This article was written by Keith Mears, who farms with his family near Delphi, Indiana, and is a Conservation Steward with America’s Conservation Ag Movement.
Implementing farmland conservation practices is no easy feat, but the results are well worth the efforts. Keith Mears gives us five solid reasons why the time is now…
The most important step to making a change on your farm is determining why you are going to do it. Without a firm understanding of why, it will be too easy to lose motivation and change your mind when challenges arise.
To encourage other farmers to get started, I want to explain five reasons why I started using conservation practices on my 110-acre corn and soybean farm.
- Being the best steward I can be. One of my favorite free-time activities is kayaking on the local streams and rivers. It is sad and concerning to me how muddy-brown our streams and rivers are. I want to take responsibility for the farmland I am called to be a steward of and make sure I do my part to keep my soil on my farm. The legacy I want to leave for my community and my children is one of cleaner water and richer soils, allowing them to produce healthy, reliable food and enjoy the environment for generations to come.
- Increasing soil organic matter and, in turn, increase water holding capacity. The art of farming can be boiled down to using soil and water to capture energy from the sun to produce food fuel and fiber. Considering the factors I can manage, I realize that the sun is going to come up every day and there is not a lot we can or need to do to manage that. My farm relies on rainfall for all of the water for the crops and while there is absolutely nothing I can do to change the rains, I have come to realize that I can improve the water-holding capacity of the soil by increasing organic matter and improve yields by holding more of the rains we do get on my farm for my crops to produce higher yields. A 1% increase in soil organic matter will increase the water-holding capacity in the top 6 inches of an acre by 27,000 gallons. This is roughly equivalent to the amount of water in a 1-inch rain.
- Improving overall farm efficiency. To win in a commodity business a farmer must produce high yields at the lowest cost possible. Reducing tillage and, therefore, reducing trips across the field reduces the costs of growing a crop and improves efficiency. Two to three tillage passes are eliminated, resulting in less time, labor and fuel required to produce crops. Eliminating these tillage passes saves between $35 and $40 per acre.
- Reducing the amount of equipment I need to purchase and maintain to operate my farm. I do not own a chisel plow, disk or field cultivator. I also do not need to own a high-horsepower tractor to pull these implements. Further savings are realized by not having to have a larger barn to store these extra pieces of equipment. I am able to farm using only one tractor on the entire operation. Not having to buy a high-horsepower tractor, a chisel plow, disk and field cultivator saves my farm tens of thousands of dollars of capital costs.
- The support I receive from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). When deciding whether to transition to a no-till cover crop system, I reached out to the NRCS for ideas and support. The conservationists at the NRCS shared ideas and practices that had the highest likelihood of success in our area. I applied for and received three years of per-acre payments for no-till and cover crops through the EQIP program. These payments covered the cost of my planter pass and all costs of using a cover crop, including seed and planting. These payments reduced the risk of trying something new and gave me the confidence to get started.
I encourage anyone reading this to consider how to improve stewardship on their own farm in addition to how their management decisions impact the community and the legacy they want to leave for future generations.
I also encourage you to reach out to your NRCS office and/or connect with other farmers in your area to discuss conservation practices.
Getting technical with conservation
We found Keith’s conservation practices fascinating, so our team followed up with him to get some specifics on how he applies these farming techniques. Here’s what he had to say:
In terms of emission reduction, have you seen a decline? If so, how are you measuring that on the farm?
I have been able to replace 3 tillage passes with one cover crop planting pass for a net gain of two fewer passes across the field.
A conventional tillage system would be (1) chisel plow, (2) disk, (3) field cultivate, (4) spray, (5) plant, (6) spray, and (7) harvest; versus a no-till cover crop system of (1) plant cover, (2) spray, (3) plant, (4) spray, and (5) harvest.
This can be measured in diesel fuel savings of about 29%, or about $9 per acre.
Do you use any solar or wind technologies for energy offsets on the farm? If so, what do these systems look like?
No. My energy requirements are the same on still, cloudy days as they are on sunny, windy days. However, solar and wind power are essential for the farm. Each corn seed I plant in the spring turns into approximately 560 seeds in the fall and each soybean seed turns into approximately 300 seeds.
The energy for these returns comes almost exclusively from the sun through the miracle of photosynthesis. Additionally, the wind is vital to bring in rains, my only source of water, and cool and aerate the plants.
What does your typical rotation look like? If you are rotating, which crops do you grow on a single set of land, what does that look like, and how do you decide?
All of my acres are in a corn cover-soybean cover rotation. Usually, I use cereal rye as the cover crop.
I decide based on crop budget spreadsheets which factor in the market prices of inputs and each grain and calculate expected profit based on historical yields.
I have grown corn after corn and soybean after soybeans to increase expected profits.
photo credit: Brooke Sauter
Have your conservation ag practices helped with pests, diseases, invasive weeds, etc.? And if so, that must also equate to cost savings. But has it? And to what degree?
Not yet. I expect an improvement in soil health to lead to an improvement in pests and diseases long term. Short term, during a transition to no-till, disease and pest pressures have increased. I am learning how to manage cover crops to reduce invasive weeds and have seen signs of fewer weeds where covers are planted, but after subtracting the cost of cover crop seed; I have not realized any consistent cost savings yet.
What about yield? Has there been a “regrowth period” once some of these practices were put in place as the soil acclimated?
A transition to no-till caused a 5-10% reduction in yield. After factoring in the capital and operating expenses of saving tillage passes I did not experience a change in profit per acre. After implementing no-till and covers for about 4 years the yields come back up and seem to become more consistent. This drives a long-term increase in farm profitability.