Melding Conservation and Profitability

Jan 30, 2018

By Dan Lemke • From Winter 2018 American Soybean Magazine

Dallas, Wis., farmer Andy Bensend’s hand was forced. A casualty of the grim 1980s farm economy, Bensend filed bankruptcy in 1986. While difficult, the decision allowed Bensend to reinvent himself as a farmer.

“I knew I had to be lean. I had a tractor, planter and sprayer,” Bensend said. “It was driven out of necessity, but I learned I could do well without spending a lot, which drove the cost of production down.”

Change of habit

Bensend also began to no-till farm. The approach was both profitable and productive and his operation began to grow. That growth centered on the use of strip-till and no-till practices as well as variable rate technology. Today, his farm includes more than 4,000 acres of primarily corn and soybeans.

“We scrutinize every input, every variable or fixed asset. In a commodity production system, you have to be low cost producers,” Bensend said.

Andy Bensend, Dallas, Wis., farmer

Bensend’s system of minimal tillage, his focus on reduced inputs, and recently the inclusion of cover crops, has resulted in a very sustainable cropping system.

“My yields are as good as any and maybe better than a lot,” Bensend admitted. “More importantly, I realized I was being nicer to the land. There was less erosion; we had less off-target nutrient movement and better water infiltration. That had a positive influence on the local geography.”

Bensend’s experience and results from a multi-year study by the National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD) support the fact that sustainability and profitability can go hand in hand.

“They practically mean the same thing,” said Tim Palmer, a Truro, Iowa farmer and NACD first vice president. “It means being here to farm the next year because what we’re doing doesn’t deplete resources and it’s doing what’s beneficial for our family business.”

Positive returns

According to results from case studies by the NACD and Datu Research, soil health practices such as cover crops and no-till can result in an economic return of over $100 per acre.

During the three-year study, four corn and soybean farmers from across the U.S. experimented with cover crops and/or no-till techniques. Year-by-year changes in income that the farmers attributed to these practices were compared to a pre-adoption baseline.

Research found that while planting costs increased by up to $38 per acre, fertilizer costs decreased by up to $50 per acre, erosion repair costs decreased by up to $16 per acre, and yields increased by up to $76 per acre. The studies also found that with adoption of sustainable conservation practices, net farm income increased by up to $110 per acre.

Bensend, who received the 2017 American Soybean Association Conservation Legacy Award for his sustainability efforts, said there’s not a bad time for farmers to experiment with no-till and cover crops.

“When there is high profitability in crops, you can experiment. When prices are low, you can’t afford to lose money,” Bensend said.

To view results of the case studies, click here.