As summer has begun to heat up across the U.S. this week, it made me think of a really interesting question I heard at the National No-Tillage Conference several months ago.

USDA-ARS researcher Jerry Hatfield said a farmer once asked him, “If you knew what the weather was going to be during the growing season, would you farm differently?”

The obvious truth is that nobody can really guarantee what’s going to happen from year to year, and perhaps the only thing no-tillers can control is their management decisions.

One big decision is whether or not to seed cover crops. And a recent multi-state survey of 750 farmers shows those who seeded them ahead of corn and soybeans last year were rewarded with more bushels per acre vs. fields without covers.

The average corn yield after cover crops was 126 bushels, compared to 115 for fields without covers, say the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) group and the Conservation Technology Information Center.

For soybeans, yields for cover-cropped fields came in at 47 bushels, compared to 42 bushels without using covers.

The yield differences are likely due to the increased shading action of cover crops, and better moisture-holding capacity of cover-cropped fields because of higher levels of organic matter, the organizations say.

With the average U.S. monthly corn price at $6.77 a bushel in October 2012, that’s an extra $74.47 an acre left on the table. For soybeans at $14.20 a bushel the same month, that’s $71 an acre unrealized.

The survey also found farmers with 3 or more years of experience saw an 11% increase in corn yields and 13% in soybeans, while those with less than 3 years achieved 6% and 11%, respectively.

To look at net profit, you would have to calculate the establishment costs for your individual farm, including the seeding method, equipment, fuel and cover-crop seed costs. But when another drought comes knocking, can you really afford to lose up to $72 an acre again?

John Dobberstein,
Managing Editor
No-Till Farmer