Calculating the Cost of Conservation

Haley Bickelhaupt

Jun 06, 2024  |  ICGA |  Conservation

Near Waterloo Illinois, Dale Haudrich’s fields of row crops look different than his neighbors.

 

Acres of soybeans emerge surrounded by old corn stubble and withering rye. His no-till, cover crop field is laying the groundwork for this year’s harvest to be more profitable and sustainable than the last. Data from Precision Conservation Management (PCM), a conservation program which helps farmers understand the economics and sustainability of their farming practices, shows there is a growing number of farmers increasing profitability with sustainable practices.

“I always heard the saying, ‘leave the farm better than how you got it,’” Haudrich said, who began using conservation practices in the 1980s. “That’s my goal on all the land I farm.”

 

In 2023, PCM welcomed nearly 100 new farmer cooperators into its program guiding and incentivizing farmers in sustainability. The group’s almost 500 Illinois cooperators planted over 84 thousand acres of cover crops, a conservation practice known to improve soil nutrients and reduce erosion. Farmers plant cover crops such as winter wheat (non-harvested), cereal rye, or radishes during the non-growing season.The plants are grown without the intention of harvest or being cashed in for a profit. Instead, the living roots, deep within the soil, suffocate weeds in the spring and control disease. Farmers invest in the health and future of their land through cover crops.

 

Last year, the addition of nearly 25 thousand acres of cover crops to PCM reduced sediment loss by over 250 thousand tons, allowing farmers to keep nutrient rich, topsoil on their land—and not their neighbor’s or the roadside ditch or stream. Farmers can be paid as little as $10, or as much as $45 per acre by the PCM program for planting cover crops (depending on rate and species). These programs help decrease the risk associated with the practice and improve farmer’s bottom line.

 

Farmers in Illinois have not only embraced the benefit of planting cover crops to improve soil health but also to help prevent future regulations. According to PCM data, 63.5% of PCM farmers who don’t already use cover crops on their whole farm say they are likely to try and expand the practice on their farms in the future. “Not only does PCM allow me to receive payments for my conservation efforts, but it allows me to make an impact in decarbonizing the agricultural sector,” Haudrich said.

 

“It is exciting to see more and more farmers implement sustainable practices, reducing carbon emissions and increasing soil health,” PCM’s director Greg Goodwin said. “The 9-year-old program has created a new conservation conversation in Illinois, and we cannot wait to see the impact our farmers will continue to make."