Archive for January, 2012

Learn Conservation Tillage from farmers that succeed with it


The promise of reduced tillage methods is that you save time and fuel, reduce wear on equipment and keep precious top soil where it is.

A group of 200 to 250 farmers are expected to at University of Minnesota Extensions 2012 Conservation Tillage Conference, which, among other things, offers nine continuing ed credits.

The conference takes place Feb. 7-8 at the International Event Center in Rochester. Call 1-888-241-3261 to register. Fees are $150 for both days, $90 for the first day only, or $60 for second day only.

“We cover weeds, fertility and try to get all aspects of reduced tillage,” said Jodi DeJong-Hughes, a soil scientist with Extension who has conducted research on conservation tillage since 2003. “Conservation tillage is a lot more than just changing your equipment. That’s why I love the farmer panels at the conference–all of these guys are doing reduced tillage in their own operations, but they are all doing it in different ways. It’s great for farmers to see that it’s not one way fits all. Here’s an opportunity to learn from folks that are really making this work.”

DeJong-Hughes noted that numbers of farmers in Minnesota doing conservation tillage have stalled, which she attributes to a wild run of different weather from year to year over the last few growing seasons, alternating between very wet and very dry.

“When people come up against a challenging weather regime and they are trying to learn this new cultivation method, some are probably tempted to go back to what they know or what they are used to,” she said.

But tipping the balance toward reduced tillage is the growing base of knowledge being developed by farmers with decades of proven yields. DeJong-Hughes will be joined in a research presentation by Prof. Jeff Vetsch, who has 15 years of experience with reduced tillage. The equipment manufacturers are coming up with ideas that address problems like extreme soil moisture or lack of soil moisture–a real concern this year across the southern tier of Minnesota. Many farmers are worried about their soil condition not having had the typical amount of rainfall to percolate through and break up soil clods.

The conference will be a chance to network with other farmers and learn how they are dealing with these and other challenges. One new feature of the conference this year will be “Table Talk.”

“This is kind of like a ‘lightning round,” said DeJong-Hughes. Instead of an hour-long discussion, we’re taking and breaking up the hour into four 15-minute blocks, so farmers can get to more topics, get the basics, make some good contacts and ask follow-up questions.”

Even though equipment isn’t all there is to know about reduced tillage, it’s still an important part and the Conservation Tillage conference will not stint in giving manufacturers a forum to present their latest products. DeJong-Hughes noted that manufacturers have come up with novel coulter set-ups that give the farmer an alternative that keeps residue in place while it helps address issues of soil condition.

“Some manufacturers have come up with double coulters that can be swapped in instead of the knife for a spring to pass, to freshen up the berms, introduce air, break up clods left over from last season,” she said. “Another piece we’re planning to use this spring has a three-coulter set up in a triangle shape–two outside ones are about seven inches apart. It has hoses so can you put down starter fertilizer at the same time you do this spring pass. This year, we’re going to compare using it in a full secondary pass, and compare that to no pass, and to a pass that just freshens up the berm.”


Farmer’s response to water series brings balance to public conversation

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

Dave Craigmile’s entry into full-time farming permanently set his gaze on the water gauge—he took over the family farm in Boyd in 1976, the year of the worst drought in Minnesota agricultural history.

So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Craigmile took up the gauntlet thrown down by a series on water quality and the Minnesota River that appeared in the Mankato Free Press last December. He worked with staff at Minnesota Corn Growers Association to develop an article that expresses the view Craigmile shares with many Minnesota crop and livestock producers: conservation is a way of life, and care for the future of our land, water and air is second nature to every farmer he knows. It’s what farmers practice every day.

His piece, “My View: For farmers, conservation is key” appeared in the January 10 edition of the daily newspaper. It has been published in a longer form in a journal called The Land.

