It’s been a whirlwind end to 2023 for the staff here at No-Till Farmer. The 32nd Annual National No-Tillage Conference is coming up in less than 2 weeks, one of our biggest magazine issues of the year went to the printer this month, and the holidays came and went on top of that.
But that didn’t stop our editors from attending other conferences in search of new ideas and information to share with you. The Big Soil Health Event, a conference focused on regenerative agriculture, convened in Cedar Falls, Iowa, in December. While no-till is a pillar of the regen movement, the Big Soil Health Event is definitely a departure from conventional no-till practices. As I was listening to the speakers, the following statements caught my attention, and I wondered how those of you reading would have reacted had you been there. Let me know what you think in the comments below.
1. “Corn and soybeans are some of the stupidest things we can grow.”
Despite joking about getting kicked out of Iowa, Kris Nichols, principal scientist and research director at soil health company MyLand, was serious when she said corn and soybeans were some of the stupidest crops that Midwest farmers could grow.
“They are industrial products and low-quality feed,” Nichols said. “We are the global suppliers of low-quality feed and industrial products. And let me tell you, industrial products are not going to be produced that much longer primarily by grains. So we're going to be low quality feed producers. How is that going to work with our trade deficit? What is it that we're going to be able to do with this?”
Nichols said farmers tell her they don’t have markets for other crops, but she believes farmers as a collective have leverage and can hold companies like General Mills, Cargill and ADM accountable for their commitments to regenerative agriculture.
“We have to redefine where money is going,” Nichols said. “We have to change this by being a part of the process and having these conversations and making these demands. We do not have to sit here and say, ‘It's too bad we're fighting obesity and malnutrition. My grandnieces and my grandnephews are not going to live as long as I do, but it's a good life.’”
2. Adopt an attitude of transformational agronomy
Jerry Hatfield, retired laboratory director for the Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, said farmers of the future need to develop an attitude of transformational agronomy. He coined the phrase in 2020 as he was thinking about how to transform the system to be the most efficient, effective and able to achieve set goals.
“I believe that everyone needs to sit down and write out your 1, 5 and 10-year goals,” Hatfield said. “Evaluate how those goals match with how you're going to transform your system and the journey to get there.”
Having set goals will help identify challenges and provide the opportunity to think creatively about implementing regenerative practices across the operation, according to Hatfield.
“There's no such thing as a bad idea,” Hatfield said. “What's a bad idea in one place may be a great idea somewhere else.”
The challenges faced by farmers aren't just on the field scale. There’s also the challenge of feeding the world’s 10 billion people.
“What I worry about is our total lack of regard for the fragile nature of the ecosystem that it takes to produce that food,” Hatfield says. “We undervalue our soil, we undervalue our water, and we undervalue our genetic resources, but the most important thing that we undervalue is our human ability to solve this problem. We undervalue our potential creativity to adopt new practices, to try new things and bring things together and begin to work on this as a community.”
3. No-till’s not enough
In the Dakotas, wind erosion on no-till fields is one of the top resource concerns, according to retired NRCS soil health specialist Jay Fuhrer.
“We have too much frequency of low-carbon crops, and we can’t stabilize a very open landscape when you have that kind of environment,” Fuhrer said. “No-till is not enough. It’s just one soil health principle.”
At the Menoken Farm in Menoken, N.D., a conservation demonstration farm, Fuhrer uses cereal rye to transform the landscape and address problems in the field. In the first 4-8 weeks of spring, Fuhrer says the rye gives off sugar exudates that feed the soil biology, providing a direct carbon source.
“The only thing that I've ever done to really change soil and increase yields was use cover crops and manage grains,” Fuhrer says. “That's a pretty profound statement. That's a foundational item that we can all do on a farm.”
4. How closely are you really inspecting your planter?
While not as controversial as some of the other statements, Russell Hedrick’s attention to detail might make you rethink your own planter maintenance schedule. Hedrick, the Hickory, N.C., no-tiller who holds the dryland corn yield record, talked about the importance of maintaining his no-till planter.
“As far as cash crops go, the most important piece of equipment on our farm is the planter,” Hedrick said. “If your planter's not 100% and you don't put the seed in the ground at 100%, your crop will never be above what the planter put it in the ground as.”
Hedrick recommends doing the flag test to evaluate planter performance. He discovered at least half of the John Deere parallel arms on his planter would bend while planting every year. After switching to Precision Planting’s parallel arms, he said his planter maintains depth better.
“Just that little bend moved it over about 1 ¼ inches and it lifted up the back about ½ inch,” Hedrick said. “When we went out there and did ear counts, that one single row was costing us 20 bushels an acre. That's a massive difference in our farm operation when you're talking about losing $5 corn at 20 bushels an acre. That's $100 an acre just because of that.”