Published Feb 1, 2017

Maintaining Bottom Lines While Also Conserving The Soil Resource

By Stefan Gailans

Ahead of our annual conference last month, we held a short course titled “Conserving $$ and Soil.” Often the conservation of farm production input costs and soil might be considered at odds with one another. Soil conservation efforts are thought to cost money to implement and/or they might involve producing less which would in turn lose money on the whole. As the 30-odd farmers in attendance on Jan. 19-20 learned, this is not necessarily so! If you were there, or couldn’t make it, the presenters in the short course generously allowed us to share their presentation slides (below).

  • Profitability vs. Environmental Performance: Are They Really Competing? Dave Muth, Dan Bahe and Andrew Baskin of AgSolver shared their approach to helping farmers manage their fields based on honest assessments of those fields. Namely, they like to divide fields into revenue zones, expense limited zones and no-cost zones. That final zone is often considered a place in the field where implementing conservation measures (rather than trying to produce a crop) may actually cut financial losses substantially. They contend that close to 25% of agricultural production fields in the state are NOT profitable under current management schemes.
  • The Science of Saturated Buffers and Nitrate Removal Wetlands. Tom Isenhart, of ISU, explained how saturated buffers and wetlands can be strategically deployed across the landscape to prevent nutrients and soil from moving into and polluting surface waters.
  • Leveraging Public Funds. Paul Goldsmith of the NRCS shared with the group opportunities for federal cost-share to implement some of the conservation measures mentioned by Muth, Bahe, Baskin and Isenhart. Paul stressed that it is important for a farmer or landowner to seek these opportunities at their local county office.
  • Using Crop Rotations to Reduce Inputs. Adam Davis, from the USDA-ARS and University of Illinois, has been studying the abilities of diversified crop rotations to reduce costs in terms of pest suppression. Adam stressed that diversity is the key to these rotations and that diversity can be achieved both spatially and temporally.
  • An Economic Analysis of Integrated Crop-Livestock Systems in Iowa. Hanna Poffenbarger, of ISU, presented her recent research into the costs and returns of four hypothetical systems: corn-soybean (cash grain); corn-soybean (with livestock); corn-soybean-small grain-hay (cash grain); corn-soybean-small grain-hay (with livestock).
  • Reducing Herbicide with Cover Crops? Farmers Doug Adams (of Humboldt) and Wade Dooley (of Albion) shared how they are reaping the benefits of using cover crops ahead of their soybeans. Both explained that they are now typically waiting to terminate their cover crops (cereal rye or winter wheat) until near the time of planting their soybeans. This involves planting the soybeans into chest-high cover crop. The resulting cover crop biomass serves as a mulch/mat that can hinder weed emergence between the soybeans. This is becoming a proven method to finding the “cash” in cover crops–reaping the soil and nutrient holding benefits of cover crops while also being able to reduce or limit purchased herbicides.
  • Growing Your Own Cover Crop Seed. Farmers Chris Gaesser (of Corning) and Dick Sloan (of Rowley) began using cover crops on their farms several years ago. They decided that instead of continually purchasing cover crop seed each year that they would grow their own on-farm! This strategy is a perfect way to incorporate both extended/diversified crop rotations and cover crops on your farm and achieving all of the attendant soil and financial benefits!

*** NOTE: Presentations from other sessions at the 2017 annual conference are available on our website! Check them out here: ***