Jay Hundley scouts a growing soybean crop on Cloverfield Farm. Photo by John Page Williams/CBF Staff.
Just as several members of Congress are drafting a new reduced five-year Farm Bill, which will likely include significant cuts to critical conservation programs, we talked with several Virginia farm families who have learned how important these conservation programs are both for their and their communities’ livelihoods as well as the health of the environment. The following is the third of a series of blogs from those conversations adapted from an article in the Essex County Countryside Alliance 2011 Report. Stay tuned for the fourth and final part tomorrow. Read Part One and Part Two.
Precision Conservation Tillage
The Baylors, the Hundleys and the Taliaferros all practice conservation tillage with registered nutrient management plans (NMPs). Port Tobacco, Clover Field, Montague and the waters to which they drain all benefit from no-till planting and crop management. For corn, all three operations incorporate split application of nitrogen, so the plants use it as efficiently as possible. The working rule is to inject the first third of the amount recommended by a nutrient management plan into the soil at planting time, then side-dress-inject the balance when the tassels begin to form. Injecting nitrogen into the soil has proven to be much more efficient than spraying or dribbling it.
Thus these farmers can reduce this increasingly expensive input, making their operations more profitable. Such efficiency is part of a recurring pattern: practices that improve net income tend to benefit both soils and waterways. Jay Hundley puts it well: “The more economical I get, the more environmentally sound my farm becomes.”
David Taliaferro has a suggestion for the nutrient management planning process, though. He believes it is just as important to retain the nitrogen that remains in the soil after the crop is harvested as it is to prescribe application rates. The conventional recommended rate for corn is one pound of nitrogen per acre for each projected bushel of yield (about 150 bushels per acre at Montague). The problem comes in a year like 2010, when the yield crashed to 50 bushels because of spotty rainfall, leaving about 100 pounds of excess nitrogen on each acre. How to keep that precious, expensive nitrogen where it belongs? A thick cover crop would help. “Of all of our inputs, nitrogen is the most expensive now.
Don’t put it in there and lose it,” David said.
Jay Hundley may have one answer to the issue of nitrogen inputs. For some years, he has volunteered to run test plots for Extension. “That’s one of the best ways I learn,” he said when we talked. “You can learn from talking with these people. Test plots teach us so much.” (Endlessly curious, Jay also confesses that “I live and breathe farming. I just love it.”) This time, he is participating in a USDA Conservation Innovation Grant partnership with Virginia Cooperative Extension, the Three Rivers Soil & Water Conservation District, and the Colonial Soil & Water Conservation District.
The grant allows the partners to compare performance of two technologies designed to maximize the amount of nitrogen delivered to the crop while minimizing losses to the environment. The experiment will compare a nitrogen injection system that Jay already uses with a sensor-based, variable-rate nitrogen application system known as GreenSeeker™.
The GreenSeeker™ delivers nitrogen to the soil surface at variable rates based on sensor feedback that detects how much the growing crop actually needs and adjusts the fertilizer rate accordingly. This system provides a precise application rate that takes into account the fact that yields typically vary across a given field. On average, the GreenSeeker™ reduces nitrogen application to corn by 21 pounds per acre in Virginia. On the other hand, nitrogen injection systems place fertilizer right at the root zone where growing crops can access it quickly, preventing nitrogen fertilizer from washing off when it rains or volatilizing into the air.
Jay and his project partners want to know which system does a better job of conserving nitrogen. This year he has run a few preliminary plots basing fertilizer injection rates on soil types in his fields, with promising results. The grant project begins in 2012 and will run through 2013.
Evaluating these new precision nitrogen application technologies fits right into Clover Field’s operation. The Hundleys already grid their fields—some 500 of them—into two-to-eight-acre sections according to soil type and annual yield patterns from the GPS-based monitors in their combines. They send out hundreds of location-referenced soil and plant tissue samples each year and their crop scout walks all of those fields regularly during the growing season, so they always have detailed, timely information to inform their nitrogen application decisions. That information also serves as the base for the extensive planning they do each winter to, as Jay puts it, “make our operation the best it can be.”
“Farmers who don’t pay such close attention to the cost of inputs like nitrogen may not have a long future because of economics,” Jay suggested. “You have to be willing to spend a dollar now to get two back later on. Agricultural technology is giving us some very good tools to improve profitability and protect land and water at the same time. We need to take advantage of them.” His comment underscores the need to educate the public about valuable farming practices that protect and enhance water quality. It’s no surprise to find that the Taliaferros are also considering adding the GreenSeeker™ system to Montague Farms.
—John Page Williams
Stay tuned tomorrow for more on how these Virginia farm families have successfully incorporated strong conservation efforts—such as planting stream buffers and fencing cattle—into their farming practices. Read Part One and Part Two.
In a matter of days, several members of Congress will pass along recommendations to the “Super Committee” for a new reduced five-year Farm Bill, which will likely include significant cuts to critical conservation programs. Please help us prevent this from happening. Protecting this funding in the Farm Bill means not only an opportunity for cleaner streams and healthier rivers throughout the Bay watershed, but stronger economies and a growing workforce as well. Please act today for a chance to save this critical funding for clean water in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.