MONTEVIDEO, Minn. — What impact will covering the land with cover crops or perennial grasses have on a farmer's financial bottom line? The Land Stewardship Project (LSP) has developed a new tool that can help answer that question. The Cropping Systems Calculator is for farmers, ranchers, non-farm landowners and natural resource professionals who want to crunch the numbers and find practical ways to achieve continuous living cover on the land.
"We already know that growing cover crops, diversifying rotations and establishing more perennial pasture grasses on the land is good for water quality and wildlife habitat," said LSP's Robin Moore. "But that does little good if farmers can't afford to make these changes to their operations. Now the Calculator can help figure out the financial pluses and minuses of covering fields beyond the typical 110-day corn-soybean growing season."
The Calculator was developed as part of the Chippewa 10% Project initiative, a collaboration of LSP, the Chippewa River Watershed Project and various other groups and agencies. The initiative is working to help farmers and other landowners develop profitable methods for protecting water quality in the Chippewa River watershed, which is in west-central Minnesota.
The Calculator is an Excel-based tool that allows the comparison of two crop rotations, each up to six years in length. It provides average yearly returns as well as a year-by-year breakdown for each rotation. Another feature of the Calculator is that it allows a comparison of various grazing systems on a per-acre basis. A producer can compare types of cattle (cow/calf, stocker, feeder-to-finish, custom grazing) as well as grazing management style (continuous, basic rotational, managed intensive rotational, mob). In fact, the Calculator is relatively unique in that it can compare row-cropping to various grazing systems on a per-acre basis, according to LSP's Rebecca Wasserman-Olin, who developed the tool in consultation with various other economic experts, as well as farmers.
The Calculator's default figures were gathered from the University of Minnesota's farm financial and production benchmark database—otherwise known as FINBIN—that covers a 10-county area encompassing the Chippewa River watershed region. These defaults can be easily changed by the users to more accurately reflect the realities of their own enterprises, thus allowing them to customize the Calculator to their situation.
"The Cropping Systems Calculator is not expected to provide an exact amount of income a farmer can rely on earning the following season, but rather a good estimate of the range of returns possible," said Wasserman-Olin. "The goal of the Calculator is to give farmers a way to make informed management decisions that aren't simply based on doing it the way we've always done it."
Members of the Chippewa 10% team have spent that past few months working with crop and livestock farmers in the Chippewa watershed to test and fine-tune the Calculator under real world conditions. One of those farmers, Byron Braaten of Starbuck, Minn., was surprised when the Calculator showed that planting row crops wasn't the only practical choice on his operation.
"If you feed it your honest numbers you get an honest answer, and at least on my farm, it supports more cover crops, more diversity," said Braaten. "We're brainwashed into thinking that corn and beans are the only way to make money, but this tool helped me see what is profitable on my farm, what works with my numbers."
The Cropping Systems Calculator is available at http://landstewardshipproject.org/chippewa10croppingsystemscalculator. For more information, contact Robin Moore at 320-269-2105 or email@example.com.