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Conservation Practices Keep Land Sustainable

Most farmers are conservationists by nature. They love the land. They value their natural resources. They respect nature.

Translating that mind-set into profitable farm conservation practices can be a challenge. Yet, most try, sometimes with the help of industry experts and incentives.

Here are just some of the ways farmers work to preserve resources and make farming sustainable for generations to come.

A focus on sustainability

Of all the topsoil and organic matter early pioneers found on the Midwestern prairie when they broke the sod in the mid-1800s, only half remains. The reduction in organic matter means soils do not retain water as effectively. They dry out faster, and they saturate faster, increasing runoff.

Corn and soybeans are profitable crops in the Midwest, well suited to the climate and soil types, but depending primarily on rotating these two crops is likely not sufficient to preserve soil and keep farm ground sustainable.

Producers and experts are now looking to nature’s example of water collection and nutrient retention for long-term sustainability. No-till cultivation practices, cover crops, livestock, and crop diversity are being used to break weed and disease cycles and reduce erosion.

Improving soil health

Conventional wisdom once held that a farmer could improve soil by tilling. Then came the Dust Bowl.

Since then, producers have learned that ecosystem degradation has lasting impact, and rejuvenating soil organic matter and carbon is a much longer and more arduous task than plowing it up.

Producers are learning to use modern agricultural tools to counteract the decades of damage. No-till and strip-till practices have been gaining in popularity since the 1980s. Cover crop use has expanded exponentially in recent years. The value of livestock to soil health is being recognized. And new crops are being added to traditional rotations.

To help producers learn new skills and upgrade their knowledge base, Successful Farming magazine has produced a series of podcasts, Soil Health 2019, and dedicated a special section of the print magazine to the issue.

The key is putting new life into old soil. Soil is a living thing, and more important to a farm’s profitability than any cash crop. Just like maintaining personal body condition is crucial for long-term life and health, maintaining soil condition is crucial to long-term ag productivity.

And just like the human body, soil needs a stable home, exercise, and a healthy diet.

The benefits of no-till

No-till farming, the practice of planting into fields that have not been tilled, has been gaining in popularity in recent decades. No-till can reduce labor, fuel, and machinery costs, but more importantly it increases carbon and organic life in the soil, prevents erosion, and improves water infiltration. Strip-till farming offers a partial approach.

Research at Wisconsin’s Marshfield Agricultural Research Station has proved the practice works even in poorly drained soils like the 8 to 12 inches of loam atop clay typical in central Wisconsin. In addition to maintaining yields and improving soil health, no-till enabled farmers to get in and out of the field without getting stuck, leaving ruts, or compacting the soil. Also, input costs were cut 30% to 40%.

Second-generation no-till farmers are finding they can improve on the practice with cover crops and adjustments to fertilizer application. Using cereal crops in the traditional crop rotation is adding to the effect, as does grazing.

Cattle and pasture management improvements

Pasture conservation requires a holistic approach that includes topography, water, and multiple species of plant and animal life.

Rotational plans generally prove effective. Grazing aerates soil and manure fertilizes grasses. Resting between grazing allows grass and other plant life to recover.

Bringing back native plants and wildlife works for some ranchers. It is important for each producer to set pasture improvement goals, and create a plan to achieve them.

On the South Dakota prairie, for instance, 777 Buffalo Ranch is finding mimicking the grazing environment and patterns of the original buffalo herds is best for both the land and the animals.

Others are finding the practice of fence-row to fence-row cropping may not be in the best interest of conservation. Grass has a purpose. Each type of plant has a role in the system. Native prairie contained in the neighborhood of 200 species of grasses and forbs, and plowing up the land forbids its natural evolution. It pays to work with the landscape, and to adjust stocking rates to the seasons.

Improving water quality

Water is a hot-button issue in today’s society as well as conservation circles. Water has been dubbed the new oil, with both its availability and quality in question.

Farmers are working to overcome both issues.

In Maryland, farmers are using cover crops and no-till to increase the land’s ability to hold water, as well as improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay by reducing runoff. A voluntary statewide program helped the cause and has led to regulations requiring mandatory nutrient management plans and restricted nitrogen application. Others in the country are looking at the model.

Rotational grazing and reintroducing native grasses improve soil and water quality, and more producers are realizing the benefits – and the profitability, especially on marginal land. Ample wildlife and plant life are beneficial to water sources, and grasses growing year-round keeps runoff under control. Riparian buffers next to waterways filter runoff and provide wildlife habitat.

Building a wildlife habitat

Healthy farmland provides a balanced biodiversity. Birds, insects, and pollinators all serve a purpose. All are needed. To increase the biodiversity of your farm, first assess the climate, soil conditions, and drainage, and the wildlife and plant species already present. Each geographical area is different, with different needs and natural inclinations and potential for increasing habitat. Then develop a plan to enhance the natural opportunities.

Farmers developing wetlands are finding a multitude of benefits. It takes diligent mowing, especially in the early phases of conversion from crop ground, and prescribed burns after a few years of growth. Yet, the effort pays off in flood control and increased wildlife habitat.

Installing solar power

Solar power can be the answer to both cleaner energy and more diversified farm income. An array of solar panels can provide on-farm electricity, or connect to the grid as an income source. Power companies generally lease land for arrays on a 20- to 25-year lease, and farmers can require the arrays are installed with pollinator-friendly plantings.

With sound conservation measures, farmers can keep their farms productive and profitable years into the future, setting the stage for the next generation of sustainable ag innovators.

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