Friday, September 17, 2010

Conservation on the Farm through Innovation

I love the TV show "How It's Made". For those who haven't seen watch and learn super cool details about the processes involved in making all kinds of crazy things we use everyday - padlocks, ballpoint pens, and the baking/packaging of mass amounts of blueberry muffins in the same 1/2 hour show!

So, I got to thinking (yes, scary!), what does the everyday John Q. Public know and understand about the science and technology that is involved with farming today? That's a huge subject because agriculture is extremely advanced in many ways. Just think about a combine, this is a piece of machinery that has revolutionized our ability to feed the world. Without it we're manually chopping corn stalks and removing kernels from cobs or beans from pods. A combine can process 150 bushels of corn(roughly 1 acre of corn on average) as fast as the farmer drives across it. Impressive and it's been around for awhile.
So let's drill down into one small, but critically component of agriculture, Agronomy.

Here's the wiki on agronomy.....Agronomy is the science and technology of using plants for food, fuel, feed, fiber, and reclamation. Agronomy encompasses work in the areas of plant genetics, plant physiology, meteorology, and soil science.

Agronomists are the folks that understand the growing preferences and details about a great number plants utilized in farming operations. They also understand the associated soil science and many can give recommendations for the best way to prepare the soil for maximum yield of planted crops.

Here's a hypothetical scenario for a very basic ag operation.......So the farmer gets his seeds, corn or beans, doesn't matter. Throws them in the planter and puts the seed in the ground. Maybe puts out some fertilizer to help it grow. Plant matures and when it turns brown you jump in the combine and harvest. Easy breezy, right.

NOT QUITE.......

Let's try this again......
-- Calculated decisions must be made as to what crop to grow based on soil conditions, pest concerns, market outlook, and possibly weather. Corn requires more nitrogen in the soil to grow properly and soybeans happen to be a nitrogen producing crop. So, many times you'll see corn following soybeans the next year. This saves the farmer money by reducing some of the nitrogen costs and maximizes the nutrients in the soil.

-- Soil samples are pulled and tested regularly to determine whether the amount of nutrients and pH in the soil are sufficient for the crops to yield to their maximum potential. Certain soils are more productive than others. Since fertilizer application is costly and is an overhead cost that reduces profits, farmers utilize the soil tests to only put on the needed amounts of fertilizer. This minimizes costs, but also helps to ensure the runoff of excess fertilizer into surrounding waters is minimized. With GPS points and aerial digital photos of fields agronomists prescribe variable rates of fertilizer based on soils and past data from harvests(yes, combines today can give real-time yield data as the crop is being harvested).

--Now planting, many farmers have adapted their operations to minimize the amounts of "trips" they travel across the fields. This is to minimize fuel costs and help prevent soil compaction(crushed soil from heavy equipment is less productive) among many other reasons. Specialized planting equipment has been developed which can plant the seed at the exact depth, deliver all of the fertilizer it needs to get started right there, prepare ideal seed-soil contact, and leave the perfect spacing for maximum yield from it's neighboring seeds. This is all in one pass across the field. Did I mention that soil conditions such as moisture and temperature must be carefully considered along with the hybrid of seed that has been selected for planting(this is where the science and art of farming come together). It doesn't hurt to be able to predict the weather either!?

-- Corn, in many cases, will need an extra boost of nitrogen and the farmer monitors the growth stage of the plants and tries to apply nitrogen right when the plant needs it so that the plant utilizes all of this valuable nutrient and leaching is reduced. There are fertilizer application tools that can evaluate the color of the corn leaves while moving through the field and applying nitrogen at variable rates as needed, further improving efficiency! Agronomists also utilize plant tissue testing from various portions of the field to prescribe the correct rates of nutrients.

-- Harvesting. Farmers monitor the maturity of the crop, field wetness(avoiding driving a large combine over wet soil is a good idea for many reasons, including compaction), and kernel moisture. There is a premium for corn or beans delivered in an ideal moisture range(too dry and it can crack or be easily damaged, too wet and it could get moldy or rot easily). Timing is quite crucial for a good harvest.

-- Science tells us that our soil ecosystem is more diverse and potentially more productive when they are biologically active throughout the year. In other words, it's good to keep something growing in the soil to encourage good populations of worms and all of the critters in the soil that actually aid in ag production and conservation. So, we see many farmers turning to the utilization of cover crops. Simple grasses and legumes that control erosion, scavenge left over nutrients and keep them from leaving the field, help break-up compaction, provide better water infiltration....there's a multitude of benefits.

The agronomists and Certified Crop Advisors are trained to understand the science and help farmers maximize efficiency. The tools and methods for honing in on what is coined "Precision Farming" continue to grow. This certainly is not an all-encompassing list of the science and technology associated with agriculture. In fact, it is just a scratch at the surface of just row crop ag, what about animal agriculture which has had incredible advancements. It's certainly easy to see that the environment not to mention the world's population have benefited tremendously from agriculture's science and technological advancements. We consistently have continued to increase the yields per acre as well as become more efficient at growing. Bob Nielson - Professor at Purdue - Agronomy, "State average corn grain yield in Indiana has increased at a fairly constant 1.6 bushels per acre per year since 1930 primarily due to improved genetics and production technology." from Corn Yield Trends article online

Did I mention that tractors can drive themselves now, cool real-life demo?!!! Watch this.

Through growing programs such as the On-Farm Network the Indiana State Department of Agriculture is encouraging the utilization of technology and science to improve farm efficiencies and environmental stewardship. Much more to come regarding this program in the future. See the excerpt below...

The Indiana State Department of Agriculture’s (ISDA) project will utilize the “On Farm Network” approach developed by the Iowa Soybean Association. This project focuses on the use of nitrogen on agricultural crops and keeping the nitrogen in crop fields and out of streams. The network approach will gather information about how nitrogen is used by farmers in the watershed, comparing all the variables in type, timing, placement, soils, and yield. Participants can then compare, evaluate, and modify their own system to optimize yields, while reducing overall use of nitrogen and minimizing losses to surface and subsurface waters.

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