GMOs are one of the best tools farmers have to protect the environment. Learn more by watching this video!
Here at IL Corn we’re all about protecting our state insect by establishing and protecting monarch habitats. Want to learn more and help out? Take the Monarch Challenge.
Jennie is a Maryland farmer. She is also a registered dietitian who speaks about food and farming systems, sustainability and family farms.
[Originally published on CommonGround]
Drive through the Midwest and you’re likely to see field after field of corn and soybeans. Head down South, there’s cotton as far as the eye can see. And of course, Florida is synonymous with oranges and other citrus groves. Why are certain crops most prevalent in certain areas? And how do farmers decide what crops to plant on their farms?
The first is often dictated by climate and season length. Crops require a certain number of days before they reach maturity and are ready to harvest. Citrus fruits, for example, need more days of warmth and sunshine, which suits them well for states like California and Florida, while crops like corn can thrive in places like the Upper Midwest, where the days get shorter and colder in early fall.
America in Miniature
My home state of Maryland is sometimes called “America in miniature” because of our diverse ecology. From ocean to mountains, we have it all, along with a typical climate that’s somewhere between that found in the north or the south. We also have well-drained soil that’s not too dense, making it good for many crops. You see a wide array of crops grown throughout Maryland – just about everything, with the exception of citrus fruit.
As I write this blog, I’m in the middle of harvesting my twenty acres of wine grapes. You may equate wine grapes with places like Napa Valley, but grapes also thrive in Maryland, New York and elsewhere in New England. We have some great wineries! We often say that grapes don’t like wet feet, meaning they thrive in soil like mine that dries quickly and where the water table isn’t high. This keeps the roots from wet soil. In addition, on our farm we grow barley, wheat, tomatoes, green beans, corn and soybeans – which we harvest in that order, from June to October.
Climate and soil type aren’t the only factors that help farmers decide what crops to grow – things like infrastructure also play a large role, and I’ll talk more about that in my next blog. But if you’ve ever wondered why there’s a Corn Belt across the U.S. and orange groves in the South, you can bet that Mother Nature is the primary reason.
Agriculture is a large portion of the economy in Illinois. Every farmer in Illinois has their own method of planting and raising their crop. Every farmer must make decisions on what is the best way to raise their crop with the conditions and location they have. Tillage, which is when farmers dig into the soil and mix it, is one decision that farmers make every year. Three types of tillage exist conventional tillage, reduced tillage, and no tillage. This blog is going to focus on why farmers are utilizing reduced tillage.
Reduced tillage is sometimes referred to as conservation tillage and is just what it sounds like, less tillage than conventional tillage, but more tillage than no tillage. Farmers may choose to utilize reduced tillage for a variety of reasons including prevention of soil loss, reduced soil compaction, improved soil’s organic matter, and decrease in labor cost.
Soil loss is a growing problem today. The soil is vital for agriculture, and we are losing our soil faster than our earth can make it. It takes the earth 500 to 1000 years to create an inch of topsoil. When we are losing an inch of topsoil every 20 years. With the reduced tillage practice, we can reduce the soil erosion because of the crop residue and the roots. Think about weeding a garden, when you pull a weed usually soil will come up with the weed. This is because the roots hold the soil. With reduced tillage, the previous crops roots are still buried beneath the ground and are still able to anchor the soil in place to prevent loose particles from running off through water or the wind.
There are three sizes of soil particles, listed from largest to smallest, sand, silt, and clay. Over time these particles can squish tighter together. This causes a problem for the crops because the crops need air spaces in the soil to absorb water and other nutrients from the soil. Heavy machinery such as tractors can compact the soil over time, and because reduced tillage requires less preparation for planting the soil is not driven over as much, and results in a decrease in soil compaction. Look at this triangle showing the different steps and machinery needed for the different styles of tillage. (Insert Tractor triangle photo)
Reduced tillage can increase organic matter because the decomposition process is slower when the residue is left on the top of the soil and will cause an increase in nutrients on the top layers of the soil, and overall increase soil health over time.
Less labor is another great advantage of reduced tillage. Because there contains less steps in the process for reduced tillage less time will need to be invested as well as less money will be needed for equipment or labor cost.
