arrow to expand or close the section.

In the face of a challenging farm economy, reducing costs of production can be one way for farmers to improve profitability. By reducing or eliminating tillage, growers were able to reduce operating costs. In our study, growers practicing conservation tillage had higher net returns and lower per-acre costs than fields under conventional tillage for both corn and soybeans. Cost savings largely resulted from fuel and oil, machinery, equipment and repair expenses.

Learn more >

About the Farmers

Ken Rosenow – Wisconsin

  • Crops: corn, soybeans and wheat
  • Acreage: 1,100 acres
  • Tillage Practices: no-till, conventional till
  • Cover Crop Practices (204 acres): aerial-seeded cereal rye

Peter Rost – Missouri

  • Crops: corn and soybeans
  • Acreage: 3,500 acres
  • Tillage Practices: reduced tillage
  • Cover Crop Practices (1,362 acres)

Ryberg Farms – Minnesota

  • Crops: corn, soybeans and sugar beets
  • Acreage: 4,800 acres
  • Tillage Practices: strip-till, no-till
  • Cover Crop Practices (2,900 acres): interseeded annual ryegrass, hairy vetch, turnips and rapeseed by broadcast with incorporation

Brian Ryberg of Ryberg Farms saw substantial savings by implementing conservation tillage. Learn more about his experience >>

Minnesota Farmer

  • Crops: corn and soybeans
  • Acreage: 914 acres
  • Tillage Practices: no-till, reduced tillage, conventional tillage
  • Cover Crop Practices (107 acres): drilled cereal rye


Dwight Dial – Iowa

  • Crops: corn and soybeans
  • Acreage: 640 acres
  • Tillage Practices: no-till
  • Cover Crop Practices (317 acres): aerial-seeded cereal rye and rapeseed

Dwight is an experienced adopter of cover crops. Learn more about the role experience plays in cover crop profitability >>

Gaesser Farms – Iowa

  • Crops: corn and soybeans
  • Acreage: 5,000 acres
  • Tillage Practices: no-till
  • Cover Crop Practices (4,855 acres): drilled cereal rye

Chris Gaesser of Gaesser Farms is an experienced adopter of cover crops. Learn more about the role experience plays in cover crop profitability >>

Indiana Farmer:

  • Crops: corn and soybeans
  • Acreage: 5,800 acres
  • Tillage Practices: strip-till, no-till, conventional tillage
  • Cover Crop Practices (188 acres): aerial-seeded oats, crimson clover, radish and rapeseed

Indiana Farmer is an early adopter of cover crops. Learn more about the role experience plays in cover crop profitability >>

Participating farmers were offered the option to remain anonymous. Farmers who requested to be anonymous (2/7) are referred to based on the state in which they reside and described by their farming practices and the financial and management data they provided through the project.

Why Digging Into Farm Financial Data is Important

Conservation practices can be profitable, but do not pay for themselves in all situations. The business case for adopting these practices is complex and variables that differ across farms – including soil type, precipitation, geography and crop rotation – can alter the optimal financial conservation system. However, as this and other studies have shown, adopting conservation systems can be profitable and can provide solutions for natural resource and management challenges. It is therefore important to provide more and increasingly refined financial information about conservation practices to farmers from different geographies, farm sizes, and crop productions.

Financial information on conservation practices is especially important for stakeholders to gather and communicate, since groups across the agriculture sector are raising their sustainability ambitions and looking to invest in environmental solutions. But, like any other investment, financial support for adopting agricultural conservation practices must be informed by the underlying costs and benefits that occur over time. Gathering financial and management data to better understand the financial impacts of conservation practices can help develop solutions that effectively provide the financial support farmers need to achieve profitable conservation management systems.

With that in mind, we encourage stakeholders across the agriculture sector – including federal and state agencies, farmer associations, agricultural lenders, food and grain supply chain companies, and conservation organizations – to integrate financial data gathering within their programs to inform their conservation solutions and to support farmers in establishing profitable conservation systems.

Our Project Team


Soil Health Partnership

SHP is a program of the National Corn Growers Association, dedicated to promoting the adoption of soil health practices among farmers. By building a peer-to-peer network – which, to date, spans more than 16 states and includes more than 200 growers – we collaborate with farmers to conduct on-farm research exploring the economic and environmental benefits and risks of soil health practices.

