Farmers are Environmentalists, says U.S. Soybean Farmer
Way before sustainability became a buzzword, my husband Rodd’s family knew that taking care of their farm’s soil, water, and wildlife did more than just help them turn a profit, it was the right thing to do.
Rodd and his family long have been stewards of the land, with each generation adopting new technology and techniques. Rodd is the fourth generation of his family to farm their ground near Wheaton, Minnesota.
Learning What’s Best for our Soil has been a Long-Term Project
Sugar beets have always been a big part of the Beyer farm. Rodd says when he was growing up on his family’s farm, everything centered on sugar beets. The wheat and soybeans that the family grew were always contingent on where the sugar beets would be planted.
Sugar beets require a three-year rotation to help prevent root disease, and Rodd’s family planted the beets the year after hard red spring wheat. They did this to prepare the ground, and it meant moldboard plowing, disking, then digging the ground every time something green began to grow, or sometimes “just because.” But, sometimes they lost sugar beet stands in the spring because the soil was blowing, which in turn destroyed the fragile seedlings.
It wasn’t until the family started growing corn, 18 years ago, that we started to learn how to plant sugar beets in higher residue soil successfully. We then transitioned into planting a cover crop, which is now a very common practice. Although we still grow sugar beets, they are not the main focus of our farm. We now treat all of our crops, including our soybeans, with as much attention and detail that we once only gave to sugar beets.
Cover Crops are a Game-Changer
We’ve been incorporating more cover crops into our rotation. In this area, cover crops are not as common as in other parts of the U.S. Currently, we have cover crops on about 10 percent of our farmland. This has been a true experiment for us and we’ve had to work to find the right type of cover crop that will still allow us to plant in the spring during wet conditions.
We first started using barley as a cover for our sugar beets when they were planted in the spring. The barley prevents the soil from blowing and tearing off tender sugar beet seedlings. When the beets are big enough to hold the soil in place, then the cover crop is killed off. Our next addition of cover crops was to seed a cover crop into wheat stubble.
We’ve experimented with many different types of cover crop, but are now focusing our efforts on cereal rye. Last fall, we contracted with an aerial sprayer to fly cereal rye into standing crops in September. Planting cereal rye prevents erosion during the winters where we don’t get a lot of snow. Yes, even with as far north as we are, there are some years that Minnesota doesn’t get a lot of snow! Without a thick layer of snow, the soil is at risk of blowing away, and we are also reducing erosion in the spring runoff season when we typically do not have any plants growing.
We plan on continuing a trend of less tillage and more cover crops. We are not at 100 percent on cover crops yet, because we have not found a species that is appropriate to plant corn into. The rye has an alleopathic effect in our region and we are typically too wet in the spring to risk killing off a cover and waiting two weeks before we plant. But the covers for the other crops have been fantastic for preventing erosion and weed control.
Over the years, we’ve gone from whole field soil testing to large grid testing, back to whole field testing, and now to zone soil testing. We feel that we finally hit the right method, and we will stick with it for a long time. These management zones allow us to apply nutrients, seed, and other inputs on an inch-by-inch basis rather than five-acre blocks – or just general applications based on whole field recommendations.
In the future, we expect our zones to become even more precise and the equipment to match this precision when applying soil nutrients. Right now, the equipment is still really expensive. We’re also exploring our options with variable rate strip till rigs to place the nutrients at the right depth, concentrated under the crops’ roots. We are already doing variable rate zone management with nutrition.
We had always said that no-till and planting green wouldn’t work in our cold climate with heavy clay soils, yet . . . we have moved away from moldboard plow to a much-reduced tillage program along with some no-till and some planting green into cover crops. We love the challenge of proving that it can be done, and furthermore, done in an economical manner.
Listening to the Experts
We have hired two agronomists that scout all of our fields and give accurate recommendations as to how much chemical to use and where to put it. With sugar beets, we sprayed fungicide six times last year. We were careful to rotate chemistries and use a combination of chemistries each time. These methods are more expensive than traditional applications, but are very important in preventing resistance.
