Adapting to Change

The following is a guest blog from Keith Olsen, a Nebraska farmer, a former president of the Nebraska Farm Bureau Federation and a former board member with the American Farm Bureau Federation. A 25x’25 Steering Committee member, Olsen details efforts he and his son are making to their operation to improve soil quality, save water and adapt to extreme weather conditions.

ADAPTING TO CHANGE. That was the first thing that I learned upon my return to our family farm in 1967, following graduation from the University of Nebraska, College of Agriculture and Natural Sciences. Our farm is located in Southwest Nebraska and is not irrigated. We depend on rain and snow to provide us with about 18 inches of moisture per year. In 1967, our farm was a summer fallowed wheat farm, which means that each year half of our land was in wheat and the other half did not grow a crop, or was in fallow. We would till the ground several times during the summer to control weeds and to prepare the land to sow wheat in the fall.

Today, our farm is a no-till operation growing wheat, corn, and dry peas. Peas are a new crop into our rotation and if we are successful in growing them, we will be able to raise a crop every year. When the weather cooperates, we have been able to increase our production for each acre on our farm from 18 bushels of wheat in 1967, to 55 bushels of a combination of wheat, corn and peas today. This is almost a threefold increase in production per acre. How have I done that? I, along with my son, have adapted to change.

The first practice that was changed was to go from a wheat-fallow-wheat rotation to a wheat-corn-fallow rotation. This rotation improved our soil structure and reduced disease and weed pressures. With the advent of Roundup resistant corn, we were able to convert from using tillage tools to being 100 per cent no-till. By going no-till, we have increased our organic matter in the soil and have decreased soil compaction. These practices allow the soil to retain more of the moisture that we receive. By no-tilling, we have reduced soil erosion caused by wind and rain.

We have been able to make these changes on our farm by adopting new technologies that are now available. Today, corn planters and wheat drills are available that will work in no-till conditions. The development of genetically modified crops has allowed the use of chemicals to reduce weed pressure without hurting the crops. Drought resistance is being breed into the seed ‑ a very important tool to maintain our production in dry years.

Every year my son and I review what we did right and what we did wrong during the last growing season. Every year we make some changes in our operation, sometimes minor and other times major. We try to eliminate or minimize risk, especially price and weather risks. 2012 was the year of the drought (a report released this week from the American Meteorological Society and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency shows last year was the hottest on record in the United States). Our experience of going through the extremely dry year is pushing us to find ways to conserve every drop of water that we get.

I believe that the key to the future of agriculture is how effectively we can use water, either rainfall or irrigated. The University of Nebraska has created the Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Center. The goal of this Center is to improve the efficiency of water usage globally, as we produce enough food, feed, fiber and fuel to meet our world’s needs.

The biggest challenge that farmers are facing is change. These include climate change and the variable weather that comes with it. We’ve seen firsthand how increasingly unpredictable and volatile the weather has become in our region. I’m not alone in noticing these changes and in recognizing the need to adapt. The 25x’25 Alliance has recently issued a report offering recommendations designed to mitigate risks posed by changes in our climate, while strengthening production, cutting input costs and improving the quality of the land.

There are also significant changes in farm programs, new regulations on how we farm, changes in tax policy and new technologies that we may be able to be use on our farms.

The success of agriculture in Nebraska and in the United States rests on profitable farms, profitable livestock operations and profitable renewable energy facilities. These three segments are dependent on one another. If these three segments as a group are successful, agriculture will continue to be a dominant force in my state and our country. We will contribute to feeding the world’s growing population.

I am excited about the future of agriculture. When I returned to the farm in 1967, it was about raising wheat. Today it is about providing the food, feed, fiber and fuel that is needed in our world. By working together, we can meet the challenges that are before us. We have no choice if we are going to meet the needs of a growing world population.

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