“I wanted to offer a bigger picture,” Craigmile said about his decision to respond the newspaper series. “They are portraying farmers as being downright greedy with no care for the land, or for the future. The truth is that ever since the land was homesteaded by our forefathers, farmers have been very concerned. No farmer that I know of wants to see their topsoil washed down the Minnesota River or any of their fertilizer get away from them. We all use pesticides or herbicides that have been through thorough checks and balances at the US Environmental Protection Agency. Most of the time we even shorten up and use less than the label rate. Seldom do people use over label rates. Farmers are not using products willy-nilly with the idea of making more money—that doesn’t work.”

Craigmile emphasizes that he is far from a lone dissenter among crop and livestock farmers.

He wrote in his article: “I’d like to point out that I’m not the only conservation-minded corn farmer. The majority of corn growers in Minnesota are employing some form of soil conservation, whether it’s reduced tillage, strip tillage or grassy buffer zones between fields and feeder streams. Farmers have learned to ‘farm the best and buffer the rest.’”

Craigmile thinks the love and concern for the water and the natural world comes naturally to farmers, many of whom who had the experience of going to a country school. His early memories of walking through the swale at the edge of their farm property, about a third of a mile, to get to school each day are full of happy memories about discovering nature. Before and after school, along with all the other kids, he searched the ditch that ran in back of the school for frogs and minnows.

One of the key points of information Craigmile wants to get out to the general public is a correction of the impression that farm drainage is wantonly destructive.

“People seem to think tile drain systems on farms are like pulling the plug in your sink or pushing the lever on the toilet—just press it and the field just flushes the water away,” Craigmile said. “That’s not at all the case—all of these systems have a coefficient of drainage—and it’s rarely over a half inch. The Natural Resources Conservation Service developed this coefficient specifically for conditions in Minnesota. A half-inch coefficient means that if you had a six-inch rain, say from a Spring flood, it would take 12 days for that rain to runoff into the water shed. In combination with conservation cultivation techniques, these systems mean les soil and chemicals are carried into ditches and streams.”

Like many farmers, Craigmile has been putting time and energy into his conservation ethic—going beyond implementing practices on his own farm, and going the next steps of serving on advisory committees and boards. He has served on TMDL (total maximum daily load) advisory committees for both the Pollution Control Agency’s work on the Minnesota River, and his local watershed district, the Lac qui Parle Yellow Bank Watershed District. He has also served on water quality issue committees for Minnesota Farm Bureau and Minnesota Agricultural Water Resources Center. He has also put more than a decade of service into the Lac qui Parle County Planning and Zoning Commission.

“I have a deep respect for water,” said Craigmile. “We live and farm in area where the water resources are challenged. There’s no beneficial interest to the farmer for screwing up our groundwater or our lakes and streams. Lots of farmers have lake property. We are all part of it.  We’re all in it together. We are going to do our part. I would never say agriculture doesn’t have an impact on water but I would say that farming’s impact is, for the most part, unintentional. We are all involved. I like to tell people that none of us can drink a glass of water without impacting water quality. The minute we begin planning and using this resource we change it. Our medications are ending up in the water courses and may end up being a far more negative stressor than nitrogen. Humans have modified the landscape. We need to respect each other and work together and see what can be done.”

See Craigmile’s article in full at

Corn likes to grow here in Minnesota—even in a year of adverse weather conditions

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

It’s a combination of climate, soils and farmer know-how—corn likes to grow in Minnesota.

Numbers released last week by the National Agricultural Statistics Service (USDA) offer the final picture for the 2011 crop year in its Crop Production 2011 Summary. These data show there are few places that do corn better than Minnesota.

2011 had all the attributes that keep farmers lying awake at night—a long, wet spring with little real heat until July, storms with high winds afflicting plants before they could even pollinate and finally an early frost. Still and all, Minnesota’s 157 bushels per acre average yield put it in close contention with the top producing states: Iowa (172), Nebraska (Many of these acres are irrigated—160), Ohio (158) and Illinois (157). These compare to the national yield of 147.2 bushels per acre.

