I recently have been pondering how the use of cover crops and other conservation practices on Illinois farms is likely to be impacted by low crop prices. One possibility is that farmers will be unwilling to invest in conservation when margins are slim.
History is often the best crystal ball so I dug into NRCS data and found that average soil erosion rates in the state dropped almost 40% from the early 1980s to the late 1990s. Not surprising, as the adoption of conservation tillage practices in Illinois grew most rapidly during the same time frame.
Then I looked at University of Illinois crop budget data and found that during the 1980s and 1990s, the average cost of producing a bushel of soybeans exceeded average prices 16 times with an average margin of negative 65 cents per bushel! These data clearly show that it is possible to make major progress in conservation during very tough times.
I challenge you to not waver in your commitment to conservation during whatever tough economic times lie ahead. I am not suggesting that you shouldn’t take steps to cut out the fat from your enterprise budgets. Exotic cover crop programs such as multispecies cocktails that cost over $50 per acre (including planting costs) should fall to the wayside in tough times. In contrast, I believe that modest rates of reliable cover crop species (e.g., 40 – 60 lbs/A of cereal rye) ahead of soybeans will continue to be a good investment. The short-term value of weed and disease suppression plus long-term value of building organic matter, increasing nutrient cycling, improving soil health and controlling erosion are real and quantifiable.
I am sure that you have all heard the old adage, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” I encourage you to think about what invention—a.k.a. innovation—means to you. On too many farms, innovation seems to simply mean trying new products when, and only when, margins are high. Fundamentally, innovation is problem solving. I challenge you to think innovatively about how to use conservation practices to solve problems without adding unacceptable costs. This may mean only planting cover crops on your most high erodible fields or only specific areas within fields. I look forward to hearing examples of how you have made conservation pay on your farm.
Dr. Joel Gruver is an assistant professor of soil science and sustainable ag at Western Illinois University in Macomb, Illinois. His research includes the management of cover crops on Illinois farms.