Wally Tyner, a professor in Purdue’s Department of Agricultural Economics, said he has his work cut out for him exploring the economics of cover crops. There are so many variables and so little history. The study is a collaborative effort with the Farm Foundation.
Undeterred, Tyner has designed a multi-year study to get at the essential question: Do cover crops pay?
First, he had to build a research strategy that would take into account a wide range of variables, from soil type to weather. “At the end of the day, what we are trying to do is isolate for the impact of cover crops,” Tyner said.
To do that, in 2016, Tyner enlisted the help of 21 Indiana farmers in 37 counties located in a band that runs across most of the state, north of Indianapolis and south of Fort Wayne. The farmers — seven of whom used cover crops — had similar soils and similar weather. They also shared field histories not only for 2016 but also for the four previous years. Those years included the drought year of 2012, which added to the scope of the data.
In total, the farmers provided Tyner and his staff five years of history on 100 fields. “That’s 500 field years of data,” Tyner said.
Sounds impressive, but it’s not near enough to draw conclusions. The Purdue team would like to have 35 additional farmers in the same geographic area sign up for the study in 2017. He would like even more farmers to sign up for 2018 and 2019. If he could get historic field data from each, he would have eight years of production data — some with cover crops, some without.
To attract more farmers to join the program, Purdue is offering $1,000 per year, Tyner said: “All they have to do is give us their data, which we keep confidential.” He explained that codes are substituted for farmer names, and only Tyner and his graduate students have access to the codes.
“The objective of this is to get to the benefits and costs of cover crops. It’s the first time that there has been a trial on this large a scale,” Tyner said. “This is not like a strip trial; it’s real-world farms, real-world farmers.”
Purdue and Tyner have some “crackerjack econometricians on board” who will try to tease out important data. For instance, Tyner said, “One of the things we found in previous trials is that no-till provides many of the benefits cover crops provide.”
Without supporting facts about the benefits and costs, adopting cover crops is a leap of faith, and faith is not science: “Going to a cover-crop meeting is like going to a tent revival,” Tyner said. “The people who are doing it [planting cover crops] absolutely believe it is the best thing that has ever happened to their farm.”
As a scientist, Tyner is keeping an open mind; he hopes his research will help farmers make informed decisions about the economic value of cover crops: “If it’s really true, this [cover crops] could be like no-till. It could start taking over. That’s why I am into this. I want to find out if what these believers say is true on a broader scale.”
Chris Clayton can be reached at email@example.com
Jim Patrico can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org