Registration has opened for the Conservation Technology Information Center’s 2013 Conservation In Action Tour, which will explore innovative conservation practices in and around the Indian Creek watershed in Livingston County, Ill., on July 9 and 10. Celebrating the theme of Community 4 Conservation, this year’s tour will bring together agriculture leaders from all over the country – including farmers, crop advisors, regulators and lawmakers – to learn and share conservation practices.
On the Tour, participants will meet farmers building productive operations while protecting water quality. They will visit with civic and business leaders from the town of Fairbury, Ill., who have been deeply involved in the Indian Creek Watershed Project that has made the county a national leader in conservation farming demonstrations – and a model Community 4 Conservation. They will also see proven, sustainable, profitable conservation technologies that fit local management strategies, and get a chance to network with a nationwide group of conservation leaders.
While much of the focus of the Indian Creek Watershed Project Field Tour has been on corn, and in particular, nitrogen use and runoff in corn, soybean growers are also interested in the event. “Corn is a major crop, but soybeans are also a rotational crop, and lot of the research they’re doing on nitrogen management is on corn-soybean rotation farms,” said Ron Moore, an Illinois soybean grower and At-Large Director of the Illinois Soybean Association. In an interview with Chuck, Moore said his association is involved in this year’s tour because they want to make sure opinions of soybean growers are heard in research discussions.
Moore continued that much of the same type of research being done on corn would also apply to soybeans. “Some of the new opinions are that maybe we need to think about putting fertilizer on for the soybean crop prior to planting in the spring,” adding that we probably need to think about soybeans the same as planning the corn crop and not just as an afterthought to corn.
He also pointed out that the fact that a lot of non-agricultural groups attended the tour should help farmers in general get their message out to the general public that producers are responsible curators of the land and just as interested in conservation as the non-farming groups are.
Events such as the the recent Indian Creek Watershed Project Field Tour are giving agricultural producers a chance to show their commitment to conservation practices in the field. “We see this great opportunity for a volunteer collaboration between environmental groups and the farm community,” said Richard Breckenridge, Agriculture and Rural Affairs Advisor for the Illinois EPA during an interview with Chuck. He said it’s been an evolving, successful relationship, and agricultural interests need to tell their story.
“A lot of times we have forgotten about how to talk about that message of conservation on the farm, and because of the water quality issues, we now see a number of opportunities to not only talk about it from the agricultural and environmental perspective, but we can also begin to look at what are the things we can do,” Breckenridge said. He added that best management practices, such as water sampling and modeling, slow-release nitrogen products, tile drainage, buffer strips, and biomass, help the ag community talk about how it is taking care of the water quality. Breckenridge concluded that these kind of practices happen every day. This tour is just highlighting how those efforts actually happen across the country.
Different groups coming together for a common good… that’s the name of the game on the recent Indian Creek Watershed Project Field Tour. Chuck caught up with one of our good friends from GROWMARK, Howard Brown, manager of agronomy services and one of the participants during the tour. He said it was refreshing to see various groups coming together to promote that common cause: conserving resources.
“It’s not about selling one thing or promoting one idea. It’s collectively a systems approach to nitrogen management,” Brown said. He added that if farmers dedicate themselves to only one approach to nitrogen management, they will fail. The dry summer was a classic example of that this year. If farmers only put all their nitrogen on at once post-emergence, they wouldn’t see much value out of that nitrogen because the rains didn’t come. And that also sets up more nitrogen runoff later on. Brown suggested an incremental approach to nitrogen application to minimize any liabilities. It’s just part of GROWMARK’s overall approach to making things work better for their member owners.
You can’t underestimate the value that an event like the recent Indian Creek Watershed Project Field Tour. “It’s a real gem,” Ivan Dozier, Illinois State Conservationist with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) told Chuck during one of the stops on the tour. He said he’s been involved in water shed planning for a long time, and it makes him feel good to see this project being so successful.
During the tour, Dozier said he’s been most impressed by the number of producers who are willing to take the chance with their livelihoods to have these conservation test plots. And he’s also pleased to see so many people from around the country coming out and seeing for themselves how it works. “Those people look at what’s going on here and start sharing some of those ideas, take them back with them, so they don’t have to start from scratch everywhere. They can start trying things in their areas.”
Who better than a person who makes long-term investments in the land, an ag lender, to offer an evaluation of the long-term conservation efforts on display at the recent Indian Creek Watershed Project Field Tour? “It’s a wonderful thing. It’s trying to let others know that farmers are being very responsible stewards of the land,” Gary Bressner, an ag lender at the State Bank of Graymont and one of the local organizers of the tour, told Chuck during an interview. Bressner said farmers are natural conservationists because of their long-term investment in the land.
He continued that the tour is helping producers learn about new technology that helps them cut down on the amount of chemicals needed to farm and how to prevent the loss of those enhancements into the watershed. Bressner also said that he was impressed with the wide variety of attendees to the tour, including farmers, folks from Washington, D.C., trade organization representatives, and many others. “It’s really nice to see the interaction between all of them.”