Even with all the weather challenges, Minnesota corn producers brought in 1.2 billion bushels of corn in 2011. With strong commodity prices this has brought a welcome shot in the arm as the state and nation still struggle with a sluggish economy.

The most telling data point about how well suited the corn crop is to the growing conditions and agronomic practices on Minnesota farms is plant populations. Using random scientific sampling, NASS-USDA looks at places in 10 of the top corn producing states and estimates average plant populations per acre. The 29,350 corn plants per acre in Minnesota is topped by only two states–30,050 plants per acre in Iowa and 29,600 in Illinois. Minnesota even beats Nebraska’s irrigated acres, hands down, where they raise 26,800 plants per acre.

Other important dimensions of this year’s corn crop in Minnesota: Minnesota farmers planted 8.1 million acres of corn and harvested 7.7 million of those acres. Corn represented 41 percent of the state’s planted crop acres and just under 40 percent of all harvested acres last year. By area, Minnesota corn acres represented 9 percent of the nation’s crop. By volume, Minnesota’s 1.2 billion bushels represents 9.7 percent of total corn production for last year in the United States.

Here is the NASS-USDA summary of 2011 corn production nationwide:

Corn for grain production is estimated at 12.4 billion bushels, up slightly from the November 1 forecast but 1 percent below 2010. The average yield in the United States for 2011 is estimated at 147.2 bushels per acre. This is up 0.5 bushel from the November forecast but 5.6 bushels below the 2010 average yield of 152.8 bushels. Area harvested for grain is estimated at 84.0 million acres, up slightly from the November forecast and up 3 percent from 2010.

Sediment forum draws 250 to learn about improving water quality

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

The Near-Channel Sediment Source Management Forum on January 4 in North Mankato brought together about 250 people who share a common concern for the future of the Minnesota River and water quality across the state.

About forty of those in attendance were farmers. Farmer-supported research shows that stream-bank erosion, or “near-channel” sources produce the majority of sediment that clouds Minnesota’s rivers.

“People used to think that 70 to 80 percent of sediment came off crop land—but Minnesota Corn Research & Promotion Council research on stream banks shows the farm land number is closer to 25 percent, and most of the rest comes from stream banks,” said Bruce Peterson, a farmer in Northfield who attended the forum. Peterson serves as secretary for Minnesota Corn Growers Association. Peterson said, “As farmers, we know it’s still important to learn how to reduce that 25 percent. The critical question becomes how can we reduce the amount water that leaves the farm. By the time it makes it to the river, we found out how that can have an impact—gully formation and so forth.

Farmers and landowners of every sort have developed ways to send excess water away from their land—whether it is tile drainage on farms or sump systems for basements of homes and commercial properties. Developing means of increasing water storage on the land, before the water enters streams and rivers, may be a method to reduce stream bank erosion, several of the day’s presenters said.

“Farmers tend to get a bad rap for tile drainage, but the reason farmers do it is that they know well-drained soils produce healthier crops,” Peterson observed. “This in turn produces more crop residue, which counters the impact, somewhat, of water leaving ag land—the residue slows the water down and allows sediment to drop out.”

Research on water storage and engineered treatments for banks show promise for reducing loss of soil into watercourses. Rain gardens, holding ponds and other methods of water retention are gaining wider spread use.

“Developers in the urban and suburban areas, farmers, non-farmers in rural areas—we all need to work together to reduce the impacts on the land,” said Peterson. “One single corrective action won’t change our sediment problems overnight, but lots of us making small changes could have an impact.”

Riley Maanum, Research & Project Manager at MCGA, said one important outcome of a meeting like this was how it brings together farmers with the government officials who can work most closely with them on solutions.

“The fixes that can go on at the farm are going to happen through the local Soil and Water Conservation district offices and the Natural Resource Conservation Service,” said Maanum. A lot of folks from these agencies were at the forum—we want to communicate to them that farmers are willing to work with them. Farmers want to do the right thing. We are moving forward and we have been moving forward since agriculture started. We don’t farm the same as we did last year, because we are always learning new things.”

