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Think 'Systems' on your Farm -- Expert

Dwayne Beck is not one to mince words.

So when the head of Dakota Lakes Research Farm spoke to farmers at meetings near Bladen, Nebraska and Pierre, South Dakota last month, he was blunt about how farming in the modern age must change.

Simply put, today's farming methods consume more energy than they produce. "150 years ago, we used almost zero fossil fuels," Beck says. "Now, we take fossil fuels to make stuff and ship that stuff out.

"Eventually, the soil runs is depleted," he continues. "If humans are going to live on this planet, we need to change. We need to stop being extractive and start being more sustainable."

Getting there is hard. It will demand big changes.

By 2030, Beck believes the world's population will demand that farmers provide healthy and nutritious food - all the while keeping soils healthy and teeming with life, water clean and abundant wildlife. This will require a dramatic shift in mindset in which farmers, ranchers, agriculture industry and researchers focus on systems, not incremental changes or small details.

"Almost everything about agriculture has been incremental to this point," he says. "We've made little changes here and there, but they are very small. Everyone focuses on details. We need to focus on outputs, not inputs. We should take action, not reaction.

"If we degrade our ecosystem to feed 9 billion people, we're stupid," he asserts. "That's not acceptable."

Signs of degradation are everywhere. Soils have lost organic matter and are being depleted by erosion. Massive tractors pulling tons of iron are able to destroy soil structure far more quickly than in the past.

Livestock producers use non-renewable sources of energy to haul cattle to a feedlot. Feed also is hauled in by truck, and too little of it makes it back to a field of grain. "It makes no sense from an energy standpoint," Beck says.

And weeds that are resistant to herbicides have produced the latest assault on sustainable agriculture. "Farmers believed they didn't have to worry about crop rotation to keep fields sanitary. Soon, we had resistant weeds. Mother Nature is an opportunist," he adds.

The Steps You Take

There are signs of change to more systems-based agriculture. Progressive farmers have already embraced new ways of producing crops and livestock in a more sustainable, less energy-intensive manner.

  • Near Gettysburg, South Dakota, Cronin Farms is working to convert atmospheric nitrogen to soil nitrogen, by planting forage soybeans between rows of planted corn. The result is much healthier corn without requiring commercial fertilizer.

  • In Canada, farmer-stockmen are recycling nutrients by "swath-grazing" alfalfa, letting cattle work for their food and feed the soil at the same time. By turning cattle out on swathed windrows of hay, there is no need to package, stockpile and feed bales of hay in the winter.

  • Farmers who use cover crops often have less weed pressure, plus they can experience tremendous gains in organic matter when combined with no-till. Using cover crops mimics what Mother Nature would do in terms of diversity and intensity in native grass.  

For his part, Beck intends to make Dakota Lakes Research Farm fossil fuel neutral by 2026. The farm has an oilseeds press that now produces enough fuel to meet all the farm's diesel needs, plus a little to heat the farm's shop. "We will produce enough energy to replace all the energy associated with producing and transporting the crop," he says. "This will be done without mining the soil of nutrients and organic matter."

As he enters the twilight of his career as a researcher, Beck believes the success of future generations is contingent upon a new way of farming. 
"The best time to have started doing this was 20 years ago," he says. "The second best time is today."

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