Nine soil samples were taken and analyzed following wheat harvest in July, 2014.
Cover crops were planted into wheat stubble on August 6, 2014. The following mixes were decided on after consultation with our local agronomist and also cover crop expert, Dale Strickler:
Plots for leaving and grazing: (pounds/acre)
- Oats (30 pounds)
- Spring Field Peas (20 pounds)
- Radish, (3 pounds)
- Turnips, (2 pounds)
- Sorghum, (1 pound)
The plot for haying had the same mix as above, minus turnips and radishes.
Forage samples were taken on October 13 to analyze tonnage. In the grazing and leaving plots the average was 18.15 tons/acre wet weight (including turnip and radish weight).
On October 14, 2014 K-State Research and Extension, River Valley District hosted a workshop/field day on cover crops and soil health. Approximately 50 attendees spent over 2 hours at the study site observing the stand and learning more about the potential benefits of cover crops. I spoke about the cover crop establishment costs and project details.
In conjunction with the field day, the plot for haying was swathed so attendees could view the amount of forage. The hay was raked and baled within 10 days, producing 38 bales. Average bale weight was 1,750 pounds. This puts tonnage at 1.59 tons/acre. A core from each bale was taken and samples were sent in for analysis at Ward Lab. Crude protein was 16% for a total forage value of 150. This is equivalent to medium grade alfalfa. At the time of the study, medium grade alfalfa was selling for approximately $90 per ton. Costs per ton were an estimated $73.40, for a net income of $16.60. Sensitivity analysis was performed to determine what price and quantity levels could decrease to and still break even as a standalone enterprise. The price or yield could drop by 19% before a negative net income would be realized.
The steers begun grazing on October 21, 2014, they were weighed prior to being put out to graze. The grazing paddock was cross fenced to create numerous grazing paddocks. Steers performed well with a 183.18 pounds of gain per animal over 86 days for an average daily gain of 2.13 pounds. Cover crop, supplemental feed, and labor costs averaged $123.98 per head for a cost of gain of $0.68 per pound. This cost was significantly lower than the cost of gain on other cattle raised by B&H Ranch in 2014-2015.
Corn was planted into the cover crop plot in the spring of 2015. On May 5, 2015 the field received 9 inches of rainfall in two hours with significant hail. Although significant gully erosion occurred in certain areas of the field, it was evident that the cover crop residual greatly reduced sheet and rill erosion. Despite significant setbacks with a wet spring, the corn yielded 135 bushels per acre. The field we own across the road that did not have cover crops yielded 137 bushels per acre. Therefore, we cannot conclude that the cover crops had any adverse yield impacts.
These results have been shared with all 105 Kansas county Conservation District offices. Presentations at the Kansas Farmers Union annual convention and Pottawatomie County Extension field day. Results have also been quoted at numerous other cover crop field days. An estimated 150 producers have attended direct presentations and at least 500 in attendance at events where this study was cited.
Cover crops can improve soil fertility and water quality while managing disease and pests as well as increasing biodiversity. Traditional no-till producers plant cover crops between rotations and mechanically or chemically terminate them prior to planting the next cash crop in the rotation. These producers are utilizing cover crops for the aforementioned benefits.
Producers with livestock are increasingly looking to cover crops as a way to further integrate their crop and livestock operations. These producers can potentially capture the benefits of cover crops while providing supplemental grazing sources to livestock and reducing residue management issues. This supplemental feed can come in the form of direct grazing or forage that is hayed and fed to livestock at a later date.
This project compared the economics of three after wheat cover cropping scenarios in Republic County Kansas: using cover crop mixes without harvesting, grazing cover crops, and haying cover crops.
Here are the objectives written in the grant application and their respective progress:
- Rate of gain of cattle grazing cover crops.
Steers performed well with a 183.18 pounds of gain per animal over 86 days for an average daily gain of 2.13 pounds. Cover crop, supplemental feed, and labor costs averaged $123.98 per head for a cost of gain of $0.68 per pound. This cost was significantly lower than the cost of gain on other cattle raised by B&H Ranch in 2014-2015.
- Quality and quantity of forage harvested.
