Short-term profitability on the farm cannot be the main goal if a farmer wants to remain on the land he farms, says Dwayne Beck, research manager at South Dakota State University's Dakota Lakes Research Farm near Pierre, S.D.
Beck says managing the whole farm system in concert with Mother Nature provides the best long-term situation for farmers — not just in the Upper Plains, but throughout the world.
Beck has traveled the world talking about the use of no-till and soil and water conservation and has worked with farmers in several countries, including southern Ukraine. He was inducted into the S.D. Hall of Fame in 2007.
SDSU's Dakota Lakes Research Farm borders the Missouri River and takes advantage of irrigated farming, as well as dryland farming. Beck said Dakota Lakes has been “100% low-disturbance no-till” since the mid-1990s. The farm is completely farmer-owned and is a for-profit production enterprise and research center at the same time.
The last 10 years at the farm has been unusual because it has seen some of the driest weather in history, particularly in the summer, according to Beck. Still, they have managed to remain profitable because of utilizing the water they receive with practices like no-till, knowing what the water capacity of the various soils are, and growing crops that use that water best while leaving lots of residue on the soil at harvest.
During this time, Beck says they have significantly increased production of soybeans, corn, spring wheat and sunflowers.
“When the dry weather hit from 1999 through this past year, we really didn't notice it because of our farming practices,” he says.
He says he finds it incredible that ag commodity prices have not kept pace with other valuable resources, even though land is at a premium. For example, in 1970, the average price for wheat was $1.37 a bushel, while oil was $3.39 a barrel.
“Today that barrel of oil is $80, so what should the price of wheat be? Somewhere around $25 a bushel,” he says.
In Minnesota, where tillage is practiced more, he says it takes slightly under 10 gallons of diesel fuel an acre to do all the tillage, seeding and harvest. It takes the energy of 1 gallon of diesel fuel to manufacture, transport and apply 5 pounds of nitrogen. So if that same Minnesota farmer puts on 150 pounds of nitrogen, he is putting on 30 gallons of diesel fuel.
“Fuel is a huge input. One of the problems we have in agriculture is we are very closely tied to energy in terms of energy to produce a crop,” Beck says.
He says he has spent a lot of time looking at ag production costs and has found that transportation is about 35% of the cost of food production. The cost of fertilizer production is 29%; diesel fuel is 25% and pesticides are about 6%.
“Those things are a majority of the costs of what we are doing,” Beck says.
Problems could increase in the future, and that is one reason the farm will begin to crush camelina and other crops to make their own diesel fuel.
No-till makes the best use of energy efficiency with its one-pass system in the field, but slightly lower energy costs are not the primary reason to no-till, Beck says.
There are constraints to using no-till farming, and they are much the same here as in other countries, he says. Beck identified the list of factors developed by the UN-FAO in 2008 for non-industrial countries as the reasons they are not using no-till, and talked about how many of them are the same reasons farmers don't no-till on a large scale in this country.
Some of those constraints include:
- The mindset of the plow
Beck says there is a lack of commitment to the concept of no-tilling that is enhanced by research centers that do conventional-tillage treatment studies.
“There is no reason for tillage,” he says. “We're 100% no-till for the last 20 years. We don't do tillage and we don't do any tillage treatments.”
- There is a failure to convey the importance of the whole-farm system concept that includes no-till.
Beck says the use of corn-on-corn and corn-on-soybean in the Corn Belt is similar to the times in the Upper Plains when wheat was followed by summer fallow. Too much of corn-on-corn without rotations to other crops can reduce organic matter in the soil, he adds.
- Competition for crop residue
In countries like Afghanistan, if the farmer does not take the entire crop off, including the roots and the residue, the law allows anybody to come in and take that residue. That is why there is never true no-till farming in that country.
“You can't get the benefit from no-till farming if you take away the residue cover," Beck says. "If we take away the residue, we take away the nutrients. Residue is needed to protect the microorganisms, to cycle the fertility and to keep the soil cool and moist in the summer.”
He adds that when he was working with farmers in Morocco, they had to hire a guardian to watch over the residue on the soil at night so it would not be taken. In this country, biomass and such residue as corn stover, are in demand for ethanol.
“Fuel is a competition for residue,” Beck says.
However, if the crop is grazed by livestock after harvest, it is good for the soil health and the residue is recycled. Livestock are an important addition to the farm to cycle the soil nutrients, and the good news for farmers in the Upper Plains is “you still have the cows to make the system work better.”
He says one big opportunity is for livestock producers to begin pasture “finished” feeding, instead of sending livestock to feedlots. It saves money and keeps the soil health intact.
- Pest control
Some farmers believe that tillage is necessary for pest control, but basically that is not true if the residue is left in the field, Beck says.
“Ninety-seven percent of weed control is no-till and good rotations,” he says.
Changing fields often and varying rotations from cool-season to warm-season crops keeps insects and weeds down.
One study they did proves that, Beck says. In a rotation where there was 2 years out of wheat, and millet and peas were rotated in, they had cut down cheatgrass and wild oats to a minimum.
“The weeds never build up if you do no-till with rotations,” Beck says. “I have not used a selected grass herbicide since 1985.”
Another good crop to use is winter wheat, because it doesn't need herbicide, he adds
“If I put in winter wheat, I outcompete the weeds,” he says.
Rotations, in addition to cutting down on weeds and diseases, also increase yields, Beck says. A study they conducted showed continuous corn brought 203 bushels per acre while a corn-soybean rotation brought 217 bushels per acre. A corn, corn, soybean, wheat, soybean rotation brought 256 bushels and a corn, corn, soybean, soybean, wheat and wheat rotation brought 232 bushels per acre.
- Land tenure and equipment
Beck says farmers may not want to go out and no-till to build up the soil health if they don't have a long-term lease on a portion of land. In addition, there has not been enough emphasis put on designing equipment needed to no-till. Farmers need to think about placing fertilizer so it's in the right placement in relation with the seed.
- Excess soil water
Changing crop practices will take care of excess soil water. A variety of cool-season crops/forage/warm-season crops/cover crops keeps the organic material in the soil alive and the soil healthy for prime crops.
While there has been excessive water in the eastern regions this year, Beck said that will happen every once in a while, but farmers should gear their farming system to have fields that are not be too dry or too wet. “Aim for the middle ground,” he says.
At Dakota Lakes, they have also learned how to use the irrigated water and not have run-off. After they irrigate, people can walk on the ground and not get their feet wet, he adds.
“It takes time to make a no-till system work and you are probably ahead of most of the United States in doing that,” Beck told the Upper Plains' crowd.
It's important for farmers who are using no-till to share their information with other farmers.
“It's time to quit modifying conventional systems and time to start mimicking natural systems and that's what we've done,” he says.
He advises using cover crops, rotational crops and “matching what you're trying to do with what Mother Nature will let you do.”
Many government policies seem to favor short-term farming, and that is something that needs to change, Beck adds.
He says it's important for farmers to find good advisors they can trust. Find researchers, not just salespersons who want to sell a particular product, who will have “your best interests” in mind, and give the best advice.