Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

Comprehensive feed system maximizes hog production, and manages environmental effects

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

Pig production is important in Minnesota. So are clean air, water and soil.

Shoreview, Minnesota-based Land O’Lakes Purina Feed has come up with a unique package of products it calls EcoCare® Feed, meant to comprehensively optimize the production of pork while helping to improve the environmental performance of pig farms, according to Mariela Lachmann, a swine nutrition specialist at the company. Among other issues, the feed offers nutrients and technologies that address concerns like air emissions, nitrogen and phosphorous content in manure.

“We want to put all the tools, all the best management practices into a single program, so that we are environmentally sustainable,” said Lachmann who noted that an important element of sustainability is farmer success [or profit potential].

Lachmann, who did her undergraduate and master training in animal nutrition in her native Venezuela, noted that the program required students to learn all about agronomy, so that they understood the crops that became the animals’ food. She went on to earn her Ph.D. at Oklahoma State University, and brought with her the sense of how all the elements of agriculture have to work in concert, in order to achieve success.

She said, “There’s a lot of research in this area. One focus is emissions. You can have a big impact on ammonia emissions, and you can cut dust emissions by manipulation of the diet. It’s a management plan that creates a full circle. With those things in place, we will have a better chance to encourage growth of the industry in Minnesota.”

With a gross income of $2.6 billion dollars, Minnesota hog producers ranked second only to Iowa in economic impact. Producers marketed 17,152,000 head last year, and they were second nationally in pounds marketed—more than 3.8 billion pounds (USDA-NASS, Minnesota field office). And this industry constitutes a major market for Minnesota produced crops, particularly corn and soybeans. Approximately 16 percent of corn produced in Minnesota went to animal production within the state (MDA).

Some of the elements of EcoCare® Feed include the use of phytase enzyme to make the phosphorous in grains and oil seeds more available to the pig digestive tract. With less inorganic phosphorous needed as a feed additive, less phosphorous passes through the animal and into the manure. Phosphorous can be a limiting nutrient when it comes to spreading manure—phosphorous runoff can create unwanted algae growth in lakes—so the proper balance of nutrients may help the pig producer optimize their profit potential from the sale of manure. Another element in EcoCare® Feed is the use of amino acids that helps reduce ammonia emission from manure, which can improve the air quality in the vicinity of the pig production facility.

By themselves these ingredients are in use throughout the industry, but the comprehensive design of the feed program, with an eye to environmental impact is a new marketing concept.

“I consider this an industry-leading approach and depending on the nutrition technology they are using, it is promising,” said Prof. Jerry Shurson, a swine nutrition expert at the University of Minnesota.

Land O’Lakes Purina Feed’s internal research showed reductions of ammonia volatilization of 18 percent in manure during a 45-day trial from EcoCare® fed pig compared to a control group fed with a conventional ration. Other studies at Oklahoma State University indicated a potential to drop ammonia emissions up to 40 percent over the entire finishing period (J. Anim. Sci. 2009. 87 (E-Suppl.):51). They estimate over time, EcoCare® Feed could be an important player to enhance air quality in commercial situations, through the use of crystalline amino acids and complementary manure technologies.

“Manure storage, manure nutrient concentration and air quality—all these things can be influenced by the nutrition program,” said Lachmann. “Through what you feed to the pigs, you can influence emissions, excretions, even viscosity. The key is that it has to be economical for producers. Not only do we need to avoid producing more waste, but we have to offer something that is going to work for the business of producers, to help producers be more environmentally responsible and better received in the community around them. We need to understand in today’s market that manure is not a waste—it is part of a ‘savings account’ for the pork producer. Since the producer plans to offer it for use with a crop producer’s fertilizer program, we can gear the diet to produce manure with the nutrients to match crop requirements.”

EcoCare® Feed has been on the market since 2006, and initial customer feedback lead them to believe that this environmentally friendly feeding program will lead an important market segment in a direction that helps industry respond to consumer and regulatory demands as they continue to develop.


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).”

Of climate hawks, traditional environmentalists and finding energy heroes

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

Atlantic Monthly senior editor Alexis Madrigal gave the noontime address at this year’s E3 conference in Minneapolis last week and offered his view that the Green Tech movement will gain momentum, and the ones who will bring this new message to the public will be….engineers.

Madrigal wrote the book Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology, launched Atlantic Monthly’s “energy” Internet channel and previously was a major contributor to Wireless magazine’s blog, Wired Science.

Green Tech can and will find new heroes who can capture the public imagination and effectively convey the need for alternative energy, according to Madrigal.  He noted that today’s two big protest movements—Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party—share the common feature of drawing power from and contributing power into an Internet-based system of distributed knowledge. A similar groundswell for new energy technologies could arise the same way.