Reduced tillage is a great option to help reduce soil erosion, reduce soil compaction, increase organic matter, and reduce time and labor. If you are interested in learning more about different soil tillage management systems, please review this document linked here: Soil Management and Tillage.
University of Illinois
IL Corn and the ag industry has introduced some management practices and talked about some concepts that are different for farmers, trying to help them improve the water quality coming from IL farms.
Farmers are anxious to learn, some are trying out a few new practices, others are watching and learning from their neighbors, but …
WE NEED MORE FARMERS TO TRY MORE CONSERVATION PRACTICES.
Farmers are farming because they love it, but also because they need to provide for their own families. So trying something completely new, and risking tens of thousands of dollars or more in the process, is a scary thing.
Research tells us that trying cover crops will cost *this much* and improve soil health *this much* while also decreasing nutrient loss *this much.* But the research put into practice on some farms doesn’t always work out exactly the same. Farmers get nervous to try new things … and that’s understandable!
But Santa, we’ve got to make our water quality better. We’ve got to lose less of the expensive fertilizer we’re putting on our fields. We’ve got to invest in our land and preserve it for future generations. Farmers definitely want to do this! It is their core value and the foundation of their farming business.
So one thing we’d love for Christmas is for more farmers to TRY a new conservation practice on their fields this year. Maybe they just try it on one field, maybe they branch out to several. Maybe they talk with a neighbor and try the same thing she had success within 2016. We’re making progress, but MORE progress would sure be nice.
Whisper in their ears – would you Santa? We’ll keep providing the outreach, education, and programming in the meantime …
Note: In 2016, IL Corn offered several new educational programs for farmers! These are just a few:
- cover crop coupons – to try cover crops at a reduced cost for the first year
- field days – to see how different management techniques were actually working on farms in Illinois
- interactive maps – to help farmers understand when to apply nitrogen and when not to apply
- Precision Conservation Management – a pilot program that helps farmers understand conservation practices AND the financial implications that correlate with them
- water testing – to understand how much of the expensive fertilizer a farmer was losing from his/her field
Some people think that the only busy times of the year are planting and harvest and the rest of the year farmers spend their glorious amounts of free time vacationing or tinkering with antique tractors. This may be true for some, but not the majority. Today is the eleventh post in my one-year series which will give you an idea of a farmer’s workload throughout the year. Keep in mind that all farms operate differently and I am just providing one example of a year in the life of a grain farmer. There are several factors that contribute to the seasonality of the farm such as size and scale of the operation, crops grown, location, livestock, management style and general upbringing or personal work ethic! I hope this provides some insight to what versatile businessman farmers are.
Start at the beginning!
You’ll continue to get stuck behind slow-moving vehicles on rural roads throughout November, but at least visibility at stop signs improves with the corn and beans down. That’s right, harvest is (finally) wrapping up!
This year’s crop:
- Harvest: A farmer could still be harvesting his grain in November, especially if he’s in Northern Illinois or if the weather is uncooperative. Rain stalls harvest by making soybeans tough and difficult to cut, or by making the fields too squishy to drive heavy machinery through. As for SNOW… it’s not impossible to combine grain with snow on the ground, but it certainly makes picking, transporting, drying and storing it more difficult. Let’s just hope they don’t have to go there!
- Manage Break-Downs: As always, managing breakdowns is an ongoing task on the farm. Gotta keep the equipment in good working order to get the job done.
- Install or fix tile lines: After the crop is out, it’s a good time to install or repair tile lines. Field tile is like a big underground gutter system that aids in field drainage. Sometimes tile can become broken or clogged and needs to be dug up and repaired. Or maybe the field didn’t have any tile to begin with. Post harvest is a good time to install it.
Next year’s crop:
- Looking ahead: With “this year’s crop” being hauled away, it’s time to implement next year’s game plan. This is where things could vary greatly from farm to farm depending on the farmer’s individual preferences and management techniques. Some options could be:
- Fall tillage: working up the ground to break up plant matter and prepare the seed bed for next year’s crop
- Fertilizer and other dry product application: Examples would be phosphorous and potassium (commonly referred to as P&K) and lime
- Anhydrous ammonia can be applied in the fall.
