Benefits and costs of cover crops: A framework for data collection and analysis

Myriam Bounaffaa, Purdue University


Soil erosion and soil compaction can cause a decline in crop productivity and have harmful impacts on the environment. These concerns have raised awareness around the concept of sustainable production. Cover crops are crops that are grown in between cash crop growing seasons for their agronomic and environmental benefits. Researchers have proven the ability of cover crops to reduce soil erosion, reduce soil compaction, increase soil fertility, control weeds and possibly increase cash crop yields. Albeit their numerous benefits, incorporating cover crops into farming systems carry additional costs in terms of time and labor management. In the Midwest, the number of farmers using cover crops is minimal because they perceive the costs to be greater than the benefits. Therefore, the primary objective of this study was to quantify the benefits and costs of cover crops in the Midwest. To meet the objective, primary data were collected by field and over the last five years. A total of 82 fields was collected, including 52 cover crop fields and 30 non-cover crop fields. The data were related to cash crops, chemical inputs and cover crops. Given the fact that each farm is unique, the data collected resulted in a high variability and heterogeneity in the crop rotation, field soil types and soil slopes. This variability greatly reduced the data that could be used in the quantitative analysis. From assessing the limitations of our study, we designed a framework for farmers’ selection process, data needs, and the analysis needed for future research. We suggested controlling for soil characteristics, crop rotation, and to some extent weather in farmer selection. Only farmers with five years of historic data by field should be included. About 350 fields of data need to be collected in order to perform the quantitative analysis, which means that 70 farmers need to be recruited. To achieve a quantitative and qualitative increase in the response rate, providing farmers with incentives in the form of financial compensation should be considered. One limitation of this design is that the results are only applicable for the area and the criteria chosen. However, the process can be repeated in any other region.




Tyner, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Agricultural economics

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