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Do cover crops pencil out?

As I write this, the ting of a gentle rain landing on my office windows is a quiet reminder of how fortunate we have received a few timely rains in the last five weeks. Prior to that, the grass was burnt to a crisp, hay prices were rising, and we were scrambling to figure out a game plan to compile enough forages to get through the winter.

Although we aren’t out of the woods of this drought quite yet, we know it could be much, much worse. As we continue to haul waters to our pastures where the dugouts sit bone dry, we know that the weather could change again, and our pastures, now greening up again with new growth, could once again become dry and brittle.

The ongoing drought in the Dakotas and Montana have been on my mind all summer, and certainly, for folks in these areas, the idea of planting cover crops this year is laughable. My dad being the optimistic guy that he is seeded a cover crop mix into a few fields and prayed hard for rain. I assumed it would be a disaster, but it looks like we’ll have a pretty nice stand for grazing as we get closer to fall. Thankfully he had the faith and foresight to give it a go, but it was definitely a gamble.

The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation recently evaluated the economics of planting cover crops. Written by Myriah Johnson, Ph.D., an agricultural economist consultant, and Jeff Goodwin, a pasture and range consultant, the article evaluates two separate scenarios where cover grazing might be most beneficial.

Here is an excerpt: “From research, we have learned that cover crops can help increase water retention and soil organic matter, regulate soil temperature, reduce erosion, and provide nutrients back to the soil. Some of these impacts are slow to realize and may take many years to see. Part of a cover crop’s beauty is that it is individualized, tailored to each piece of land. However, that also means the devil is in the details as we try to determine the economic value of cover…

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