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Finding the profitability in conservation practices

Finding the profitability in conservation practices

Sarah Sellars

Sarah Sellars, graduate research assistant, discusses conservation practices at the University of Illinois Agronomy Day.

MONMOUTH, Ill. — Six years of working with farmers studying the costs and benefits of conservation practices have shown certain practices are profitable most of the time.

Using the ideal amount of nitrogen is one area where profit can be found. Studies show the University of Illinois’ Maximum Return to Nitrogen (MRTN) online rate calculator is effective at determining profitable rates, Sarah Sellars, a graduate research assistant at the University of Illinois Urban-Champaign, told farmers attending an agronomy day in Monmouth.

“We found that applying above the MRTN resulted in statistically significant higher yields but lower operator and land return, so our results support the MRTN as the most profitable nitrogen application rate,” she said at the university’s northwestern research and demonstration farm in Warren County.

Using rates above the MRTN produced yields of 6 to 18 bu./acre more, but $21 to $31 lower returns per acre, she said.

The timing of nitrogen application is also a focus of her research with University of Illinois ag economist Gary Schnitkey and sustainability researcher Laura Gentry, of the university’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences and the Illinois Corn Growers Association.

The nitrogen application study looked at mostly pre-plant, mostly sidedress, 50% pre-plant/50% sidedress, and a three-way split.

“On overage, the mostly pre-planting and mostly sidedress had the highest operator and land return and lowest cost when looking at the data from 2015-20,” she said.

Her data is part of the Precision Conservation Management program, a service for farmers led by the Illinois Corn Growers Association and the Illinois Soybean Association with more than 30 partners. Its goal is to identify conservation practices that address environmental issues in a financially viable way.

The studies take into consideration direct costs including fertilizer, seed and such, but not land costs. The study provides comparative information from farmers using no-till, strip-till, one-pass light, two-pass light, two-pass medium, and three or more passes.

“When we look at our 25% most-profitable fields on high productivity soils on both corn and soybeans, we find all tillage benchmarks represented, so this means you can do any of these tillage practices and be profitable,” she said.

“This means no-till and strip-till have profitable fields, and we need to focus on these fields and see what these farmers are doing differently,” she said.

The study also showed slightly higher return on light tillage on corn, and no-till soybeans were the most profitable on average, she said.

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Phyllis Coulter is Northern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.

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