Commodity Classic experts discuss conservation adoption03/01/2019 | Soil Health, Water Quality, Economics
By Katie Johnson, ISA public relations manager
Soil health is still a hot topic in agriculture. More than one hundred people gathered at the trade show’s main stage in Orlando for a Commodity Classic learning session centered around 4R nutrient management.
Nutrient Stewardship’s 4R initiative advises farmers to consider the right sources of nutrients, applied at the right rate, at the right time and in the right place. Panelists emphasized producers have a strong knowledge of technology before adopting it, asserting that 4R allows a personalized and intentional approach to soil health.
“My grandpa used to put straw bales in ditches to prevent erosion in the 1960s,” said Maria Cox, a sixth generation Illinois farmer. “My family has done a lot of things right, but I will always believe we can do better.”
Cox began strip-tilling and partly no-tilling in the late 1990s. She made the decision to try cover crops in 2016 and continues to plant cereal rye. Her goal is to be entirely no-till within three years.
“I’m embarrassed by the erosion my strip-till has caused,” Cox said. “I want to get it sold and follow the no-till goals I have for my farm.”
Terry Griffin, a cropping system economist and precision agriculture specialist at Kansas State University, urged farmers to consider the logistics of a new technology before diving in.
“Precision agriculture technologies have a 5 to 10 percent adoption rate for farmers,” Griffin said. “We’ve learned that if farmers jump on a technology and fail, they are less likely to change or improve later on.”
Griffin focuses on cropping systems with his work in research and extension for Kansas State University. He said examining a farm and a farmer’s capabilities is his first step in advising producers on utilization of precision agriculture tools.
He asks about their farms and the likelihood they can plant on time and assesses their harvest decisions and arrangements with landowners.
“If you struggle at the basics, adding tools that require more management skills isn’t a good idea,” Griffin said.
He praised the audience of farmers as some of the best decision makers in the country.
Farmers are interested in balancing sustainability and profitability, said Jason Weirich, a Colorado farmer-turned- agronomy director for Columbia, Mo.,-based MFA Incorporated.
“We recommend tools that will ultimately increase our producers’ profitability,” Weirich said. “In my area, it’s all about lime savings. If we can get a producer to reduce the two or three tons of lime we spread on our acres, that already gives them that return on investment.”
After spending time and money on incorporating a new technology or tool, farmers like to see results, Cox said.
“The benefits of cover crops are hard to quantify, but we don’t spend the time, hours and money filling in ditches like we used to,” Cox said. “We don’t have much erosion anymore where we have continued cover. When I was a kid we had to buy earth worms, and we don’t have to anymore.”
Investing in new technology can be overwhelming, but Griffin said new equipment purchased within the last few years may already include some useful tools for farmers.
“If you have bought equipment in the last five years you probably have the technology. So it’s not a question of investment but a question of use,” Griffin said. “Are you willing and able to invest learning how to make use of your farm data? If so, it’s great. If not, then it’s a technology that I advise you to really consider before leaping in.”
Griffin advocates for use of data collected from combines to analyze and assess individual farms’ output. Calibrating yield monitors and emitting erroneous measurements can lead to highly calculated, usable data that can lead to smart conservation adoption decisions, like the use of cover crops. But Weirich said it’s important for farmers to understand the balance of risks and rewards.
“Cover crops aren’t an overnight deal. You must have realistic expectations. Make sure you start small and learn the management risks,” Weirich said. “That is the best way to ensure a return on your investment.”
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