Cover crops offer many potential benefits – including improving soil health – but not knowing the costs can be a barrier for growers who want to try this practice. To help growers calculate costs per acre, a new study on the costs and potential benefits of adding a winter cover crop in an annual rotation has been released by UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, UC Cooperative Extension and the UC Davis Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics.
Led by UC Cooperative Extension farm advisors Sarah Light and Margaret Lloyd, the cost study is modeled for a vegetable-field crop rotation planted on 60-inch beds in the lower Sacramento Valley of California. Depending on the operation, this rotation may include processing tomatoes, corn, sunflower, cotton, sorghum and dry beans, as well as other summer annual crops.
“This cost study can be used by growers who want to begin cover cropping to determine the potential costs per acre associated with this soil-health practice,” said Light, a study co-author and UC Cooperative Extension agronomy advisor for Sutter, Yuba and Colusa counties.
“Based on interviews with growers who currently cover crop on their farms, this cost study models a management scenario that is common for the Sacramento Valley. In addition, growers who want to use cover crops can gain insight as to what standard field management practices will be from planting to termination.”
At the hypothetical farm, the cover crop is seeded into dry soil using a grain drill, then dependent on rainfall for germination and growth.
“Given the frequency of drier winters, we included the cost to irrigate one out of three years,” said Lloyd.
A mix of 30% bell bean, 30% field pea, 20% vetch and 20% oats is sown in the fall. Depending on winter rainfall, soil moisture and the following cash crop, the cover crop is terminated in mid to late spring. The cover crop is flail mowed and disced to incorporate the residue into the soil.
The study includes detailed information on the potential benefits and the drawbacks of cover cropping.
Another consideration for growers is that multiple programs such as CDFA's Healthy Soils Program, various USDA-funded programs (EQUIP, the Climate-Smart Commodities, etc.), and Seeds for Bees by Project Apis m. offer financial incentives for growers to implement conservation practices, such as cover crops.
“This study can provide growers with a baseline to estimate their own costs of using winter cover crops as a practice. This can be useful to calculate more precise estimates when applying for some of these programs and/or weigh the costs per acre with expected benefits in terms of soil health, crop insurance premium discounts or other benefits provided by the cover crops,” said Brittney Goodrich, UC Cooperative Extension agricultural and resource economics specialist and study co-author.
“Last year, the USDA's Pandemic Cover Crop Program gave up to a $5/acre discount on crop insurance premiums for growers who planted a cover crop, and there is potential this will get extended going forward,” Goodrich said.
A list of links to resources that focus specifically on cover crops is included in the study. Five tables show the individual costs of each cultural operation from ground preparation through planting and residue incorporation.
The new study, “2022 - Estimated Costs and Potential Benefits for a Winter Cover Crop in an Annual Crop Rotation - Lower Sacramento Valley,” can be downloaded from the UC Davis Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics website at coststudies.ucdavis.edu. Sample cost of production studies for many other commodities are also available on the website.
This cost and returns study is funded by the UC Davis Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics.
For an explanation of calculations used in the study, refer to the section titled “Assumptions.” For more information, contact Don Stewart in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at firstname.lastname@example.org, Light at email@example.com, or Lloyd at firstname.lastname@example.org.