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The Dollars and Cents of Soil Health: A Farmer’s Perspective

Posted by Elizabeth Creech, Natural Resources Conservation Service in Conservation
Aug 02, 2021
North Carolina farmer Russell Hedrick holding corn
North Carolina farmer Russell Hedrick manages 1,000 acres of row crops in a way that builds the health of his soils while strengthening his bottom line. Photo credit: Russell Hedrick

Last year, the United States lost 2 million acres of land in active crop production. As the global population grows towards a projected 9.8 billion people by 2050, so too does demand for the food, fuel and fiber grown in America. The result? American farmers are looking for sustainable ways to produce high yields year after year.

To support this growing demand, many farmers are incorporating soil health management principles into their operations. Conservation practices such as cover crops and no-till are widely recommended to build soil health over time, but do these practices actually improve crop yields and lead to stable profit margins? To answer this question fully we will rely on universities, private scientists, government researchers and those most directly impacted: farmers themselves.

Meet Russell Hedrick

Russell Hedrick is a first-generation corn, soybean and specialty grains producer in Catawba County, North Carolina. Hedrick started in 2012 with 30 acres of row crops. Since then, he’s expanded to roughly 1,000 acres.

“When we first started, farmers in the area said we needed a 150 horsepower tractor and a 20-foot disk,” says Hedrick. “We started out broke and we couldn’t afford the tillage equipment,” he adds, with a good-natured laugh. “I was lucky to have a fantastic district conservationist who set us in the right direction from the beginning.”

His first year, Hedrick practiced 100 percent no-till and planted cover crops across part of his land. “We tried out a six or seven species cover crop blend,” says Hedrick. “Back then, a lot of people thought we were crazy.”

That initial blend consisted of cereal rye, oats, triticale, legumes, crimson clover and daikon radish. Hedrick compared yields for soybeans grown with cover crops versus those grown without and noticed a significant difference: higher yields for cover cropped beans, and noticeably improved weed suppression.

“We started off our first year seeing yields higher than the county average,” Hedrick says. “That really lit me on fire to keep growing and trying new things to improve the soil health.”

Soil Health Case Studies

Though every farm and every field are different, a recently-completed Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Conservation Innovation Grants project shows promising results for farmers interested in adopting soil health management practices.

Conducted by the National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD) in partnership with Datu Research, the project provides economic case studies focusing on four corn and soybean producers in the Upper Mississippi River Basin. The profiled farms range in size from 25 acres of row crops to 2,300 acres, with three focusing on the economics of cover crop adoption and one specifically focusing on no-till.

Of the three farmers focusing on cover crop adoption, two reported average net economic gains over their first four to five years of cover cropping compared to a pre-adoption baseline. The no-till case study showed economic gains for all three years studied.

Giving Soil Health a Shot

When asked what he’d suggest to farmers considering trying new practices to build soil health, Hedrick’s answer is simple – just give it a shot.

“It’s not that hard to try something new,” says Hedrick. “Farmers should remember that soil health practices aren’t silver bullets and some take time to establish. When you’re first starting, try no-till or cover crops across 20 percent of your land. That’s manageable, and it leaves you a safety net if you don’t get the economic results you want to begin with.” Farm Bill programs such as NRCS’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program can further reduce the economic risk farmers face after adopting new conservation practices.

With 318.5 bushels per acre, Hedrick was the dryland division state winner in the 2016 North Carolina Corn Yield Contest. His corn and soybean yields are typically 20 to 30 percent higher than the county average, and over time he’s been able to reduce fertilizer costs by more than $70 per acre thanks to the nutrient boosts associated with cover cropping.

“I spend $45 per acre on my best cover crops,” says Hedrick, “and I spend about $20 per acre on my least expensive. Either way, I’m still saving money because of my fertilizer reductions.”

Hedrick encourages farmers to try different practices until they find what works for them. “At the end of the day,” he says, “there’s no one right way to do this. You just have to do the best you can, and try to do better each year. As long as you’re making progress, no one can fault you.” 

To read more about the economics of no-till, please visit the Saving Money, Time and Soil: The Economics of No-Till Farming blog. Visit the NRCS website to learn more about voluntary conservation programs for your working lands.

Cover crops
Hedrick plants cover crops to build soil health, reduce erosion and lower the need for fertilizer inputs. Photo credit: Russell Hedrick
Category/Topic: Conservation

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Ruth King
Mar 22, 2018

I work for McGill Compost, and I work with farmers. We have been providing compost to farmers in the largest farming counties in NC for over 26 years. I work with produce and grain farmers. I sell our compost in 20 ton truck loads and I have some farmers who will purchase 200-300 loads per year. These farmers understand the benefit of increasing the organic matter back into their farm land for water savings, fertilizer savings and in general improving their soils health. I am very proud to work with our farmers and helping them improve their land which reaps many benefits for years to come.

John Walker
Nov 25, 2018

Worms worms and more worms tell you have healthy a soil is - a cubic foot of good soil should have more than 40 worms in Nebraska I was told it has one tenth of that number hence lots of fertilizer and now with BT corn no longer killer the corn borer and glyphosate not killing the weeds the soil is becoming even more unhealthy and who knows it may become sterile!!

Barn Wehmer
Nov 25, 2018

What better than compost for growth? We have compost soxx both filled with our compost mix, or the soxx in large rolls that you fill locally. Years of use.

Gina Jackson
Jul 08, 2020

"Last year, the United States lost 2 million acres of land in active crop production"

Why do we allow other countries to buy our farm land and/or use our precious water resources?
Example Saudi Arabia owns land in Arizona to grow alfalfa to export to feed their horses? Each state has their own rules. Apparently Texas has no limit on how much can be foreign owned.

About water - we let Nestle tap into our streams to make billions on bottled water but they pay next to nothing for the rights to do so... something is not right here. Is there zero oversight or concern in our government?

Shouldn't we be more careful?

Lori Feezor
Feb 04, 2021

Elizabeth, I saw Russle’s YouTube video with Gab Brown. One comment really caught my attention as a farmer of about 25 ac and without a seed drill. He indicated his method would work with just broadcast seeding. My question (if you know): would you broadcast and then roll the pasture, or roll it and then broadcast? Thanks in advance!

Kimball Wright
Jan 19, 2022

This article is something of an eye opener. I'm not a farmer, but do realize there are difficulties involved. I imagine there are better methods of planting, irrigation, and crop rotation to be employed in the future in the direction of more sustainable farming.

Benjamin Davey
Mar 03, 2022

It was interesting to learn how farmers can actually get better crop yield from using natural methods and it also costs less than using chemicals and fertilizers which are more harmful to the environment. I would like to learn more about what farmers can do to improve the health of the soil and increase production.