UTICA FARMER USES HIGH TECH DATA TO IMPROVE FAMILY FARM

Justin Durdan is a younger farmer, father of four, and volunteer farmer leader for the Illinois Corn Growers Association.  Numbers, data and analysis get him really excited about the future of his Utica family farm and what he can leave for his children. 

ME: Hi Justin!  Tell me a little bit about you and your farm.

JUSTIN: I’m working a multi-generational farm in LaSalle County.  My priority tasks on our farm are to handle relationships with our banks and landowners, and also to handle our finances and our books.  Of course, during planting and harvest, I’m definitely taking my turn on the tractor or in the combine as well.

My wife and I have four kids.  I’m working hard every day because I love it, but also because I’m hoping to build something I can pass off to them someday.

ME: I hear that you are a numbers guy.  What sort of analysis are you doing to benefit your farm?

JUSTIN: Weekly, I’m looking at budget to actuals – which means that I’m checking to see if we applied the budgeted amounts of inputs or if we’re over or under.  And I’m also watching to make sure that we’re recording data during the growing season that will be valuable to us later.  If every pass through the field isn’t recorded, I can’t analyze it later and make us better farmers.

ME: Tell me more.

JUSTIN: As an example, during the growing season, we’re recording every fertilizer application on every field.  We’re applying variable rates, which means that each location within the field is going to get a specific amount equal to what that location needs.  If, when I’m applying fertilizer, I’m not recording that or there’s an error with the technology, if leaves a gap in my data.

ME: Pretty high tech.  What other sorts of data and analysis are you doing?

JUSTIN: Now that we’ve been recording all our information for long enough, I’m able to check out our fields, applications, management and such on a year over year basis.  What gets interesting is to group three or four years of information together and get a good feel for productivity and profitability on a farm.

ME: How do you think these pieces of data change the way you farm?

JUSTIN: I think that every time we’re making management decisions for each field, we have information telling us what fertilizer to apply, how much to apply, what the seed density should be, etc. 

Basically, we have all this information now that helps us make better decisions.  Before the data was available, we made the best decision we could make based on our memory of the past year.  Now, we can see hard data on the productivity of this specific section and how much fertilizer we applied there for the last four years and we make a very informed decision about what to put on that section this year.  Our farm management is much better informed.

ME: Do all farmers operate this way?  Are all farmers using and analyzing the same data?

JUSTIN: There’s a lot of room to grow here and I think suppliers could provide more service in this area to help other farmers acquire the data, analyze it, and apply it to their fields.  We are lucky because on our family farm, this is just something that I really get into and I really focus on.  But not every farm has a data geek. 

ME: What’s agriculture look like down the road with this data and even more available?

JUSTIN: I think having all this data available makes farmers more competitive locally.  As an example, if you’re a young farmer looking to expand your farm and rent more acres, you can get an estimate of soil productivity and gage what your budget and potential cash rent offer could be without even setting foot on the farm.  That gives you a leg up. 

Knowing all this without seeing the farm is also scary.  But this is the world we’re living in now and I think we can either ignore the data available or we can use it to our advantage and get better.  I hope I’m helping our family farm to get better.

I also love the idea that I’m leaving digital records and data points for my kids, if they want to take over the farm.  When I started farming, there was just no way for me to pull everything in my dad’s head out and to make use of it.  Now, I have digital files for my kids to pull and analyze.  I think having this knowledge will make them better when they are ready to take over the farm and set them ahead of where we started out in previous generations.

SCORE ONE FOR FARM SUSTAINABILITY

SUSTAINABILITY: A WHOLE FOOD SYSTEM APPROACH

I’m in the food business. Like you and everyone in the food supply chain, from farmers to ingredient processors to brands and retailers, I want a sustainable food supply. That means food companies work with farmers to set specific sustainability standards and source ingredients based on those standards.

Dirk and grandson

LOW SCORE WINS

The Fieldprint® Calculator app helps farmers measure and track environmental impact. I grow corn, soybeans and wheat on my farm in central Illinois. After harvest each year, I input data into the calculator and it gives me a score based my estimated carbon footprint. The scoring system is similar to golf – the lower the score the better.

The score is based on a variety of factors including:

  • Trips across the field (fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions)
  • Fertilizer used (when and how much)
  • Pesticides used (when and how much)
  • Biodiversity
  • Soil conservation
  • Water quality
Fieldprint Calculator

CALCULATING CHANGE

Next, I review a “web graph” that represents my sustainability performance compared to state and national averages. I use the results to think critically about what I could improve on my farm next year. Personally, what I value most is being able to see how my farm compares to my neighbors because they have to deal with the same weather, pests and soil that I do.

