During my first meeting on a farm that was testing the Cropping Systems Calculator tool, there was plenty of skepticism about how this differed from the numerous other budget tools already available to farmers. This particular resource has been developed by the Land Stewardship Project through the Chippewa 10% Project initiative. Its purpose is to help farmers calculate the financial pluses and minuses of integrating cover crops, perennial pasture grasses and other forms of continuous living cover into their operations.
The farmers were justified in having their doubts. While developing the Calculator over the past several months, we tried most of the tools already available. Many were great, while others requested information on such a detailed level that they could come off as unapproachable.
The husband and wife team I was working with on this particular day agreed to sit with me and enter the information about their operation to determine the bottom line implications of converting a marginal row crop field to perennial pasture. After plugging in the data, I scrolled down to the results section and revealed figures that were somewhat surprising to them at first. We went back through and double-checked the numbers, and sure enough, grazing a perennial pasture still came out more profitable than was expected.
The field hasn’t been switched over from row-cropping yet, but these particular farmers are giving it serious consideration. That’s exactly the goal of the Calculator: giving farmers a way to make informed management decisions that aren’t simply based on “doing it the way we’ve always done it.”
This was the first of many meetings to test the Cropping Systems Calculator. Many of the farmers we met with had marginal fields they were thinking of switching away from traditional row crop production, and the primary goal of testing the Calculator with them was to provide insights on how to improve the tool so it was more user-friendly. These farmers, among many others, were vital in identifying, for example, which spreadsheet default figures were off and when subject headings didn’t make sense. Most importantly, they ran the Excel spreadsheet through real world examples, making it as practical of a tool as possible.
Not only did these meetings elicit a more user-friendly interface, but it raised a question still stumping myself and others who helped develop the Calculator. Originally, the Calculator assumed that when considering grazing figures, the animals are either grazing a particular field or being fed hay. It wasn’t until the second round of testing that it was pointed out that attributing all the income from the animal to a specific field in the tool didn’t reflect the value of the other land that may have been grazed in the same year.
During all the time we worked on this tool, we had never identified this specific issue. While sitting around a dining room table with frustrated faces trying to think of a suitable temporary solution, a farmer said to me, “I think you are the only person who is happy to find out something is wrong.” He was absolutely correct, and to me this was one of the most successful tests we did; he challenged the way we thought about grazing and because of that we have created a better Calculator. The grazing options have since been adapted to take short-term grazing into account, but LSP and our partners are still considering ways to make the Calculator even more applicable to real world situations.
Working with farmers within the Chippewa 10% Project networks, as well as grazing specialists and agricultural economists from across the country, was essential in creating a resource we believe will be utilized by other agriculture-focused groups as well as farmers. This tool is a great addition to the suite of resources already available to farmers within our Chippewa 10% networks, as well as others interested in investigating ways to keep the land covered past the typical 110-day corn/soybean growing season.
No matter if you’re a traditional row-cropper, a livestock producer who grazes a herd of beef cattle, a farmer wanting to experiment with integrating cover cropping into your operation, or just someone who is curious about how much a farmer makes from each acre of land raising various crops, test out the new Cropping Systems Calculator and let us know what you think!
Rebecca Wasserman-Olin developed the Cropping Systems Calculator and is based in LSP’s Twin Cities office. For questions about the Calculator, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 612-722-6377.