Archive for February, 2012

Farmers and water quality in Minnesota: “On the right track and ready to take it to the next level”

 Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

A packed auditorium in Morton last Wednesday demonstrated that farmers, and the crop consultants and farm businesses that serve them, are interested in water quality. University researchers and agriculture agency workers made a good showing as well, all enthusiastic about farmer interest in managing nutrients and soil to help achieve cleaner water.

It was the 2012 Nutrient Management & Efficiency Conference, organized by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) and sponsored by MDA, Minnesota Ag Water Resource Center, University of Minnesota Extension, USDA-NRCS, Minnesota Corn Growers, Minnesota Soybean Growers, Minnesota Crop Production Retailers, Minnesota Independent Crop Consultants, Agrium, Mosaic, and Nutra-Flo.

“Farmers in Minnesota are on the right track when it comes to nutrient management and water quality, and we’re ready to take it to the next level,” said farmer Doug Albin, who raises corn, soybeans and alfalfa in Clarkfield, Yellow Medicine County. He was one of several hundred farmers in the audience. The daylong seminar offered a mixture of reports on research and assessments of what is happening on the farm. Albin said the overall effect left him feeling energized about farming and hopeful about the future.

A series of presenters from academia and private industry offered the latest information about keeping nutrients and soil in place, and helping crops optimize use of these inputs through techniques like banded placement, and stabilizers that act like a kind of time-release to “meter out the nutrients just at the right time so plants can use them,” Albin said.

“We’re showing our interest in this kind of practical approach,” said Albin. “We can improve our operations and improve the bottom line and help the environment at the same time.”

In the morning, Warren Formo, director of Minnesota Agricultural Water Resource Center, offered a review of all the research aimed at assessing the farm impact on water quality, and improving water quality results. This was followed by a panel discussion featuring crop consultants and farmers conducting a conversation about innovative techniques for improving nutrient management. The afternoon featured three different sessions: nutrient management, nutrient use efficiency and water quality.

Prof. George Rehm, director of Minnesota Discovery Farms program, was able to share the first year’s results in this farmer-driven quest for information about how soil and nutrients flow over the land. So far, eight farms have joined the program with sets up monitoring equipment to measure the levels and the movement of nitrogen, phosphorous and soil particles on their farm fields.

“This was very good basic information for producers that laid out the concerns about nutrient use and water quality and what we are doing to address those concerns,” said Tim Radatz, a research specialist for the Minnesota and Wisconsin Discovery Farmers projects.

Minnesota Discovery Farms has eight participating farms located in Chisago, Goodhue, Stearns, Blue Earth, Wright, Renville and Kandiyohi counties.

Rehm discussed first year data from three farms, in the Chisago, Goodhue and Stearns locations.

“The timing of runoff for this past year happened mostly during the snowmelt period in spring, because we had such a large snowpack,” said Radatz. “The sediment loss numbers were pretty low, which is a function of good management practices that reduced losses. Later in summer and the fall, the weather dried up so much there wasn’t enough rain to generate runoff. It’s important to stress these are one year results, and we need multiple years to really show what is happening.”

Minnesota Discovery Farms is hoping all eight cooperators will choose to stay in the program. Its application process ends March 1, and the program could add two or more locations. Ultimately, they would like to reach between 12 to 15 locations, to give a good representation of the diverse agricultural regions in the state.

(Go to to read the 2011 Minnesota Discovery Farms Annual Report, or to apply to join the Minnesota Discovery Farms network as a cooperator).

Other highlights in the water quality discussion included Brad Carlson’s overview of nutrient and soil loss and preventive approaches, as well as Jeff Strock’s review of results with an innovative approach called conservation drainage.

“Brad Carlson gave a good overview of the concerns with nitrogen, pesticides and soil erosion, as well as ways to limit losses out of tile drainage systems,” said Radatz. “Nitrogen and nitrate loss through the tile lines is a concern for local waters, but even more so for the Gulf of Mexico because it plays a role in the hypoxia issues they are dealing with. Surface water runoff is where we see phosphorous loss into streams and lakes, and that is what drives growth of algae in our lakes.”

Among the most promising ways to limit loss of soil and nutrients is the conversion of open tile intakes to French drains–the intake is placed several feet below the surface of the field and a funnel area is created out of pea rock, which effectively shuts soil out of the tile line.

“The research shows French drains are effective for removing sediment compared to open intakes,” said Radatz.

Jeff Strock, an expert with the University of Minnesota Department of Soil, Water and Climate talked about conservation drainage and water quality benefits for tile drainage. Strock has managed research into this method for a number of years at the Southwest Research and Outreach Station in Lamberton.

