Meeting needs, maximizing benefits

FROM THE JULY ISSUE: Farmers continuously implement new environmentally friendly techniques to raise their crops.
By Ann Bailey | June 20, 2017

Corn farmers—and with them, the ethanol industry—are growing more sustainable.

Farmers in corn states are embracing a variety of sustainable agriculture production practices, including strip farming, planting cover crops and improving soil health, to reduce their environmental footprints. The term sustainable agriculture has many definitions, but Kendall Lamkey, chair of the Iowa State University Department of Agronomy and a longtime sustainable agriculture expert, likes this one best: “Practices that meet current and future societal needs for food and fiber, for ecosystem services and for healthy lives, and that do so by maximizing the net benefit to society when all costs and benefits of the practices are considered.”

Corn farmers in the U.S. already are the most environmentally friendly, efficient producers in the world, says Paul Bertels, vice president of production and sustainability for the National Corn Growers Association. “It’s not an endpoint,” he says. “It’s a journey. It’s a constant and continuous improvement. That’s what sustainability is really about. When you look at ethanol, when you look from either the greenhouse gas score or at overall sustainability, it all comes back to feedstock.” The better corn’s score, the better it is for the ethanol industry as a whole, Bertels says.

In Practice
Many sustainability-minded corn farmers are using variable rate fertilizer technology, says Brent Hostetler, a Plains City, Ohio, farmer and member of the NCGA’s Stewardship Action Team. The variable rate technology allows farmers to pinpoint how much fertilizer needs to be applied to specific areas of the field, rather than applying the same amount across the entire acreage.

And his area has seen an increase in cover crop acreage. Research shows cover crops can reduce nitrate leaching by an average of 30 percent, Lamkey says. The cover crops utilize water, which, in turn, reduces the amount of nitrogen that potentially could run off into waterways. “Then when those plants are burned down, over time, some of that nitrogen gets returned to the soil and it will be useful,” Lamkey says. “Cover crops are working.”

A sustainable farming practice, which the Iowa State University Department of Agronomy encourages corn farmers to employ, is Science-Based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips (STRIPS), which involves planting strips of prairie in fields. Fields with moderate to severe slopes that are planted 10 percent to prairie strips show more than 90 percent reduction in soil loss, Lamkey says. The amount of nitrogen leaving the field is reduced by as much as 85 percent, the research shows. “It’s amazing,” Lamkey says. “Another thing a lot of producers like about it is they get to see a lot of wildlife returning to the landscape. I think that’s a cool thing, too—reintroducing diversity.”

The NCGA also encourages its farmer-members to use sustainable production techniques such as strip farming and planting cover crops, Bertels says. “First and foremost is the Soil Health Partnership.”  The program, launched about three years ago, encourages farmers to employ strip farming and then conducts research on how it can improve soil health. “We have about 100 demonstration farmers throughout the Midwest right now in this program and each of these farms in the fall have a field day, bring in their neighbors and talk to them about what they’ve done, what they’ve learned. In addition, they’ll give them scientific data that shows what’s actually happening in the soil.”

A second program NCGA has underway addresses water quality and nutrient management. The program encourages corn farmers to adopt voluntary nutrient management programs, Bertels says. “The key thing here is fertilizer is expensive, let’s make sure we’re putting it down and the plant is using it, that we’re not losing it to the environment.” The nutrient management programs are state-specific, Bertels notes. “What farmers in Minnesota are facing is different from farmers in Ohio. We want each state to tailor plans to regulations that are currently in place or may be coming along.”

Another key NCGA sustainability program is the Life Cycle Analysis of corn, Bertels says. There have been at least 20 studies on various crops conducted over the years, but they have treated corn as monolithic practice, even though farmers vary their practices from farm to farm and even within fields, based on soil types. The University of Arkansas will conduct a life-cycle analysis on corn for the NCGA, Bertels says.

Individuals, Economics
It’s important that farmers in individual states have latitude to employ the nutrient management and water quality methods that are best for their farms, Lamkey says. “I think this idea that we’re going to run a monoculture of a practice across the land and achieve sustainability is kind of a misnomer. It’s very complicated. One of the things that we’ve been trying to point out is that sustainability is not a single-dimensional thing.”

He also says using sustainable practices should be voluntary for farmers. “I think regulations could make it worse. I think if we regulate nitrogen as a fertilizer, it’s going to end up causing more problems than it will solve.” Policymakers have opinions, but don’t know the right mechanisms to solve the problem, Lamkey says. “We’ve been working hard to get those mechanisms down. I’ve been involved in modeling. We have to model this as a system. It’s too complicated to understand as a one-dimensional kind of plan. My goal in building a modeling group in this department is to be predictive. I tell people, ‘I get up every morning and look at the weather forecast and then I look outside to see what it actually is doing. If you merge those things together, you know how to dress that day. Farmers will do the same thing, when they can.’”

Lamkey says modeling is important to production agriculture. “Right now farmers have to run experiments in their own fields, conduct on-farm trials to figure out how their management practices are going to work, and I think we can get some pretty good ideas to model before they get out there.”
Another significant challenge is ensuring sustainable agriculture practices make economic sense, Lamkey says. “I don’t know any producers that don’t want to do things differently, but the question is, how do they do it and still make money?”

Hostetler concurs. “Part of sustainability is making economic sense. That is key to sustainability. If I can’t be sustainable economically, I am not sustainable.” For example, planting a cover crop, while environmentally sustainable, isn’t always feasible, because in wet years, the cover crop holds in the water and delays spring planting, he says. But research will continue into sustainable methods that will help both farmers and the land they farm. “Keep tinkering with the mix, I think eventually they will figure it out.”

Changing the Landscape
Diversifying the landscape is important from an agronomy point of view, Lamkey says. “In states like Iowa, southern Minnesota and Illinois, in these big, organic-matter, tile-drained areas, we’re going to have to figure out how to put some of the land that’s leaching the most nitrogen back into perennials.” Although corn acres in those states have remained fairly consistent since the 1940s, soybean acres have dramatically increased and replaced pastureland and crops such as alfalfa and oats, Lamkey says. The switch changed the hydrology of the states because corn and soybeans are now the main water consumers during July and August. Conversely, most nitrogen is leached from March through June, when there are no crops on the fields. “What we are trying to figure out, and it’s very difficult, is what areas of the landscape do we return to perennials?” Lamkey says. “That would have a big impact on the leaching of nitrates into our water system.

“I think we’ll figure it out, but I don’t know how farmers would be able to make a living from that, so we’re going to have to figure something out,” Lamkey says. “What I’d like to see us working on in a state like Iowa, with a large ethanol industry, is we need to take some key land out of production and I think we need to think about how to use that land to make money. I think there are a lot of ways that can happen.” If the land is going to be taken out of production, researchers will need to figure out how to boost corn yields, Lamkey says. “I think it’s imperative for us to understand what additional changes in the management system we need to make to get yields up so we can get corn yields without causing environmental issues.”

Although sustainable agriculture continuously evolves, one thing is certain. “We know that our growers are doing the right thing and we’re getting better at it,” Bertels says.

Author: Ann Bailey
Freelance Journalist