- If farmers are using over-wintering cover crops such as cereal rye, it may be applied post-harvest, depending on what is being planted.
- Research and place 2017 seed orders
This year, USDA, NASS stated that harvest was at least 97% complete at Thanksgiving. What a relief for farmers and their families! With the crops out of the field, the Stewards of the Land were able to enjoy some much-needed family time around the dinner table giving thanks for the bountiful harvest!
Membership Administrative Assistant
Farmers are known as stewards of the land and many take that title seriously. Farmers like Roger Sy make it their mission to promote sustainability on their farms for the benefit of not only their land but also of their neighboring communities. Farmers with this mindset follow the directive of the Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy in order to reduce waste while maintaining profitability and productivity. Here’s a more specific explanation from the Illinois NLRS page on the EPA website:
The Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy guides state efforts to improve water quality at home and downstream by reducing nitrogen and phosphorus levels in our lakes, streams, and rivers. The strategy lays out a comprehensive suite of best management practices for reducing nutrient loads from wastewater treatment plants and urban and agricultural runoff. Recommended activities target the state’s most critical watersheds and are based on the latest science and best-available technology. It also calls for more collaboration between state and federal agencies, cities, non-profits, and technical experts on issues such as water quality monitoring, funding, and outreach.
Farmers who abide by the NLRS strive to implement best management practices (BMPs) on their farm. However, there is a wide array of BMPs to choose from, because conservation needs may differ from farm to farm. So how can non-farmers get familiar with what farmers are doing?
The Conservation Story Map is a place where anyone, whether a farmer or not, a person can explore what BMPs are being practiced across the state of Illinois while introducing real farmers who use them. The website gives farmers a chance to tell their stories and show off their farms while identifying what practices are important to their farm. The map even offers the chance to see how conservation practices differ in neighboring farms.
Whether you are a seasoned veteran or new to ag, the Conservation Story Map offers a wealth of rich data and resources to understand how modern farmers are stewarding agriculture into the future.
Soil is a vital part of the natural environment; it influences the distribution of crops and plant species, and it provides habitats for many animals. When forests are cleared for farming and timber, the chance of soil erosion increases. Erosion is when the topsoil that contains the most nutrients is destroyed or carried away by wind, water, or ice. Luckily here in Illinois, we started as a prairie; our soils were always covered by something, and the deeply rooted grasses that cover Illinois prevents soil erosion from occurring. Agriculture became very popular and necessary as populations rose; farming practices became more intense to accommodate the population needs, and tilling the land – preparing the soil for crops by disturbing the soil, often inducing erosion – became a popular practice. When Illinois farmers began to see the negative impacts of tillage on not only their land but also on the surrounding ecosystems, they found new, more sustainable ways to protect their soil and the environment.
Historically, the uses of no-till and reduced-till practices were widely unaccepted around the nation because farmers didn’t believe that these practices would make a difference in their soil. No-till is a way to grow crops without disturbing the soil – when soil is preserved, it remains healthier and better supports crop growth. The benefits of no-till include an increase in water infiltration into the soil and better nutrient retention. George Elvert McKibben, an Illinois native and agronomist at the University of Illinois, made no-till practices acceptable to farmers by experimenting with no-till systems in 1966. The main concern of farmers was to save their soil; to show farmers the advantages of no-till, McKibben and his team planted corn into grassy plots around Illinois. The results vastly changed the way farmers thought about soil management practices; the corn thrived and reduced soil erosion on the plots. Once John Deere manufactured a no-till planter, no-till and reduced-till practices became even more widely supported and implemented by farmers.
Long-term sustainability has always been a goal of agriculturists. Farmers know that the key to healthy ecosystems and agricultural lands start with healthy soils. A healthy soil is one that sustains a diverse ecosystem that supports animals, plants, and humans. Other practices are being implemented by farmers in addition to no-till and reduced till to protect soil and the environment. Collecting runoff from soil nutrients is an important way that farmers are limiting the amount of pollutants that enter nearby waterways. Planting cover crops in fields that don’t have anything planted in them is another way farmers are reducing nutrient pollution runoff into nearby waterways.