Hay yielded 1.59 tons/acre, A core from each bale was taken and samples were sent in for analysis at Ward Lab. Crude protein was 16% for a total forage value of 150. This is equivalent to medium grade alfalfa. At the time of the study, medium grade alfalfa was selling for approximately $90 per ton.
- The field used in this study is grid sampled so soil types and nutrient content are well known.
- Bales were loaded on trailers and weighed after baling.
- Core samples pulled from each of the 39 bales and mixed, then sent to Ward Laboratories for testing.
- Hay brokers were consulted to determine what the fair price of the hay would be given quality. No hay was actually sold in this study.
- Steers were weighed before and after this project to determine weight gain.
1) Which scenario is more profitable?
The primary goal was determine which scenario was most profitable. However, given the results I am a little cautious to determine a clear winner. The hayed portion obviously yielded a profit of over $16 per ton of forage (even though no hay was actually sold).
Steers were sold for a price of $1.91 per pound with a cost of gain of $0.68 per pound. Hence, as far as one time profitability, the grazing performed very well. However, I am very cautious in sharing these results because a “perfect storm” more or less happened during this project: significant rainfall to maximize cover crop production coupled with near record cattle prices. Obviously, the replicability of this study is doubtful. However, given the fact that the cover crop grazing had a very economical cost of gain could make grazing cover crops a good option for livestock producers, especially given reduced cattle prices.
As far as the scenario where the cover crops were left alone, costs were nearly $67 per acre with no measurable fertility or yield advances in the following crop. Hence, on a one year basis in this case, justifying that additional cost would be questionable. Especially looking ahead to the next few years with decreased commodity prices.
2) Which scenario is best for long-term sustainability and soil health?
I believe that all three scenarios are a sustainable practice that will lead to improved soil health. Given this short study on limited acres, I cannot recommend one scenario over another. These impacts will be studied further.
3) How these practices are perceived in the agricultural community.
As mentioned, results of this project have been presented to a very diverse audience. Those who firmly fall in the “cover crop camp” are further energized by the results. In fact, even those in the “cover crop skeptics” realm are intrigued. The only feedback on cover crops received thus far that could be remotely construed as negative are the establishment costs of $68 per acre in the scenario that yielded no “income” in terms of forage or cattle production. However, I believe those thoughts have value, especially in an economic sense.
4) Measuring the impacts of information/education (I&E) and technical assistance (TA) activities on the target audiences. These impacts would include behavior changes and other actions taken by recipients as a result of their participation in the I&E or TA program/project.
This will continue to be studied by K-State Research and Extension, Kansas Department of Agriculture Division of Conservation, and farm organizations such as Farm Bureau, Rural Center, and Kansas Farmers Union.
Impact of Results/Outcomes
This grant project produced 61 acres of productive crops that yielded forage, residue, and livestock gain. Results were presented, directly and indirectly, to nearly 700 producers thus far, with more planned. I feel that the accomplishments met or exceeded all of the objectives.
Educational & Outreach Activities
These results have been shared with all 105 Kansas County Conservation District offices. Presentations at the Kansas Farmers Union annual convention, Pottawatomie County Extension field day. Results have also been quoted at numerous other cover crop field days. An estimated 150 producers have attended direct presentations and at least 500 were in attendance at events where this study was cited.
This project was featured in the SARE biennial 2015/2016 Report From the Field (page 13).
This project was featured on the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition blog in April 2016.
Further partnerships with Kerry Ebert, Peter Tomlinson, and a myriad of K-State Research and Extension Agents are planned.
Again, it is worth noting that this project has reached a diverse audience. My overall objective in this project was to determine the economic feasibility of these scenarios on my farm. While my results might not perfectly apply to others given numerous factors, it is my hope that producers will see the tools I employ in not only cover crop planting, “harvesting”, management, etc. but also tools I used (spreadsheets and presentations) to determine profitability and utilize the techniques for their own farm.
The limitations of the amount of funding available hinders the potential to perform a multi-year study. A three year cover crop study would yield some very insightful results, but the costs of performing this would be far above the SARE producer limits.