Monday, May 8, 2017

10 Sustainable Changes in Farming

With our farm changing, and the birth of our daughter, I have begun to reflect upon how our world and our farm will change in her lifetime.  My wife Ruth and I both grew up on a farm, and we have fond memories of caring for the animals, taking the old pickup for our first drive, finding new kittens in the barn, and watching our families plant and harvest crops.  In looking back over the past 35 years as a "farm kid" it is interesting to see how advances in agricultural technology have allowed our farm to be more sustainable. 

Below is a list of 10 things that I am proud that have changed for the better:
1. Use of GPS on farm equipment
Isn't GPS only for my car?  Installing GPS on our farm equipment was a game changer.  We type information about our equipment and can accurately go down the field with no overlap.  Also because plants don't grow well in compacted soil, I can't miss a spot while digging.  Before, I would overlap at least a foot every pass I made over the field.  Now, I can make 12 fewer passes.  This is a big deal for fuel consumption and preservation!  We are also able to track the amount of growth in a specific area, so we can make precise improvements in the future.  GPS allows us to plant our crops with no overlap on the ends of the fields.  We thin out our lettuce in the garden when it is too thick to grow, but don't have to do this in our fields!
2. Putting (and keeping) nutrients where they belong
We take samples of our soil every few years to monitor the health and nutrients available.  Tie this with the GPS harvest data, and we put the exact amount of nutrients back in the ground to be used by future crops.  Just like kids, not all soil is the same, and we treat areas of the fields differently.  When applying nutrients in the field, we program the spreader to avoid certain areas that don't need any fertilizer.  This helps us preserve the farm's nutrients. To test the crops, we take leaf samples throughout the growing season to ensure the proper amount of nutrients have been applied, and make adjustments the following year.
3. Changes in seed varieties reduces disease and increases yield
As a kid, I remember walking through a field and seeing a great deal of the corn broken off and laying on the ground.  When I asked my dad why this happened, he said that a bug ate some of the corn stalk, and made it weak.  He'd pick up the ear of corn, look at the others on the ground, and sigh.  Fast forward a few decades and through selective breeding, we have corn that is able to withstand wind damage.  Through other genetic modifications, our crops are stronger and healthier, and we are able to harvest more of the crop that is grown.
4. Application of chemicals has decreased
I distinctly recall my dad filling an old sprayer in the middle of the yard with huge bottles of chemicals adorned with skull and crossbones.  He told me to stay back because they were "bad news."  Due to genetic modifications, we no longer need a cocktail of chemicals to control weeds.  For our soybeans, we will apply 4 ounces, about half a cup, per acre, just under the size of a football field, before the plants emerge.  A month later, we will apply Roundup to the field which kills unwanted weeds, but not the soybeans.  That's it.  We don't drench our crops in chemicals.  A version of Roundup can be purchased at Walmart.  We utilize GPS technology so we don't apply herbicide twice in the same area.  This saves so much time and has a much smaller impact on the environment.  Is it perfect?  No. Is technology getting closer to where we only apply on the pest?  Yes.
5. Protecting our water and air
Living in the "Land of 10,000 Lakes," water quality is very important.  We have added buffer strips along all the lakes, streams, and ditches that flow through our property.  As heavy rains fall, any potential soil and nutrient runoff is held in place by growing vegetation.  In addition to protecting waterways, buffer strips help preserve natural habitats for local wildlife. When the buffers are done doing their job, and pheasants are done nesting, we cut the grass and use it as feed for the cows.  This, tied with precision application of nutrients helps to protect our waters. Farmers also plant waterways in areas that are likely to have water occasionally flowing after a heavy rain. Also, our herbicide equipment is fitted with low drift nozzles so the product we apply goes directly on the weeds, and not into the air.
6. Protecting our soil
When you think of farming, don't think of a horse and plow.  We don't use either of these on our farm anymore.  Our tillage equipment has greatly changed over the years so that the soil better stays in place.  After the crops are harvested, we till the ground to prepare for the following year.  The equipment leaves some crop leaves and stems on top of the soil, which helps to hold it in place, despite our Minnesota wind and snow.  Some farmers in our area are experimenting with the use of living cover crops.  This further holds the soil in place, and provides "green nutrient"' for the following year.  I anticipate that this practice will grow as more farmers try it out and refine their techniques. 
The topics above reflect improvements in cropping but we have also made modifications with our livestock as well. 
7. Managing pasture lands for cows, water, and soil
When I started raising cattle in 9th grade, we would turn our cows out to pasture for the summer.  We'd check on them and bring them home in the fall.  Today, we have divided our pastures into smaller sections.  This encourages our cows to graze the entire pasture, and not just eat from their favorite spots. We rotate the cows to allow the grass a chance to rest and regrow. By changing the foot traffic of the cows, we minimized paths across the pastures.  This practice has reduced soil erosion along the creeks and streams.  We also move the cows out of the pasture before the grass is too short.  This has multiple benefits in that the grass grows quicker and puts down healthier root systems, which hold the soil in place.
8. Barn technology helps save lives (and sleep)
We installed a surveillance camera in our calving barn to monitor the cows about to give birth.  The old practice was to go out and check on the cows in the dark.  The cows would get up, and we couldn't tell if the cow was calving or not.  With a camera in the barn we are able to see the cows in a relaxed state and monitor them safely from the house.  This has made checking the animals at night much more enjoyable, especially since Ruth gets up to feed the baby, and can check to see if anybody is calving.  When a cow is in labor, I can assist if necessary and see if she is having difficulties.  There have been numerous occasions where we have been able to see that something was not going well and provide assistance that saved the calf. 
9. Understanding animal housing and nutrition
Animal housing has undergone major advancements.  I recall our old hog buildings had a roof over part of the pig pen and the rest was open air.  Not only was the cold reducing the hogs' growth capacity, rains would wash manure down the concrete floors and into a holding area.  The holding area would often overflow and run across our yard.  Modern animal housing creates an ideal environment for the animals by controlling the temperature, and is designed so manure doesn't run off.  When I was a kid, we sold hog feed out of our garage to other farmers.  Today, we work with a nutritionist to carefully balance our animal's diet and mix it so the animals get exactly what they need to grow and stay healthy.
10. Farming with nature in mind
We know humans are not the only ones who live on our farm.  In Minnesota, 75% of the wildlife habitat is provided by farmers.  This year we will be planting 40 acres of pollinator habitat in areas that are typically not productive for our row crops.  We cut the alfalfa hay from the middle to the outside, instead of from the outside in, so the animals are flushed out rather than crowded in and potentially harmed by the mower.  We are installing wildlife visibility flags on our fences so the deer can easily see the barricades instead of getting tangled in them (hopefully).  This year we are working with the state Department of Natural Resources to help them manage some of the grassland they own.  Instead of burning habitat that has animals in it we will have the cows graze the land.  Their trails will be used by pheasant hatchlings to help them navigate and keep grasses shorter so the hatchlings can escape from predators.
With so many changes one may wonder if we are still a family farm?  Of course we are!  Working together has always been a way for us to spend quality time together.  Our equipment and barns have become bigger, but we still have a strong desire to work together and preserve the land so future generations can continue growing food for you and your family!



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