The Use of Cover Crops in Western Kansas Crop Rotation in Lieu of Summerfallowing, and the Economic Return of Both

Final Report for FNC03-455

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2003: $4,635.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2004
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $6,360.00
Region: North Central
State: Kansas
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information


The current acres that I farm is 450, along with 700 acres of rangeland, CRP, and brome ground. The primary crops grown are grain sorghum, wheat, and corn. The cropping system utilized is mostly a wheat, wheat, corn/grain sorghum rotation. All of the corn and grain sorghum is planted using no-till methods. Wheat is a mixture of no-till and conventional till. I am still trying to decide and research which is working best. So far, the conventional tillage method for wheat is better. Prior to his grant, I was utilizing some sustainable practices such as no-till farming/leaving residue on the surface to trap moisture and nutrients. Cover crops were also used prior to the grant in the form of oats and sudan grasses. These crops were then grazed off.

The core objective of my grant was to find out if the use of cover crops was more cost effective than the typical practice of summer fallowing. I was attempting to find this out by the following method.

For the 2003 crop year, I planted a mixture of oats and berseem clover on 80 acres or two fields as my cover crop. After initial growth, the crop will then be grazed by steers. After the oats growth is exhausted, the clover would be left to re-grow and later be either tilled in, chopped off, or burned down for crop planting. A remaining field of 17 acres will be planted for haying purposes and a portion of this field will be left for summer fallowing purpose as a control.

Hind sight is 20/20. If I had to do it again, I would choose a different cover crop other than berseem clover. It may not be best suited for this area and needs plenty of moisture. I chose berseem clover because of its high tonnage producing ability and its ability to fix nitrogen into the soil. We did find out that it is very sensitive to 2-4-D. If the field is sprayed with 2-4-D prior to planting, there are residual effects. On one field there was a good stand, but the clover died off as it came up because of the 2-4-D. Otherwise, I just did not get a good stand of clover. Oats was used as a carrier and for additional grazing benefits. The oats produced a lot of tonnage and was a good cover in lieu of the clover.

Economics: As stated in the grant, here are the results:
• Summer fallow ground. For 2004, the wheat yielded 36 bu./acre at $3.64 selling price = $131.00 gross income.
Expenses – Subtract the following expenses of Fertilizer = $30.00, 2 years cash rent = $60.00, tillage expenses of 5 passes at $7.00 per pass = $35.00.
Net income = $6.00

• Continuous Crop Ground with Cover Crop. A field of 50 acres was not planted to wheat as planned due to growing conditions and was planted to soybeans the following spring. I will not compare any data from this field. The remaining 30 acres = $84.97 in grazing income in the year 2003, (2600 grazing days for 650 lb. steers at 2 lb. daily gain at 50 cents cost of grain/30.6 acres) plus $125.20 grain income for the 2004 crop year (crop insurance) for a total gross income of $210.10.
Expenses – Fertilizer for two crops = $50.00
2 year cash rent = $60.00
Harvesting/planting/seed expense = $60.00
Chemical burn down = $15.00
Total expense = $185.00
Net income = $25.01 per acre

• 17 acre continuous crop field income 2004 crop income = $124, which is from crop insurance, 2003 hay income = $118.00 for total income of $242.00.
Expenses – Fertilizer for two crops = $50.00
2 year cash rent = $60.00
Planting/seed expense = $40.00
Chemical burn down = $15.00
Custom hire to put up hay = $50.00
Total expenses = $215.00
Net income - $27.00 per acre

In summary, on a very very dry year like 2004, the benefits of having a second crop or cover crop will yield a better net income. If not for crop insurance, the net income would be much greater for the Summer Fallow field.

Environmental Impact: Soil erosion will be and was very minimal when incorporating a cover crop. I have no exact way to determine the erosion from this small period of time, but I can say from longer term experience, that erosion will be very minimal when incorporating a no-till form of farming. Leaving a crop on the surface on the ground works similar to drip irrigation, in that when rain drops fall to the ground, they hit the surface crop, breaking down the rain drop into smaller drops and breaks the fall of the rain drop. The soil can absorb more of the smaller drops of rain. Plus, the cover crop protects the surface soil and shields it from the sun.

Project Impacts: See above for the economic impact, and environmental impact.

Due to the drought conditions of 2004, I did not feel that the results of this project would be typical for most farmers. When Ken Schneider was still working for SARE, he advised me to continue my project for another year to achieve some results, but this project was not carried out an additional year. There were no outreach programs conducted for this project.

I do believe that this program is an excellent way for non-typical producers to demonstrate new ways of farming. Please continue this program.

In summary, I am not real confident in the results of this 1 year study. With drought conditions existing, there were many variables that may be different on a “normal” type production year. The study showed that by growing a cover crop and harvesting two crops rather than the one generated by summer fallow practice, your net profit would be higher. In a normal year or in a year with more precipitation, I believe that the net profit difference would be much greater. (higher profits for the cover crop acres)
*If I were to do the same study, I would choose a different type of legume such as field peas, or use no legume at all.
*I would not graze my cover crop if I was going to follow with a crop such as wheat without doing some type of deep tillage to break up the compaction of the soil caused by the cattle.
*If we were receiving adequate moisture during the year, I would till the cover crop under as a green manure.

One must adapt and change as Mother Nature changes. Take what Mother Nature gives you and work with it.


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.