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NRCS tool to evaluate cover crops

The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service has developed a digital tool to help growers evaluate the benefits of cover crops and estimate the cost of production.

The Cover Crop Economic Decision Support Tool is a spreadsheet that helps farmers, landowners and others make decisions when considering whether to add cover crops to their systems. It was developed by two NRCS economists, Lauren Cartwright, of Missouri, and Bryon Kirwan, of Illinois.

The tool offers a partial budget analysis. It focuses only on operational changes that farmers make, things that affect the actual costs and benefits that farmers see when they add cover crops.

These are benefits and costs that can easily be expressed in dollars. More difficult to estimate are the benefits cover crops might bring in terms of soil tilth and water retention.

Co-developer, Cartwright said her inspiration for developing the tool came from attending soil health workshops throughout the state.

“I would hear the main speakers, farmers who have been using cover crops for many years, talk about how they have no runoff and they are producing corn for less than $2 per bushel. And I found myself thinking ‘That’s good. But how did you get to that point, and how much did it cost to get there?’” she said.

Cartwright said she teamed up with Kirwan to develop the tool because they each brought a different skillset to the process. Kirwan has a strong economic and agronomic background, and owns a farm. Cartwright has degrees in environmental science and economics and is strong in programming. She has used her skills to develop seven other economic tools for NRCS.

The spreadsheet tool that Kirwan and Cartwright developed is designed to measure:

• direct nutrient credits
• input reductions
• yield increases and decreases
• seed and establishment costs
• erosion reductions
• grazing opportunities
• overall soil fertility levels
• water storage and infiltration improvements

The tool’s analysis depends on data that farmers enter. They can run “what if” scenarios if they want to evaluate a range of values. The tool offers results in both dollars and graphs, showing short-term and longterm benefits.

Cartwright said for most scenarios, the tool shows a clear financial benefit for those who learn to manage cover crops and stick with them. There is a significant jump in benefits over time, primarily because of increased organic matter in the soil. The tool also indicates that short-term costs can be offset by farmers who incorporate grazing of cover crops.

Download the spreadsheet at:

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