We have many consultants that provide advice. One individual is responsible for soil sampling and zone management. He also does in-season checkups on the zones to make sure the zones are accurately marked. We also have a soil scientist that makes fertility recommendations. We like that he is in-tune with local variables, rather than using a national soil lab or university that is providing recommendations to the masses. We also use an agronomist that does pest scouting and still another agronomist that assists with herbicide recommendations and seed trait recommendations.
I work with like-minded people to try new practices to preserve and rebuild our topsoil. Our efforts to rebuild the topsoil include tiling, reducing tillage, cover crops, and filter strips. We do experience many different weather challenges here with freezing temperatures and wet springs. These challenges have not allowed us to implement every practice on every field, every year. But, like most people, we are doing better each year where we can.
Sound environmental safety
The precision application of inputs has definitely had a positive impact on the environment. Real Time Kinematics (RTK) ensures that we don’t overlap inputs and that we apply the proper amounts in the right spots at the right times.
Rodd’s dad always said, “The animals need a place to live too,” even though it could be difficult to farm around odd-shaped tree groves and waterways. Over the years, some of those old trees have degraded and had to be removed, but we’ve tried to ensure that animals will continue to have a place to live on our family farm for a long time.
We’ve done several things to ensure this. First, when we started installing filter strips 15 years ago, we planted rows of trees because we felt the trees would help discourage returning the land to production agriculture, while giving the animals a place to live. We’ve also dedicated almost an entire quarter section (an area of about one-fourth of a square mile, or 160 acres) to natural habitat and wildlife. We dug or diked up water holes, we planted thousands of pine and fruit trees, and we maintain 35 acres of food plots. We’ve also planted pollinator habitat and have worked with a couple of beehives.
Spreading the Sustainability Message
Rodd and I enjoy visiting with schools in the metro area and talking with school kids about farming. City kids love to hear about how we live in a small town with no stoplights – and one grocery store that closes in the early evening and is open just five hours on Sunday.
They like to hear about what we do on our farm. We are both very active on social media, sharing comments and pictures of what we’re doing on our farm. We feel like this helps show people about what actually happens on a farm and ensures that they have a connection to where their food comes from.
I’ve been sending a newsletter to our friends, neighbors, landlords, and other stakeholders. I explain what we’re doing on our farm and why we are doing it, including plenty of pictures that might explain what is happening on the farm. It’s been a great tool to start conversations with everyone involved.
Last summer, we received the Minnesota “Farm Family of the Year” award for Traverse County. The Farm Family Recognition Program has existed for over 30 years and honors farm families from throughout Minnesota for their contributions to the agriculture industry and their local communities.
All of the honored farm families have made significant contributions to Minnesota agriculture and their communities. Rodd’s parents were once also named Farm Family of the Year, which made receiving this award extra special.
We also received the “excellence in agriculture” award from North Dakota State University at NDSU’s Harvest Bowl last November. The program annually recognizes success, dedication, and the hard work of outstanding agriculturists.
It’s a great honor to receive these awards for our conservation and agricultural practices, but we aren’t in farming to get awards. We really wouldn’t do what we do any other way.
Our Farm Family’s Take on Conservation
We believe conservation on our farm is building soil life and wildlife. This is not a quick process – it takes time.
Not everything we do on our farm is done for an immediate economic return. We all know that it takes years for trees to grow, but it also takes time for wildlife and soil life to grow and become balanced with each other. Rodd and I feel like we have the patience and curiosity to watch both of them grow for the next generation – our three daughters, Aspen, Paige, and Josie.
We do think of the day when our children thank us for taking the time and money to do the things we did. But right now, I want my story to encourage other landowners to take time to start wildlife and soil life projects on their own.
I want people to know that farmers are environmentalists. We take great care of the soil, water, and wildlife. As the fourth generation caretaker for this land, this living dirt is my family’s legacy.