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Does Conservation Farming Pay for Winter Forage Production?

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Posted Sep. 30, 2007

Over the past two decades, winter forage producers have been asking researchers if conservation farming practices are more economical than conventional practices. Studies dating back to mid-1980 have sought answers to these questions. These studies reported that, due to a relatively low price of diesel fuel, a relatively high price for the herbicide RoundupĀ® and the substantially large equipment investment, conservation methods were not likely to be adopted by producers in the region.

In the past few years, however, the economics of conservation farming practices have changed. Higher prices for diesel fuel and machinery inputs, as well as the expiration of the patent license for the herbicide RoundupĀ® (glyphosate), have provided the impetus for a renewed interest in conservation farming. This article will update our readers on the findings from an eight-year demonstration project that was designed to compare the economic performance between a no-till (NT) farming practice and the clean-till (CT) system typically used by wheat forage producers within the Noble Research Institute service region.

The demonstration project was conducted at the Noble Research Institute's Pasture Demonstration Farm from the fall of 1996 through the spring of 2003. Fields were established with winter pasture and fertilized with 100 pounds of nitrogen around Sept. 1 each year. Prior to stocking around Nov. 15, production was measured by taking height measurement and forage clippings from each pasture for each system. Grazing days were collected for each treatment throughout the grazing period and divided into fall and spring production. Stocking rates ranged between 400 and 600 pounds of beef per acre during the fall phase of growth (i.e., Nov. 1 - March 1) and between 800 and 1200 pounds of beef per acre during the spring phase of growth (i.e., March 1 - June 1).

Several assumptions were made in our calculations. Since the winter forage was managed the same for each system and year, we only considered those costs, including field preparation and planting activities, that varied between the two systems. Second, since cattle were not weighed before and after grazing for each system, we made the assumption that cattle realized an average daily gain of two pounds per head per day. Further, machinery (tractors, tillage and seedbed preparation equipment, conventional drill and no-till drill) fixed ownership costs were calculated for each system assuming a farm size of 640 acres. A price of $1.75 per pint of the herbicide glyphosate and a custom application rate of $4.00 per acre was assumed for the no-till system. A value of gain of $0.55 per pound was assumed for each system and year of the study.

Forage production and economic information, including the average net return for each system, is reported in Table 1. Notice that, even though the clean-till system realized a substantially higher level of production, the total number of steer-grazing days favored the no-till system. This was the result of rotating cattle off of the clean-till field during periods of wet weather in order to prevent damage to the growing forage. Noteworthy is the size of the grazing paddock used in the study, which provides very good insight into how these two systems compare under an actual large-scale production scenario.

From Table 1, we see that the additional costs of herbicide and herbicide application for the no-till system are easily offset by the reduction in the cost of fuel, lube and repairs. In fact, the no-till system reduced fuel, lube and repair costs by 84 percent compared with the clean-till method. Further, the fixed costs associated with owning the tractor and no-till drill for the no-till system were $5 per acre (18 percent) less than that of the machinery and equipment used in the clean-till system. In all, the average net return to field preparation and planting activities for the no-till system was $29 per acre higher than that of the clean-till conventional system.