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A Vision for Sustainable Row Crop Farming

A Vision for Sustainable Row Crop Farming

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Published by Steve Savage
A summary of what the last few decades of agricultural/environmental research suggests is the most sustainable way to farm our major crops
A summary of what the last few decades of agricultural/environmental research suggests is the most sustainable way to farm our major crops

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Published by: Steve Savage on Mar 31, 2011
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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A Vision For Sustainable Row Crop Farming
(Originally posted onApplied Mythology on 3 15/11)It has been estimated that between increasing standards of living andincreasing population, there will be 1.5 to 2 times as much demand for foodas there is today by mid century. To meet that demand without addingmore farmed land, the current farms must achieve greater productivity peracre or hectare. The challenge is to do that without increased, andhopefully decreased, environmental impact. As challenging as that sounds,I actually believe that this is possible because of a number of agriculturaladvances that have been made over the past few decades. I'm not saying itis obvious that we will get there, just that it is possible.
These Are Not My Ideas
 As part of my consulting business, I have had the privilege to spend timereading hundreds of scholarly articles about agricultural sustainability.Over the past few decades there has been an extensive research effort toquantify the environmental problems/benefits of various farmingpractices. I have not conducted any of this research myself, but I have hadthe chance to digest it and learn from all the hard work that was involved.Many of the studies were based on field research over many years, often 10or more. This academic research has also been complimented by commercial innovation on the part of farm equipment companies,agricultural chemical companies, seed companies and other commercialentities. The most important aspect of this innovation cycle is thatprogressive farmers have tested, integrated, and perfected the new farmingoptions that flow from the academic/commercial activity.What emerges from all of this effort is a vision of the kind of agriculturethat could not only feed the world, but do it in an age of climate change andwith far less impact on the environment than has been the case in the past.
Agriculture is a vast and diverse industry, so I will limit my discussion hereto the largest segment: rain-fed row crops (wheat, soy, corn, cotton...). Forthese crops the five, quantifiably best, farming practices are as follows:No-till Crop following Wheat
1. Minimum Tillage
 When soils are plowed or otherwise disturbed, the organic matter contentdeclines and with it the complex aggregate structures and biologicalsystems of the soil. When soils are farmed with"no-till" systems or relatedoptions, the soil organic matter is preserved and soil "health" is enhanced.This practice also leads to less fuel use, far less erosion, and thus less off-site movement of fertilizers or pesticides. Minimum tillage systems requirespecialized equipment. They are aided by good seed treatments andgenetics, by either herbicide tolerance traits or selective herbicides. Thetransition to a minimum tillage regime can take several years and duringthat time there are some risks particularly during cold springs.No-tillsystems have been in commercial development since 1960. 
 A cover crop following Corn in Iowa
2. Cover Cropping
 The land were most US, rain-fed crops are grown was once a prairie biome.That system had a mix of annual and mostly perennial plant species. Theannual crops that are now planted in this area are only growing, and thusfeeding the soil, for a part of the year.A cover cropis planted to grow afterthe main annual crop and before the next planting. A cover crop after anannual crop is the best substitute for the perennial systems that precededfarming of the Midwest. Cover crops can be used either to tie up excessnutrients from the previous crop or to generate more nutrients for the nextcrop (e.g. a legume). They further reduce erosion and contribute to thestorage of carbon in soils. Most farmers recognize the benefits of covercropping and the main barrier to their use is the logistics of planting themduring the busy harvest season. When minimum tillage and covercropping are combined, the development of soil health is optimized. Suchsoils are also more efficient at capturing rainfall and at holding on to themoisture. Over time the soils become increasingly "drought proofed"which will be of great value in an age of climate change.

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