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Do cover crops pencil out?Do cover crops pencil out?

Late summer cover crops offer ample opportunity for additional fall grazing; however, success is contingent on late summer rains. New research looks at the economics of cover crops.

Amanda Radke

August 14, 2017

3 Min Read
Do cover crops pencil out?
Amanda Radke

As I write this, the ting of a gentle rain landing on my office windows is a quiet reminder of how fortunate we have been to receive a few timely rains in the last five weeks. Prior to that, the grass was burnt to a crisp, hay prices were rising, and we were scrambling to figure out a game plan to compile enough forages to get through the winter.

Although we aren’t out of the woods of this drought quite yet, we know it could be much, much worse. As we continue to haul water to our pastures where the dugouts sit bone dry, we know that the weather could change again and our pastures, now greening up with new growth, could once again become dry and brittle.

The ongoing drought in the Dakotas and Montana has been on my mind all summer and, certainly for folks in these areas, the idea of planting cover crops this year is laughable. My dad, being the optimistic guy that he is, seeded a cover crop mix into a few fields and prayed hard for rain. I assumed it would be a disaster, but it looks like we’ll have a pretty nice stand for grazing as we get closer to fall. Thankfully he had the faith and foresight to give it a go, but it was definitely a gamble.

The Noble Research Institute recently evaluated the economics of planting cover crops. Written by Myriah Johnson, Ph.D., an agricultural economist consultant, and Jeff Goodwin, a pasture and range consultant, the article evaluates two separate scenarios where cover grazing might be most beneficial.

Here is an excerpt: “From research, we have learned that cover crops can help increase water retention and soil organic matter, regulate soil temperature, reduce erosion, and provide nutrients back to the soil. Some of these impacts are slow to realize and may take many years to see. Part of a cover crop's beauty is that it is individualized, tailored to each piece of land.

"However, that also means the devil is in the details as we try to determine the economic value of cover crops. This is probably why there has been little written on the topic. It is difficult to generalize how cover crops will perform from location to location and what the cost and revenue figures might look like, especially when used as a multi-species grazing crop.

"Further, it becomes much more difficult to estimate the value of soil health benefits, such as increased water retention. To top it off, cover crops can be planted and used in a variety of settings. However, we will try to cut through all of this complicated mess and make the rubber meet the road on a couple of examples.”

Whether you’re looking to plant a summer cover crop for wheat as we did or as a cool season cover crop inter-seeded into grass, the article dives into the economic pros and cons of each option and explores how either scenario might benefit you. Click here to read more of the complete research and let me know in the comments section below how you incorporate cover crops into your grazing strategy.

The opinions of Amanda Radke are not necessarily those of beefmagazine.com or Penton Agriculture.

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