To point in the direction of how Green Tech might win the day, Madrigal projected a slide of Brooklyn. The photo showed the city brought to a complete halt by a major snowstorm last winter. In a stark, graphic way, these city dwellers were made to face the results of climate change. Anomalous weather events have become more and more frequent and are not just something that happens to the environment, but now they are events that overwhelm the way we have engineered our cities to serve our everyday lives.  That’s harder to ignore than other phenomena that impact the environment.

His prescription for a winning political message—“Green Tech has to get away from the rhetoric of “saving the earth” and talk instead about ‘saving the civilization we have built.”

One interesting development noted by Madrigal is the conflict arising between camps he calls the “climate hawks” versus “traditional environmentalists.” Climate Hawks are those who have accepted global climate change as the most fundamental environmental challenge facing us, and so would prioritize the deployment of green tech. Some of the most heated resistance against green technology has come from traditional environmentalists who worry about wind power arrays that threaten bird life or solar power installations in deserts that threaten tortoises.

Traditional environmental groups are ‘built for certain things’ like preserving land and endangered species, or fighting pollutants that might be called more traditional than atmospheric chemistry. In contrast, the entrepreneurs and science students at the E3 conference are the ones who not only will develop the solutions to climate change, but will be uniquely suited to helping America get excited about renewable energy.

“We need heroes, and I like to look to the people who built the current power generation system,” said Madgrigal. He acknowledged how it has become fashionable to criticize them, but “think about what these engineers and inventors and business leaders were able to do from 1900 to 1965. They drove down the cost of electricity and at the same time increased the size of generators and the amount of power at our disposal.”

Although Madrigal said the profit motive was a strong element, these people did what they did “to make the country a better place….we need to draw some of these people into our narrative—the people who wanted to build it bigger, better.”

One audience member, in asking a question of Madrigal, proposed that Prof. Lanny Schmidt, a chemical engineer and longtime proponent of grain ethanol and other renewable energy sources, is a bona fide Green Tech hero.

Madrigal said this can be the story of Green Tech—the next step in an ongoing effort to build America and make it bigger and better.

Madrigal also offered the notion that the Green Tech scientists and entrepreneurs in the room could strengthen their position by including the concept of ‘resilience’ into the technology they are trying to develop. Today’s technological civilization offers wonders like just-in-time delivery but at the same time suffers a kind of fragility whereby a single problem can bring a whole system to a halt.

He ended by telling the attendees of the E3 conference of his confidence that they will win out. Madrigal said, “You are on the right side of history!”

EPA director Jackson accompanies Secretary Vilsack on Iowa farm tour

(from AP coverage of the visit)

(Jackson said) “What I learned was, whether it was the livestock operation, the row crops, biodiesel or ethanol or other advances,” she said, “biofuels is about the innovation. There really is remarkable innovation happening right here on the ground.” Specifically, Jackson referred to business-based innovation in improved process efficiencies and growing methods that “had great impact on air quality and water quality.”

She also noted that while EPA has a “specific mission,” there is no reason for it to work in competition with agriculture. “In fact,” she added, “what I learned today just reinforces my belief that there are tremendous win-win opportunities.”

For Vilsack, those opportunities include the benefits of biofuel production. “The USDA wants to show its support of biofuels to reduce dependence on foreign oil,” he said in response to a question from Ethanol Producer Magazine’s editor, Sue Retka Schill, on what the USDA has been up to over the last few weeks with biofuels announcements. “We see this (biofuels) as a lynch pin to revitalize rural economies. Not only will it add dollars and cents to the bottom lines of farmers and ranchers,” he said, “it will also help to create jobs.” When the U.S. reaches the 36 billion gallon goal set by the RFS2, he said the country could see up to a million new jobs. Along with job creation, “we are going to see capital investment [and] more construction opportunities” based on a continued development of the biofuels industry.

To seize on the benefits of biofuels, however, Vilsack pointed to a number of things that need to happen, most notably continued governmental support. “It requires continuing to provide some degree of support for this industry. We found out what happens when the supports are ended abruptly when the biodiesel tax credit was stopped. We lost production capacity, we lost jobs, and we clearly don’t want to replicate that.”

Our Take:
The USDA estimates the 36 billion gallon per year goal of RFS will create a million new jobs. We doubt that oil production in the Gulf of Mexico will create a million new jobs, but it will undoubtedly bring a reprise of last year’s disaster–the worst manmade environmental disaster in US history.

We’d like to see Jackson put her money where her mouth is and come up with ideas that allow EPA and other government agencies to support and work cooperatively with agriculture to achieve the nation’s environmental goals.

Recognition that ethanol and biodiesel are an environmental highroad when compared to offshore oil stilling–and biofuels ought to be treated that way, switching incentives now paid out to oil companies to other uses that would help us grow our renewable energy production base.

