I seek and I find. The more I learn/ read about cover cropping, the balance in views about it stays steady.
Take this university study, for example.
“Depending on rainfall and other weather conditions, cover crops used over 6 to 10 years may improve soil quality, but can you stay in business long enough to capture these benefits when you give up 25% to 60% of your wheat yield every year as a result of growing the cover crop?” The author is speaking of a semi-arid region of Western Nebraska, USA. Find the 2010 article here.
And it is a fair question: is it, or can it be profitable? And that is what needs to be asked and answered, for ourselves. There is much we can ‘invest’ in on a farm with long term results, but will the cash flow and equity allow it in the meantime? Or is it too academic?
To be fair, I also found a (pdf) case study on a Wisconsin farmer called Gary Sommers, in which he states
“I just have to decide, well, this is what it’s going to cost me and do I think there is enough benefit . . . that I want to do it without having any definite proof. . . . It’s just hard to quantify if you’re benefiting the soil. . . . It’s kind of a long-term investment, you know. Does it show up next year? Well, maybe not. But maybe, over the long term, there’s enough benefit that it’s worth the expense of doing it.” He added, “If cost was the only consideration, you probably wouldn’t do it because you can’t really quantify a return.” He has a winter wheat/soybean / corn rotation, and his primary reason for cover cropping is to reduce soil erosion.
And I reckon it highlights the tension between having clear achievement goals, and accepting the (net) cost for them. In some places it seems quickly profitable in cashflow, and in others the returns are difficult to quantify.
Such views reiterate to me the need for measuring results, if possible. If this practice could end up taking years to be worthwhile, I would rather do much and leave control strips, than wait for years to see if small trials work out. It is easier to treat a paddock than fence off a patch. In CTF practices it is also easy to measure following cash-crop yield in strips too.
While thinking about measurable and immeasurable benefits, congrats to Gabe Brown for his 2012 Going Green Award. Read about it in the Bismark Tribune article.