Soybeans growing in corn and cover crop residue

DATA DRIVES DECISIONS

Before this calculator, I used soil conservation practices including cover crops and minimal tillage, both of which help prevent erosion and increase organic matter in the soil. When I first began using the calculator, I was happy to see that my score was already low and I was doing excellent work in many categories. There was, however, one category that I didn’t score as well in: fertilizer use.

I applied the same amount of fertilizer to all areas of my fields at the time, but looked into other options once I knew there was room for improvement. Now, I apply fertilizer at a variable rate, meaning my field is split into sections and I only apply as much fertilizer as each individual section needs based on soil test results. It’s like each acre of my field has it’s own prescription. Giving the soil only as much fertilizer as it needs reduces waste and has improved my score in the Fieldprint® Calculator app.

WE ALL NEED TO BE PROFITABLE

To me, sustainability is about conservation practices, but it’s also about profitability. I believe the two go hand-in-hand. After all, a farmer can’t keep using sustainability measures without succeeding in their business. The calculator app is a great way for farmers to benchmark change and justify conservation methods that can improve their land and their bottom line.

DIRK RICE, IL CORN DIRECTOR and ILLINOIS FARMER

THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY POSTED AT WATCHUSGROW.ORG

STRAIGHT FROM THE SOURCE: WHY WATER IS IMPORTANT

Farmers use all sorts of different practices to protect the water we all use and drink. This farmer brought her water to a local farmers market to help her community understand what’s she’s doing and why she takes keeping the water clean so seriously.

Watch more farmers explain how they grow food and why here!

APRIL SHOWERS BRING UNIQUE FARMER SUPERPOWERS

April showers bring May flowers – a saying we have all heard at least once in our lives. This spring we have certainly had plenty of showers, both rain, and snow! With all this spring rain, it is important to consider the impact all this excess water may have on our fields. Let’s chat about some of the best management practices farmers use to counteract the spring rain overload.

First up, we’ve got nutrient loss prevention. Just like our bodies require certain nutrients to grow and thrive, soil also has specific needs in order to best support our crops.

There are three main nutrients found in soil: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. A unique combination of all three creates a recipe for success to have a fruitful harvest. Too much rain causes these nutrients to become depleted from the soil, and often times can run into bodies of water. To prevent nutrient loss and water contamination, farmers utilize strategies such as monitoring critical bodies of water, as well as using research and improved technology advancements to minimize the impact. In Illinois specifically, we mainly work to reduce the loss of nitrogen and phosphorus from our fields.

Another management strategy our farmers use is reduced tillage for erosion control. Let’s start by defining soil erosion: it is the natural degrading of the physical top layer of soil, which can happen from wind, water, etc. Why is this bad? Because as we discussed earlier, the soil has a very specific balance of nutrients. By removing the top layer of soil, it has a large impact on the quality of soil and results in decreased yields per acre. Some techniques farmers utilize include various machinery that moves less soil and results in less chance of soil erosion. Using less invasive equipment while still properly caring for the fields helps farmers avoid soil erosion.

Finally, let’s talk about cover crops. What exactly is a cover crop? It is an off-season planting of a different type of crop. For example, in the summer we typically see corn and soybeans grown in Illinois. After fall harvest, many farmers may plant crops such as oats or wheat. Why plant more after just finishing a tedious summer harvest? Because planting different species in the same field will help return those vital nutrients to the soil, and help the field prepare for the next spring planting.

These management practices are just some of many that agriculturalists use all over the world. The next time we have an April shower, as we put on our rain boots, let’s remember how it impacts our fields, and what our farmers are doing to best manage our land.

Susie Thompson
Illinois State University

3 WAYS FARMERS HELP THE ENVIRONMENT

Taking care of the environment is something every person in the world can contribute to. Maybe you turn off the water when you brush your teeth or carpool with friends to work. Did you know that farmers also care about the environment? Farmers want to protect the environment so they can continue to feed the world.

Here are just a few things that farmers do to protect the earth we all live on:

  1. Cover Crops. Have you ever driven by a field in the dead of winter and wondered why something was growing there? A cover crop is planted in a field during winter when other types of plants can’t grow. The reason farmers plant cover crops is to reduce the risk of soil erosion, or the wearing away of the soil. Some common examples of cover crops are crimson clover and radishes. Soil erosion causes many problems such as poor drainage that could lead to water pollution. The cover crop helps eliminate soil erosion since the root of the plant is holding the soil in place. When wind and rain come along, the soil will not wash away. Cover crops also help keep organic matter in the soil, which increases soil health. Through this practice, farmers are ensuring the health of their soil, while also protecting the environment.
  2. No-Till. Farmers prepare for the planting season through tilling the soil. Tilling is a way of preparing the soil through digging, stirring, and overturning. On the other hand, no-till is a way of growing crops from year to year without disturbing the soil through tillage. The soil in the field is not disrupted and old corn stalks or leaves act as the “cover” to the soil. Because the farmers leave the soil intact, it is less likely to be washed away by water or blown away by the wind which would cause soil erosion. Farmers want to protect the soil so it can continue to be used in the future.
  3. Help Reduce Runoff. 

