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Organic food production cannot feed the world.

OPINIONS ABOUT the potential for organic food production vary widely. But Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug made it clear that organic food cannot not feed the world.

Ten years ago, Reason magazine asked Borlaug, “What do you think of organic farming? A lot of people claim it's better for human health and the environment.”

Borlaug's response: “That's ridiculous. This shouldn't even be a debate. Even if you could use all the organic material that you have — the animal manures, the human waste, the plant residues — and get them back on the soil, you couldn't feed more than 4 billion people. In addition, if all agriculture were organic, you would have to increase cropland area dramatically, spreading out into marginal areas and cutting down millions of acres of forest.”
(Source: Reason, April 2000 print edition;

The Corn Belt does not receive enough rain to support 300-bu. corn averages.

IF YOU want to raise 300-bu. corn, the crop will need about 33 in. of water for the growing season, available when the plants need it. Although average precipitation in many areas of the Midwest is at or above 33 in. a year, some of that water can't be used by the plant. It either moves below the root zone, into tile lines, or over the soil as runoff. And how much effective rainfall remains depends on many variables, including the soil, precipitation patterns and topography.

“Corn is relatively efficient in its use of water to produce dry matter, and it is not clear that breeding will be able to improve on this,” says Emerson Nafziger, extension agronomist at the University of Illinois. “It takes about an inch of water to produce 9 bu. of grain. While we may be able to improve on that ratio slightly, the basic fact is that when you bring carbon dioxide into the leaf you lose water, and there's no way to get around that.” — Mark Moore

Biotech traits have lowered pesticide use on corn and soybeans.

ADOPTION OF biotech crops in the U.S. has reduced the amount of pesticides sprayed by 357 million pounds from 1996 to 2007, relative to what might reasonably be expected if crops were all planted to conventional varieties, says Graham Brookes, agricultural economist with PG Economics. Studies indicate that average insecticide active ingredient use on corn fell between 87 and 89% during the period 1996 to 2008.

“Many of the farmers using biotech traits have experienced improvements in pest and weed control from using this technology relative to the conventional control methods previously used,” Graham says. “If these farmers were to switch back to conventional control techniques, based on pesticides, it is likely that most would want to maintain the levels of pest/weed control delivered with use of the biotech traits, and therefore some would use higher levels of pesticides than they did in the pre-biotech days.” — Mark Moore

Tractor engine power will reach a ceiling at 700 hp.

THE HIGHEST-HORSEPOWER, commercially available 4-wd tractor in the world is the Challenger MT900C, with gross engine horsepower ratings of up to 585 hp (630 peak hp) on the model MT975C.

So just how much bigger can tractors get?

Four-wheel-drive tractors are at or near the physical limits for both weight and size for trucking, according to Roger Hoy, Nebraska Tractor Test Lab, University of Nebraska. If tractors were to get larger, they might need to be shipped in pieces to be assembled on site or could warrant the need for escort vehicles, greatly increasing shipping costs. As a result, Hoy says, power growth will more likely come from more efficient engines and other components in comparable-size tractors.

Jason Hoult, AGCO, agrees and predicts 700 peak hp will be a ceiling on horsepower for tractors. “Beyond that we get into road and bridge limitations,” he says. — Jodie Wehrspann

Tractor exhaust
will be cleaner than air by 2014.

THE EPA is requiring yet another drastic cut of harmful emissions from diesel engine exhaust. Current requirements, called Tier 4, call for a 90% reduction in particulate matter and a 45% reduction in oxides of nitrogen (NOx) by 2011. A further 80% reduction in NOx over those levels is required by 2014 for 175- to 750-hp tractors.

“Engines will be putting out cleaner air than what they will be bringing in,” says Steve Meinzen, John Deere. — Jodie Wehrspann

Raising corn is more of a gamble than playing blackjack.

AVERAGE BLACKJACK players should expect to lose about 20% of what they wager when they sit down to play at a casino table, according to online blogs. But corn growers face an even greater gamble with the weather. Weather alone accounts for a 70-plus-bu. variation in yield on Illinois cornfields, according to Fred Below, University of Illinois. Those odds would make most gamblers walk away from Vegas. — Karen McMahon

The Amazon rainforest is not being cut down for soybean production.

