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Focus on what works

Ag Water Stewardship: There’s more than one way to improve crop use efficiency.

Warren Formo

March 3, 2023

3 Min Read
Corn plants emerging from ground, about 4 inches tall
WHAT WORKS, WHAT DOESN’T: Farming practices have changed over the years, but they also vary from farm to farm as producers decide what works best for their crop and the environment.Farm Progress

Springtime! And another season begins.

I know that for those of you out working in fields and barns, the season begins much earlier — or more accurately, that it is a never-ending cycle. But for those of us who simply observe, spring serves as a mark on a longer timeline to consider trends in practices.

In recent years, we have seen significant expansion of conservation practices. More acres will be planted into cover crops than ever before. Tillage intensity continues to decrease. Installation of improved tile drainage systems is expanding. Nutrient efficiency continues to improve, meaning higher yields per unit of applied fertilizer and manure. Acres devoted to crop production are declining as marginal land is converted to habitat. The list could go on, but for today, let’s just consider these examples.

First an aside. In my work I often interact with people with limited knowledge about farms but much interest in environmental issues. These folks might generally be described as activists. I define activists as those seeking to change the behaviors and actions of others. I contrast this with those I would describe as environmentally active, meaning they actually change their own behavior with conservation in mind. I put the vast majority of farmers in the latter category.

In conversations with those seeking to change others, I am often asked “Why don’t all farms just do this or that?” I explain that appropriate practices are different, depending on what a farm produces, soils, weather and a host of other factors. So it is that while all the practices listed earlier are happening on some farms, they are not happening on all farms. And that is OK.

Improved efficiency

Improving nutrient efficiency is a goal on virtually every farm that applies nutrients, but achieving this goal takes many forms. Keep in mind that commercial fertilizers have only been around for less than a century. Ongoing research is still focused on getting rates and timing right to minimize nutrient needs or associated environmental losses. Couple this with the use of products that influence the nitrogen cycle to improve crop-use efficiency, and we find several options for farmers to consider. Products like nitrapyrin, N-(n-Butyl) thiophosphoric triamide [NBPT] and Dicyandiamide [DCD] have been around for a while, and biologicals are capturing more attention.

The addition of cover crops to rotations is growing steadily. Just a decade ago, cover crop promotional events were considered borderline crazy. Today they are well attended. How much difference are cover crops making? We don’t really know yet on the aggregate, but it is pretty clear that under some conditions they can make what I would call a significant difference. Here, much of the discussion revolves around where they perform best. Covers often fit best into rotations that include livestock, where the cover may provide feed, or short-season crops like canning crops or small grains.

Tillage intensity continues to drop, driven largely by the expansion of strip-till. Again, it doesn’t work for everyone but works very well for many.

Installation of drain tile using modern technology is important across a large portion of Minnesota cropland. Tiling is considered a conservation practice of its own, due to reductions in surface runoff and associated sediment and phosphorus movement. The primary tradeoff consists of tile serving as a potential conduit for nitrate nitrogen delivery to surface waters. The good news here is that tile drainage, on soils that need it, also enhances the farmer’s ability to incorporate other conservation practices.

Well-drained soils require less tillage. Drained fields result in more potential days for fieldwork, especially in the spring, facilitating more options for fertilizer application timing. Even cover crops can be easier to incorporate when concerns about soil saturation are reduced.

And finally, efforts to innovate and try new practices are greatly enhanced by economic stability. A favorite quote from a farmer friend: “It’s hard to be green when you’re in the red.”

Formo is executive director of the Minnesota Agricultural Water Resource Center.

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