Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems

Farmer Case Studies Show the Economic Value of Soil Health Practices

by Sheryl Karas MA, CRARS Staff

hands holding soil with an earthworm visible

Attempting to reliably grow crops profitably in marginal soil can be a challenging proposition. Yet changing how you do farming can feel like a risky decision, especially when it takes an upfront investment in new equipment and practices without adequate data on cost effectiveness. Luckily, cost-benefit analysis data is starting to become available. 

Earlier this year, the USDA and SARE published a joint report(opens in new window) based on a five-year study on the economics of cover crops. It showed that, when approached as an investment, cover crops do improve commodity yields over time and often reduce input costs. Yields from the use of cover crops increased exponentially year by year, with most farmers in the study turning a profit in 2-3 years.

This past month, American Farmland Trust (AFT) published four farmer case studies(opens in new window) done with a USDA Conservation Innovation Grant examining the cost effectiveness of using multiple soil health practices. These include no-till or strip-till, cover crops, nutrient management, conservation cover, compost application, and mulching. The results were very encouraging. Yield increases ranged from 2% to 22% with average net income increases of $42 per acre per year. One participant, a California almond grower, saw an increase of $657 per acre because of the high value of his particular crop. Because the four farmers made different choices on their farms, some experienced significant reductions in input costs; others saw some increases. However, there was an average return of investment on the four farms of 176%, with individual returns ranging from 35% to 343%.

<AFT shared the case studies(opens in new window) along with tables showing all the data to encourage farmers to follow suit. They included contact information for the local NRCS and SWCD staff who participated in the studies as well as the AFT authors who wrote the case studies. Here are some of the highlights of two of the case studies, picked at random from the group.

Eric Niemeyer of MadMax Farms, Ohio

Ohio farmer Eric Niemeyer of MadMax Farms was concerned about the impact of erosion on his property with gullies forming in low areas and soil washing away in areas of concentrated water flow. He also was starting to suspect that conventional tillage was contributing to unreliable profitability so he decided to educate himself on what could make a difference. 

Niemeyer started by investing time into attending workshops, field days, and conferences, and by reading about soil health practices. Eventually, he followed his right-hand man Charlie Walker’s advice and converted his cropland to no-till and adopted variable rate fertilizer application technology (VRT) in 2011. He repaired subsurface drainage tile, gullies, and eroded areas, and in 2014 started planting multi-species cover crops on his entire farm using a mix that he customizes depending on whether he plans to plant a cash crop of corn or soybeans. He also has experimented with using different mixes for additional purposes such as breaking up compacted soil layers, water infiltration, increasing organic matter, and improving nutrient availability. To measure the impact, soil tests on the farm are done every two years instead of every four. 

His results made him a strong believer in the use of all these practices. Since 2014, Niemeyer has gotten consistently higher yields per acre—from 165 to 195 bushels for corn and from 45 to 65 bushels for soybeans. At the same time he is saving almost $18 per acre each year on fertilizer. Because his soil health has improved, he was able to reduce his soybean seeding rate, saving $5 per acre. He has practically eliminated herbicide use, saving $18 per acre. He has also been able to reduce his fungicide costs by $6 per acre. And, yes, there’s less soil erosion. “Cover crops are like miracle workers holding the soil in place,” he says.

Niemeyer has had some additional costs. For example, he believes some of his positive results are the result of adding biological soil amendments at a cost of $30 per acre. And, even though he saves $35 per acre because of the lower labor and machinery costs of no-till, there are increased costs for one additional fertilizer pass and cover crop planting and termination. He also re-invested some his savings into upgrading and increasing the size of his planter. 

Taken all together, however, his choices turned out to be a wise investment. Niemeyer was able to increase his farming operation from 500 acres in 2011 to 1,250 acres today. The USDA’s Nutrient Tracking Tool shows that he has reduced his N, P, and sediment losses by 58, 74, and 88%, respectively. The USDA’s COMET-Farm Tool estimates that Eric’s soil health practices has resulted in a 494% reduction in total greenhouse gas emissions. And, quite significantly, Niemeyer improved his bottom line by $38 per acre. That adds up to $47,569 on the 1,250 acres in the study.

Jay Swede, Gary Swede Farm LLC, NY

Jay Swede and his family rotates crops of grains, vegetables, and dairy cow feed on 4,500 acres. Although they are using soil health practices on all their crops, to make comparisons simpler the study focused on the 1,500-acre dairy rotation that includes 1-year sweet corn, 3-years alfalfa, and 1-year corn silage or corn for grain. The practices used include no-till, strip-till, cover crops & nutrient management.

Swede would be the first to tell you that a certain amount of trial and error has been involved to address the challenges of switching over from conventional farming practices to those that support soil health. For example, he started doing strip-tilling in 2005 to deal with soil compaction and erosion and to try to reduce costs. But he ran into problems getting the seed placed in the center of the strip. He chose to invest in autosteer the second year and a satellite-based navigation system the year after that to guide the planter. Obviously, there have been unanticipated costs because of that. He has also had to experiment with what type of crops would work best with this system and what cover crops to use for what purpose. 

However, in just a few years, they were strip-tilling all 1,500 acres in the dairy rotation and using cover crops on about 450 acres. They apply manure through injection into the soil or top spreading onto the cover crops. And they started using variable rate nutrient application and Adapt-N, a precision nitrogen recommendation tool for corn. 

The results for all the approaches used combined was increased yields for the same amount of nitrogen used. Sweet corn yields increased over 31%, and corn silage yields have increased by more than 36% since 2005. Swede believes about half of that increase was due to soil health practices alone. 

The Swedes have seen savings in fuel, labor, and machinery maintenance equaling about $23 per acre. Nutrient management activities save them $41 per acre for purchases of phosphorus and potassium. Soil erosion has been reduced by nearly two tons per acre, saving over $2 per acre based on the value of the nutrients saved in that soil. They do spend quite a bit on upfront costs for cover crops (about $51 per acre) and it is important to factor in time spent learning new skills at conferences, workshops, and meeting with ag consultants. But all of this has paid off in terms of overall return on investment. The Swedes have seen their bottom line increase by $55 per acre, which amounts to $82,257 on the 1,500 acres in this study. The USDA’s Nutrient Tracking Tool showed reduced N, P, and sediment losses by 40, 92, and 96% respectively. The USDA’s COMET-Farm Tool estimates there was a 560% reduction in total greenhouse gas emissions on the same plot.

Jay Swede says he is still learning but has been very pleased to see great results from what he thinks have been relatively minor changes. “The second year we did strip-till, even though the corn was only 8" tall, we had roots going down about a foot.” His soil is far less compacted and he has observed better water infiltration. He also reports decreased runoff and erosion in his fields from heavy rainfall. 

You can learn more about these and the other case studies at the American Farmland Trust(opens in new window)