Ep. 26: Daryl Maple – The Power of the On-Farm Learning Process

For Daryl Maple, Maple Farms is much more than just a farming operation. It’s a legacy. Purchased by his great-grandfather in 1930, Daryl – alongside his cousins, brother and father – still own and operate the original 160 acres, in addition to the expanded area that has come with more than 90 years of experience. Being among the fourth generation taking over the farm gives Daryl an inherent sense of responsibility to maintain the rich soils his part of the country is known for.

“We just wanted to find ways to make our farm more sustainable. That word has been a very big buzzword the last four or five years, and so sustainability means different things to different operations and growers. For us, we’re trying to find a way to be economically sustainable, and environmentally sustainable as well.”

Maple Farms’ partnership with SHP started in 2016, and the family has since been experimenting with reduced tillage and cover crops. Along the way, they’ve valued the non-stop learning process that comes with on-farm research of this type. Whether it’s figuring out the best kind of equipment to use for field prep that won’t also cause significant cover crop damage or determining the best method for cover crop seeding that allows for good establishment around their cash crop harvest schedule – the lessons seem to always keep coming. 

“We’re very blessed and we have good crops year in, year out. And so, for my family and most of the farmers in this area, we just do what we’ve always done,” Daryl said. “[But] we’re trying to bridge that gap and figure out how to do reduced tillage and still get the high yields and produce the high-quality, high-value crops that we like to grow on this farm.”

Tune in to the full episode of The People of Soil Health – using the player above or subscribing in your favorite podcast player – to hear more about the journey Maple Farms continues to take toward improved soil health and building a legacy for their farm.

Farmer Influencers Work to Build Better Soil and Water

There is a lot of talk these days about the power of “influencers” – people on social media that drive conversation and action. For Bryan Boyle, though, being a positive influence in the community was important long before the arrival of Instagram.

Bryan is the manager of Deerfield Farms in Deerfield, Ohio and is also active with their sister company, Deerfield Ag Services, which provides inputs and other agricultural supplies to local farmers.

 

According to Bryan, the two businesses are symbiotic. Deerfield Ag Services can focus on providing high-quality products and expertise to its farmer clients, while the farm can try out new practices and products before offering them to customers. By experimenting with new approaches on the farming operation, the team brings leadership and influence to their neighbors and community members – assuring that every recommendation is made with confidence.

In 2015, Deerfield Farms began working with Soil Health Partnership in an on-farm research project. Bryan took this leap on the recommendation of a colleague who pushed him out of his comfort zone and encouraged him to try new practices that were working for other farms similar to theirs.

“We decided to take part in SHP because we wanted to see economics over the long term to see how soil health is beneficial to us. Changes in the soil take time and we think we need to be in it for the long term,” said Bryan.

The Deerfield Farms SHP plot is looking at long-term no-till and cover crop practices versus vertical tillage and no cover crop production systems. In addition to evaluating the economics of the conservation approaches, they also want to be part of creating solutions for the water quality issues facing Ohio over the last few years.  

Now, five years later and having signed a new five-year contract with SHP, they are grateful for the partnership via expertise, some cost sharing, and assistance teaching other farmers about their results. Collaborating with SHP has only expanded Deerfield Farms’ ability to influence farmers in their area to consider less tillage and more cover crops.

“We, as growers, feel responsible. We are stewards of the land that we farm, so we obviously feel responsible for leaving it better than how we found it and we want it to continue being efficient and profitable for future generations,” said Bryan.

Understanding the Impact of Conservation Tillage on Operating Expenses

When farmers consider implementing a soil health or conservation practice on their farm, one question they inevitably ask is: what will the financial impacts be?

In an effort to answer this question, we recently released Conservation’s Impact on the Farm Bottom Line – a report developed in partnership with Environmental Defense Fund and the agricultural accounting firm K·Coe Isom – to better understand the benefits, opportunities and limiting factors associated with common conservation practices.

One of the key findings from this report is that farmers can save money as part of a transition to conservation tillage. In a world where the farm economy can be uncertain and a changing climate can create unforeseen weather challenges, reducing costs of production by tilling less may be one way for farmers to improve profitability.

Net returns are higher in conservation tillage systems

In our detailed analysis of the financial records of seven Midwest grain farmers, we found that fields using no-till or some form of conservation tillage (for example strip-till or reduced tillage, depending on the farmer) achieved higher net returns per acre than conventionally tilled fields. In corn, this was a difference of $53/acre and, in soybeans, the difference in net returns was $35/acre.

Graphic showing differences in net returns for conservation and conventional tillage

A detailed breakdown of the financial records for farmers in our study can be found here.

The difference in net income for conservation tillage systems is driven by lower costs

Our analysis showed that improvements in net returns for systems using conservation tillage were driven by a reduction in overall costs. On average, expenses for cornfields under conservation tillage were more than $40/acre less and nearly $100/acre less for soybean fields (both as compared to conventionally tilled fields).

