How Soil Health Practices Improve Outcomes


Farmers who use practices that improve soil health also save input costs and are more profitable.

This is the result of a study of 100 farmers in nine major corn and soybean producing states, conducted by researchers at the nonprofit Soil Health Institute (SHI), with support from Cargill, Inc.

The study, “Economics of Soil Health on 100 Farms,” ​​sought to find out whether the agronomic benefits of better soil health had favorable economic benefits, said Wayne Honeycutt, president and CEO of SHI.

Positive results were obtained for almost all the farms studied. Net income per acre improved by an average of $ 51.60 per acre for corn and $ 44.80 per acre for soybeans. The study excludes any subsidies, such as conservation cost-sharing payments for cover crops.

The farms are large commercial operations in states that produce 71% of the country’s corn and 67% of its soybeans. These states include the entire Corn Belt, from Nebraska to the east through Ohio, as well as South Dakota, Minnesota, Michigan and Tennessee. The average farm size was almost 2,000 acres.

The study included farms that had used healthy soil construction practices for at least five years, Honeycutt said, but their experience was much greater. Farms had used no-till for 19 years and cover crops for about a decade.

The SHI has already released the results of its study for each state, but Wednesday was the first time for a public debate on the data of the nine. Honeycutt spoke on the first day of SHI’s two-day annual meeting.

The 100 farms in the study use no-till on 85% of their acres, compared to 37% of all agricultural acres in the United States. They planted cover crops on 53% of their acres, far ahead of the 5% of all crop acres in cover crops.

The benefits outweigh the costs
The benefits outweighed the increased costs for corn and soybeans. For corn, the additional costs of improving soil health averaged $ 48 per acre.

One of the largest increases was $ 12.62 per acre for seeds, due to cover crops. It might sound small, Honeycutt said, but that’s because about half of the farms’ acres were protected by cover crops.
Corn profits were $ 99.60 per acre, one of the biggest savings coming from a $ 22.36 per acre reduction in fertilizer costs. The reduction in labor and fuel costs resulting from the use of no-till also increased the benefits. Over time, corn yields have increased by about $ 7.73 an acre, which further adds to the advantage of the equation.

How researchers measured yield improvements varied across farms, he said. Some kept plots that did not use new soil construction practices, while others compared yields to county averages.

The economic comparison was made on the basis of partial budgets. Inputs or practices that were not changed were excluded from the calculations. For example, if the farm continued to use the same herbicide, this was not included.

Not all of the farms studied improved their incomes by using what SHI calls Soil Health Management Systems (SHMS). But most did; with an increase in net income for 85% of farmers growing corn and 88% of those growing soybeans. Almost all (97%) reported increased resistance of crops to extreme weather conditions, such as drought.

Honeycutt said one of the next steps in the Institute’s economic studies is to develop a better understanding of the economics of transitioning to soil health management systems.
You can find more details about the study here.

Editor’s Note: The author’s son, Nate Looker, is a soil scientist working at the Soil Health Institute.

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