The series of speakers represented divergent viewpoints, and was important for these scientists and researchers to interact, Peterson felt. Sorting out the options may still point to tough choices, but ones that could be made with full, scientific research to back them up. One of the speakers talked about different management options for some of the steep ravines and banks along the river. One of his conclusions, Peterson noted, was that, instead of trying to stabilize banks, it would be cheaper to move the channel of the river. This though, could involve loss of valuable land to individual property owners, or the need to move homes or buildings to make way for a better water channel placement.

“Our voice was heard loud and clear at the forum,” Maanum said. “It’s not that we wanted to argue about anything. We want to be at the table.”

EPA: Ethanol production expected to grow in 2012

(Published by Des Moines Register, Dec. 31, 2011. Article written by Dan Piller)

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last Tuesday said ethanol production in 2012 should reach 15.2 billion gallons, an increase of about 1.25 billion gallons from this year.

The agency’s 2012 targets for renewable biofuels, however, shows non-corn ethanol made from crop residue, grasses or wood chips falling short of the goals set in the 2007 federal law mandating biofuel use.

In a statement, the EPA projects that cellulosic ethanol will hit 8.65 million gallons, or 0.06 percent of the 15.2 billion gallon total. That is considerably short of the 500-million-gallon target for 2012 set by Congress in 2007 when it wrote the law mandating that 36 billion gallons of non-petroleum biofuels be used in the nation’s transportation fuel mix by 2022.

Our Take:
For enemies of ethanol this cellulosic shortfall is the loose thread they will try to pick at to unravel the whole Renewable Fuels Standard—therefore grain ethanol has a stake in the success of cellulose ethanol. Here in Minnesota, cellulose ethanol represents a huge opportunity for both the agriculture and forestry sectors—another way to create a value added product here rather than shipping our dollars out of state for energy, or shipping our raw products so that others can make money and jobs by adding value to them.

Cellulosic ethanol’s success—it could succeed in non-farm regions of the US—would help broaden the political support for biofuels in general.

In answer to RFS critics, the elected leaders of both parties that passed RFS in 2007 did not have a crystal ball and the one thing they could not anticipate happening in 2008 was the worst economic conditions for launching new businesses in nearly a century. Venture capital for the promising new ethanol technology was non-existent and the advent of the Great Recession put cellulose ethanol at least 24 months behind what could have been reasonably expected, if economic conditions had remained stable in 2008 and 2009.

We would like to go on to illustrate how a clever reporter can still be completely off-base in his depiction of ethanol:

Piller writes: “Corn-fed ethanol, which uses century-old manufacturing techniques and enjoys a ready supply of feedstock in the Midwest, has gotten off to a fast start and now constitutes 10 percent of the nation’s gasoline supply.”

Our Take: The only thing accurate in that paragraph is that ethanol is now 10 percent of the national gasoline supply. To say ethanol uses century-old technology because it is distilled alcohol (actually, distillation is approaching 2,000 years old, as a chemical process) would be like saying that automobiles and airplanes use technology that’s a century old. We don’t know what Piller considers a fast start, but ethanol was a vision among the founders of Minnesota Corn Growers Association when they organized in 1978. It wasn’t until 2005 that a national renewable fuels standard passed congress, and it took another two years to reset it to its current requirements: that’s got to be the slowest overnight success in the history of business, and it represents the dogged, uphill battle of small independent farmers against Big Oil and Big Food that continues today. As much as Cargill and ADM benefit from RFS, they were not the elbow grease that got ‘er done. It was farmers.

Piller continues: “In 2011 an estimated 13.8 billion gallons of ethanol were produced, 3.7 billion gallons of it at 41 plants in Iowa. Ethanol production now consumes 5 billion bushels of the 12.4-billion-bushel U.S. corn crop.”

