Transitioning from conventional tillage to no-till and strip-tillage statewide could save Iowa farmers a whopping $265 million annually in fuel and equipment costs. This finding is one of many included in a comprehensive, year-long analysis measuring the effects of conservation on farm profitability. The study was undertaken by the Iowa Soybean Assn. (ISA) with support from the Walton Family Foundation, Environmental Defense Fund and Iowa-based Regional Strategic Ltd.
Heath Ellison, ISA senior conservation agronomist and a principle collaborator in the study’s implementation, said, “There are no guarantees in farming, and that includes generating a return on the implementation of every on-farm soil and water conservation practice, but much like other units within a business operation, income opportunities increase by paying close attention to details, maintaining timely records and communicating openly and frequently with land owners, employees and family members.”
Twenty Iowa farmers with extensive interest in conservation practices participated in the study. They farmed a combined 29,000 acres and were geographically dispersed throughout the state. Data were compiled from each operator courtesy of a series of interviews and crop budgets focused on the 2018 cropping year -- defined as the period following the 2017 crop harvest through the 2018 crop harvest.
Data collected by farmers and shared via interviews were aggregated and summarized. Researchers observed the crop rotations for each farmer and attempted to parse out the economic and yield impacts of conservation practices. Those of particular interest were no-till and reduced tillage, nutrient management and cover crop usage.
Key findings included:
- Moving to no-till and strip-till generated savings of $10-88 per acre relative to conventional tillage.
- Total pesticide (herbicide, insecticide and fungicide) and fertilizer expenditures were consistently lower for acreage following a cover crop relative to acreage where no cover crop had been grown.
- Study participants harvested cover crops on 560 acres and generated net revenue of more than $78,000 from the seed, feed and straw harvested. Nearly all participants indicated an interest in expanding their cover crop harvest operations.
- The participant group is applying, on average, 30 lb. of nitrogen per acre above the recommended nitrogen rate provided by the Iowa State University Maximum Return to Nitrogen Calculator (MRTN). In reviewing the data graphs that accompany the MRTN recommendation, it appears that reducing nitrogen application rates by 30 lb. would result in increased returns of approximately $6 per acre.
- Better records appear to be correlated with more intense participation in conservation practices, but good records do not appear to be a function of operation scale.
Study participant Wayne Fredericks, a soybean and corn farmer from Osage in Mitchell County, Iowa, said the findings are worthy of closer inspection by every operator and land owner.
“Seeing is believing, but firsthand experience remains the most effective route to adoption,” Fredericks said. “There are no shortcuts to making conservation pay, but profit incentives do exist when a hands-on, disciplined and long-term approach is taken.”
Adam Kiel, ISA director of conservation and external programs, hopes the analysis quantifying farm finance and profit incentives for engaging in conservation practices encourages greater implementation by farmers. “We have more to learn, but this is an important step in scaling up adoption,” Kiel said.
A summary report of the conservation profitability analysis can be accessed at www.iasoybeans.com/programs/isa-research/results. ISA will soon release case studies detailing eight key observations and topic areas benefiting farmers and crop advisors. The information will also be shared at ISA-sponsored research meetings and discussions scheduled throughout winter and early spring.