“There was good discussion about continuing the research to find out how effective these techniques are,” said Radatz. He explained, “Conservation drainage uses gate-type structures that can be put on tile outlets. The gates have baffles that can be raised or lowered to keep the water table higher in the non-growing season, but then lower the water table when is time to plant and raise crops. The baffles can be used to do a kind of sub-irrigation where the farm operator can manipulate the water table to allow roots access to soil moisture without getting drowned….It’s a new concept. Farmers are becoming more aware of it, but it is very new. We have four or five years of data. Farmers would like more info about how it is going to work, how it will affect their operations in particular. It’s also important to realize that this conservation drainage isn’t effective on highly sloped fields—it requires fields with less than one percent of slope.”

Other concepts like terraces, grassed waterways and the creation of holding pools with metered drainage can effectively address more hilly crop land.

“It was a good day,” said Albin. “The positive attitude that farmers have got about farming and about making conservation an everyday part of the farm is really great to see. The conference was a day for enthusiasm for agriculture. Farmers are coming in and finding out that what we are doing is okay, but maybe we can do it even better. Crop consultants and agency people heard from the farmers, yes, we want to do these things, but don’t stand in our way–create a system that makes it easy for farmers to participate and do what’s right for their farm and for the environment.”

Strong connection: residue management and success in conservation tillage

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

In corn-on-corn, harvesting residue boosts grain yields of the following corn crop across different tillage systems and nitrogen fertilizer rates, according to University of Minnesota research funded by Minnesota Corn Growers Association.

A research project, now going into its fourth year, conducted at Lamberton and Waseca, finds that removing residue provides a big boost. The average over the 2009-11 crop years at both locations is:

Disk-rip, No residue harvested: 190 bu/acre
Disk-rip, Residue harvested: 204 bu/acre

No-till, No residue harvested: 182 bu/acre
No-till, Residue harvested: 199 bu/acre

Strip-till, No residue harvested: 183 bu/acre
Strip-till, Residue harvested: 203 bu/acre

These results surprised researchers not only in the yield response to residue removal, but also in how close the different tillage systems performed in corn-on-corn when residue was removed.

“We often have challenges with plant emergence and early season growth in no-till and strip till continuous corn, but that seems to disappear when you harvest the residue,” said Jeff Coulter, an Extension agronomist with the University of Minnesota.

Coulter said residue harvest needs further examination, but it appears that it should not be an every-year practice, because of the vital organic matter that it can contribute to the fields over time. In the future, researchers could examine whether using manure in combination with residue harvest could work well as a means to maintain organic matter levels and replace the potassium and phosphorous that is removed from fields when residue is harvested.

Another surprising find, according to Coulter, was that it took more nitrogen fertilizer than expected to reach maximum yields in corn-on-corn, prompting the researchers to consider a future examination of what those optimum levels are. However, the research showed that nitrogen requirements were sometimes lower when residue was harvested. Apparently, the decomposition of the corn stalks, which are nitrogen-poor, causes the microbes feeding on them to draw nitrogen up from the soil. This temporarily limits the nitrogen available to young corn plants. Thus harvesting residue can temporarily increase available nitrogen.

“The underlying issue for this research was our thinking about what happens down the road if cellulosic ethanol and other uses for corn residue really take off,” said Coulter. “If the farmer is offered the opportunity to sell residue, how will that affect their grain yield and best practices for tillage and nitrogen? Some farmers are already harvesting a portion of their corn residue and mixing it with distillers grains for an economical and nutritious livestock ration.”

The research continues this year at both locations. Contributors to the research are Coulter, nutrient management specialist John Lamb, graduate student Aaron Sindelar, soil scientist Jeff Vetsch and scientist Steve Quiring.


Good year for agriculture decreases number of mediated farm debts

The effect of a good year for Minnesota agriculture is evident in the University of Minnesota Extension Farmer-Lender Mediation Program’s annual report.  The number of lenders sending notices requesting mediation of troubled Minnesota farm debts dropped by 24 percent during the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2010.

This is the first time in four years the activity in the program decreased, according to Dick Senese, Extension senior associate dean.

“In recent years, farmer-lender mediation has given farm operations the chance to stay in business until better times,” Senese said. “These are better times for agriculture, but there are still situations where farmers and their lenders rely on this program to help them work together to renegotiate, restructure or resolve their debts.

The report showed there were 494 cases in which farm enterprises used mediation to reach agreement with lenders about debts. In 1,718 additional cases, the right to use mediation to resolve debt was waived by the farmers involved.  The amount of debt addressed in mediation dropped by almost 65 percent from $624 million in fiscal year 2010 to $221 million in fiscal 2011.

