The clear driver for conservation practices lies within the goal of preserving soil health. Farmers understand that this has a direct impact on their livelihood.
“Soil health is the building block of any cropping system,” said Terry Bachtold, Illinois farmer and Livingston County Soil and Water Conservation District agriculture resource coordinator. “Anything we can do to help the soil will benefit the system, and ultimately, benefit everyone.”
Mike Trainor, an Illinois farmer, said results will not sprout immediately, but given time and allowing expertise to improve through implementation on the farm, the benefits will come.
“We just know the importance of caring for the land and the water while surviving economically, and we feel the need to spend a little of our time determining which practices work best.”
For some farmers, a sense of legacy is an additional motivator.
“My farm has been in my family since 1885, and I’d like to pass it along to my children,” said Marcus Maier, an Illinois farmer. “I think about how people struggled during the Depression to keep the land fertile, and that motivates me to protect the soil. I want to instill those values in future generations to do the same.
“It is also exciting that we can implement on a small scale, prove that we have improved our watershed, and help educate others as well.”
An increasingly popular method in benefiting soil health is the planting of cover crops, which was a focal point of the CIAT. Cover crops, such as cereal grains and legumes, are grown between the cash crop growing seasons in order to restore nutrients to the soil and provide protection by controlling pests and suppressing weed growth.
According to the 2012-2013 Cover Crop Survey, conducted by the North Central Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program and the CTIC, “cover crops are by no means a quick solution to production challenges or a one-size-fits-all proposition,” but “[they] complement a variety of conservation farming practices and often appeal to producers engaged in other soil-building and erosion activities.”
Chad Watts, CTIC’s project director, explained that farmers are interested in testing the cover crops on their operations.
“There is a big demand right now for cover crops, especially after the drought and the results we’ve been showing with the survey,” said Watts.
Farmers who responded to the survey reported yield results of “an average increase of 11.1 bushels of corn per acre and an average bump of 4.9 bushels of soybeans per acre” when cover crops were used, despite last year’s drought, the survey said.
Rethinking Old Practices & Applying New Approaches to Management
The idea of the 4R’s (right nutrient, right place, right rate, right time) was mentioned multiple times during nutrient discussions on the tour.
“Nitrogen management from a productive and environmental perspective is a key issue for the industry and society,” said Emilio Oyarzabal, Monsanto technology development manager. “It was very interesting to see the new technologies and tools associated with nutrient management.”
Some of the challenges of conservation farming range from personal experience to new methods of management.
“For some farmers, it is not that we are trying something new,” said Trainor. “We are reaffirming what we have been doing and sharing that experience. Something like nutrient management is not new to the fertilizer business, but it has been presented to farmers to think about it differently, from more of a systems approach.”
Kevin Coffman, Monsanto bioenergy and renewable market development lead, said the practices he saw on the CIAT reminded him of where the industry was during the period of no-till adoption nearly 30 years ago.
“In the early days of no-till, growers were experimenting to discover practical, cost-effective ways to get crops in the ground that involved less disruptive tillage and fewer trips across the field,” said Coffman. “In time, many people realized the improvements in reduced erosion, soil health and, eventually, improved yields.”
Watts said the tour allows farmers and stakeholders to promote old practices paired with new technology.
“Its like rethinking old practices, but adding the discovery of more efficient uses of nutrients and techniques with the farmers’ personal perspectives and experiences,” said Watts.
“Farmers are innovative. When they see a challenge, they’ll find a way to overcome it.”
Conservation Has Many Stakeholders
The CIAT entertained more than 270 attendees from 20 states and included many partners and organizations supportive of CTIC and various conservation projects.
“This is an important event with a very broad audience, including farmers, farmer associations, retailers, manufacturers, NGOs and federal agencies,” said Oyarzabal.
“It is very encouraging to see the collaborative work being done among growers, NRCS, Illinois EPA and Region 5 U.S. EPA and industry,” added Coffman. “All of these stakeholders are working together to identify workable, practical agronomic practices, particularly in sensitive watersheds.”
The collaboration of these projects has also led to a success story between a public and private partnership, as well as voluntary actions from the local farmers.
“When you hear some of these federal agencies mentioned, you think ‘regulation,’” said Maier. “But, we’re all sitting at the same table, talking about the same topics.”
“We have really great relationships with the steering committee and retailers,” said Bachtold. “Everyone has really embraced the project and is willing to serve on the committee and promote different practices on their farm.”