Farmers saved on fuel, repairs, and equipment expenses – overall making conservation tillage systems more profitable than conventional tillage systems. For one of the farmers included in the study, Brian Ryberg of Minnesota, the shift toward conservation tillage impacted profitability by:

  • Reducing field passes by 25%, leading to a 60% decrease in fuel consumption
  • Saving approximately $20/acre when his cover crops are well-established and he can no-till soybeans 
  • Cutting the number of tractors – and related equipment hours – in half

Digging In

While we are not the only group to highlight the impact of conservation tillage on the farm bottom line, we were excited to see that trend confirmed in our research. Even after adding cover crop costs, fields using conservation tillage and cover crops together had similar or lower per-acre costs than conventionally tilled fields. These data continue to show how soil health and farm profitability can go hand in hand – for everyone’s benefit. Make sure to check out the full report, Conservation’s Impact on the Farm Bottom Line, and read up on Brian Ryberg’s conservation tillage experience to learn more.      

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

INTRODUCTION

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)
Acres78.2522.235.7
Yield (bu/acre)196205233
Price$3.55$3.55$3.55
Gross Income/Acre$695.80$727.75$827.15
Seed$64.22$64.22
Cover crop seed$13.90$13.90
Seed treatment/tech fees$31.93$31.93
Lime$0.00$0.00
Fertilizer – N$34.00$68.00
Fertilizer – P&K$0.00$33.17
Fertilizer – Other$92.83$0.00
Burndown$27.88$27.88
Herbicide$13.10$13.10
Additives/Other$3.48$3.48
Fuel$0.59$0.59
Labor$0.00$0.00
Repairs$25.00$25.00
Machine hire/application$13.50$13.50
Equipment$12.60$12.60
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

CONSERVATION PROGRAMS HELP MITIGATE RISKS

 

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

INTRODUCTION

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

INTRODUCTION

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

DECISION MAKING BASED ON LONG-TERM VALUE

 

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!

Increasing profitability through decreasing tillage

Business Case: Ryberg Farms

INTRODUCTION

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

OTHER BENEFITS OF CONSERVATION PRACTICES

 

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!

Conservation Tillage Reduces Operating Costs

The positive impact of conservation tillage on the farm bottom line was one of the key findings that arose from our 2021 report, Conservation’s Impact on the Farm Bottom Line. In the face of a changing climate and challenging farm economy, reducing costs of production may be one way for farmers to improve profitability. In our study of seven Midwest growers, we found that:

Net returns were higher for conservation tillage for both corn and soybeans compared to conventional tillage

No-till had lower per-acre costs than conventional tillage for corn and soybeans

Conservation tillage saves costs from fuel and oil, machinery, repairs, and equipment

tillage definitions

For the purposes of this report, we have grouped tillage practices as follows:

Conventional tillage: full-width tillage with one or more passes of a disc, chisel, ripper or soil finisher

Conservation/Reduced tillage: tillage that reduces disturbance relative to the farmer's conventional tillage practice (per definition above), including no-till, strip-till and vertical tillage

No-till: conservation systems where the soil is left undisturbed by tillage equipment

Strip-till: the practice of tilling the row where the seed and/or fertilizer will be placed, keeping the residue between the rows undisturbed

Conservation tillage systems show higher net returns vs. conventional tillage

Fields using conservation tillage practices achieved higher net returns per acre than conventionally tilled fields for both corn (Table 1) and soybeans (Table 2). Average net returns for conservation tillage were $377/acre for corn and $251/acre for soybeans, while averages for conventionally tilled fields were $324/acre for corn and $216/acre for soybeans. Tables 1 and 2 detail the average budget line items for conventional tillage, conservation tillage and conservation tillage with cover crops.