The Soil Health Partnership, a National Corn Growers Association Initiative, is a project created to make agriculture more sustainable by focusing on soil health. The Partnership measures the benefits of best soil management practices and relays results to farmers. Farmers in Illinois and around the Midwest can join the Partnership to learn more about how to protect soil and the environment. Farmers in the Partnership either have been practicing no-till or reduced-till management on their land or have recently switched over. Farmers are stewards of the environment; from continuous education about soil and the environment to the adoption of best soil management practices, farmers are doing everything they can to sustain the environment and their land.
Near the coast of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico, there is an area the size of Connecticut that is completely void of any life. This area, which is known as the Gulf’s “dead zone,” is created by a number of environmental factors acting in tandem. One contributor is fertilizer runoff, which contains the macro-nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus, is leached out of soils and into waterways (known as erosion), like the Mississippi River. The water pollution originates in all areas (both from cities and farmland), and these macro-nutrients are carried downstream and pour into the Gulf of Mexico. Because the nutrient levels become so high, algal blooms occur rapidly, depleting much of the oxygen in the area (this condition is otherwise known as hypoxia). Discharge from wastewater management systems is another large contributor to the hypoxia problem. This expeditious depletion of oxygen kills off any animal or plant that once lived there.
Scientists discovered the “dead zone” in the Gulf in 1972. It is the largest man-made hypoxic zone in the world, and in 2002, the zone became as large as the size of Massachusetts. Farmers today are doing everything they can to help decrease the hypoxic zone. One significant way they are minimizing their impact, as well as helping to improve waterways and promote general soil health, farmers have begun to use cover crops.
Cover crops include any crop that grows between periods of regular crop production. Cover crops benefit agricultural land because they enrich soil and protect it from erosion. Their extensive root system improves aeration in soil, allowing more air and water to infiltrate. Additionally, the root system creates pathways for a diverse array of soil animals that break down unavailable nutrients and make them available for crop uptake – an acre of healthy soil has the equivalent of 4 cows worth of microorganisms living in it! Cover crops create a more fertile and resilient agriculture field that can increase crop yield while also maintaining soil health.
Cover crops also reduce soil erosion caused by sediments, nutrients, and agricultural chemicals. The root system of these crops and the soil’s biological community take up or hold onto excess nitrogen, preventing it from leaching into waterways. Not only does reduced leaching mean less nutrient runoff into the Gulf (and therefore decreasing the effects of hypoxia), but this also improves the quality of drinking water over time.
Planting cover crops is very beneficial to both the environment and to crop production. When planting, it is important to use a cover crop that compliments the following harvest to maximize the benefits from the cover crop. You can even create cover crop ‘cocktails’ to achieve a multitude of benefits at one time; a field that uses a mix of cover crops is able to take up excess nutrients, suppress weeds, and create soil aggregation all in one area!
If you’re thinking of planting cover crops, whether it is on a small or large-scale, remember to do your research and start small. Additionally, if you want to learn more about cover crops you can attend an Illinois Demo Day, held in multiple counties throughout the summertime. If we all start to utilize cover crops within our agricultural lands, the soil will be more sustainable, and we may see a significant change in the size of the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico.
Your chance to virtually visit a corn farm is finally here!
One of our farmer leaders, Justin Durdan, invited IL Corn, WGN Radio personality Patti Vasquez, and a host of video techies to his farm where we’ve already filmed TWO new videos for you to check out.
They are 360° videos – you can see a full 360° around the farm and check out all sorts of farm goings-on for yourself.
Have you wondered about how farmers apply fertilizer? You can come along and watch Justin do it.
Been curious about how farmers apply pesticides and why? Justin lets you literally watch the drops mist out of the sprayer.
Maybe you don’t understand how tractors plant using GPS? Come into the cab while Justin is planting!
Seriously, this is an opportunity you don’t want to miss. You can find the videos housed at
Note: If viewing video on desktop, click and drag your mouse. If viewing video on mobile, open the video in the YouTube app to experience the full 360° view.