Farmers gather to learn the latest on nutrient management

by Jonathan Eisenthal

Last Tuesday, farm conservation experts–commercial farm producers and the service providers who help them succeed–sounded an optimistic note about the future of weaving together profitable agricultural production and environmentally sound conservation practices. It’s a trend that’s already well underway, an audience of several hundred farmers and crop consultants were told at the fifth annual Nutrient Efficiency and Management Conference in Rochester.

The most well subscribed portion of a packed agenda was the panel discussion, which featured two agronomists, a crop consultant and a dairy farmer.

Ron Durst of Durst Brothers Dairy described the operation he and his two brothers run in Mantorville, where they milk 1,500 dairy cows, grow the crops that feed the dairy cattle and raise a herd to provide all the replacement cattle they need.

Jon Schmitz said his current work with dairy producers on systems to store and utilize manure has him quite optimistic about the future of improved water quality. A native of Sleepy Eye, Schmitz worked for a decade for Christensen Farms–one of the largest hog operations in the United States, and now works as an agronomist for Progressive Ag Center LLC, where he provides nutrient management planning for dairy and swine operations.

Schmitz said, “I’m a tech service provider for NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) and I think that if the government continues to fund projects, like the manure storage facilities that help producers plan and build, then I think water quality in southeast Minnesota is only going to improve. Meeting with growers and educating them about the availability of nutrients in manure, the (nitrogen) credits for legumes (like Alfalfa) has benefitted water quality and it will continue to improve water quality.”

Targeting manure application by following what is revealed in soil tests and grid mapping shows immediate results, according to a review by experts from Minnesota and Wisconsin Discovery Farms projects. Another key piece of information has flowed from the Discovery Farm’s practice of measure runoff year-round. They have discovered that about two thirds of the manure related nutrients that are lost from fields are lost from frozen ground, in the months of February and March. The experts are quite optimistic about using this kind of information to develop best management practices that will keep more nutrients on the crop land, where they can do some good.

Panelist Chris Soltau said he is concerned about nitrates in drinking water in southeastern, Minnesota. As a resident of Goodhue County, and an agronomist with Ag Partners Coop, Soltau is proud of the work he does, selling farmers the inputs they need to successful raise crops but he wants to promote the best possible methods to prevent as much nitrogen loss as possible. When asked about what he hopes for in future research, Soltau said continued and expanded research on nitrogen best management practices. He believes the more real-world, on-farm results farmers see, the more confidence they will have in University-published BMPs. In turn, this will lead to broader use of techniques like targeted application, the correct nutrient credit for various crop rotations, among others.

The right balance of manure and commercial fertilizer is the next step in a series of steps which have allowed Minnesota corn producers to increase their yield by 38 percent in the last two decades while reducing the amount of nitrogen per bushel of corn down to 0.8 pounds per bushel. During the panel discussion, Crop Consultant Lynn Lagerstedt of Farm-Tech Crop/GPS Services in Adams said one current trend is spreading a light volume of manure over a wider area, to bring potassium and phosphorous levels to the recommended level, and then to make up for the nitrogen deficit inherent in this lower volume of manure by supplementing with commercial fertilizer. The soil profile improves from adding organic matter, while the additional N ensures the crop yield will be optimal.

Durst said that nutrient management pays off. Across Minnesota, many corn producers had banner years, but Durst believes attentive nutrient management contributed to their yield average of 200 bushels per acre.

MCR&PC district representative David Ward, who raises hogs in addition to corn and soybeans found a lot to like in the presentations about the work of Discovery Farms, a project jointly underwritten by Minnesota’s corn, soybeans and turkey grower organizations.

“As regulations and best management practices develop we just need to make sure they are realistic, and flexible, while still creating water quality benefits–that’s what will give us the best chance to ensure that producers can really use them,” said Ward.

A genetically modified crop benefits a non-modified crop by killing pests, University of Minnesota study finds

(press release from University of Minnesota)

Transgenic corn’s resistance to pests has benefitted even non-transgenic corn, a new study led by scientists from the University of Minnesota shows.

The study, published in the Oct. 8 edition of the journal Science, found that widespread planting of genetically modified Bt corn throughout the Upper Midwest has suppressed populations of the European corn borer, historically one of corn’s primary pests. This areawide suppression has dramatically reduced the estimated $1 billion in annual losses caused by the European corn borer, even on non-genetically modified corn. Bt corn, introduced in 1996, is so named because it has been bred to produce a toxin from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) that kills insect pests.

