When a conflict kept Louisiana cotton producer Ted Schneider from being a presenter at the 22nd annual Conservation Systems Cotton & Rice Conference in Baton Rouge, La., this year, Marshall Hardwick stepped up to the plate.
Hardwick Planting Company on Somerset Plantation, located in Tensas Parish in the northeast corner of the Bayou State, is home to Marshall and his family. To say the Hardwicks have a long farming history on one of the most sustainable operations in Louisiana would be quite an understatement. So, it was more than just appropriate Hardwick’s presentation was based on sustainability. “I feel like the word is revolutionary in today’s farming world,” says Hardwick. “Although a concrete and broadly accepted definition of sustainability may not exist, farming sustainably is a way of life for many U.S. farmers.”
As more consumers become environmentally conscious and want products that are produced in a sustainable manner, manufacturers, brands and retailers are basing their supply chain decisions with that requirement in mind. “This topic isn’t going away folks. Farming, in general, will have to change and in most cases, it has,” adds Hardwick. “We have made excellent strides, but we have to do more.”
Increasing Farming’s Sustainability
According to Field to Market: Keystone Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, in the past 35 years, there has been a marked increase in farming’s land use efficiency. “Land used for farming is down 31 percent. Water used in farming has decreased 82 percent. Greenhouse gases from farming are down 30 percent,” says Hardwick. “Despite these impressive gains, there still exists a public disconnect between what we do as farmers and what the general public perceives us as doing.”
To underscore the great gains U.S. farmers have made and continue to make each season, the U.S. cotton industry established the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol, an integrated data collection, measurement, and verification procedure that will document the production practices and environmental impact of farming operations across the Cotton Belt.
Key performance indicators (KPI), established by the industry-led Sustainability Task Force (organized under the umbrella of the National Cotton Council of America), will be used to judge U.S. cotton’s current level of sustainability. A few of the KPI include:
- Yield – pounds of fiber per-acre
- Soil erosion rate – tons of soil loss per-acre per-year
- Soil Carbon – Carbon content of the soil
“About two-thirds of the U.S. farming operations are utilizing one or more types of conservation tillage. It’s more difficult in the South because most row crop operations hip up their beds and that’s straight tillage and doesn’t increase carbon sequestration,” adds Hardwick. “We started using a cereal rye cover crop on 3,000 acres last year, and plan to have it on 2,500 acres this year. We fly it on, it grows anywhere, has a massive root system, and really helps keep the shape of our beds. After burndown, the root system decays and leaves channels for earthworms and water infiltration, while also providing a natural herbicide.
By 2025, the Task Force hopes U.S. cotton will reach a 13 percent increase in land use efficiency, see a 15 percent reduction in energy use, a 50 percent reduction in farm soil loss, and an 18 percent increase in water use efficiency. “We also hope to increase the industry’s soil carbon level by 30 percent,” says Hardwick. “Some current trend lines are above these targeted goals and some are below, so we have work to do.”
Cotton provides 28 percent of the world’s textile needs on 3 percent of the land used for agriculture. Cotton’s land use efficiency trend line is below the target goal. “That’s a good thing. If we are below that goal, that means our land use efficiency is trending in the right direction,” explains Hardwick. “Our pounds of fiber produced per-acre are perfectly in line with the fiber yield goal.”
Technology improvements drive land use efficiency. Cotton harvesters and combines being used today have the capability of capturing vast amounts of data — data that can be used for much more than just creating yield maps or planting prescriptions. “Data gathered from today’s advanced farming equipment will help drive our industry toward a higher level of sustainability,” says Dr. Ed Barnes, senior director, Agricultural and Environmental Research for Cotton Incorporated. “Cotton gins are beginning to assimilate electronic module management into their operations. This is just one example of how technology and data use will increase farming’s overall efficiency moving forward.”
Plant breeding is one discipline where Hardwick believes technology increases will lead to more sustainable farming. “Enhancing host plant resistance of varieties should allow producers to reduce pest control applications,” says Dr. Fred Bourland, professor, Northeast Research & Extension Center, University of Arkansas. “I also envision future cotton varieties can be bred to produce plants that use both water and nutrients more efficiently. The science and technologies exist. We have to invest the breeding time to create lines with those traits and move them into commercialization.”
For five years, Hardwick, along with his father Jay and brother Mead, have used Mapshots/Ag Studio, a software program that manages agronomic production data. They wanted to identify the low-, medium-, and high-yielding areas of one 360-acre field that had been rotated from wheat, double-cropped soybeans, full-season soybeans, and then to corn in 2018.
“We increased the plant population in the highest-yielding areas and lowered the plant population in the less productive red and yellow areas. Our goal was to decrease our overall seed input costs,” says Hardwick. “We ended up increasing yields in the more productive (green zone) areas of the field where we increased plant populations, still had average yields in the (yellow zone) areas, and in the lowest productive (red zone) area, we decreased our input costs by lowering the plant population, but still grew similar yields.”
They plan to conduct this on-farm experiment on cotton ground in 2019.
Preventing Soil and Water Loss
Marshall’s father, in cooperation with Ducks Unlimited, built a water retention pond on Somerset Plantation 10 years ago. The pond collects water from almost 1,000 acres of row cropped land. “The pond has five different stages, with each stage retaining the water until a designated level is reached,” explains Hardwick. “The grasses growing in the pond allow nutrients and sediment to settle and not reach the next stage. We’re trying to get to a point where in-field nutrients remain in the field and not even allow them to enter the pond.”
Fields without cover crops have what Hardwick calls “high-velocity drainage” during the winter months. “We block our culverts with wood planks to allow all nutrients and sediments to settle in the field and stay there,” adds Hardwick. “We also planted bermudagrass/red clover on a highly erodible field that thousands of years ago was a bayou. It gave us headaches every year. Now the grass and clover hold that soil in place all year long.”
To conserve water, the Hardwicks installed wireless data soil-sensors on one field at incremental depths from 6 to 36 inches. “Although we don’t use them to initiate irrigation, we do measure what they tell us against weather forecasts,” says Hardwick. “If rain is forecasted and plants are not under stress, we can hold off cutting on the 35 wells across our operation which is a considerable savings.”
The Hardwicks recently purchased two 16-row Precision Planters. They have already seen an increase in yield from singularity improvement. “We no longer have doubles, triples, or skips,” says Hardwick. “Farming equipment these days is not cheap, but we try to invest in something new each year when it seems justified. We have to measure the cost against its anticipated economic returns from both a return-on-investment standpoint and, more and more these days, from a sustainability standpoint.”