How a data-driven approach makes profitable on-farm conservation possible

New data and insights are now available from Precision Conservation Management, a partnership organization that connects 280 Illinois and Kentucky farmers with conservation specialists from local soil and water conservation districts to provide actionable data on conservation financials.

Over the last five years, PCM gathered field-level farm management data — including the number of passes across the field, the rate of inputs into those fields, tillage passes and cover crop use — integrating that management data with cost tables created by the University of Illinois to provide farmers with the financial outcomes of different conservation practices.

Here are the top three insights from five years of farm data.

Nitrogen management is a key corn profitability factor

Nitrogen fertilizer costs represent a substantial portion of corn operating expenses — approximately 15% — and can therefore be an important way to reduce costs.

PCM’s data shows that the right timing and rate of nitrogen application can make a big difference to corn field profitability.

Seventy percent of the most profitable fields in the PCM dataset applied the majority of nitrogen fertilizer during the growing season, either pre-plant or side dress. Corn yields were not significantly different across different fertilizer application methods, but fields applying nitrogen by pre-plant or side dress spent $5 and $8 less per acre as compared to fields applying most of their nitrogen in the fall.

The rate of nitrogen application was also key. PCM’s analysis found that farmers applying the university-recommended 150 to 200 pounds per acre were the most profitable.

Tillage decisions are important to profitability

Reducing tillage frequency and intensity can provide substantial financial benefits to farmers.

PCM’s data shows that 44% of the most profitable soybean fields used no-till. The 2020 data shows that the most profitable farmers know which fields can provide good soybean yields without tillage and which fields can provide enough additional soybeans using a tillage pass to offset the tillage expenses.

New data and insights are now available on how conservation affects farm financials. Click To Tweet

The data also shows that fields with one or two light tillage passes are the most profitable on average, yielding $25 to $30 more profit per acre than no-till and strip-till fields. However, one or two light tillage passes caused much more soil loss than no-till and strip-till, potentially damaging the long-term profitability of those fields.

What about cover crops? It’s complicated

Cover crops do not seem to pencil out across PCM’s dataset. The 150 fields of cover cropped acres in the PCM program showed $12 dollars in cover crop seed cost and an additional $12 to $16 in planting costs on average without providing increased yields or substantial cost savings. But there is more to the story.

Many of the farmers using cover crops are receiving financial assistance ranging from $5 to$35 per acre, which is not included in their calculated gross revenue. PCM also states that many of the farmers in their program using cover crops are recent adopters and are still learning how and where to grow cover crops effectively.

EDF’s recent analysis conducted in partnership with the Soil Health Partnership and K·Coe Isom found that farmers with more than five years of cover crop experience were able to substantially reduce operating costs as compared to farmers with less than five years of cover crop experience.

Five years of detailed field-level management data gathered by PCM clearly shows the positive financial impacts that conservation decisions can have on farm operations. Gathering and sharing more financial data to more farmers will be essential to bringing the benefits of conservation practices to scale.

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