A BRAZILIAN representative speaking at the 2008 Agrievolution, an international conference on farm equipment held in Rome, Italy, wanted to clear the record. The Amazon rainforest is not being cut down to grow crops such as soybeans and sugarcane. Carlos Correa Carvalho, vice president of the Brazilian Association of Agrobusiness, stated that the lands supporting these and other crops are located in the southern part of Brazil, far away from the Amazon region, which is in northern Brazil. — Karen McMahon

Nearly all Midwest farmers have access to high-accuracy guidance networks.

VIRTUALLY ALL farmers in the Midwest now have access to networks that can be tapped for high-accuracy guidance on machinery. The universal access comes from real-time kinematic (RTK) correction networks operated by state departments of transportation (DOTs), as well as Trimble and Leica.

Until the advent of these multipurpose systems — generally referred to by the acronym CORS, which stands for Continuously Operating Reference Station — access to RTK correction signals depended on whether a farming operation fell within the boundaries of a dedicated ag RTK network. These radio-based networks often are operated by farm machinery dealerships and typically serve guidance systems from specific brands, including AutoFarm, John Deere and Trimble. Setting up your own RTK base station system was a pricier alternative.

“The reality is that CORS RTK makes RTK accessible to an exponentially larger group of farmers than radio-based delivery across the Midwest,” says Matt Darr, Iowa State University. “These networks provide access as never seen before in U.S. agriculture.”

Dedicated ag RTK networks will coexist with CORS networks, Darr predicts. The radio-based ag networks will have an advantage in areas with poor cellular coverage, because the CORS networks deliver correction signals via the Internet using cellular networks, he explains.

Statewide DOT CORS networks currently are available in Iowa, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota and Missouri. In Wisconsin, a CORS system will blanket the state by 2011. Privately owned networks cover eastern Nebraska (co-owned by Leica) and southern Illinois and east-central Iowa (operated by Trimble under its VRS Now brand). — David Hest

For more details on CORS and dealer-based RTK networks, visit — David Hest

More GPS brownouts are ahead.

GPS BROWNOUTS could become more frequent in the decade ahead. Why? Delays in developing replacements for the 30 or so aging GPS satellites currently in orbit are cited as the reason, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report issued in April last year.

Currently, brownouts occur for an hour or two at a time many times a year, depending on the location. Most farmers don't notice them, because they occur outside the peak GPS usage window, notes Matt Darr, Iowa State University.

By some estimates, almost half of current GPS satellites are at or approaching the point where the failure of a single critical system could take it out of commission.

If the number of GPS satellites drops below 24, guidance from lightbars and autosteering systems will be affected. This is particularly the case when farming in areas with trees or other obstructions that limit satellite visibility.

“You have to have a minimum of four satellites to generate a GPS position for use with any precision ag product,” Darr says.

This problem is minimized with the latest dual-frequency navigation systems, which can access the Russian GLONASS satellite system in addition to GPS, Darr says. — David Hest

Corn borer populations are rapidly shrinking in the Midwest.

CORN BORER populations in the Midwest are very low, according to Michael Gray, extension entomologist, University of Illinois. He credits this to the high use of Bt corn hybrids. However, he doesn't expect the corn pests to become extinct.

“The European corn borer has a wide range of hosts on which to feed,” Gray says. “The corn rootworm has a narrower range of hosts, but those hosts include other grasses such as foxtail. So I expect these pests to remain in the landscape, only at lower levels. But they won't become extinct.” — Mark Moore

Integrated pest management (IPM) isn't dead but evolving.

THE OLD IPM mantra was treat only what needs to be treated with chemicals and/or seed. But today's IPM practices have changed because seed now contains most of the ingredients to manage pest problems.

University of Illinois entomologist Michael Gray agrees that IPM is shifting to a new paradigm. “Increasingly we are integrating an assortment of genes into corn plants. Some of these genes express insecticidal proteins, and that may be the trademark of IPM in commercial corn in the future,” he says.

