Archive for the ‘Conservation’ Category

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.



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).”

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

High crop prices a threat to nature?

(From an article by Josephine Marcotty, Star Tribune Newspaper)

Grain prices are tempting farmers to plow up protected land, even as conservation subsidies shrink.

…Experts say 2012 is likely to be a tipping point for conservation across the Upper Midwest. Some 300,000 acres in Minnesota — one fifth of the land now set aside through the CRP — will be up for grabs as federal contracts come up for renewal.

In the following years, millions more acres in Minnesota, North and South Dakota — critical prairie and wetland habitat for a fourth of the nation’s migratory birds — may also fall to the plow as farmers choose between leaving it to nature or converting it to cash crops. Many predict that nature will be the loser.

These choices loom just as concern about Minnesota’s lakes and rivers is on the rise and the state is embarked on a decades-long plan to improve water quality from Lake Pepin to the Red River.

And yet all the financial incentives for farmers — who control half of Minnesota’s land — are poised to move in the opposite direction.

Our Take:
Farmers make choices every day that help conserve natural resources.

For farmers, not everything is a line item. The value of good land, clean water and fresh air are things they don’t put a price on.

That said, not every acre of farmland is alike. Many of the acres put into Conservation Reserve 15 years ago were parked there to achieve another goal. Many acres were put in CRP to reduce the total volume of crops.  By preventing a surplus of commodities, this allowed farmers to make a modest profit from farming. Yes prairie grasses could be a good use for productive farmland under those conditions. But now, with prices that reflect the world’s increasing need for grain for both food and energy, a good number of those acres will come back into production once the current easements end.

This change doesn’t have to mean a loss for nature. If the government is steadfast about its commitment to fund 32 million acres of conservation reserve lands—that equals about a third of all US corn acres and about ten percent of the nation’s arable land—stronger crop prices will help rationalize the system. Farmers will more exclusively enroll marginal, non-productive, environmentally sensitive land, if the government continues to fund CRP. These are acres where the function of conservation is more properly achieved.

Though the commodity price ticker constantly moves up and down, this decade has seen what looks like a permanent rise in grain prices. We’ve heard gloom and doom before about how farmers will choose profits over conservation, but the reality is that a better valuation of crops in the market means that both the farmers and the government can more easily choose to spend money on conservation.

And farmers will choose to continue to invest in conservation. Among other things that farmers love, they love the land.

Wetter springs and falls, heavier equipment all add up: Compaction

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

A “Tires, Traction and Compaction” Field Day in West Central Minnesota drew about 200 farm operators to learn more about how compaction of soil can reduce yields, and to find out ways to limit the effects of compaction.

University of Minnesota Extension Educator Jodi Dejong-Hughes, along with a committee of volunteers, spent many hours creating an area of layered soils ending in a ditch that created in essence a cutaway view of the soil profile. And then they ran heavy farm equipment on the soil to demonstrate how compaction can vary.

Proper tire inflation is the key to limiting compaction and the yield losses associated with it, according to Ken Brodbeck, a representative of Firestone Ag Tires in DesMoines.

“You’re tire pressure gauge is an essential tool. Carry it with you and use it,” said Brodbeck, who noted that operators often have their tires inflated for proper wear and fuel use on paved and gravel roads, but that once the equipment rolls out onto the field and the operator unfolds the planter, a whole new set of tire pressures are recommended by manufacturers.

The basic rule of thumb is to reduce pressure, sometimes by as much as two-thirds, in order to broaden the footprint of the tire and achieve the best possible distribution of the weight. A tire inflated for the roadway has a smaller footprint and along that footprint it exerts a lot more pressure on the soil. Brodbeck demonstrated this effect with pieces of foam board–the more highly inflated tire left narrower but much deeper impressions.

Brodbeck gave an example of a customer in Iowa who plants 5,000 acres of corn, and who noticed a marked difference in the plants along his wheel tracks where compaction had taken place. By noting the difference in height and number of ears, and using current market prices last year, he was able to calculate that his yield loss in his wheel tracks amounted to $100,000 worth of grain.

Part of the effect was, in order to get that much grain planted in a timely way, the operator had gone to 36-row equipment, and to carry that much weight he had placed truck tires on the planter. 

Prof. Randy Taylor from Oklahoma State University presented information about compaction studies from across the country that have found that as much as 80 percent of the compaction effect happens in the first pass. So another key takeaway is to make sure you use the same wheel tracks again and again to limit to the minimum the area of the field affected by compaction. Also noted was that compaction is much less on dry soil. Comparisons were offered between equipment with tires and equipment on tracks, but the evidence is not yet conclusive in favor of one versus the other.

