A new decision-making tool that can help crop and livestock farmers in all states of the U.S. assess the economics of cover crops in their operations is now available for free on Iowa State University’s Ag Decision Maker website.

The tool, “Economics of Cover Crops,” consists of three in-depth budgeting worksheets that let farmers analyze the costs and benefits of cover crops – and paths to profitability – in their row crop operations with or without the integration of livestock.

Cover Crops Budget: looks at the economics of cover crops in systems without grazing or harvesting

Grazing Cover Crops Budget: estimates the costs and benefits with grazing or harvesting for feed

Grazing Cover Crops Results: uses farmers’ farm data to calculate the actual economic value of grazing or harvesting cover crops from the prior year

The unique three-in-one tool was developed by Practical Farmers of Iowa, in partnership with retired ISU agricultural economics professor William Edwards, to let farmers see the potential added value they could gain when cover crops are used for forage.

Recent Practical Farmers research has found that, when properly managed, grazing cover crops can result in sizeable profits within the first year.

The worksheets are available here and were created with funding by Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship’s Water Quality Initiative.

“Before we created this decision-making tool, there wasn’t an easy-to-use tool that assessed the value of grazing or harvesting cover crops in this way,” says PFI Livestock Program Manager Meghan Filbert, who initiated the project last fall and supplied critical data used to build the tool.

“Our tool is unique because it provides a complete economic analysis of costs and revenues for a full cover crop year – and it uses the data farmers already keep to help them figure out their animal feed requirements.”

Another key motive for creating the tool was to help farmers more accurately assess the value of cover crops in their systems, particularly when cover crops are used as forage.

“Farmers know how much it costs to feed hay in the winter, and how many days they need to feed hay,” Meghan says. “But they don’t usually know what it actually cost them to establish and graze cover crops. As a result, they often overestimate the value of cover crops and can’t identify what to tweak in their management to be profitable.”

The new tool takes the guesswork out by showing how a range of costs, income streams and management practices affect the ultimate profitability of cover crops.

“You can plug in the current market value for your hay or winter feed,” Meghan says. “It adds potential yield variabilities; factors in cost-share and insurance premium discounts; and breaks out factors related to fall and spring grazing.

“If you harvest cover crops to make ryelage or baleage, the tool also lets you plug in the costs associated with mechanical harvesting in lieu of grazing.”

Help available to use the tool

To ensure farmers feel confident using the new tool, Meghan is available to help farmers gets started. Contact her at 515-232-5661 or meghan@practicalfarmers.org with questions or to request assistance working with the tool.

“I recognize that spreadsheet tools can be daunting,” Meghan says. “We want farmers to use this tool so they can find out if cover crops are a viable practice for them – so I encourage all farmers with questions to contact me.”

In addition to farmers, the tool’s creators hope other land-grant universities, agricultural economists and other agricultural professionals will use the decision-making tool in their work and outreach on cover crops.