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Serving: IN
green cover crops
GREEN AND GROWING: One way to keep soil and nutrients in the field and out of streams is to keep a crop growing on the field all year long.

Gear up to produce more while polluting less

Commentary: Two great challenges of this century for agriculture require initiative and management skills.

Besides the day-to-day challenges of keeping the farm growing and making a profit, agriculture as an industry faces two important challenges over the next few decades.

Challenge No. 1 is producing food, fiber and fuel in adequate quantities to feed and provide other needed products for a growing population. Technology has improved corn yields drastically over the past few decades, but will technology be able to continue improving yields, or will yields plateau? As land use is changed from cropland to other uses here in the U.S., fewer acres will continually be available to produce agricultural commodities.

The second major challenge is proactively addressing growing environmental issues, such as continuation of the hypoxia zone in the Gulf of Mexico and algae blooms in the Western Lake Erie Basin, plus other water-quality-related challenges right here in Indiana. Many of the nutrients that cause these issues are traced to soil erosion and water quality problems in the Corn Belt. While farming may not be the sole cause of the problem, it’s part of the problem, and the ag industry will need to face the situation head on.

Become proactive

How can agriculture be more proactive in tackling these issues? How can farmers work on both challenges at the same time? The answer lies beneath the soil’s surface. Maximize the health of your soil, making it more productive, resilient and efficient while reducing soil erosion and improving water quality!

Several farmers I work with have found a few basic principles that help improve soil health on cropland. These principles aren’t complicated — you’ve heard them before. But the important part is that they all need to be implemented to truly improve soil health. 

Simply put, quit tilling the soil, improve diversity, keep a growing root as much of the year as possible, and keep the soil surface covered all the time. That’s simple on paper, but a bit more complicated to implement on the land. 

You’ll need to develop a solid plan, and you can glean information from others who are making it work in your areas. Flexibility is imperative. You will fail sometimes. But if you start on a journey toward soil health, you will be part of the solution and not part of the problem.

Build resilient soil

These concepts, along with a solid nutrient management plan, will go a long way in reducing the amount of sediment and nutrients reaching our nation’s water courses. They will also help build healthy soils capable of being resilient during changes in weather conditions. That will produce a stable yield of high-quality products that can be grown with fewer inputs, resulting in more long-term profit for you.

These recommendations may require some to test their management skills, but they’re achievable and essential to change the paradigm of farming for the 21st century. What will be your role in this new paradigm? 

The future can be a bit frightening, but it can also be very exciting, especially for young farmers. If you’re a young farmer, you could be part of one of the great revolutions in American agriculture history.

Donovan is a district conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service. He writes on behalf of the Indiana Conservation Partnership.

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