Learn more ›

Project Team Members:

Maria Bowman, PhD
Tricia Verville
Jack Cornell
Anna Teeter
Dustin Brucker
John Stewart


Environmental Defense Fund

EDF is a leading international nonprofit organization on a mission to create transformational solutions to the most serious environmental challenges. EDF links science, economics, law, and innovative private-sector partnerships in order to maximize the impact of our efforts. EDF’s agricultural finance work includes farm budget analyses, financial solutions, and agricultural finance policy.

Learn more ›

Project Team Members:

Vincent Gauthier


K·Coe Isom

K·Coe Isom is the nation’s leading agricultural business advisory firm serving the food and agricultural sector. To develop a deeper understanding of the financial impact of conservation on the farm businesses in this report, K·Coe Isom’s AgKnowledge professionals worked with farmers to make accrual adjustments to determine the relevant cost/benefit analysis. AgKnowledge is a managerial accounting and advisory service that serves farms and ranches.

Learn more ›

Have questions about this report? Contact Vincent Gauthier, Research Analyst with Environmental Defense Fund.

Our Data Collection Process

The project team took a multistep approach to gather, analyze and report on the data and findings, which we have outlined below. You can also visit EDF’s report “A practitioner’s guide to conducting budget analyses for conservation agriculture,” which covers best practices in collecting economic data and informs our work.


Click on the arrow to expand or close each section and learn more about our data collection process.

Farmers were recruited through SHP’s grower network and K·Coe Isom’s client base based on the following criteria:

  1. Located in the Midwest
  2. Grow corn, soybeans, and/or wheat
  3. Have at least three years of experience with conservation practices
  4. Willing to share information from detailed management and financial records, including those dating back to before the adoption of conservation practices
  5. Attend one virtual workshop session introducing the data-gathering process
  6. Available and willing to work with SHP Field Managers and K·Coe Isom staff to complete questionnaire and discuss answers

Summary of Participating Farmers

*Participating farmers were offered the option to remain anonymous. Farmers who requested to be anonymous (2/7) are referred to based on the state in which they reside and described by their farming practices and the financial and management data they provided through the project.

Before You Plant Green, Remember These 3 Things

Over the last few weeks, we’ve shared some of the reasons farmers plant green, the benefits and drawbacks of this approach, and what you should know about setting up your equipment to make sure your experience is successful. In this final post of the series, we’re sharing the 3 things we think farmers should know before they get started with planting green.

Don’t expect magic results from a planter that’s already struggling.

If the planter you have today doesn’t produce consistent stands where 97% or more of the crop comes up in a 48-hour window, then stand consistency with planting green isn’t going to get any better. Planters that are light on weight now – where downforce control systems struggle to push the plant in vs. lifting the planter up – will need more weight added for this same reason.

Nutrient management – and knowing how nutrients move – is key.

When planting green, a lot of nutrients will be unavailable early in the season as they are tied up in the living cover crop. However, the plant will slowly release those nutrients as it decomposes. We’ve found that, in the long-term, no-till cover crop fields planted green seem to have fewer issues with this, while newer green-planted fields will need to be managed accordingly. We suggest an in-furrow nutrient source or variable rate applications of nutrients to help manage these levels accordingly.

Don’t forget about the critters.

When planting green, you will want to think about how that impacts wildlife in the area. By giving insects a place to live, that might mean you will need additional management to handle troublesome insects or slugs. Longer-term sites seem to have a balanced system where beneficial insects help control pests, but a newer site might need to be managed more closely through increased integrated pest management (IPM) work, including insect and slug counts.

Additionally, cover crops can serve as nesting areas for overwintering voles, which can be tough on an emerging cash crop and can wreak havoc with continual nesting activities throughout the growing season. We recommend looking into putting out hawk poles, mowing around your fields to make it easier for other natural apex predators to get at those voles, and putting out bait/traps (make sure to read your labels for approved usage).

Digging In

We hope the information provided over the last few weeks has helped you better understand the practice of planting green. As we’ve said before, any management practice should take into account the specific needs and goals of your farm. If planting green is an approach that fits, be sure to reach out to your SHP Field Manager or agronomist with any questions.