Four Farmers Weigh In on Regenerative Ag Practices
Robert Peiretti: No-Till Advocate
Argentine scientist and farmer Roberto Peiretti got right to the point in the first presentation of the 2020 National No-till Conference with a warning for the world’s food producers: Farming systems will need to change to meet growing demands for food.
4,000 years of tillage and land degradation “is a cost we cannot pay any longer,” says Peiretti, a keynote speaker at the annual event in St. Louis on January 8. Reducing tillage and adopting cover crops are essential to keep productive soil in place. The challenge is, there is no one recipe for no-till. Farmers cannot change soil types, but they can improve soils by reducing tillage and growing continuous plants, which influence how soil captures rainfall, sunlight, and temperature.
“There are principles that have validity, but need to be locally adapted and tested on your farm,” he says.
The good news is, no-till can not only boost productivity and help farmers be more sustainable, but also can repair past mistakes. Farms that have suffered erosion can rebuild soil. Organic matter can be restored. “That makes no-till beyond sustainable,” Peiretti says.
And not a minute too soon. Peiretti cites cases in Argentina where farms lose soil at the rate of 1ton per acre due to erosion. Those farms produce 1 ton of grain per acre. “That is a price humanity cannot keep paying any longer,” he says.
Jason Mauck: Mad Scientist
Jason Mauck admits he thinks differently than most farmers. Maybe it’s his background as a landscaper, when he used to capture sunlight with floral arrangements of different heights and plant architecture.
Cash crops should be able to do the same thing, the Gaston, Indiana, farmer says.
Take his relay crop of soybeans grown into wheat. Soybeans are in 30-inch rows; winter wheat fills up the space between those rows. Planted in the spring, soybeans keep weeds from growing. Wheat takes up moisture until it matures, and that’s when soybeans start using moisture.
He harvests the wheat in the summer, and the straw and chaff mulches the rows to prevent weeds and keep the ground cool. Within a few weeks, the bean rows have completely canopied and the plants have tons of nodes and pods. The practice boosts bean yields 10 to 15 bushels per acre over monocrop beans.
Mauck is known to push the envelope (check @jasonmauck1 on Twitter). He uses the social media platform to test theories to his thousands of followers. For instance, he’s considering putting chicken tractors in between 60-inch corn rows and having broilers eat the weeds and insects, instead of using synthetic inputs. He reckons the birds would be worth $20 each and save a lot of money in input costs.
Marion Calmer: Master Residue Manager
Growing +200-bushel-per-acre corn is great, except for dealing with the residue. That’s why Marion Calmer invented his Bt Chopper Stalk Roller, which does a precise job of sizing crop residue, allowing for quicker breakdown of crop material and faster nutrient release into the soil.
Based on his research, the Alpha, Illinois, farmer and inventor says chopped corn residue provides 8 pounds more nitrogen to the next crop than regular residue management systems, 2 pounds more P2O5 and 9 pounds more K2O.
Residue is either an asset or liability. Without chopping, it’s a mattress; with chopping, it’s a mat. Corn emergence into chopped residue is about 5% greater 10 days after planting than standard distribution, based on research conducted by Fred Below, crop physiologist at the University of Illinois, Calmer says.
"However you want to do it, chop your cornstalks,” he adds. “Get the N out of the corn and into the ground next season. It doesn’t do any good the year after.”
Paul Overby: Rejuvenating a Farm
Regenerative agriculture is not just a buzzword to Paul Overby. It’s a way of life.
The Wolford, North Dakota, farmer is changing management practices on his farm to adapt to what customers want.
He is providing food products to General Mills, as part of that company’s sustainability initiative. Practices like no-till, adding cover crops and pollinators, and installing buffer strips on unproductive areas are having positive effecs on his bottom line, and that helps General Mills please a growing faction of consumers who seek sustainable solutions from the brands they buy.
One principle of soil health is to have “continuous live roots,” Overby says. He uses his lawn as a guide. “When your lawn is green, you should have something growing in your field,” he says.
As part of the project with General Mills, he receives coaching for his soil health practices. Those efforts are paying off in a renewed ecosystem, with more wildlife, insect predation, and bird activity.
Overby says he’s interested in adding more trees, pollinators, and implementing cover crop grazing. Private companies are gaining more and more interest, he says. And farmers better pay attention.
“Respect for your customers is important. Our customers may not understand some things, but you have to respect them,” he says. “Dissing our customers is something we probably don’t want to do.”