Cash In On Covers

Farmers are finding the payoff from healthy soils.

Cover Crops

Cash In On Covers

Farmers are finding the payoff from healthy soils.

By Larry Reichenberger

Only 3% of farmers use no-till and cover crop practices to improve soil quality—and Indiana farmer Ken Rulon wonders why.

“We can prove that those practices return a net profit of $57.76 per acre on our 6,300-acre farm while also making us environmentally and socially sustainable. It gives us a competitive edge and is how we intend to prosper and grow even in tough times,” says the Arcadia, Indiana, farmer.

Rulon, who farms with family members Roy, Rod, Nick, and Neal, draws his confidence from the massive amount of data the partners have collected in the past 24 years. “We take one-acre grid soil samples on a four-year cycle, follow with tissue testing during the season, and finish with yield monitor data on the combine. We know what’s happening in our soils,” says Ken.

Storing carbon. What’s happening in the Rulons’ soil is illustrated in the graph on the following page. “We’re adding carbon to build soil organic matter levels by keeping live roots—either from our crops or cover crops—year-round and then protecting those gains by avoiding tillage. We can increase soil organic matter levels  0.1% per year on intensively managed farms, and that increases our corn yield goal by 2.7 bushels,” says Ken.

“We use the data shown in this graph to generate yield goals that drive the variable-rate application of fertilizer and other inputs,” says Rodney. “There’s a linear relationship between soil organic matter and corn yields on our farm,” adds Rodney.

“When you increase organic matter levels the soil becomes darker and everybody in the world knows darker soil is more productive,” says Ken. “Our position is that to be sustainable we want to build and maintain the carbon content of the soil, and we believe we’ve learned how to do it.”

In a presentation at last winter’s National Conference on Cover Crops and Soil Health (search under “Events” at sare.org), Ken detailed other benefits of the farm’s no-till/cover cropping program. “We’ve worked extensively with researchers from Purdue University, and their replicated plots prove the same thing we’re finding on the rest of our farm—that we can produce higher yields using 20 lbs. less phosphorus, 30 lbs. less potash and 35 lbs. less nitrogen per acre than conventional practices,” says Ken.

“We’re buying less fertilizer because nitrogen isn’t being lost [Purdue research shows cover crops reduce leaching by 50%] and we’re catching the nutrients being mineralized or otherwise made available by increased microbial activity. P and K levels in our soils are stable, and water that leaves our farm in a heavy rainfall is cleaner,” says Ken.

The Rulons have learned that they can increase soil organic matter levels .1% per year and that there is a direct relationship between those levels and corn yields on their farm.

Cover crop details. The Rulons’ cover crop program varies with the crop rotation and harvest timing. Their preferred mix after an early soybean harvest (before Oct. 10) includes 25 lbs. of oats; 2 lbs. of radish; 5 lbs. of crimson clover; and 3 lbs. of Essex rape at a total seed cost of $20.79 per acre. Crimson clover is omitted after Oct. 10th and seed cost drops to $15.12.

Following an early corn harvest (before Oct. 15) the cover crop mix includes 15 lbs. of oats; 15 lbs. of cereal rye and 3 lbs. of Essex rape costing $14.85 per acre. Late corn fields get 35 lbs. of cereal rye costing $7.25.

An analysis of 2017 records revealed an average cover crop seed cost for the whole farm of $14.50 per acre. Planting costs for a tractor, labor, fuel, and repairs (including depreciation) totaled $8.20 per acre, making total cover crop costs for the 5,200 acres that got seeded were $118,040 or $22.70 per acre.

These costs are compared to the various short and long term benefits the partners get from their program. The savings in P and K fertilizer total $14.35 per acre and nitrogen savings total $7.35 per acre. Their data from joint research with Purdue shows corn yields after cover crops are 7.1 bushels per acre higher (worth $28.40 at $4 per bushel) while soybean yields are 1.95 bushels higher (worth $19.50 per acre).

“These are the short-term benefits we’ve seen and they add up to $41.98 per acre,” says Ken. “However, there are some long-term benefits that also need to be considered.”

Long-term benefits. The drought of 2012-13 convinced the Rulons that their program was more resilient. “Our corn yields were only down 10 bushels per acre while the county average was off 60 bushels,” says Ken. “Taking one-half of that (due to corn/soybean rotation)—and assuming we suffer a drought every 5 years-— provides a 6 bushel-per-acre benefit worth $24. The 0.1% increase in organic matter levels is worth 2.7 bushels of corn per year worth $10.80 per acre.”

Finally, there’s a ‘hard to calculate’ benefit to reduced soil erosion. “There’s research showing that a heavy rainfall on clean-tilled soil can result in 20 tons per acre of soil loss, but we’re only claiming a savings of 2 tons worth $8 per acre,” he adds. The final benefit is a Conservation Stewardship Program payment of $40,000 per year, or $7.69 per acre. “Some may criticize that, but we’re doing extra things required to earn the payment so yes, we count it as a benefit,” says Ken.

Cashing in. The Rulons believe the short- and long-term benefits of no-till and cover cropping totalled $418,430 on their farm in 2017. Total cover crop costs were $118,040 for a net return of $300,390, or $57.76 per acre. “That’s a 254% return on our investment, which is amazing by any standard, Other farms will have different savings and benefits, but even cut ours in half and we’re still way ahead,” says Ken.

“Our 2017 cost of production on corn was $3.10 per bushel on a whole-farm yield of 202 bushels per acre,” adds Ken. “Since we grow a commodity, where low cost production is required to survive, we think this system makes us environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable.”

The Rulons host a peer exchange, rulonenterprises.com, to aid other farmers with new technology. 

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