Matt Alford and Sam Peterson’s Minnesota farms maybe 100 miles apart, but when it comes to conservation and stewardship, they might as well live next door. Both share a common mind regarding their desire to explore and embrace new ideas, improve their farm's environmental footprint and business profile, and network with other farmers.
The conservation-minded Alford, aptly from Blue Earth, Minn., says in his search to make the farm more sustainable, he has learned, “it’s not just doing the right thing but doing the right thing in an optimal way. You have to do your homework, pay attention to the details and make a commitment.”
However, sometimes finding the right path and balancing goals like cleaner water, healthier soil and business profitability can involve significant risk. In a low margin enterprise like farming, risk can be a deal-breaker and stifle innovation. Both men found a way around this conundrum by matching up their desire to focus on stewardship with a program called the Minnesota Corn Innovation Grant Program.
Alford is in the second year of his grant funded by the Minnesota Corn Growers Association. He is studying the impact of cover crops on corn and soybean production and aims to prevent fertilizer (nitrogen and phosphorus) loss on the farm.
Research on Peterson’s Northfield, Minn. farm focuses on testing variable rate technology (VRT)—a suite of precision agriculture tools that help farmers better manage seed and fertilizer inputs by only utilizing what is needed for each part of a field.
The farmer-funded and managed grant program has met with significant success since its establishment five years ago and to date has invested $691,552 in 55 projects. 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.
“Minnesota’s grassroots program helps farmers find ways to take the next step in conservation, to make it work on their farm but also to motivate others,” said Paul Meints, Senior Research Director MCGA or MCRP. “There’s a lot of media and societal pressure for change in agriculture to meet societal expectations. So, it’s an added benefit the public can see how far farmers have already come and got a feel for where we are going.”
“This program is unique because it is farmer-driven and farmer-led, which means the people making the decisions and seeking solutions understand the challenges. It’s been a great experience,” Alford agrees. “Change is constant in farming, but in the last few years, the concept of sustainable or regenerative farming has become very real. We’re starting to see value being put on it by big investors in the food chain, so that’s going to accelerate things.”
When Alford started researching cover crops, he became focused on finding the optimal planting window to get the cover crop seed into the ground early enough for some growth before it is shaded out by the corn canopy. When the corn matures in September and the canopy thins, the early-planted cover crop puts on a growth spurt, then really takes off when it receives direct sunlight after harvest. That cover crop protects the soil in the coming months, improves the soil, enhances fertility and results in cleaner water.
Preliminary results show optimal planting timing for the cover crop is when he would normally be topping off the nitrogen with a side-dressing pass on corn that is around 8-10 inches tall. Alford uses a blend of annual ryegrass and buckwheat, along with smaller amounts of turnip and rapeseed. In corn-on-corn rotations, he plants a light rate of annual ryegrass, with hairy vetch, red clover and turnip.
With funds through the Innovation Grant Program, Alford was able to retrofit his side-dress nitrogen machine with a seed delivery box, with outlets and fans to blow the seed down into the delivery units. The action of the applicator mixes fertilizer and cover crop seed together and lightly incorporates it in the soil.
Once he was able to nail down the right rate of pre-emergent, Alford has seen savings in his herbicide cost because the cover crop has essentially eliminated the need for a post-emergence herbicide application. Alford has saved $15 an acre through the combination of increased yield and reduction in his herbicide application.
The results were eye-opening to Alford, as well as to his peers. Alford presented his findings at the National Strip-Tillage Conference in Illinois in August. Education and shared learning experiences are a big part of the Minnesota program and The Success in Stewardship Network.
“Being involved in this program has presented me with valuable networking opportunities. I have contacts I will use well after the field trials are over with other farmers, university extension experts and people throughout the Ag industry,” Peterson said.
Peterson, admits the rigorous field testing and trials, field mapping, and data management takes extra time, “but it also takes some of the emotion out of management and separates what you think you know from what you really know. It gives you more confidence related to when and where to invest your resources.”
Peterson’s grant proposal was to test several variable rate technology programs and determine which one works best on different soils, and how each VRT program can adapt to precipitation and ambient air temperature.
Ultimately, the goal of the Innovation Grant funding is to show that the most efficient VRT technology will result in farm profits as well as increased nitrogen use efficiency and thus reduced loss to the environment. Peterson compared three services—NitrateNow, Encirca and Field Forecasting Tool—to see which resulted in the highest yield while producing the most profit through improved efficiency.
Peterson quickly learned each VRT option, which can cost $5 to $6 an acre, uses its own process. NitrateNow takes a 12-inch soil sample to get nitrate levels, Encirca combines soil sample data with weather history, drainage and more, and the Field Forecasting tool uses a plant tissue sample.
With three growing seasons under his belt he notes some key takeaways:
- Using variable nitrogen rates is worth pursuing and can drive efficiency up by lowering pounds of nitrogen per bushel without lowering yield potential.
- He will continue to utilize VRT because they are great programs when it comes to managing nitrogen runoff, leaching, and using fertilizer more responsibly overall.
- VRT programs are flexible and work with dry or liquid fertilizer.
- Field forecasting tools aren’t as reliable or consistent as they need to be. To realize their full potential weather projection needs to be better, ideally being accurate up to three months in advance
The results of both projects and others in the Innovation Grant Project are posted at mncorn.org/research. For more information about the Success in Stewardship Network and selection criteria, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org. For the latest on NCGA and EDF’s partnership, listen to this podcast: https://ncga.com/stay-informed/media/podcast or email email@example.com.