Farming is a cyclical business and most farm enterprises had a good year in 2012, according to Brian Buhr, Extension economist and head of the university’s applied economics department. That increase in farm profitability made it easier for farmers to pay their bills on time and avoid troublesome situations with lenders. Most remarkably, livestock profitability has returned as moderating crop prices and rising livestock prices have increased margins, he added.

Our Take:
It’s no accident that farm debt and the heart-ache it can bring is easing–markets for crops are as strong as any one can remember, and there are several important factors maintaining that market strength.

First, world demand for food is climbing, and that growth outlook appears solid for the next forty years. Just as important is the kind of food this growing world population wants–protein. Soybeans and corn are the foundation for providing the world with the animal protein people want, and in increasing numbers, can afford. The third element of these strong markets is value-added biofuels. These are an all-important feedback mechanism in the market–when fuel prices are rising and affecting all sectors, including farmers, the ability to turn a fraction of the corn crop into ethanol and the soybean crop into biodiesel functions as a hedge against increased energy and fertilizer costs.

While prices have retreated from peaks seen in the past 24 months, they remain strong and that puts money in the pockets of farmers and injects dollars into the rural economy. It is so important that people notice that livestock producers can enjoy profitability even while crop prices remain strong. It is not a zero sum game. When corn’s customers are doing well, that helps corn farmers, too.

These fundamentals can’t prevent market volatility. There will be ups and downs. We are confident, however, that a strong safety net based on widespread, well-utilized crop insurance complements these fundamentals and allow farmers and the financial and business service companies they depend on, to take the kind of reasonable risks that will keep agriculture, biofuels and rural America growing.

ENERGY: Ethanol blender pumps growing in numbers

Blender pumps offering consumers a variety of ethanol-blend fuels are growing in numbers across the Dakotas and Minnesota.

By: Loretta Sorensen, Prairie Business Magazine

We’re very satisfied with the progress of blender pump sales in North Dakota,” Tom Lilja, North Dakota Corn Growers Director, says. “In the past, a few stations may have had a pump dedicated to E85 in the corner. Now, blender pumps are right next to standard gasoline pumps and consumers are using the blended fuels.”

North Dakota just surpassed installation of 200+ pumps at more than 50 locations across the state. The majority of pumps are found in the eastern two-thirds of North Dakota. Blends vary from E10 to E30 to E85.

“There are a few stations that offer an E20 blend,” Lilja says. “Most of the pumps didn’t start going in until the 2010 construction season. The North Dakota legislature initiated the blender pump program during the 2009 session. In 2009, average monthly sales of ethanol blends were at 23,000 gallons. In 2011, sales of ethanol blends averaged 112,000 gallons per month and surpassed a million gallons in the first nine months. Our sales reports don’t currently break ethanol sales out into the different blends so it’s all reported as E85. It all comes down to access. If it’s available, consumers are choosing it.”

Funding for installation of additional blender pumps in North Dakota is available to station owners through spring 2013. The state provides a $5,000 grant toward purchase of a pump. North Dakota Corn Growers Association offers an additional $2,500. The typical cost of a blender pump is $20,000.

To read the full article go to:

Our Take:
We’d love to see this kind of investment program in every one of the 18 major corn growing states—certainly every one with an ethanol plant. Blender pumps are just one more way to get homegrown, cleaner-burning fuel into American motorists’ gas tanks.

With proposed CAFÉ and greenhouse gas rules making their way through EPA, blender pumps could be THE method for America to meet all of its goals for transportation—lowering carbon emissions, increasing mileage—Detroit engineers say they could take current technologies that combine direct injection and turbo-charging to a new level of efficiency and low emissions by using high-octane E30 (96 octane could really put a tiger in Detroit’s tank), especially if they optimized vehicle engines and fuels systems for the midlevel blend. We think blender pumps could be the wave of the future—helping America reduce its petroleum imports, lower carbon emissions and enjoy cleaner air.

The other nutrient…sulfur

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

It became clear to the producers and crop consultants gathered in Rochester to learn the latest about conservation tillage that, since nutrients are critical to the success of any crop, they become even more critical for producers engaging in conservation tillage techniques. A key nutrient that’s gaining more and more attention among researchers in the past few years is sulfur.

Soil scientist Jeff Vetsch devoted an entire talk to sulfur at the 2012 University of Minnesota Conservation Tillage Conference, and sulfur became a very popular item among the “table talk” discussions—a kind of ‘speed-dating’ version of the usual panel discussion format, where the audience has the opportunity to switch to a different table (and topic) every 15 minutes over the course of an hour.