Getting down and dirty during the Indian Creek Watershed Project Field Tour is Roger Windhorn, Illinois NRCS State Office. You can watch his presentation in the video below. Roger had a tough job since it is dry and hot in Illinois and as you’ll see in his presentation, there’s a big lack of moisture even down past four feet in the soil pit he had dug. This meant he needed a water spray bottle to use on a sample he chopped out to show soil coloration! The drought has not only had an impact on crops but also on field test plots. During this stop on the tour the nice breeze we had meant swirling dust clouds through the field. We can only hope they’ve had some rain there by now.
The more you learn, the more you know… that seems to be the approach our friends at Monsanto are taking, especially this year when drought is making for some real challenges on Midwest farms. During the recent Indian Creek Watershed Project Field Tour, Chuck caught up with Dave Gustafson, who serves on Monsanto’s sustainable agriculture team and is a board member of the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC), one of the organizers of the tour. He pointed out how what he does at Monsanto really goes hand-in-glove with what the CTIC is trying to accomplish.
“One of the things I’ve really been impressed by is the way CTIC is able to get information to growers in a way that actually helps influence their adoption of conservation practices. So Monsanto sees CTIC as playing an extremely valuable role in helping to encourage the greater adoption of conservation practices that really benefits everyone… and not just in agriculture but society in general,” he said.
Gustafson said he’s also learning more about nitrogen management and the adoption of cover crops, a new interest for Monsanto. He said he’s hearing from farmers that cover crops can help with water penetration into the soil, especially important in the drought-stricken Midwest this year.
One of the nicest things about trips such as the Indian Creek Watershed Project Field Tour is the chance to see real farms with real crops growing under real conditions. Chuck stopped at Marcus Maier’s farm in Illinois where they were showing split application of nitrogen on corn. Maier explained they’re trying to display how varying rates of nitrogen in particular areas and depths across a field can be effective and how it fits into the overall conservation theme.
“We’ve always done no-till beans and minimal-till for corn, so hopefully, this is just showing us some ways to fall apply and spring apply some nitrogen to take advantage of the product itself,” Maier said. He added this also cuts down on the amount of nitrogen that might leach into groundwater, showing good conservation practices in that sense.
Maier said this is the first year they are using AGROTAIN‘s SuperU product to control nitrogen loss. He’s looking forward to the results, especially since he’s heard from others that SuperU has increased yields by 20-30 bushels an acre.
A dozen years ago, if someone told me they were flying to create good cover for the field, we would have been talking about fighter pilots protecting troops on the ground. Well, it’s not exactly warfare, but after hearing one of Chuck’s interviews with some folks on the Indian Creek Watershed Project Field Tour, now that phrase means using aerial application of seeds for cover crops.
“Typically your crops will [still] be out in the field, and we need to get the seed out there,” said Eric Smith, a pilot with Pontiac Flying Service and a northern Illinois family farmer who presented at one of the tour stops looking at the benefit of cover crops, such as tillage radish or rye grass. Smith explained in his part of the country, they are applying the cover crop seed in mid-August to mid-September, when the corn is already pretty tall. The aerial application allows for a nice, even distribution of seed, and the resulting cover crop doesn’t interfere with harvest. In fact, he says some farmers have even told him it actually helps by cutting down on dust.
The extreme dry weather in the midwest was very evident at this week’s Indian Creek Watershed Project Field Tour. Out in the corn fields we had a nice breeze, but that breeze was blowing a lot of dust! On our first stop, Martin Case, AGROTAIN, was a presenter. This is the second year of this tour and we’ve gone from one weather extreme to the other. As Martin puts it, “We’ve got the tale of two years,” since last year’s weather was abnormally wet and this year is abnormally dry. Maybe comparing nitrogen use data for both those years will yield an average?
Martin says that AGROTAIN is trying to evaluate nitrogen stabilizer strategies in this project which can also be used in other areas of Illinois and beyond. It’s all about improving nitrogen use efficiency to not only increase the return on investment to the farmer but also to the environment. He says that last year they saw an extreme advantage to using their SuperU technology. Data for this year is not available yet. Listen to Martin explain more about the two technologies contained within SuperU in my interview with him: Interview with Martin Case
The Indian Creek Watershed Project Field Tour stopped at Herb Steffen’s farm again this year. At his farm we received presentations on the use of controlled release nitrogen on corn that according to Herb includes our sponsor’s products – AGROTAIN!
Herb says he and his family have farmed in the area since 1863 so you know these people really take care of their land. We talked about the dry weather which is some of the worst he’s seen. He says that even if it rains now it won’t help the corn but perhaps the soybeans. The corn has very little root system so let’s hope he doesn’t get much wind! He says they’re working with several companies on the controlled nitrogen release project. He says that last year it was too wet and this year it’s too dry. He thinks it is hard to get enough good data on the results yet. Maybe he’ll have a “normal” year next year.
Today Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that $8.4 million in financial assistance is available to support 23 new partnership projects in several Mississippi River Basin states under USDA’s Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative (MRBI). On the phone with reporters to talk about it this morning was NRCS Chief David White, seen here talking with participants in the recent Conservation in Action Tour conducted by the Conservation Technology Information Center.
