Economics of Soil Health

Soil health doesn’t just make sense for conservation – it also has demonstrated economic returns for farmers. Click below to hear from eight Indiana farmers who have seen firsthand the financial payoff of no-till and cover crops.


Mike Brocksmith (Knox County)

Aerial seeding cover crops at Brocksmith Farms

Aerial seeding into standing commodity crops helps Mike Brocksmith get a head start in cover crop establishment.

“I think cover crops were the missing link for us in our soil conservation system,” he says. “These soils in this field have been no-tilled for 20 or 25 years. We already had great soil health. Now we’re going to the next level.”

For Brocksmith, who farms with his wife and two daughters, the next level in crafting a conservation farming system for his family’s farm is building healthy, nutrientrich soils that help nurture crops even in bad years. “We want to weather-proof our soil for the occasional dry spell, and even for wet spells,” he explains. Read more

Dan DeSutter (Fountain County)

Soil Health systems shone in the wet year of 2015 - as shown by DeSutter's vibrantly growing crop.

Soil Health systems shone in the wet year of 2015 – as shown by DeSutter’s vibrantly growing crop.

Over the past 20 years, Dan DeSutter of Attica, Indiana, has built a national reputation as a proponent of no-till, cover crops and healthy soils, putting his experience as a financial analyst and commodities broker to work assessing the impacts of conservation on his family’s farm.

He sees the results of 20 years of no-till and a wide range of other conservation practices in the combine hopper. “The sum of our practices now gives us APH [actual production history] in corn that is 30 to 35% over our county average,” DeSutter says. Read More

 

Larry Huffmeyer (Ripley County)

Larry Huffmeyer allowed this crimson clover cover crops to mature - providing both a source of N and good residue cover

Larry Huffmeyer allowed this crimson clover cover crops to mature – providing both a source of N and good residue cover

“I don’t have any hard figures that say, ‘where we invest $30 an acre on cover crops, we get double our money back,’” Huffmeyer notes. “But the other way to look at it is that we know that if we lose a ton of topsoil, we lose a lot with it, including the nitrogen. The [value of preventing those
losses] are enough to make up for anything we’ve put into cover crops.

To help reduce off-target flow of nutrients, Huffmeyer is asking tough questions for a dedicated conservation tillage farmer, including exploring subsurface banding Read More

 

Rulon Enterprises (Hamilton County)

Rulon Enterprises have been part of a multi-year study with Purdue - including the effects of cover crops on soil moisture.

Rulon Enterprises have been part of a multi-year study with Purdue – including the effects of cover crops on soil moisture.

In all, the Rulons figure the net value of their cover crops is about $80.77 per acre. That’s a remarkable 321% return on investment (ROI)—more than tripling their money.

Rodney Rulon is the first to admit that people might want to debate how he and his partners arrived at some figure or another. But he points out that a rate of return greater than 300% leaves room for a few adjustments. Read More

 

 

Mike Shuter (Madison County)

Mike Shuter seeds cover crops into standing corn.

Mike Shuter is a big believer in building healthy soils and he wants to give cover crops every possible day to help him do it. That means seeding cover crops into standing corn and soybeans so the soil-building cover is up and running before harvest. He has designed a high-clearance seeder to help him achieve this goal. After years of trial and modification on his own unit,he’s now custom-building them for other farmers eager to seed their cover crops early and often.

Mike states, “A lot of these cover crops -annual ryegrass, especially- need to have good growth in the fall to get good root development. With better root development, we’ll get soil organic matter and we’re developing soil health,” Shuter says. “Part of our evolution in cover crops is getting them seeded earlier every year.”  Read More

 

Jamie Scott (Kosciusko County)

Jamie Scott includes a diverse mix of cover crops after wheat as one way to build soil health quickly.

Jamie Scott includes a diverse mix of cover crops after wheat as one way to build soil health quickly.

“We are a big fan of diversity,” Scott says. “We can get 15 or 16 different cover crop species into a three-year cycle and put a lot of root structure into the soil. You’ve got grass, legumes, brassicas, warm-season species and cool-season plants that hit that field in a three-year cycle. Add corn, beans and wheat, and that’s three more species.”

“When you walk across the plots, you feel the difference,” Scott says. “We had a visitor recently and where the cocktail mix was, the guy said, ‘this is like walking with a shag carpet with a thick pad under it.’ Where the single species was, he said, ‘this is like Astroturf carpet.’ On the bare ground, he said, ‘this is like concrete.'” Read More

Roger Wenning (Decatur County)

Roger Wenning brushes away snow to reveal a living cover crop – feeding soil biology year ’round.

Roger Wenning realized that skyrocketing land prices limited his opportunities to build his farm by expanding beyond the 650 acres he farms with his sister Marita Field and sons Nick and Kevin near Greensburg, Indiana. That pushed his thinking into a new direction.  “I can’t grow my farm horizontally-land’s too expensive-but I can grow it vertically,” he says. “I can get higher yields with the same inputs, just growing it deeper.”  Growing deeper means building soils for better root growth and higher productivity. That requires a system that combines no-till, drainage, intensive nutrient management, cover crops and careful attention to everything that touches the soil, Wenning says, “You’ve got to put the whole thing together,” he explains. “Two plus two equals six when you’re doing this. It’s a systems approach.” Read more

 

Mike Werling (Adams County)

This unit, purchased by the Allen and Adams SWCDs allows Werling to band phosphorus while seeding cover crops.

This interseeding unit, purchased by the Allen and Adams SWCDs allows Werling to band phosphorus while seeding cover crops.

Mike Werling started no-tilling and planting cover crops to reduce erosion on his 350-acre farm. He’s also reducing his nitrogen rates. His goal is to produce a bushel of corn with 0.75 pounds of applied nitrogen—to meet his 180-bushel target on 125 to 145 pounds of N—but he often ends up doing even better, harvesting over 200 bushels per acre.

“I don’t promote lowering rates when you’re starting this kind of thing—that will bite you,” says Werling, who started with minimum tillage in the 1980s and switched to no-till in 1994, boosting his soil organic matter by more
than 50% and in some fields, even doubling it. Today, his whole-farm average for soil organic matter is 3.3%, and some areas boast 4% or even 5%. Read more