Table 1: Average corn crop budgets by tillage type
CategoryConventional tillageConservation tillage + no cover cropsConservation tillage + cover crop
Sample size (farms with fields under each practice system)237
Acres3,102.00319.396,020.65
Revenue
Yield (bu)205.98208.28197.95
Price/bu$3.75$3.75$3.75
Gross Income/Acre$772.43$781.05$742.31
Costs
Seed$99.88$83.75$94.10
Cover Crop Seed$17.22
Cover Crop Planting$7.85
Seed Treatment and Tech Fees$10.65$4.56
Lime$1.09$0.25$2.11
Fertilizer – N$77.38$73.74$79.14
Fertilizer – P&K$44.52$41.88$38.24
Fertilizer – Other (e.g. manure, inhibitors)$1.50$18.52$8.88
Burndown$0.65$9.97$9.68
Herbicide$32.45$26.00$33.66
Fungicide$13.96$9.31$9.42
Additives/Other$1.16
Fuel$27.81$13.70$15.82
Labor$33.19$33.19$33.19
Repairs$34.33$28.26$24.61
Machine Hire/Application$9.90$12.37$14.68
Equipment$71.31$41.67$42.06
Direct costs per acre$447.97$404.42$435.22
Net returns per acre$324.46$376.63$307.09
Table 2: Average soybean crop budgets by tillage type
CategoryConventional tillageConservation tillage + no cover cropsConservation tillage + cover crop
Sample size (farms with fields under each practice system)227
Acres3,115.00216.735,072.20
Revenue
Yield (bu)60.2553.5055.24
Price/bu$8.75$8.75$8.75
Gross Income/Acre$527.19$468.13$483.35
Costs
Seed$57.75 $39.09$59.50
Cover Crop Seed$12.50
Cover Crop Planting$10.39
Seed Treatment and Tech Fees$20.06$8.17
Lime$8.22$6.06
Fertilizer – N, P & K$48.47$15.00$39.42
Fertilizer – Other (e.g. manure, inhibitors)$8.37$2.67
Burndown$15.62$12.74
Herbicide$33.71$29.76$28.41
Fungicide$6.13
Additives/Other$1.00$1.74$3.67
Fuel$25.31$6.22$13.22
Labor$33.19$33.19$33.19
Repairs$29.41$24.77$22.06
Machine Hire/Application$8.44$10.75$14.05
Equipment$57.61$20.89$38.51
Direct costs per acre$311.48$217.09$310.69
Net returns per acre$215.71$251.04$172.66

Conservation tillage fields had lower costs than conventionally tilled fields

Conservation tillage practices – including no-till, strip-till, or reduced tillage – can provide important cost savings for corn and soybean operations (Figures 1 and 2). In this study:

Per-acre costs for corn fields with conservation tillage were lower ($404/acre) than those for conventionally tilled fields ($448/acre). Even after adding cover crop costs, corn fields using conservation tillage and cover crops had lower per acre costs ($435/acre) than conventionally tilled fields ($448/acre).

Soybean fields with conservation tillage and no cover crops ($217/acre) had substantially lower per-acre costs than conventionally tilled fields ($311/acre).

Soybean fields using conservation tillage and cover crops had similar costs to conventional tillage.

Figure 1: Per-acre costs by tillage practice for corn
Corn-bar-chart
Figure 2: Per-acre costs by tillage practice for soybeans
Soybean-bar-chart

Savings on fuel, repairs, and equipment make conservation tillage systems more profitable

By decreasing the number and/or intensity of tillage passes, farmers were able to save money. Table 3 shows the amount of cost savings (positive numbers) and cost increases (negative numbers) associated with conservation tillage and conservation tillage with cover crops when compared to conventional tillage without cover crops on corn fields. The most substantial savings from no-till on corn came from equipment and fuel costs. Conservation tillage acres with and without cover crops did, however, have increased burndown costs due to using herbicide to kill weeds prior to planting (rather than relying on tillage for weed control).

Farmers using conservation tillage on their soybean acres also showed substantial cost savings. Like Table 3, Table 4 shows the amount of cost savings (positive numbers) and cost increases (negative numbers) associated with conservation tillage and conservation with cover crops when compared to conventional tillage without cover crops on soybean fields. The table demonstrates that farmers using conservation tillage had substantially lower equipment and fuel costs compared to conventional tillage. Again, conservation tillage on soybean fields included increased costs in burndown and machine hire and application.

Table 3: Cost savings associated with conservation tillage production systems as compared to conventional tillage with no cover crops, corn
CategoryConservation tillage + no cover cropsConservation tillage + cover crops
Sample size37
Burndown-$9.33-$9.04
Fuel$14.11$11.99
Repairs$6.08$9.71
Machine hire/application-$2.48-$4.78
Equipment$29.64$29.25
TOTAL COST SAVINGS per acre*$43.53$12.72

*All budget lines from Table 1 above. Negative number indicates a negative cost savings (i.e., additional expense.)

Table 4: Cost savings associated with conservation tillage production systems as compared to conventional tillage with no cover crops, soybeans
CategoryConservation tillage + no cover cropsConservation tillage + cover crops
Sample size27
Burndown-$19.09-$12.74
Fuel$4.64$12.08
Repairs$4.64$7.34
Machine hire/application-$2.31-$5.60
Equipment$36.73$19.10
TOTAL COST SAVINGS per acre*$94.40$ 0.77

*All budget lines from Table 2 above. Negative number indicates a negative cost savings (i.e., additional expense.)

A note on yield:
In our sample, corn yield was not significantly different between tillage practices (range: 202-206 bushels (bu) per acre). Soybean acres, however, seemed to show slightly lower yields for conservation tillage with and without cover crops (55 and 53 bu/acre, respectively), compared to conventionally tilled fields (60 bu/acre). Yield outcomes in this study should be considered anecdotal, due to the small sample size and geographic distribution across the Midwest, as well as the fact that farmers may target specific practices to specific acres that may have other characteristics associated with yield.

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Curious how farmers are increasing profitability through reduced tillage?

Minnesota farmer Brian Ryberg made the move from conventional to conservation tillage and saw a positive impact on his bottom line.