Improving Soil Health, Measuring Economic Benefits, and Learning From Other Farmers

Can sustainable farming practices provide economic benefits as well? A recent study by the National Association of Conservation Districts and Datu Research found that using cover crops and/or no-till can generate an economic return of over $100 per acre. In a nutshell, the study followed four farmers in the Upper Mississippi River Basin for three years as they implemented cover crops and no-till agriculture. On average, the farmers cut fertilizer costs by up to $50 per acre; cut erosion repair costs by up to $16 per acre; and increased yields by up to $76 per acre.

Of the four farms included in the study, the Moore Farm in northern Iowa was most similar to farmland in Minnesota in terms of climate, soils, and topography. Operator Frank Moore farms 1200 acres of corn and soybeans and had already been practicing no-till agriculture for 30 years. In 2014, he decided to experiment with cover crops as well, planting annual rye and cereal rye over the winter. Initially, the cover crops cost Moore about $22 per acre in net revenue, but after three years, his initial investment began to pay off. In 2016, Moore found that he no longer had to spend time or money to repair erosion in his fields and he observed fewer problems with weed pressure and white mold in soybeans.

Cover crops help to prevent erosion and return nutrients to the soil between late fall and early spring when many farm fields are left bare. In addition to rye, other common cover crops include oats, barley and wheat (cool season grasses); and red clover, vetch and daikon radish (cool season broadleaves). The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has a crop chart with information about 66 crops that can be planted individually or in mixtures.

Snow on winter rye. Cover crops help to hold soil in place between fall harvest and spring planting. (Photo by Dwight Sipler)

Though a handful of farmers in Washington County are using cover crops, Washington Conservation District staff have spoken with many who believe that Minnesota is too far north to use cover crops successfully. Frank Moore heard the same from people in his area when he began looking for guidance four years ago. Despite the fact that cover crops increased his annual costs during the first few years, however, Moore plans to continue using them and expects to see a pay-off in future years due to reduced nitrogen needs, better yields, and less erosion damage.

Sustainable farming practices that improve soil health can benefit property owners who rent their land as well. From a landowner’s perspective, it makes sense to choose a renter that will protect the long-term health of the land so that it remains an asset into the future. Toward this end, the Drake University Agricultural Law Center has developed, “The Landowner’s Guide to Sustainable Farm Leasing,” with guidance for incorporating practices such as cover cropping, buffers, and rotational grazing into rental agreements.

This spring, Washington Conservation District and the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota partnered to host Soil Health Cafe Chats in Marine on St. Croix and Hastings to provide local farmers with an informal opportunity to network and learn from one another about cover crops and other practices to improve soil health. Conservation District staff also offer free site visits to area landowners to discuss potential projects and provide information about grants and incentive programs. Learn more at