Corn borer moths cannot distinguish between Bt and non-Bt corn, so females lay eggs in both kinds of fields, said the study’s chief author, University of Minnesota entomology professor William Hutchison. Once eggs hatch in Bt corn, young borer larvae feed and die within 24 to 48 hours. Because it is effective at controlling corn borers and other pests, Bt corn has been adopted on about 63 percent of all U.S. corn acres. As a result, corn borer numbers have also declined in neighboring non-Bt fields by 28 percent to 73 percent in Minnesota, Illinois and Wisconsin, depending on historical pest abundance and level of Bt-corn adoption.  The study also documents similar declines of the pest in Iowa and Nebraska. This is the first study to show a direct association between Bt corn use and an areawide reduction in corn borer abundance.

Economic benefits of this areawide pest suppression have totaled $6.9 billion over the past 14 years for the 5-state region. Surprisingly, non-Bt corn acres accounted for $4.3 billion (62 percent of this total benefit.) The primary benefit of Bt corn is reduced yield losses, and Bt acres received this benefit after the growers paid Bt corn technology fees. But as a result of areawide pest suppression, non-Bt acres also experienced yield savings without the cost of Bt technology fees, and thus received more than half of the benefits from growing Bt corn in the region.

Our Take:
The miracle of Bt Corn has boosted yield in both GM and conventional acres. The significance of this cannot be overstated. Over the past 14 years these yield gains have meant $6.9 billion dollars more in the pockets of farmers. Not only has this money flowed directly into main street businesses across rural Minnesota and the whole Corn Belt, but a chunk of this $6.9 billion dollars is the money that has helped to build farmer-owned, farm-based energy production–ethanol and biodiesel in America.

Farmer ownership of ethanol creates a perfect hedge that keeps farmers in business.

It’s no coincidence that Bt corn and farmer-owned ethanol started up about the same time. The yield gain from crop science, together with significant new uses for corn, is what has allowed Corn Belt farmers to stay in business. Period.

And crop science is the reason that the food-vs-fuel argument is a complete fallacy. The abundance of #2 yellow field corn allows us to continue to export huge volumes of it, still have every bushel the American livestock industry can use and accommodate the booming ethanol industry all at the same time.

And the crop science revolution is far from over. In the coming decade, the major seed companies plan to market corn varieties genetically enhanced to feature greater water efficiency and resistance to heat stress.

One financial writer opines that high oil prices help alternative energy

(from the article “High prices will fix what politicians cannot”

By Trevor Houser, published by Financial Times. Full article can be found at: )

 …There is also little hope that new (oil) supply will bring much (consumer price) relief. OPEC countries control an increasing share of global reserves and are not inclined to increase production just to give consumers a break. With most new onshore resources in politically unstable countries, the International Energy Agency predicts that over the next two decades the lion’s share of new non-OPEC production will occur offshore, much of it in deep water. The real lesson of the Gulf spill is that drilling the deep Macondo well reflected the reality that there are few cheap and easy options elsewhere.

The only silver lining on a painful future for consumers is that expensive oil is just what is needed finally to kick-start the petroleum detox. The fact that high oil prices survived the crisis excises the ghosts of the 1980s, and gives entrepreneurs and investors confidence to support cleaner vehicles and develop alternative fuels. Nearly all of the world’s largest vehicle manufacturers now plan plug-in hybrid or fully electric vehicles within two years, with General Motors rolling out the Chevy Volt last week. At $20 per barrel, powering the Volt with electricity costs more than filling a comparable car with gasoline. But at $80, Volt drivers save enough on fuel to offset the vehicle’s high price. Faced with expensive oil, the chemicals industry is turning to natural gas, increasingly abundant thanks to the shale gas boom, and venture capitalists are betting on advanced biofuels.

Make no mistake, clean-energy deployment driven by a tight oil market will be slower, more limited, and less pleasant in the absence of good policy from Washington. And as oil accounts for only a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, high prices will do little to address climate change compared with the cap and trade proposals Congress put on hold. But today’s oil markets make public investment in clean-energy research and development, just now returning to 1970s levels, more palatable – and a change in America’s relationship with petroleum seems possible at last.

The writer is a fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics

 Our Take: 
We don’t call it cheap, though biofuels increase supply and therefore blunt high gasoline prices. And we don’t call it easy. The oath to ethanol and biodiesel development has been fraught with pitfalls for its pioneers. But ethanol is an alternative to offshore drilling. One that exists today. One that works well in complement to technologies like the Chevy Volt, which, though it is an electric vehicle, still depends on liquid fuel to extend its range beyond commuting distance. That liquid fuel can be an ethanol blend.

 Congress members of all stripes should realize that a forward-looking energy policy that really gets behind biofuels expansion can help all states—red, blue, (and even purple, as some people call states like Minnesota that seem to split party-loyalty right up the middle). It’s time to reach across the aisle and make it happen.