Cover crops and no-till aren't just good for soil — they also make farmers more money, study says

Sept. 27, 2023, 10 a.m. ·

Cover Crops
Crimson clover can be used as a cover crop in corn, soybeans and wheat fields to improve soil health. Rob Myers / University Of Missouri

Farmers can save money by using practices that improve soil, according to a study from the Soil Health Institute.

The study surveyed 30 farms across the United States that are using no-till agriculture, which minimizes soil disturbance, and cover crops, where plants are used primarily to keep soil in place between growing seasons.

Across 29 of those farms, these practices increased net farm income by an average of $65 per acre annually. The study also found that these practices cost farmers on average $14 per acre less to grow corn and $7 per acre less to grow soybeans.

“This is a way that is not only more profitable, but these practices can really help them build that resilience to those more extreme weather events,” said Wayne Honeycutt, president and CEO of the Soil Health Institute.

A 2021 study by the same institute that focused on 100 farms across the Midwest also found that these practices saved money and increased net income.

This could be because farmers are not spending as much on equipment used for tillage or using fertilizers on the soil.

“We save money by putting on these cover crops,” said Levi Lyle, a farmer in Keota, Iowa, in one of the videos shared with the study.

“The costs that are associated with putting on the cover crops, I feel like we are generating income for young farmers who are excited to sell cover crop seed.”

The positive environmental impacts of these practices are more well-known, such as improving resilience to extreme weather and reducing nutrient run-off. However, there is not as much research on how they impact farmers economically.

“Farmers are businessmen and women, and so they need to know that when they are changing their management practices that it will be economically beneficial for them to do so,” said Honeycutt.

Kelly Wilson, associate director of the Center for Regenerative Agriculture at the University of Missouri said that qualitative research like this is valuable, but the topic needs more as well as different types of research.

“You really have to take into account how different soil types, different regions, different climates, those things also play into the potential economic factors,” she said, “so that can be really hard to just look at something like this and compare it across.”

She also pointed out that it often takes a couple years before farmers start seeing the benefits.

Honeycutt, of the Soil Health Institute, said even with that reality, the study shows that for the most part, these practices are beneficial economically in the long-term.

“There are some cases we found where they were not, and so we're very upfront about that,” he said, “but by and large overwhelmingly the average is yes, it's very economically beneficial to use these practices.”

Eva Tesfaye covers agriculture, food systems and rural issues for KCUR and Harvest Public Media and is a Report For America corps member.

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.