These projects will fund producer activities that will avoid, control and trap sediment and nutrient runoff from agricultural lands, improving water quality throughout their operations.
“We are building on our Mississippi River actions from previous years by continuing to target priority conservation practices in priority watersheds to improve water quality in the basin,” Vilsack said. “USDA is committed to working cooperatively with agricultural producers, partner organizations and state and local agencies to improve water quality and the quality of life for the millions of people who live in the Mississippi River Basin.”
The MRBI was first announced in September 2009 and provides financial assistance for voluntary projects in priority watersheds in Arkansas, Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee and Wisconsin.
I asked Chief White how well these partnerships are working after he saw some of them “in action” recently. He pointed to one of the farms we visited that is using two stage irrigation ditches which is one of the projects previously funded by USDA-NRCS in 2011. He says they hope to expand that practice to other areas. He also mentioned being impressed by the younger farmers who were on the tour and making conservation work, including financially. He says, “We can have conservation in harmony with agricultural production and we’re going to prove that.”
To start with you’ll hear Danny Murphy, Mississippi soybean grower and First Vice President of the American Soybean Association talk about what he saw and learned during this year’s tour. Then you’ll hear Pauley Bradley, John Deere, who is also on the board of the Conservation Technology Information Center, talk about why this year’s tour was “the best tour ever.”
At the closing dinner for the 2012 Conservation in Action Tour, Trudy Fisher, Executive Director of the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality spoke to our group. Trudy told us that she’s a farmer’s daughter and has farming experience herself. For that reason, the things we were seeing and hearing about on the tour are near and dear to her heart.
Trudy told the group that they don’t have to sacrifice aggressive farming practices and tremendous business opportunities to protect the environment and that “we can do it right and we are doing it right.” It’s all about finding the right balance between what’s good for business and what’s good for the environment. She says that “if we continue to do this right future generations of farmers will be able to carry on the long tradition of feeding the world from the heart of America.”
We like new technology and we like our gadgets. We’re called AgNerds. And AgNerds are pretty open to precision agriculture. John McKee is one of us. John is a farmer of corn, cotton, soybeans and wheat. He was a civil engineer prior to farming so precision ag has come natural to him. He was also one of the speakers on the Conservation in Action Tour.
He says the bottom line is “control.” He micro-manages every piece of his farm. He thinks it’s a good business plan. As he puts it, “We’re just able to put the medicine on the hurt place.” And that makes for a good conservation practice. He says that if the dirt and crop don’t need an input like nitrogen then “we certainly don’t want to put it there.” For one thing, it’s expensive. By being able to pull back with variable rate application it saves him on his pocketbook and the environment which is a win-win for everyone. He says equipment is getting better and cheaper but it needs to continue to get better and cheaper.
During the 2012 Conservation in Action Tour the word “precision” came up multiple times. As precision ag continues to develop it is being seen as an effective tool for conservation plans and practices. One of our speakers addressed this subject. He’s Terry Griffin, farmer and also VP, Applied Economics for new precision ag company, CrescoAg.
Terry says one example of how farmers are using precision ag to enhance conservation is applying nutrients where the truth is often the opposite of what some non-farmers may think. With precision equipment and applications farmers are applying appropriate rates to the appropriate place at the appropriate time. He says farmer are trying to maximize profits and that can’t happen by over applying inputs like fertilizer.
During the afternoon of the 2012 Conservation in Action Tour our speakers talked a lot about how soil and water conservation systems benefit wildlife. One of our presenters was Kay Whittington, Chief of the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality’s Management Branch, Surface Water Division. Kay says that the same conservation practices that help farmers manage soil and water quality also benefit wildlife. I think this is pretty good common sense. Kay says that she got involved in the tour because of the involvement of Delta F.A.R.M. and says they are her go-to agency for projects on the ground because they have the connections with the local land owners.
Ron told me that the actions and work that CTIC has exhibited over many years is what has kept them interested. He says it’s all about building partnerships with farmers, conservation groups and government agencies. He says “The Mosaic Company understands that if we’re going to make a difference in this world and improve conservation it doesn’t happen by one company doing it. It takes a great cooperative partnership effort.” Like many on the tour he says this was the best tour ever. Ron says that sustainability is a value that companies have to form and the work that CTIC is doing in building partnerships across the ag industry is helping farmers remain profitable which is a key component of sustainability.
One of the workhorses on the 2012 Conservation in Action Tour was Trey Cooke who is the Executive Director for Delta F.A.R.M. He says that water conservation and water quality is the main focus of the organization right now since it is so important to area farmers. Sediment has always been an issue since many of the non-point source pollutants are due to sediment. So a real simple strategy is “You stop the dirt you stop everything else.”
Trey says Delta F.A.R.M. was founded on the principle that conservation should be mandated and is in fact a mandatory part of a long term business strategy to ensure sustainability for farmers and agriculture in general. He says that farmers can address conservation issues themselves better than someone five hundred miles away in an office. Farmer participation in Delta F.A.R.M. is very high in the region.
Trey was also one of the tour speakers and talked about wildlife conservation.