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Sustainable Solutions for Your Farm

With the looming threat of a growing world population and a limited number of resources, you’ve been given the difficult task of scaling up production sustainably. As a farmer, you are already a steward of the land; you want to protect your soil and your environment. You’re also running a business. Sustainable solutions need to make sense in your operation, and, better yet, they should help you cut costs. Here are three farmers who are embracing sustainable solutions that do just that.

Joe Breker, Havana, North Dakota
Take your nitrogen fertilizer bill and rip it in half. This is all you have to pay. Or better yet, divide it by three and that’s your new payment. By no-tilling and incorporating cover crops into his farm in Havana, North Dakota, that’s what Joe Breker has done.

After using cover crops for about 15 years, he only needs to apply 60 units (split between a fall and spring application) of nitrogen each year for a yield goal of 150 bushels. “You are either losing nitrogen from denitrification if the soils are saturated or you are losing it by leaching and getting below the root zone,” he explains. “Cover crops help both of these. Cover crops use the nitrogen and hold it in an organic form and then slowly release it throughout the next growing season so you have a built-in slow-release fertilizer program.”

Your yield goal may be closer to 200 or 300 bushels per acre, but Breker isn’t striving for a yield record. He wants to reduce his inputs, maintain a high yield, and, more importantly, stay profitable.

Using and paying for less nitrogen isn’t the only benefit of his cover crop rotation. “The soils are warmer and dryer come spring, so I’m less tempted to do tillage,” says Breker. “The cover crop fields are the easiest to get planted, and the crop response is good. It’s as close to a no-brainer as anything I’ve tried.

“If you want a real no-brainer, it’s cover crops and livestock,” he adds. “I can turn the cattle out on the cover crops, and it’s like feeding them dairy-quality feed.”

Breker has discovered all of these hidden benefits from cover crops, but the reason he started using them back in 2000 was simple. He wanted a way to manage excess water.

“My whole rotation was about preserving moisture – not worrying about too much very often,” says Breker. “Then I got into a run of years where it was very wet. I realized I wasn’t using the water.”

Breker talked to folks at a few farm meetings and decided to plant something behind wheat harvest that could use the water. The next year he did a strip trial with 10 different types of seeds. Breker liked the way the field peas grew in the fall, found they were pretty frost-tolerant, and was impressed overall.

For a number of years, Breker planted field peas after wheat harvests. While they grew well in good soil, they didn’t do as well on some of his poorer soils. That’s when he started looking into brassicas, which weren’t included in the first strip trial he did.

“I started throwing in turnips and radishes – bingo!” he says. “That was the trick I needed. Now, where the peas quit growing, the turnips and radishes usually work and use water in difficult soil areas.”

Breker has taken his cover crop implementation one step further and is now doing what he calls bio strip-till. He plants peas on 30-inch centers, and turnips and radishes on 30-inch centers with an Amity single-disk drill.

“Every 15 inches I have peas, then brassicas, and so on, with the idea that the following year I’ll come in the radish and turnip row and plant the corn,” he says.

Breker has used the system for three years now and finds it works really well. The crop rotation on Breker’s farm goes from corn to soybeans to radishes grown for seed or spring wheat to winter wheat and then back to corn. He plants the bio strip-till into his winter wheat. This year he plans on planting cereal rye after corn.

If you’re considering cover crops, Breker says just to get out there and start. “You don’t have to overthink it,” he says. “Take something someone else is using and try it on your farm.”

However, he does add, “I like to research my cover crops before I plant them. I don’t want to plant a weed for next year’s crop.”

Mike Staudt, Floyd, Iowa
You can’t control the price you pay for seed, fertilizer, or fuel. What if you could control – and ultimately eliminate – your energy costs? That’s what two Iowa farmers are doing by installing solar arrays on their farming operations.

This summer Mike Staudt installed a 29-kilowatt solar array on his 2,000-head hog facility in Marble Rock. “My thought process was I’m 43 years old and figure that in a few years I’ll have it paid off,” says Staudt. “Then, I’ll have a lot of years of free electricity.”

Staudt invested $98,000 in his system, which may give you a bit of sticker shock. He’ll be able to pay off the program in 3.5 years due to a rebate from his electric company, USDA Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) grant, as well as state and federal tax incentives.

Randy Skeie, a solar and wind energy representative for Harvest Energy Solutions and EcoWise Power, says the average payback time for Staudt’s type of system is three to five years. The payback time depends on your utility service, annual kilowatt hour usage and how much that costs, your tax bracket, and the incentives available to you in your state.

The Federal Tax Credit for wind and solar is 30% of your investment. In Iowa, there is an Iowa Solar Energy System Tax Credit that is 60% of the Federal Tax Credit, up to $20,000. For a $100,000 project, you would receive $30,000 from the Federal Tax Credit and $18,000 from the Iowa Tax Credit. For the federal program, you receive the credit on your income tax return. From the state, you have to fill out a claim form to get a certificate because this is allocated out of a $4.5 million pool, up from $1.5 million in 2013. To see if similar programs exist in your state, go to the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency website at dsireusa.org.

Solar energy has become a popular option for renewable energy because it’s more cost-effective in most cases, says Skeie. “The tax credit in Iowa has tipped the scales even further in solar’s favor,” he adds.

It’s also a hot option, because the maintenance is minimal in comparison to wind energy.

“With a wind turbine, there are moving parts, and it’s going to require maintenance over its lifetime,” says Skeie. “Most wind turbines have a five- to 10-year warranty. With solar arrays, they are typically guaranteed production warranties for 25 years.”

David Ausberger, Jefferson, Iowa
It was the low-maintenance feature that appealed to David Ausberger when he put a 5.94-kilowatt roof-mounted solar array on his shop last winter. Ausberger owns a commercial wind turbine on a farm in Iowa, which has been a successful venture from a financial standpoint. However, when it came to powering his shop, he wanted something easier to maintain.

“I had planned to build a shop and put a small wind turbine in to power it,” says Ausberger. “I don’t want to imply that my experience with a large wind turbine was a bad one; it’s been a very good experience, but I have a lot of other machines to maintain. I wanted something simpler from a maintenance aspect.”

Ausberger’s system will be paid off in seven years. He decided not to apply for a USDA REAP grant because he had the opportunity to use a net metering system and needed to move quickly. With net metering, the meter accumulates credits from the solar system, and then the meter debits his account like a normal electricity meter would do. The power the solar produces goes onto the power grid, and Ausberger gets credited for the amount of power produced.

Net metering systems work well for grain bin drying operations, says Skeie. “If you are a crop farmer and are drying grain, you can put up a solar array that produces energy for a 12-month period and bank enough energy credits to cover the usage for the one or two months you are drying grain,” he says.

There are a lot of reasons to invest in renewable energy from an environmental perspective.

For Ausberger and Staudt, it comes down to cost savings.“I think it’s good business,” says Ausberger. “If energy costs go up or not, I’m going to know what I have to budget to run that shop because I will be producing solar on a net basis.”

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