Two years ago, Nebraska farmer Keith Olsen penned an op-ed for 25x’25 that underscores the consistent growth of conservation practices in crop production. Olsen recounted how traditional tillage and cropping practices on his family’s farm in the late 1960s have evolved, adapting to change in growing conditions, to what is now a no-till operation that has seen a three-fold production increase – from 18 bushels of wheat per acre in 1967 to 55 bushels of wheat, corn and, more recently, dry peas, today.
Olsen, a 25x’25 senior adviser, said he and his son were able to make changes on their farm by adopting new technologies as they became available, including corn planters and wheat drills that will work in no-till conditions. He cited the development of genetically modified crops that are, among other things, bred to resist drought.
Olsen is one example among thousands of farmers who understand good conservation practices not only enhance soil, air and water quality, but also offer strong economic benefits, particularly in the production of biofuel feedstocks. U.S. farmers are well positioned to take on the opportunity of meeting our renewable energy needs in a way that is economically and environmentally sustainable. Through innovative practices and the wise management of soil, water and energy, these are stewards who will ensure our resources will be available for generations to come.
No-till and reduced tillage are techniques that increase the amount of water that infiltrates the soil, and boost organic matter retention and cycling of nutrients in the soil. In many regions of the country, these practices can reduce – and even eliminate ‑ soil erosion. They make soils more resilient, while making farm operations more efficient, particularly by reducing sowing time.
The fact that no-till and reduced-till practices are now used on at least a third of the nation’s cropland – a percentage that is growing – shows the kind of “win-win” initiatives that farmers are taking to enhance production and protect the environment.
Cover crops are another practice that is growing among U.S. agricultural producers. Grasses, legumes and other plants are grown between rotations of commodity crops, such as corn and soybeans, to manage soil fertility, soil quality, water, weeds, pests and diseases, all while enhancing biodiversity and wildlife habitat.
They can cut fertilizer costs (the roots scavenge, mine and retain the nutrients left in the soil by cash crops) and can reduce the need for herbicides and other pesticides. They improve yields by enhancing soil health, preventing soil erosion and conserving soil moisture. And by significantly reducing soil erosion and nutrient runoff, they protect water quality.
The recent surge in the implementation of these practices coincides with the significant growth over the last decade in the production of the feedstocks needed to make biofuels. A large portion of acreage devoted to corn and soybeans, much of which is used for biofuel production, is under conservation practices like no-till and cover crops.
And with the burgeoning development of advanced biofuels as demonstrated by the recent opening of a number of cellulosic biofuel plants, conservation practices will prove even more practical and beneficial. Ample residue from no- and low-till corn crops can be collected for advanced biofuel feedstock while leaving behind enough to restore soil nutrients. Cover crops can include dedicated energy crops like switchgrass.
The 25x’25 Alliance has long advocated the implementation of these important nutrient management and conservation practices, recognizing them as a “win/win” proposition in sustainably producing biofuels while offering farmers increased revenue streams. The practices are a critical part of the Alliance’s Sustainability Principles, emphasizing the concept of sustainability as the ideal of stewardship. Covering areas such as conservation, soil erosion, soil quality, water quality and wildlife, the principles also set economic and social guidelines for access to infrastructure, incentives and market development, access and distribution. And more to the point, they have been widely adopted by renewable energy producers and policy makers.
Agricultural producers who are bringing new sources of energy to help meet growing U.S. demand are, in fact, working in a way that also produces conservation and sustainable benefits to the resources they are developing. As stewards of the land, these producers don’t settle for simply avoiding any degradation of our natural resources. They work hard to improve those resources.