Agricultural runoff is water that leaves farm fields because of rain or melted snow. When the runoff moves, it can pick up pollutants, such as chemicals or fertilizers, which can then deposit into ponds, lakes, and sources of drinking water. Farmers can plant riparian buffers, which are vegetated areas that help prevent runoff into water sources.There are also programs in place to help protect water sources from agricultural runoff. The Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative (MRBI) is one of those programs. The goal of MRBI is to work with farmers to implement conservation practices that help avoid and control runoff from fields, specifically into the Mississippi River. Farmers put a lot of effort into protecting the water that everyone drinks.

Laine Honneger
University of Illinois

FARMERS CAN NOW APPLY LESS FERTILIZER ON THEIR LAND

Illinois farmers are always trying to do better.

Whether with their land, their animals, the chemicals and fertilizers they use, or the feed they provide, farmers are always looking to take care of their resources in a way that preserves them for future generations.

This is why updated scientific information about how much phosphorus and potassium corn and soybeans are using from the soil is SO important to farmers.

Every year, farmers soil test to determine what their soils are lacking and then they add those nutrients to provide for the next year’s crop. When calculating how much of which nutrients to add, farmers have to take into account what crop just grew on that plot of land and what crop the farmer plans to plant there the following year.

New scientific information is telling farmers this year that a field of corn only uses .37 pounds of phosphorus per bushel of corn produced and .24 pounds of potassium per bushel. These numbers will figure into the calculations of what the farmer should add back to the soil to replace what the crop used.

These new numbers are 15 percent less than the previous scientific guidance.

To summarize, based on better seed genetics and better management practices, our crops are requiring less phosphorus and less potassium to thrive than before! And that means that farmers can apply less of these fertilizers when planning for the next year!

Good, sustainable news all around.

Lindsay Mitchell
ICGA/ICMB Marketing Director

SOIL LOSS: A CASE FOR REDUCED TILLAGE

Agriculture is a large portion of the economy in Illinois.  Every farmer in Illinois has their own method of planting and raising their crop.  Every farmer must make decisions on what is the best way to raise their crop with the conditions and location they have.  Tillage, which is when farmers dig into the soil and mix it, is one decision that farmers make every year.  Three types of tillage exist conventional tillage, reduced tillage, and no tillage.  This blog is going to focus on why farmers are utilizing reduced tillage.

Reduced tillage is sometimes referred to as conservation tillage and is just what it sounds like, less tillage than conventional tillage, but more tillage than no tillage.  Farmers may choose to utilize reduced tillage for a variety of reasons including prevention of soil loss, reduced soil compaction, improved soil’s organic matter, and decrease in labor cost.

Soil loss is a growing problem today. The soil is vital for agriculture, and we are losing our soil faster than our earth can make it.  It takes the earth 500 to 1000 years to create an inch of topsoil.  When we are losing an inch of topsoil every 20 years.  With the reduced tillage practice, we can reduce the soil erosion because of the crop residue and the roots. Think about weeding a garden, when you pull a weed usually soil will come up with the weed.  This is because the roots hold the soil.  With reduced tillage, the previous crops roots are still buried beneath the ground and are still able to anchor the soil in place to prevent loose particles from running off through water or the wind.

There are three sizes of soil particles, listed from largest to smallest, sand, silt, and clay.  Over time these particles can squish tighter together.  This causes a problem for the crops because the crops need air spaces in the soil to absorb water and other nutrients from the soil.  Heavy machinery such as tractors can compact the soil over time, and because reduced tillage requires less preparation for planting the soil is not driven over as much, and results in a decrease in soil compaction.  Look at this triangle showing the different steps and machinery needed for the different styles of tillage.  (Insert Tractor triangle photo)

Reduced tillage can increase organic matter because the decomposition process is slower when the residue is left on the top of the soil and will cause an increase in nutrients on the top layers of the soil, and overall increase soil health over time.

Less labor is another great advantage of reduced tillage.  Because there contains less steps in the process for reduced tillage less time will need to be invested as well as less money will be needed for equipment or labor cost.

Reduced tillage is a great option to help reduce soil erosion, reduce soil compaction, increase organic matter, and reduce time and labor. If you are interested in learning more about different soil tillage management systems, please review this document linked here: Soil Management and Tillage.

