Continuing our Direct Seed Cost Benefit analyses with our second WA Department of Ecology grant, Kate Painter PhD, Agricultural Economist at the University of Idaho, interviewed a further eight program participants about their direct seed (DS) and conventional tillage (CT) costs over the past two years. She gathered information about chemicals, equipment, labor, yields, as well as Producer impressions of how their cropland responded.
Dr. Painter found CT is on average more profitable ($126/acre) to DS ($101/acre) when comparing returns over total costs in the first two years of transitioning. The average variable costs like fuel, repairs, pesticides and labor were similar: CT $140/acre and DS $136/acre. There were savings in time and labor, but an increase in pesticides as herbicide use replaced tillage. Profitability varied based on the equipment the Producer already owned, purchased or rented. A no-till drill is expensive and may require tractors with more horsepower, but it has the potential to increase profitability over time with fewer operations and better precision.
Beyond the economic calculations, Producers saw major benefits such as soil resilience to wind and water runoff during severe weather events and the spring thaw, reducing air and stream pollution. The most dramatic test came in August 2019 when a hail and thunderstorm hit the area, destroying crops in both CT and DS fields. Generally, soil in the DS fields remained relatively intact, but the CT fields lost topsoil down to the hardpan. Their soil and the accumulated organic matter will take years to regain and may reduce future production yields. Protection against downpours is valuable, especially in this region where profits are tightly linked to weather.
Participants found soils in DS fields easier to work. Some Producers have fields that were direct seeded a few years earlier in addition to the fields they enrolled into the FCCD program. Over time, they have seen an improvement in soil water retention, water runoff control, and soil compaction. These Producers hope to decrease herbicide and fertilizer inputs each year as soil quality continues to improve.
Overall, while switching to DS is not immediately profitable, there is potential to meet and surpass CT profitability over time as the soil gains organic matter, retains water better, and is better able to grow crops in our region’s variable climate conditions. Making the switch to DS can also lead to indirect benefits such as cleaner air to breathe and water in our streams. Learn more about costs and benefits in the VSP Producer Spotlight article!