Pest management has also shifted into an insurance policy of sorts. “Producers can plant seed with broad protection against a variety of pests. They can spray glyphosate or glufosinate to control weeds, walk away and spend far less time scouting fields and using economic thresholds,” Gray says. “It certainly lessens the worry if pest thresholds reach a level in which they cause economic damage.”

Although some producers may consider shifting to non-Bt hybrids, they must account for the added time needs. “If you don't want to use Bt hybrids, you must invest more time, energy and effort to ensure you don't get a flare-up and pests reach an economic threshold,” Gray says. — Mark Moore

Glyphosate is applied too late.

THE BEST time to apply glyphosate to control early season weeds is when weeds are only 4 in. tall. Unfortunately, many producers wait too long to spray and end up losing important crop yield.

“If any weed population is present, it is critical to remove them when they reach 4 in. of height. For corn, that syncs well with the V4 growth stage,” says Jeff Gunsolus, extension weed science specialist at the University of Minnesota.

After that time, weeds can grow rapidly — as much as 1 in./day. “So in the course of a week, weeds can be up to 12 in. tall, and they are already starting to use quite a bit of nitrogen. In that time period, weeds can use 30 to 60 lbs. of nitrogen per acre that is not available to the corn plant,” Gunsolus adds.

Studies indicate that, after weeds reach 4 in. and are not controlled, corn yield drops about 3 bu./acre/day. “There is some potential to bring those nitrogen levels back up through sidedressing, but it is often not cost-effective,” Gunsolus says. “It's best to protect the nitrogen that is out there by controlling the weeds.” He recommends using a preemergent weed-control program with glyphosate. — Mark Moore

Adding autoswath control to a sprayer saves 5 to 17% in applied product.

RESEARCH AT Iowa State University shows that precise spraying of crop protection products through autoguidance on a sprayer saves product by eliminating overlap.

How much is saved is “dependent on field size and shape as well as the original configuration of the machinery,” explains Matt Darr, a precision ag specialist at Iowa State University.

Autoswath plus autosteer on sprayers is justified if you spray 1,800 acres/year assuming a five-year equipment life, Darr says. “This typically relates to 900 farmed acres per year since most acres are sprayed twice,” he adds. — Jodie Wehrspann

Assisted steering systems are no-brainers for return on investment.

THE LOWER end of assisted steering, the lightbar, pays back its cost with use on just 300 acres/year for five years, according to research by Matt Darr, Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering, Iowa State University.

The payback comes quickly from reduced time and operating expense of the equipment as well as reduced overlap of chemicals. “The payback period is based on a high-end, $3,000 lightbar, so the 300 acres is a very conservative number,” Darr says.

Universal autoguidance has a payback of 400 to 500 acres/year for five years, and integrated autosteering requires 900 acres. — Jodie Wehrspann

It takes less fossil energy to produce ethanol than it takes to produce gasoline.

THE AMOUNT of fossil energy needed to produce a gallon of ethanol is lower than the fossil energy needed to produce gasoline. But the total amount of energy, including solar, needed to produce a gallon of ethanol is greater than that needed to produce a gallon of gasoline.

A portion of total energy in the ethanol cycle is solar energy that ends up in corn, according to the Greenhouse Gases, Regulated Emissions and Energy use in Transportation (GREET) model developed by Michael Wang, Argonne National Laboratory. Because this energy is free, renewable and environmentally benign, it should not be taken into account when calculating energy balance, states the Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

The fossil energy input (which is not free) per unit of ethanol is .78 million Btu of fossil energy consumed for each 1 million Btu of ethanol delivered. Meanwhile, it takes 1.23 million Btu of fossil energy to produce 1 million Btu of gasoline delivered. — Lynn Grooms

Ethanol does not take food away from people in developing countries.

WHEN CORN prices soared in the summer of 2008, a lot of people blamed ethanol. They also said it was taking away food from people in developing countries. But a Texas A & M study on food, fuel and feed reported that the chief culprit was $100-plus-per-barrel oil, as diesel and gasoline prices climbed to record highs. This resulted in increased transportation costs. High petroleum prices also added to the cost of food processing, marketing and retailing.