Mary Marsh
University of Illinois

ALL WE WANT FOR CHRISTMAS: MORE CONSERVATION

IL Corn and the ag industry has introduced some management practices and talked about some concepts that are different for farmers, trying to help them improve the water quality coming from IL farms.

Farmers are anxious to learn, some are trying out a few new practices, others are watching and learning from their neighbors, but …

WE NEED MORE FARMERS TO TRY MORE CONSERVATION PRACTICES.

christmas-list

Farmers are farming because they love it, but also because they need to provide for their own families.  So trying something completely new, and risking tens of thousands of dollars or more in the process, is a scary thing.

Research tells us that trying cover crops will cost *this much* and improve soil health *this much* while also decreasing nutrient loss *this much.*  But the research put into practice on some farms doesn’t always work out exactly the same.  Farmers get nervous to try new things … and that’s understandable!

But Santa, we’ve got to make our water quality better.  We’ve got to lose less of the expensive fertilizer we’re putting on our fields.  We’ve got to invest in our land and preserve it for future generations.  Farmers definitely want to do this!  It is their core value and the foundation of their farming business.

So one thing we’d love for Christmas is for more farmers to TRY a new conservation practice on their fields this year.  Maybe they just try it on one field, maybe they branch out to several.  Maybe they talk with a neighbor and try the same thing she had success within 2016.  We’re making progress, but MORE progress would sure be nice.

Whisper in their ears – would you Santa?  We’ll keep providing the outreach, education, and programming in the meantime …

Note: In 2016, IL Corn offered several new educational programs for farmers!  These are just a few:

  • cover crop coupons – to try cover crops at a reduced cost for the first year
  • field days – to see how different management techniques were actually working on farms in Illinois
  • interactive maps – to help farmers understand when to apply nitrogen and when not to apply
  • Precision Conservation Management – a pilot program that helps farmers understand conservation practices AND the financial implications that correlate with them
  • water testing – to understand how much of the expensive fertilizer a farmer was losing from his/her field

Mitchell_LindsayLindsay Mitchell
ICGA/ICMB Marketing Director

FARMING FOR DUMMIES: COVER CROPS

Near the coast of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico, there is an area the size of Connecticut that is completely void of any life. This area, which is known as the Gulf’s “dead zone,” is created by a number of environmental factors acting in tandem. 9-26-16imageaOne contributor is fertilizer runoff, which contains the macro-nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus, is leached out of soils and into waterways (known as erosion), like the Mississippi River. The water pollution originates in all areas (both from cities and farmland), and these macro-nutrients are carried downstream and pour into the Gulf of Mexico. Because the nutrient levels become so high, algal blooms occur rapidly, depleting much of the oxygen in the area (this condition is otherwise known as hypoxia). Discharge from wastewater management systems is another large contributor to the hypoxia problem. This expeditious depletion of oxygen kills off any animal or plant that once lived there.

Scientists discovered the “dead zone” in the Gulf in 1972. It is the largest man-made hypoxic zone in the world, and in 2002, the zone became as large as the size of Massachusetts. Farmers today are doing everything they can to help decrease the hypoxic zone. One significant way they are minimizing their impact, as well as helping to improve waterways and promote general soil health, farmers have begun to use cover crops.

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Cover crops include any crop that grows between periods of regular crop production. Cover crops benefit agricultural land because they enrich soil and protect it from erosion. Their extensive root system improves aeration in soil, allowing more air and water to infiltrate. Additionally, the root system creates pathways for a diverse array of soil animals that break down unavailable nutrients and make them available for crop uptake – an acre of healthy soil has the equivalent of 4 cows worth of microorganisms living in it! Cover crops create a more fertile and resilient agriculture field that can increase crop yield while also maintaining soil health.

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Cover crops also reduce soil erosion caused by sediments, nutrients, and agricultural chemicals. The root system of these crops and the soil’s biological community take up or hold onto excess nitrogen, preventing it from leaching into waterways. Not only does reduced leaching mean less nutrient runoff into the Gulf (and therefore decreasing the effects of hypoxia), but this also improves the quality of drinking water over time.

Planting cover crops is very beneficial to both the environment and to crop production. When planting, it is important to use a cover crop that compliments the following harvest to maximize the benefits from the cover crop. You can even create cover crop ‘cocktails’ to achieve a multitude of benefits at one time; a field that uses a mix of cover crops is able to take up excess nutrients, suppress weeds, and create soil aggregation all in one area!

If you’re thinking of planting cover crops, whether it is on a small or large-scale, remember to do your research and start small. Additionally, if you want to learn more about cover crops you can attend an Illinois Demo Day, held in multiple counties throughout the summertime. If we all start to utilize cover crops within our agricultural lands, the soil will be more sustainable, and we may see a significant change in the size of the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico.

cleary_caeli
Caeli Cleary
University of Illinois