Conservation Agriculture in Wyoming Forage Production Systems
Conservation minded agriculture practices are receiving increased attention as solutions to drought and the ever-rising costs of ag inputs Wyoming producers are no stranger to.
The U.S. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) defines conservation agricultural practices as those which provide permanent soil cover, offer minimal soil disturbance and promote the diversification of plant species.
Cover crops, when managed appropriately, can be used to achieve plant diversity and provide season long soil cover. When paired with no-till seeding methods, all three goals can be achieved with relative ease.
Cover crops and no-till management
Cover crops paired with no-till soil management methods have been shown to increase soil organic carbon concentrations, minimize nutrient losses, improve soil water holding capacity and water infiltration rates, reduce soil erosion, increase soil microbial activity and provide moderate weed suppression.
In spite of the benefits these practices can have in enhancing the stability and fertility of agricultural soils, the shift to these practices can be inhibited by the cost of seed, equipment and chemicals.
Scientists worldwide have invested a great deal of time and effort quantifying the benefits of soil conservation practices, but few have examined the costs associated with adopting the methods.
A study recently conducted at the University of Wyoming’s (UW) Sheridan Research and Extension Center addresses this issue at a local level.
In this study, a 14-species cover crop mix was used to renovate aging and weedy alfalfa hayfields. The mix was planted for two years and followed with a return to alfalfa in the third growing season.
Researchers compared this approach to the standard method of terminating alfalfa, planting a monoculture annual forage crop (Hayes barley) and returning to alfalfa after one year. Both approaches were conducted with conventional tillage practices and no-till. Additionally, the costs and revenue generated with each method were recorded.
The most consistent finding highlighted in this study was, regardless of what crop was planted, using no-till practices to establish crops was significantly less expensive than traditional tillage practices, even with the added costs of chemicals and application. Furthermore, the savings provided by no-till did not come at the expense of crop yields.
All no-till crops provided similar yields to their conventional counterparts through the duration of the project.
With these issues clarified, the elephant in the room is, of course, the purchase of a no-till drill, but knowing producers do not have to sacrifice yields and can significantly reduce their annual farming expenditures may provide the confidence needed to make the switch.
Cover cropping has historically been challenging for traditional farms as there is no saleable product at the end of the growing period.
In Wyoming, however, farmers and ranchers have the benefit of close proximity to livestock. Grazing cover crops can allow a producer to recover some of the seed and planting expenses incurred by the practice.
Additionally, moving livestock onto cover crop fields can allow a land manager to defer range and pasture grazing, and if timed appropriately, may reduce some of the feed required to support livestock throughout the winter.
Researchers in Sheridan assembled their 14-species blend at a cost similar to the expense of seeding an annual monoculture forage crop. The mix produced one to 1.5 tons per acre (dryland) and provided a grazing resource well into fall.
Results from the study showed no-till practices played an integral role in cost recovery.
Ultimately, the value a producer places on their cover crop will be the deciding factor in determining if the practice is profitable.
This study conservatively derived cover crop value through income which could be obtained via a grazing lease. With this approach, it was difficult to recover expenses without added help from a cost-share program like the Natural Resources Conservation Serviceʼs Environmental Quality Incentives Program.
There is certainly an argument to be made when used as a forage resource, cover crop value could also be assigned in a manner similar to hay, especially when they are replacing hay for a portion of the year.
The cost of hay is often considerably higher than grazing lease rates, and therefore, would have a greater impact in offsetting cover crop costs.
Many Wyoming producers plant cover crops in place of cash crops, allowing them to persist through the entire growing season.
While producers forgo cash crop income in this instance, the value of their new grazing resource, in combination with the savings of no-till and benefits provided to their soils, may ultimately be enough to justify incorporating conservation minded practices in their forage production systems.
Jaycie Arndt is a University of Wyoming Extension educator. She can be reached at email@example.com.