Healthy soil is fundamental to food production and one that is increasingly in the spotlight as so-called “regenerative ag” gains more traction. While the term regenerative ag may be fairly new to the mainstream, the principals and practices for promoting healthy soils have been practiced by innovative farmers in the U.S. for decades. A new study from The Soil Health Institute (SHI) in partnership with Cargill provides insights into various soil health systems from farmers across the Corn Belt to understand how the economic impact of these practices.
SHI interviewed 100 farmers in nine states – Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio, South Dakota, and Tennessee – who have adopted soil health systems to acquire production information such as tillage practices, nutrient management, pest management, yield changes, and others. These nine states collectively contribute approximately 71% of the total amount of corn and 67% of the total amount of soybean produced in the U.S. in 2019. Dr. Archie Flanders, SHI Agricultural Economist, then evaluated the on-farm economics using partial budget analysis before and after adoption of that system.
The 100 farmers grew crops on an average of 1940 acres, using no-till on 85% and cover crops on 53% of those acres. Those farmers using no-till had been doing so for an average of 19 years, and those who grew cover crops had been doing so for an average of nine years. The initial findings look encouraging for producers that might be on the fence about adopting new practices. The full report is HERE. Some of the highlights include:
- Sixty-seven percent of the farmers interviewed reported increased yield from using a soil health management system, averaging +7.73 bu./acre for corn and +2.91 bu./acre for soybean. However, two farmers reported decreased corn yield, amounting to a -0.39 bu./acre decrease when averaged across all 100 farms.
- Based on the information provided by these farmers, it cost an average of $24.00/acre less to grow corn and $16.57/acre less to grow soybean using a soil health management system. Fertilizer and amendment expenses were reduced by an average of $22.36/acre for corn and $9.20/ acre for soybean, with a majority of farmers implementing nutrient management practices such as grid soil sampling (86%), variable rate fertilizer application (82%), and split application of nitrogen (89%) as part of their soil health management system.
- Across all 100 farms, soil health management systems increased net income for 85% of farmers growing corn and 88% growing soybean. However, a wide range of impact on net income was observed. It appeared that some of the highest increases in net income were related to selling/marketing non-GMO crops. This data exemplifies the well-established notion that no two farms are identical, which is one of the main reasons why this project was conducted on 100 farms across nine different states.
- Based on standardized prices, the soil health management system increased net income for these 100 farmers by an average of $51.60/acre for corn and $44.89/acre for soybean. Additional revenue associated with cover crop grazing and forage value was reported by nine farmers. However, because only 9 or 100 used cover crops for this purpose, this source of revenue was not included in the partial budget estimates.
- Farmers also reported additional benefits of their soil health management system. Notably, 97% reported increased resilience to extreme weather such as drought and heavy rain, and 93% reported the soil health system to increase access to their fields. While a few farmers were engaged in water quality monitoring on their farms, most reported this benefit of improved water quality based on observing clearer water on or leaving their fields with a soil health management system.