I’m Tom Buman and this is what’s bugging me…
Everybody wants to put their best foot forward. I get it. I realize it is important to report the good news, but when the good news is misleading, it bugs me. So here’s what’s bugging me.
Yield vs. Profitability:
For years, conservationists have criticized farmers who just look at yield and not profitability. But now, the headlines are espousing cover crops because they increase yield. Conservationists are on the cover crop bandwagon. I realize that cover crops are good conservation practices, but most research shows they are not profitable. It bugs me that people who promote cover crops are not being transparent about profitability. Conservationists should report profitability along with yield. As my mom would say, what is good for the goose is good for the gander.
Efficiency vs. Stewardship:
It bugs me when people confuse efficiency with conservation and stewardship. Ag businesses and organizations often tout how efficient agriculture is and somehow, they end up tying efficiency to conservation and stewardship. I say, efficiency is great, but so what? It is good business to strive for better efficiency but people shouldn’t confuse efficiency with conservation and stewardship.
In a study completed at the University of California Davis, researchers concluded that Kansas farmers who received payments under the conservation subsidy were using some of their water savings to expand irrigation or grow thirstier crops, not to reduce water consumption. “Policies aimed at reducing water applications can actually increase water depletions,” the researchers said. I think the same can be said about nutrient management. Just because someone can achieve more nitrogen efficiency, it does not necessarily follow that nitrogen water loading will be reduced.
Averages vs. Specifics:
It bugs me when I hear the average of this or that, as if knowing the average outcome is helpful for the individual farmer. Averages mean little to farmers. Farmers need specific information about their farm. If we intend to encourage and support farmers in their efforts to reduce sediment delivery to water, then we need to provide specific directions to achieve that. Telling a farmer that he has 10 tons/acre/year of erosion is pretty meaningless if he can’t relate that erosion to sediment delivery.
What we need to do instead, is to tell farmers where the sediment delivery is occurring and then tell them the most cost-effective method to reduce that sediment delivery. If we can’t provide farmers with that level of specificity, we aren’t doing our job.
It bugs me that not enough farmers have access to this information.
This is a very interesting list of “bugs,” and I appreciate the opportunity to read and consider it. That Kansas information is completely new to me.
I’ll add a bug of my own — fantasy vs. reality. In the past few months I’ve come across a number of assertions by various Iowa leaders that Iowa is making wonderful major progress on water quality. I’ve also taken a look at some numerical comparisons between where Iowa is now, in regard to farm conservation, and where the Nutrient Reduction Strategy says we need to be. The gap between now and need is still a canyon.
This afternoon I skimmed a new mailing from Iowa Learning Farms, headlined “Cover crop acres grow but rate of growth declines in 2017.” The mailing says that the number of cover crop acres in Iowa, at 760,000, is still “well below” the 12.5 million acres called for in the Strategy.
I am always happy to read specific local Iowa water-quality success stories backed up by facts and numbers. When officials tell those fact-based stories, that is great.
But in regard to what my high school English teacher called “glittering generalities,” I have a request for Iowa leaders, , and it is based on advice from the mother of Thumper the Rabbit in BAMBI. If you can’t say somethin’ true, don’t say nuthin’ at all.
Cindy, thanks for your comment on what is bugging you. I understand we have a long ways to go with seemingly no timeframe. That is not good. We all want to massage the facts for our way of thinking. I think that is called marketing. But as scientists and policy makers we need to see alls sides of the issue. Again, thanks for your comment.
Having used cover crops and currently enrolled in a long term research project with SHP my observations are: 1) soils are retained where cover crops are planted and grow 2) timing of planting and moisture to get cover crops to germinate and grow are crucial 3) without subsidies through CREP or CSP just growing cover crops is not financially feasible 4) if you have livestock that can make use of this fall forage, returns to your investment are worth the efforts 5) soil health is without question improved but as of current tests the response does not show the results to be financially feasible.
Cover crops look good on paper, they help sell the idea we are doing something to improve water quality but at a cost to producers that has not been shown to improve yields or reduce nitrogen and phosphorus runoff. They do hold soils, but at what bottom line costs.
Keep us questioning what we do Tom. Someday we will get it right.
Dwight, as always thanks for your thoughtful comments, especially you being an ardent conservation farmer. Cover crops are an incredible practice for reducing nitrogen leaching, reducing soil erosion, and improving soil health. However omitting that cover crops are not generally profitable is not doing anyone any good. I believe we need to figure out how to make cover crops profitable or we need to admit they are not profitable and subsidize their use. Even better we should subsidize their use until we can figure out how to make the profitable. Significant research needs to be focused on how to reduce the cost of cover crops. We know they work now we need to figure out how to change the short-term economics.
I agree with many of your comments and appreciate the open discussion it encourages. I strongly encourage growers to look at cover crops. I have seen in my time soil organic matter levels drop from over 4-5% to 1-2 %. Cover crops in a cash crop situation can help stabilize organic matter. I don’t know how you translate that into profit except through the long-term improvements in the sustainability of crop yields. However measuring immediate or short-term profit of many cover crops, excluding legumes that fix N like red-clover is difficult. Cover crops provide many benefits, like improvements in soil structure. These types of benefits are difficult to translate into immediate profits. Cover crops don’t have to be an expensive undertaking, and in Ontario, Canada farmers are planting cover crops because of the many benefits they realize besides profit.
Averages, yes are oversold but do have benefits as starting point benchmark. Take somatic cell count for dairy herds. The farmer’s individual numbers and improvements they have made are valuable, but they also want to know how they compare to their neighbours, or how they might compare to the average of the top 25% of other herds. Lenders use benchmarks, averages for evaluating loans. But I do agree, they get overused, often by those with little understanding of farming.
Brian, you comments are excellent. I agree some farmers can make cover crops work and can realize a profit in the short term. And in the long-term I believe there is at least a break even from using cover crops. However farmers have to pay this year’s bills and next years bills even to consider long-ternm benefits. I hear from non-farmers that all farmers should be using cover crops I shutter. These non-farmers are led to believe that cover crops are easy to establish and profitable. This puts most farners in a really bad place. Becasue some farmers can be profitable does not mean all farmers can be profitable.