Is it worthwhile to invest in soil health techniques that can sequester carbon? The Soil Health Institute, based in Morrisville, North Carolina, set out to address this question by interviewing 100 farmers in nine states who had been practicing no-till, reduced tillage, or planting cover crops for at least five years.
After a partial budget analysis of the farm economic data, the institute discovered that the answer was a loud yes: implementing soil health techniques can be profitable.
The nine states studied account for 71% of corn and 67% of soybean production in the United States. The survey included Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio, South Dakota, and Tennessee.
Net revenue improved for 85% of maize and 88% of soybean farmers in a study of farms where soil health methods were utilized. In addition, 67% reported higher yields in all crops after implementing soil health techniques than their previous conventional production systems. Farmers in the poll lowered the average cost of growing corn by $24 per acre and soybeans by $17 per acre. As a result, farmers polled improved net farm revenue by $52 per acre for corn and $45 per acre for soybeans.
Farmers’ enhanced hardiness in their crops after applying soil health methods for several years was a significant factor in the favorable outcome connected to maintained yields: 97% of farmers said their crops were more resistant to adverse weather.
Farmers we interviewed generally claimed that their crop yields would be better under drought conditions than their previous traditional management practices. Water infiltration into the soil is boosted because no-till and cover crops increase soil structure. Because the ground holds moisture, more water is available for the plants to absorb, and the soil moisture lasts longer.
In response to Cargill’s request for economic data, the institution investigated the financial sustainability of soil health initiatives. Farmers were found for interviews by Institute workers through a variety of sources.
This study did not use a random sample of farmers. Instead, we deliberately targeted farmers using soil health methods for at least five years. Farmers used no-till or reduced-tillage methods, with or without cover crops. About 60% of the participants planted cover crops, while the rest did not. Farmers we interviewed had been practicing no-till or reduced tillage for an average of 20 years, and those producing cover crops had been doing so for 11 years.
Farmers supplied data for production techniques that contrasted early traditional procedures and inputs with currently used soil health practices. As a result, examining each farm’s data revealed a before-and-after economic picture.
Reduced production costs were the primary driver of higher net income due to soil health initiatives. Crop yield increases helped, but not in every case.
Reduced costs in various categories, including fertilizer, insecticides, and equipment-related expenses, decreased overall production expenses.
In Minnesota, for example, the 10 farmers polled reported an average cost savings of $23.10 per acre from fewer fertilizer and other amendment treatments for corn and a savings of $13.44 per acre from fewer fertilizer applications for soybeans. They experienced no additional costs in that category.
Approximately half of Minnesota farmers reported an increase in yield.
They used no-till on 54% of their acres and cultivated cover crops on the other 48%.
Minnesota farmers implementing soil health methods improved net income by an average of $32.13 per acre for corn and $37.63 per acre for soybeans.
The current adoption rates in Minnesota of 6% for no-till and 4% for cover crops indicate that many other farms may benefit from soil health management techniques.
Adoption rates for growing cover crops in Nebraska are similar, at 4%, but substantially higher for no-till; 56% of farmers in Nebraska have adopted no-till.
The majority of the 12 farmers interviewed by the institute in Nebraska indicated output gains and cost savings due to their soil health systems. Farmers reported net income gains of $67.68 for maize and $48.97 per acre for soybeans.
Farmers using soil health methods also resulted in increased soil organic matter. For example, the soil health management method boosted soil organic matter for 80% of South Dakota farmers who monitored their levels, rising by an average of 1.8% [from baseline organic matter levels].
According to research, increased soil organic matter boosts a soil’s available nutrients and water-holding ability. This is consistent with the South Dakota farmers’ observations of reduced fertilizer application, higher crop resilience, and improved field access.
In Illinois, 36% of farmers polled reported an average 1.5% increase in organic matter. Further west, 40% and 30% of farmers surveyed in Iowa and Minnesota, respectively, reported a 1% increase in organic matter due to implementing soil health techniques.
Farmers also claimed that their soil health systems caused less water to drain off their farms, increasing water quality in watersheds.
Several Minnesota farmers said that implementing a soil health management system helped them achieve certification by the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program, which protects their license to operate for ten years even if new state water-quality standards or legislation are implemented.
Improving soil health can assist farmers in developing drought resilience, increasing nutrient availability, suppressing pathogens, reducing erosion, and reducing nutrient losses. In addition, many soil health management methods based on soil health practices assist the environment by storing soil carbon, lowering greenhouse gas emissions, and improving water quality.