Vetsch told the group that researchers have documented that adding sulfur is profitable between a third and half of the time, and making it a regular practice “pays for itself.” The biggest yield boosts were seen when using sulfur in corn-on-corn rotations that use conservation tillage, and also with fields that have low or variable organic matter or eroded hilltop areas, and also fields with no recent history of sulfur fertilization.

The latest research estimates that optimum rates for fine and medium soils are 10-15 pounds per acre each year when broadcasting, or 5-8 pounds when putting in a band. For sandy soils, they have seen economic returns at a rate of 25 pounds per acre each year. Vetsch notes that sulfate is the form that plants can utilize directly. Elemental sulfur takes a period of time to mineralize and become available to plants, so it can be a good option for fall applications, but is not as effective when it is combined with spring fertilizer passes.

“Sulfur continues to be the surprise fertilizer,” said Brad Carlson, a crops educator with University of Minnesota Extension Service.  “Sulfur was heavily studied in the 60s and 70s, and scientists never could find much response to it then.”

One reason for this change, scientists speculate, is the major drop in atmospheric sulfur that has followed the reformulation of fuels in order to prevent acid rain. Measurements in 1986 recorded averages between 12 to 15 pounds of sulfur deposited from atmosphere, compared to between three and four pounds in 2005, according to Vetsch, and southern Minnesota sees even less than that with an average estimated atmospheric deposition of 1.5 pounds of sulfur.

“Even now we want to recommend using sulfur where you have low organic matter, but we are seeing yield responses to sulfur all over, everywhere, in all kinds of crops,” said Carlson.” Sulfur remains a bit of a mystery. We don’t have a reliable test, in that you can get back a test result that recommends no need for additional sulfur fertilizer and yet if you go ahead and add it you get a response. The story is not yet written. There’s an assumption that if we apply sulfur at a fairly high rate we won’t see a response, but we haven’t found that limit yet.”

Vetsch was asked if an over-application of sulfur would build up the helpful nutrient in the topsoil, and he responded that “it is an ion, it becomes mobile so there is no banking (for sulfur).”

MCR&PC supported research: Breeding corn that can succeed in the north

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

Central and northwest Minnesota used to be dominated by wheat, but northern farmers have watched the success of corn in southern Minnesota and noted the strength of the market, thanks to the successes of groups like Minnesota Corn Research & Promotion Council in its work supporting the growth of ethanol and other value-added uses of corn.

These northern farmers are saying we want that, too. Even though a few companies have stations in central ND and MN, the number of acres is not high enough to justify their investment to these areas but will be soon. An NDSU breeding program will make sure this happens by providing short-season cold tolerant products to them.

And thanks to MCR&PC supported research into hybrids designed with the special needs of northern and central Minnesota in mind, they will see more and more success with the golden crop.

Prof. Marcelo Carena of North Dakota State University in Fargo, continues to be a leading figure in the development of short-season cold tolerant corn for corn production in central and northern Minnesota.

One of the factors limiting the profitability of corn production in these regions is that most hybrids are bred elsewhere and don’t often succeed in terms of producing a fully mature, high test-weight grain that is low enough in moisture at harvest time, Carena said. He was interviewed during MN Ag EXPO, where he was one of dozens of MCR&PC supported researchers who presented posters about their research projects to those attending the gathering.

Carena’s work in 2011 took 3,157 different corn inbreds and screened them by growing them under controlled cold-stress conditions to evaluate their potential for northern U.S. environments. The professor can produce three crops per season, thanks to access to a nursery in southern Argentina, where their growing season is in the winter months and harvest takes place in the northern hemisphere’s spring. The process to create a new hybrid thus takes four years instead of 12.

Another key to Carena’s innovative work is the inclusion of exotic and tropical corn strains. Carena notes that the genes for cold tolerance could come from plants found anywhere—it’s a matter of subjecting them to cold stress and seeing which inbreds succeed in terms of grain-filling, moisture content and early maturity. Carena noted that his program represents the northernmost corn breeding program in North America (Canadian programs are actually located at lower latitudes than Fargo).

Carena has conducted northern corn breeding for 13 years and has produced 18 corn lines, eight populations and five hybrids out of hundreds of thousands of original lines since he began his corn-breeding program at NDSU. Minnesota Corn is contributing to the effort now, in addition to funding from North Dakota Corn Utilization Council —the boost in resources will speed the process of finding successful short-maturity hybrids that can work in central and northern Minnesota, according to Carena.

