Farm Horizons, Dec. 2017

Is your farm sustainable?

By Myron Oftedahl
Farm Business Management Instructor, South Central College

There have been a lot of discussion and a lot of articles concerning sustainability lately. My objection with most of them is the definition of sustainability.

Typically, the discussions and the articles focus on where the grain or meat was grown, who grew it, and what inputs were used.

These are all good topics, but I think that this is traceability and accountability. Again, both good ideas and practices, but what do they have to do with sustainability?

In my mind, sustainability means being able to grow a crop or produce a type of livestock repeatedly with adequate inputs and without doing damage to the environment. Sustainability means that the second or third generations or more can continue to raise that crop or livestock without any major changes for inputs.

Cotton and tobacco farming are both good examples of failed sustainability. By the late 1800s, much of the traditional cotton or tobacco acres were defunct. The farms had been raising cotton on the same acres year after year without any additional inputs, and essentially mined all of the available nutrients out of the soil. Soil tilth was ruined, disease and insect pressure increased, and the farm couldn’t produce a profitable crop of cotton anymore.

In the 1920s and 1930s, we had the Dust Bowl years. Soil erosion became a serious issue. The government encouraged windbreaks, perennial crops, cover crops, and created Soil Bank acres (a precursor of the Conservation Reserve Program), etc. Farmers learned to take better care of the soil and reduce erosion. Do you remember in the 1990s, when you had to maintain 30 percent cover to remain eligible for the farm program?

So, how can we be sustainable now and in the future?

I think that sustainability must include stewardship. Are you a good steward of the soil and your livestock? Stewardship is defined as the job of supervising or taking care of something, such as an organization or property.

Do you take care of your soil or livestock? There are a lot of groups that are trying to tell you how to take care of them. Most of these groups have no science to back up their methods of caring for the soil or livestock. They have no concept of the link between stewardship or sustainability and profitability.

Let’s look at soil stewardship, and what you can do. Soil stewardship begins with conservation, and controlling wind and water erosion.

How many fields can you think of that used to have grass waterways in them, and now have a big gully or ravine where the waterway used to be? That ravine has taken that portion of the field out of production, and therefore, is no longer profitable. In fact, the ravine will increase expenses, as you now have to farm around it, reducing efficiency, and increasing seed costs because of the point rows, etc.

If you are the renter, you now have an issue with the landlord, who can see the damage that has been done to the farm. This goes back to the issue of having a relationship with your landlord. If they are reluctant to pay for the tile that would take care of the issue so that water could drain without creating a ravine, then maybe you, as the renter, should pay for it, and then negotiate the rent accordingly.

I recently read an article about how farmers treat rented ground differently than owned ground. The article, which was written by a farm wife, maintained that their farm treated the rented ground better than the acres that they owned, because of the relationship with the landlords, because of the reputation that their farm had in the community, and because of the competition for land.

I believe that these are all true when you have a relationship with the landlord. If you have a landlord that is demanding top rental dollar, I have seen farmers reduce inputs in order to retain some profitability. So, you, as a landlord, need to decide if you need the top dollar rent, or if you can develop that relationship and partnership with your renter so that both of you can work on sustainability.

You, as the landlord, need to accept that not every acre is equal, a productive acre is far more valuable that an unproductive acre, and that your farm may not have the same value as one a mile or more down the road.

I am really saddened when I see a good farm turn into an unproductive farm over a period of years. I know that it will require the next farmer to spend more money, and be more creative in order to improve the soil nutrient levels, organic matter, and tilth.

I firmly believe that the best thing that we, as owners and farmers, can do to improve our soil is to improve the drainage. Poor drainage impacts so many things for a crop – from planting times, plant emergence, soil diseases, root development, nutrient availability, timeliness when tending to the crop, etc.

You don’t even need a yield map to know which areas of a field could use some help with drainage. I have seen data showing a five- to 50-bushel increase for corn yields with improved drainage.

The good news is that either you, as the landlord or the renter, can use tile drainage expense as a depreciable expense – whoever pays for it gets to depreciate it.

Does drainage make the farm more sustainable? I believe that it does, because now you have taken unproductive soil or under-producing soil and given it the potential to be productive. Now you have eliminated the potential for a ravine to form, take acres out of production, and drive up the expenses on the rest of the acres.

Another part of sustainability that I mentioned before is reducing or minimizing wind and water erosion. Maintaining a certain amount of cover on the soil is a good way to accomplish this.

How many times can you remember black soil mixed with snow in the ditches by certain fields? You could be losing tons of soil, not to mention the amount of nutrients that are being lost from your field.

Have you stopped to think that this soil in the ditches could be a source of some of the silt and sediment in our rivers? Will the buffer strips take care of this? Not totally, because the buffer strips are not required on every ditch. Currently, buffer strips are only required on public ditches or public waters.

All ditches have a required right-of-way in order to maintain them. What if we had buffer strips on all required rights-of-way?

Since I am on the ditch topic, we all could do a better job of maintaining our drainage ditches by controlling the weeds and the trees. I am not talking about spraying Roundup on everything and having bare dirt, I am talking about controlling the broadleaf weeds, such as giant ragweed (thus reducing the seed load) and controlling the trees. Grass will hold slopes better than trees. Ditch banks should have grass growing on them, not trees and weeds.

Consider if cover crops or a different crop rotation would work on your farm. A lot of work is being done with cover crops now; can we make it work in McLeod, Carver, and Wright counties? What changes would you need to make? Do you need to do aggressive tillage in the fall on every acre?

I think that we need to get back to maintaining cover; that we need to consider the effects of erosion. I understand that this is probably the first thing to get eliminated when crop budgets get tight or are showing negative returns, but it is all connected. Sustainabililty must include profitability, and profitability must include sustainability.

Sustainability, or taking care of property, is such a huge area, it is hard to think of all of the possible ways that we take care of soil or livestock.

I have covered only a couple of items, but hopefully, I have started your thought processes concerning what you can do to be sustainable. Is your farm capable of moving to future generations, and remain sustainable and profitable? The two terms and ideals must be connected. We can do things to be profitable that is not sustainable, and we can do things that are sustainable that may not be profitable. Most soil has a good reserve of nutrients, so that if we need to reduce inputs for a year to remain viable, the soil can do that and still give us a respectable crop. We cannot continue to do this over a period of years.

What is your definition of sustainability? What do you do on your farm, or in your yard for that matter, to ensure that future generations will be able to enjoy it? Will future generations be able to generate a profit from those acres? Will sustainability become a part of the rent contract? What is it worth? I would use the line from the commercial – “priceless.”

Have a profitable day.

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