“If you are filling a grain cart on the go–and grain carts are often the heaviest piece of equipment we have in our fields–make sure once it’s full to follow the wheel tracks back out of the field and avoid driving a diagonal and creating more compaction,” said Jerry Larson, a farmer in Elbow Lake who attended the field day.

Larson this month wraps up his tenure as a member of National Corn Growers and Minnesota Corn Growers Association boards, after many years of active involvement.

“This is an excellent event,” said Larson. “It’s well worth the investment and I hope they stage more compaction field days in other parts of the state.”

Brodbeck noted that heavier equipment is a fact of life for farmers that need to get a lot done in a short period of time. But there is a solution on the horizon. The major equipment manufacturers have become interested in a technology already in use in Europe that allows the operator to vary the tire pressure from within the cab–on the go. A toggle switch would deflate the tires for field pressure, and then another turn of the switch would re-inflate them for roadway pressure. The technology came into use a decade ago in Germany when farmers insisted that manure trucks used to drain lagoons and then drive across fields and inject the manure in the soil do so without creating deep wheel ruts. According to Brodbeck the tires are built to go through this cycle of deflation and inflation several times in an hour. And a related development would include sensor technology that would adjust tire pressure for ambient air temperatures and soil temperature so that in the course of the day, as heat increases tire pressure, the sensor activates the system and releases air from the tires.

“If you figure that my customer with the 36-row equipment could reduce the wheel-track compaction by half, this is a technology that would pay for itself in a very short time,” said Brodbeck. Brodbeck believes the major manufacturers may offer this technology in the US in the next three-to-five years.

Farmers and Fishers come together to restore trout stream near St. Peter

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

The Fishers and Farmers Partnership, a program developed through US Fish and Wildlife Service, has brought together farm producers and anglers with the common goal of restoring fish habitats.

Fishers and Farmers Partnership for the Upper Mississippi River Basin has adopted three projects, one each in Minnesota, Iowa and Missouri. Minnesota Corn Growers Association is a signatory to the group’s charter.

Group members gathered recently at Seven Mile Creek, near St. Peter, Minnesota, to view a stretch of the watercourse that they hope can become a vibrant trout stream again.

Steve Sodeman, a director with Minnesota Corn Growers Association and chairman of Minnesota Agricultural Water Resources Coalition, jumped at the chance to interact with fishermen and tell them about the interest shared by farmers in improving water quality through projects like this. Sodeman noted that most farmers he knows love fishing, so it’s a natural match when it comes to farmers looking to reach out and build bridges to the non-farming public.

“We’re trying to work with people, make friends–we are finding that there are reasonable people out there,” said Sodeman, who is a partner in a crop consulting firm based in Trimont. Sodeman said, “Being there, you can develop a relationship and educate people about what is going on in agriculture. It’s an opportunity to be present. Water is one of the most significant issues of our time and we need to be there and be part of what is happening.”

The Mississippi River chapter of Fishers and Farmers Partnership has not yet set firm goals regarding the Seven Mile Creek project, but the broad outline is to control sediment loading through the construction of embankments and the seeding of plants that will act as a buffer. These vegetative buffer strips slow down water entering the creek and remove sediment and nutrients that can impact the clarity, temperature and oxygen levels in water–all characteristics that are critical in trout habitats.

Sodeman said that in a context like this, where people come together to work on a project, one can’t be a wallflower. Taking a chance, and expressing an opinion leads to relationship and real communication.

“I expressed the opinion that there are some problems with the film, Troubled Waters, (which is featured on the Fishers and Farmers Partnership web site),” Sodeman said. “We take issue with how some things are presented, with some of the things stated as fact, and I said very straightforwardly that it is a real sore spot with some of us. We had a very positive discussion that came out of that. It made the folks I was talking with think about it in a different way, where before they simply accepted what the film presented. That’s all you can do. You take it one little step at a time.”

Sodeman said Minnesota Agricultural Water Resources Coalition presents “a fantastic opportunity–it’s all of agriculture, speaking with one voice, about our concerns with water quality and how government approaches the issue and regulates agriculture. We have a firm belief that the more actual scientific research into water quality restoration methods, the more effective we can all be, working together, to achieve our water quality goals. It’s not about casting blame on one group or another, but about finding out what really works and getting it done.”