As far as food for developing countries is concerned, it's helpful to consider the basics of a kernel of corn. Only a corn kernel's protein and fat are used to produce feed products. The ethanol production process removes only the starch from corn. A large portion of corn's digestible energy is preserved in distillers grain, which is used in livestock and poultry feed. — Lynn Grooms

Ethanol is not a water hog.

“THERE'S TOO much attention on water usage by ethanol plants,” says Sangwon Suh, Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering, University of Minnesota.

As production technology has advanced and ethanol plants have improved water recycling efforts, it takes an average of less than 4 gal. of water to produce 1 gal. of ethanol. This is down from about 10 gal. of water/1 gal. of ethanol produced a decade ago. Depending on where conventional oil is sourced and the type of recovery method used, it can take from 3 to 5 gal. of water to produce 1 gal. of gasoline. Each gallon of gasoline recovered from oil sands can consume up to 8 gal. of water. — Lynn Grooms

The water issue takes on greater significance in areas where crops are irrigated. Suh calculates that when both ethanol process water and irrigation are taken into account, it takes 142 gal. of water to produce 1 gal. of ethanol. A study conducted by Suh and colleagues at the University of Minnesota highlights the need to promote ethanol development in states with lower irrigation rates. The study, “Water Embodied in Bioethanol in the United States,” was published in the March 10 issue of Environmental Science & Technology (

Because irrigation may be used on crops destined for feed grain or other products, it is impossible to assign the precise amount of water consumed only to ethanol. Improved irrigation water management is critical in areas where water is scarce. — Lynn Grooms

Livestock farmers are losing control of their animals.

THIS MAY be the century of legislated animal care for U.S. livestock producers. Several states have passed ballot initiatives over the last eight years specifically targeting animal housing. Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm signed HB 5127 into law in 2009 giving certain farm animals more flexibility in housing and thus helping to avoid a threatened ballot initiative by the Humane Society of the United States. This was considered a victory of sorts for livestock producers because they thought a ballot initiative would result in potentially more damaging regulation to the livestock industry.

In effect, the Michigan law phases out veal crates for calves within three years, and battery cages for laying hens and certain uses of gestation crates for breeding sows within 10 years of the law's passage. California voters passed Proposition 2 by a 63 to 37% margin in 2008 requiring that calves raised for veal, egg-laying hens and pregnant sows be confined only in ways that allow the animals to lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs and turn around freely for the majority of the day. Similar measures have been passed in Florida, Arizona, Oregon and Colorado.

Once animal agriculture starts down the path of legislated animal welfare regulations, the animal activist agenda will gather speed because the groups have money and momentum. If this trend continues, voters and consumers who probably have never been in the barn may be telling farmers more about what they can and cannot do with their own animals. — Lora Berg

Beef packs more nutrients into one 3-oz. serving than chicken does.

BEEF IS a compact package of nutrients that many dieters forget about in their zeal to consume chicken. But the fact is that a chicken breast contains only 1 less gram of saturated fat than a lean cut of beef. Plus, the beef has more zinc, iron and protein contained in a 3-oz. serving than the chicken. The government has identified 29 leans cuts of beef, all with less than 10 grams of total fat and 4.5 grams or less of saturated fat. — Karen McMahon

Small farms are not necessarily the most environmentally friendly option.

ROGER CADY, Elanco Animal Health, points out that the most sustainable system is not always the smallest. It is necessary to maintain the right perspective when evaluating which type of livestock production system can feed a hungry world with the least impact on the environment.

Speaking recently at the University of Minnesota, Cady asked the audience which vehicle would be the most environmentally friendly: a Toyota Prius, or a city bus. While the majority of audience members raised their hands to vote for the Prius, Cady proceeded to demonstrate that the Prius can haul only a small number of people to their destination, while a bus carries so many more people that it actually saves more fuel. Small is not necessarily more efficient when the focus is on moving the most people for the least amount of fuel.

He then transferred the concept to agriculture. “It is essential to assess the impact, or carbon footprint, per unit of output rather than per unit of the production process,” he explains. “We've got to feed the people.” — Lora Berg

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