It may sound like heresy, but getting the highest yields possible on your farm may not be the most direct path to a profitable farm. In fact, a heavily data-driven program called Precision Conservation Management (PCM) indicates to truly utilize the economic benefit of conservation practices, you must suspend the belief that higher corn yields equal increased profitability.
According to Travis Deppe, director of Precision Conservation Management for the Illinois Corn Growers Association, “the quest for higher yields has been baked into farmers’ psyche for generations. PCM challenges participants to consider that obtaining high yields, and the higher input costs that goal often requires, may not be the best economic or conservation model for many farms.”
Ben Wurmnest, who farms near Sibley, Ill. has spent the last five years active in PCM. He and his brother, Josh, have taken a stewardship journey that tests this theory and utilizes information from a formal cost-benefit analysis of conservation practices to light their path.
Since joining PCM, the Wurmnests have transitioned away from conventional tillage, using no-till practices and now experimenting with strip-till. Along with their efficient use of in-season applied nitrogen, they now plant a cover crop on more than 50 percent of their acres. They expect this number to continue trending up thanks to access to conservation dollars made available through PCM.
“You can be comfortable and do what you have always done but you won’t get anywhere doing that. We need to constantly be learning and investigating change, and PCM is a great program for doing that,” Wurmnest believes.”
PCM is a service program that combines farm business and financial practices with precision technology and data management to help farmers better integrate and manage conservation on their farms. It provides analysis, technical assistance, financial assistance, and data assessment to help reduce complexity and manage risks associated with the nutrient loss efforts. PCM combines $9.86 million in private matching contributions (both in-kind and cash) with $5.3 million in NRCS conservation program funding to help farmers manage conservation practices to reduce nutrient losses.
Although assistance with offsetting risk is appreciated, Wurmnest notes, the rapid adoption of new practices on their farm occurred because the goals of PCM lined up well with the stewardship path they were already on and works well on their 800-acre farm.
“We were interested in PCM right away because it aligned with our goals and what we wanted to be doing on our farm with conservation,” he said. “Doing anything new takes time and effort and it involves some risk. Farming is not a business that needs extra risk, so the monetary incentives built into PCM didn’t hurt.”
More than 300 Illinois farmers representing 300,000 acres have engaged in PCM to date, garnering a lot of interest and outside support for the program. PCM received a Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service under the 2014 farm bill. These regional grants give farmers access to federal funds for conservation practices through EQIP/CSP.
The innovative initiative became one of the first recognized by the Environmental Defense Fund and the National Corn Growers Association’s Success in Stewardship Network. This network is working to break down the notion that conservation is only for an elite group of farmers. Practices that protect the land and water and increase climate resilience are becoming the norm, so NCGA and EDF are encouraging farmers to share their success stories.
“There are amazing conservations efforts underway today on the farm. But honestly, farmers don’t do a great job telling the story of their farm, or their successes but it is improving,” said Marty Marr, a farmer from New Berlin, Ill. “There is growing awareness that being a good steward and protecting our precious resources is half the equation. Enhancing our image matters with the non-farm public too.”
Marr says there is no doubt programs like PCM make it easier to do the right thing, but it also provides a great network of farmer contacts to learn from, and it makes it easier to get the message of conservation progress to the public.
“I agree with the philosophy that sustainability is not a result. It’s a continual process. We had our first fully implemented state conservation on our farm in 1995 but that was just a weigh station. People may be in a different spot in their conservation plan. I have learned so much over the years from other farmers who are farther ahead on the learning curve,” he said. “My hope now is some people can learn something from our practices.”
Working at field scale and crunching the significant volume of data has resulted in many useful observations, according to Dr. Laura Gentry, Illinois Corn Growers Association’s director of Water Quality Science. Such as cornfields receiving more than 40 percent of the total nitrogen application in the fall produced lower corn yields, higher nitrogen fertilizer application rates, and higher total non-land costs than most in-season nitrogen fertilizer application systems. The result is reduced operator net financial return.
Marr is very focused on fertility practices and nutrient management and is using strip tillage in his corn and no-till on soybean ground. PCM provides key measurements and quantifies the return on investment.
“The improved soil structure is just amazing. It makes me happy to see the healthy soil and to see what it is still producing, especially given the wet, rainy period we are going through,” he said.
One of the unique work products provided by PCM is a custom developed Resource Analysis and Assessment Plan (RAAP) for the farm that begins with a sustainability assessment for each field. This will work in conjunction with the Field Print Calculator developed by Field to Market. In part, this is an effort to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the farmer's current practices, including nitrogen application practices, permitting a benchmark against other fields.
The assessment will also help identify all resource concerns for the farm and evaluate practices that can help address those resource concerns. This leads to a five-year plan to implement practices and identifies potential financial assistance from NRCS programs such as the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).
Wurmnest agrees with Marr that stewardship is a process based on exploration and success. His purchase of a 14-acre farm proved to be a major catalyst to get them where they are today. Wurmnest, who is a seed dealer and has a degree in Crop Science from the University of Illinois, already had some background in conservation tillage and no-till, but what they learned on the new field spurred their expansion.
“It seemed like a good time to do no-till on soybeans. That went well, so we carried over to no-till on corn. Then we planted oats and radish as a cover crop. It was a good place to start. We had good results and then it just sort of snowballed,” he said.
Today, 75 percent of his acres are no-tilled and utilize cover crops. And thanks to some assistance from PCM, he is now experimenting with strip-tillage.
“Strip tillage allows better access to fertilizer in the soil and seems to be more efficient than no-till in our soil types,” he said. “And there is the advantage of the soil warming up a little faster for spring planting.”
Wurmnest believes record keeping and field data are important to developing a long-term soil health system. The advantage of PCM is having access to data and experiences from other farmers. Learning from their successes and failures means they can all reach their goals faster.
Key take-aways for Wurmnest include:
- Strip-till can be more profitable on the land we farm.
- We’re not relying on as much fertilizer because we are getting better nitrogen efficiency.
- We don’t fertilize every inch of a field but just put it where the crop can use it. This is enhanced even more by using split nitrogen passes.
- It still takes time, but the PCM assistance and data increase a farmer’s comfort level with new practices like cover crops,so there is less worry.
- Changes in tillage practices mean he doesn’t have to rely on larger, more expensive equipment and fuel costs are reduced.
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