Our Take: How can the newspaper of record in the largest ethanol producing state, Iowa, at this late date, continue to fail to mention distillers grains animal feed. A full third of the raw grain feedstock used to make ethanol returns to the livestock industry in the form or a high protein, high energy, high quality feed.

Piller writes: “The Iowa ethanol industry now takes in about $15 billion in revenues and employs about 2,000 workers at the plants and is credited with an equal number of maintenance and transportation jobs.”

Our Take: We believe Pillar underestimates the jobs impact of ethanol by at least half. To say ethanol in Iowa supports only 4,000 jobs would be like saying that farming in Minnesota supports only farmers. The fact is, renewable energy has become a cornerstone of the rural economy and the economy as a whole. Urban manufacturing jobs with companies like John Deere depend on the strong farm economy built on crops, livestock and energy production. Take any one of these away and the job losses would spread far beyond the farm gate. The Renewable Fuels Association has estimated that the 200 ethanol plants in America have an ultimate economic reach that supports 400,000 jobs.

Piller writes: “So established is corn-fed ethanol that the industry allowed the expiration of the 45 cents-per-gallon tax credit for ethanol production, as well as the 54-cent fee on ethanol imports, to lapse at the end of this year, preferring to fall back on defense of the Renewable Fuel Standard set in the 2007 law.”

Our Take: It’s a bit flattering to be depicted as having even a plebiscite, yes-no vote on keeping the tax credit and tariff. Fact is, the relatively small biofuels industry was no match for a Congress looking for places to balance the budget. We would have preferred to keep these incentives in place to help secure market space for our product. It’s simply a matter of having a level playing field. We notice that Congress left the $30-plus billion dollars of oil industry incentives alone—that’s five times what Americans paid to underwrite ethanol.

If you want to read the full text of the Des Moines Register article, and perhaps rebut some of its inaccuracies, we encourage you to do so. Go to:

Research program manager joins MCGA staff: “We have to make the most of today’s exciting opportunities on behalf of the farmer”

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

“It’s a very exciting time in the corn industry—there are so many value-added opportunities, in ethanol, in feed sources for livestock and other products—We have to make the most of today’s exciting opportunities on behalf of the farmer,” said Mitch Coulter, who joined the staff of Minnesota Corn Growers Association on December 19, as its new research program manager.

Coulter comes to MCGA with a dozen years experience in sales and consulting positions in agribusiness.  Most recently he has worked as a consultant who trained the sales force and worked to expand the sales territory for AgTrax Technologies, a Hutchinson, Kansas-based agribusiness software solutions company.

Before that, he spent five years in sales and marketing for AgTrax, and previously worked for John Deere Agri services, in its special technologies department.

“Mitch has an energy and a breadth of experience that will make him a great asset for Minnesota’s corn organizations. He has worked one-on-one with farmers, and developed relationships with agribusinesses of every size and description,” said Chad Willis, a farmer in Willmar and chairman of Minnesota Corn Research & Promotion Council.

Research program manager is a new staff position. Coulter will direct the work of the Food and Bioenergy Team and the Expanded Uses Team for the Minnesota corn organizations.

“Right now, we are accepting research project proposals and I will be working to package the information and present it to Minnesota Corn Growers Association’s  board and Minnesota Corn Research & Promotion Council, to help these professional farmers assess where the best investment of check-off fund dollars would be,” said Coulter.

Coulter, 34, grew up on a farm in Maynard, Minnesota, and continues to take an active role when he can, in family farms that raise corn, soybeans, wheat and sugar beets.

He graduated from South Dakota State University in 1999 with a BS in agriculture. He double majored in agronomy and horticulture.

“The opportunity to be able to help farmers grow their business is one of the main reasons I’ve taken this position,” said Coulter. “It’s an exciting time for corn farmers. Corn production has grown, the acres in corn have grown. There is a lot of opportunity for corn farmers and it’s a good place to be.”