Profitability of Cover Crops

Research into cover cropping has shown some benefits to soil health and conservation. However, adoption of cover cropping has been relatively low due in part to uncertainty about its profitability. When considering whether to adopt this practice it is important to understand the associated costs.

            Seed and planting cost make up the bulk of additional costs of cover cropping. Table 1 shows examples of the cost of planting various cover crops from prices obtained in Mississippi. Seed costs range from $18.00/ac for oats to $43.80/ac for Austrian winter peas. Planting costs are estimated at $11.68/ac including direct expenses as well as indirect equipment costs (estimates derived from the Mississippi State Enterprise Budgets assuming a 20’ grain drill). Total costs of cover cropping range from $29.68/ac to $55.48/ac. Your costs will vary depending on local conditions, seeding rates, and equipment.  In some cases, an additional herbicide application is also needed to terminate the cover crop.

Table 1. Costs of Cover Cropping

CropSeed Cost $/lbSeeding Rate lb/acreSeeding Cost $/acPlanting Cost $/acCover Crop Costs $/ac
Austrian winter pea0.736043.8011.6855.48
Crimson Clover1.802036.0011.6847.68
Cereal Rye0.396023.4011.6835.08
Tillage radish2.40819.2011.6830.88
Oats0.365018.0011.6829.68
Rye+Clover (89/11 Mix)0.455022.3611.6834.04

For cover cropping to be profitable there needs to be a positive yield benefit to offset the added costs. However, research has shown that cover cropping may have no effect on yield or in some cases decrease yield. The impact on yield is highly dependent on which crop is being grown. Spencer et al. (2021) found that Austrian winter pea and cereal rye decreased corn yield by 37 and 45%, respectively, in the first year of implementing cover crops. In subsequent years there was no significant differences in yield found. But, net returns were significantly reduced in 2 out of the 4 years examined. Bryant et al. (2020) found that, relative to reduced tillage-subsoiling, a cereal rye cover crop had no impact on soybean yield but a radish cover crop reduced soybean yield by 12%. However, these results are atypical for what is usually observed in soybeans under cover cropping. Regardless, the lack of a positive yield response led to lower net returns under both the cereal rye and radish cover crops in that study. Lastly, Denton et al. (2021) found no yield response from cover cropping in cotton. This led to lower net returns of $20.34/ac to $124.64/ac under cover cropping. These studies show why cover cropping may not be profitable in the Mid-South.

One way to help alleviate the lack of profitability would be to secure Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) payments. As shown in Table 2, payments vary from state-to-state and by cover crop. Producers are only eligible for payments on land that is not currently under cover cropping. There are also limitations on payment amounts and duration. More information on your specific state’s EQIP payments can be found at: https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detailfull/national/programs/financial/?cid=nrcseprd1328426

Table 2. Environmental Quality Incentives Program Payments for Cover Cropping 2021

AlabamaArkansasLouisianaMississippiOklahomaTennesseeTexas
Practice EQIP Payments $/acEQIP Payments $/acEQIP Payments $/acEQIP Payments $/acEQIP Payments $/acEQIP Payments $/acEQIP Payments $/ac
Cover Crop-Basic
(Organic and Non-organic)
$52.36$50.22$50.05$51.73$48.60$52.14$33.74
Cover Crop-Multiple Species (Organic and Non-organic)$64.02$61.75$61.71$63.26$60.25$63.79$41.51

The results discussed here may differ from what is found on your farm. When deciding whether to adopt cover cropping it is important to test if the practice is profitable on a small area first. Once it is determined if it is profitable for you then larger scale adoption can be implemented. Your local NRCS office can also help with additional information about obtaining EQIP payments.

References

Bryant, C.J., Krutz, L.J., Reynolds, D., Locke, M., Golden, B.R., Irby, T., Steinriede, R., Spencer, G.D., Mills, B.E., & Wood, W. (2020) Conservation Soybean Production Systems in the Mid-Southern USA: II. Replacing Subsoiling with Cover Crops. Crop, Forage & Turfgrass Management. http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/cft2.20058

Denton, S.D., Dodds, D.M., Krutz, L.J., Varco, J.J., Gore, J., Mills, B.E., & Raper, T.B. (2021). Impact of Cover Crop Species on Soil Physical Properties, Cotton Yield, and Profitability. Journal of Cotton Science. 25:68-78.

Spencer, G.D., Krutz, L.J., Locke, M., Gholson, D., Bryant, C., Mills, B.E., Henry, W., & Golden, B. (2021) Corn productivity and profitability in raised, stale seedbed systems with and without cover crops. Crop, Forage & Turfgrass Managementhttp://dx.doi.org/10.1002/cft2.20142

Mills, Brian. “Profitability of Cover Cropping“. Southern Ag Today 2(32.3). August 3, 2022. Permalink

Assistant Professor
Mississippi State Extension

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