“It’s been my goal for Minnesota’s corn organizations to reach out and serve members and potential members in central and northern Minnesota,” said John Mages, president of MCGA and a farmer in Belgrade, Minnesota, in Stearns County. He said, “These regions will be a key growth area for us in the near future as corn becomes a more popular farm product farther north. Supporting this breeding program is a way to help corn producers in these regions share in the success that corn growers have enjoyed in the southern tier for decades now.”

Legislative reception draws a non-partisan crowd to talk turkey with farmers

Senator Keith Langseth, the oldest, and longest serving member of the Minnesota Legislature stood up at the Crowne Plaze Saint Paul last Wednesday night and thanked Minnesota Corn Growers Association for hosting its legislative reception, so that he and fellow state lawmakers could get to know their farmer constituents better and keep abreast of the latest issues impacting farmers.

Langseth didn’t waste time, but launched right into a question impacting farmers across the state—property taxes. He noted that his own property taxes on his farm land rose 18 percent this year and he explained that last year’s budget fix involved a shift. The state ended its homestead tax credit but, in order to limit the impact on homeowners they made a blanket reduction in the tax valuation of residential properties, and this meant that farm and commercial properties then shouldered more of the burden for local levies.

“That’s an issue we are going to revisit this year,” Langseth promised.

Rep. Rod Hamilton, chairman of the Agriculture and Rural Development Policy and Finance committee told the room of farmers and legislators, “We all have an open door policy…stop in and see us whenever you are here in St. Paul, or if you have a burning issue, please call us and let us know,”

The evening, held at the Kellogg meeting room and offering a buffet and refreshments in exchange for a donation to cover the expense, was a great success.

MCGA President John Mages, a farmer in Belgrade, felt that all the lawmakers were receptive to conversations about farm issues and hearing the farmer viewpoint.

The event did get off to a slow start, because the House of Representatives remained in session into the evening, debating bills related to tort reform. Toward 8 o’clock, the session adjourned and a score of representatives appeared, to join the dozen or more senators already present and enjoying conversations with grower leaders from every part of Minnesota.

“This is an informal setting, which is a great way to meet these lawmakers and spend some time getting to know them and telling them about our issues,” said Jean Knakmuhs, a director for Minnesota Corn Growers Association. In addition to farming near Walnut Grove, she is a loan officer with Rabo AgriFinance.  She said, “Unlike an appointment at their office at the capital, here, there are no time constraints and the next person on the schedule is not waiting outside the door.”

Senator John Howe opined “We need more people with a farm background at the Legislature.”

Today’s demographic realities make that unlikely, so the MCGA legislative reception, the annual “Day On The Hill” event and informal visits throughout the session, have to make up the lack of direct connection of many lawmakers to farming.

Senator Doug Magnus said that now that the state had sorted out its finances and gotten past the $5 billion dollar deficit that loomed last year, the Legislature can concentrate on “the three E’s that are vital to agriculture: Energy, Exports and the Environment.”

Exports will play a key role in farm prosperity in the coming decades because Minnesota’s farmers have the know-how and the productive land, and the world will need more food every day.

“In the next 40 years, the earth has to produce more food than we have produced in the past 10,000 years—supporting what you (farmers do) and supporting exports” will be critical to ensuring that this happens, Magnus said.

The environment is truly a hot-button issue in agriculture, Magnus acknowledged and he asserted that the farmers’ story of all the good work they are already doing in conservation is an important story that needs to reach the wider public so that public policy regarding farmers remains balanced.

“Our biggest issue right now is water quality,” said MCGA President Mages. “We (the farmers) are working on it. We are conservationists and we do want to preserve the quality of the environment. We will continue to do more and improve, but we will also fight to keep conservation on a voluntary basis. Every farmer wants to be involved, but not every farm is the same and treating every farm the same will not help us achieve our environmental goals as a state.”

Republican State Rep. Paul Torkelson and Democratic State Senator Terry Morrow both weighed in on the recent controversy regarding a Memo of Understanding between the federal government and the state of Minnesota, to launch a pilot program to help direct investments in farm conservation that will improve water quality. Both lawmakers told the grower leaders that it is important for them to participate in the process and have a voice in the program that is shaped by the technical advisory committee now being drawn together, in order to have a say in the design of the new conservation program.

In addition to legislators, a host of state government officials, including Paul Aasen (director, MPCA), and Matt Wohlman (Assistant Commissioner, MDA) as well as staff members from US Senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken attended the evening, among them former House Ag chairman Al Juhnke, who is currently Senator Franken’s ag and energy field representative.

Leaders of other farmer groups and agribusinesses rounded out the group, with appearances by Perry Aasness, executive director of Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation, and Sarah Thorn, government affairs manager for DuPont/Pioneer.