Category Archives: fertilizer

EPA: Agricultural Nitrogen and Phosphorus is Reason for Gulf Dead Zone

The EPA’s recent report about hypoxia in the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico is very damaging for agriculture. They tell us that eliminating the pollution-caused hypoxia would require large shifts in food production and agricultural management.

As shown in the above graphic, they have determined that 71 percent of nitrogen released into the Gulf is from agriculture, and 80 percent of phosphorus is from agriculture. Furthermore, the states that contribute the most to the farmland induced nutrient pollution of the rivers and gulf are reluctant and resistant to inducing any changes which would reduce the farm runoffs, though they have been asked to do so.

Sadly, runoff of these nutrients also translates to loss of our precious topsoil resource in our nation, something every citizen should feel responsible to defend politically. Soil runoff threatens future farmland productivity.

Right policy could reduce farm nutrient runoff, and the biggest culprit right now is the Renewable Fuels Standard, which requires us to grow millions upon millions of acres more corn than we need. Which means the EPA’s plea to reduce the Dead Zone makes no sense because they are also the ones who set the RFS mandated use of corn ethanol. Does their right hand know what their left hand is doing?


Unfarming: The Way to Win a Million Dollars

Above: May 2011 flood on the Mississippi River. USDA Photo.

A little while back there was an announcement that anyone who could solve the world’s dead zone problems like we have in the Gulf of Mexico here in the U.S., could win a million dollars. Instantly, I thought my ship had come in, because I knew the answers to the challenge right off the top of my head. It would take me five minutes to do an outline, an hour to write it up, then, bang, a million bucks and I’ve bought my way into New Zealand. But then I caught the clincher “solutions must meet a suite of simultaneous and sometimes conflicting needs – from protecting water resources and near-shore ecosystems to ensuring the capacity and vitality of agricultural productivity” — at which point I gave up without trying. Appropriately, the contest comes out of Tulane University, based in New Orleans, Louisiana.

For starters, how I’d love to see a minimum natural area bordering all waterways, scaled to the size of the waterway. But, why is it that when something makes such obvious sense, then, it just cannot happen? Look at this from George Monbiot excerpted from his lengthy rant against corporate agriculture yesterday over at The Guardian:

We should turn the rivers flowing into the lowlands into “blue belts” or “wild ways”. For 50 metres on either side, the land would be left unfarmed, allowing trees and bogs to return and creating continuous wildlife corridors. Bogs and forests trap the floodwaters, helping to protect the towns downstream. They catch the soil washing off the fields and filter out some of the chemicals which would otherwise find their way into the rivers. A few of us are now in the process of setting up a rewilding group in Britain, which would seek to catalyse some of these changes.

Fifty metres is only 164 feet. Along the mighty Mississippi, we should have at least 2-5 miles of natural forest and prairie land — so George is being really conservative in his baby step plan.

There is good news today in industrial farming practices as they relate to the Dead Zone. There is less overuse of fertilizers, and precision agriculture and cover crops are helping.

But we need a wiser long-term vision, a vision which would bring back a healthy biodiversity to the Midwest. I’d like a lot of shelter belts to return to farming areas, “agroforestry” if you will; and, wildlife corridors which would run up and down the former prairie lands which would be available to the public for enjoyment and help to attract a vibrant younger population back to the Midwest; and let’s throw in a minimum percentage of taxpayer-funded natural land, or buffer strips, on every farm, too. By removing tiling from beneath buffer strips, those areas could actually catch fertilizer run-off. Finally, we could turn more of corn country into grasslands on which to raise large herbivores, and other livestock. All of these things could really help to reduce the Dead Zone… but what will NOT reduce the Dead Zone is the monoculture crop status quo.

The U.S. Midwestern industrial agriculture farmer ails economically today from the monoculture commodity oversupply problem. We have not gained export market share of our major three commodity crops (corn, soybeans, wheat) in fourteen years (see graph). This land which is polluting the Dead Zone due to fertilizer runoff is not, unfortunately, feeding the world. No, it is feeding our cars and the end-points of crony capitalism.

Are these things feasible? Yes, anything is feasible given the right policy support… over time.

Unfarming. Now that’s a word for this century.

3 Picks: Netherlands Lab Burger, Biofuels Exports, Nitrogen Fixing Bacteria

Photo credit: Maastricht University

Below, are today’s three chosen agricultural-related news picks.

1) Scientists cook world’s first in-vitro beef burger today: From Kate Kelland, “A corner of west London will see culinary and scientific history made on Monday when scientists cook and serve up the world’s first lab-grown beef burger. The in-vitro burger, cultured from cattle stem cells, the first example of what its creator says could provide an answer to global food shortages and help combat climate change, will be fried in a pan and tasted by two volunteers….”

2) Ethanol and Biodiesel Export Amounts Update: Nick Paulson at the Univ. of Illinois shows us graphs of the past several years in export amounts of biodiesel and ethanol. “The continually increasing biofuel mandate volumes along with the challenges introduced by the E-10 blend wall are making it more difficult for obligated parties to comply with the RFS. This has been reflected by the significant increase in RIN values since early in 2012. Yet, the U.S. continues to export both ethanol and biodiesel.”

3) The University of Nottingham is promoting a new technology which they say could enable the world’s crops to take nitrogen from the air rather than expensive and environmentally damaging fertilisers: “Professor Edward Cocking, director of the University of Nottingham’s Centre for Crop Nitrogen Fixation, has developed a unique method of putting nitrogen-fixing bacteria into the cells of plant roots. His major breakthrough came when he found a specific strain of nitrogen-fixing bacteria in sugar cane which he discovered could intracellularly colonize all major crop plants. This groundbreaking development potentially provides every cell in the plant with the ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen. … It is anticipated that the N-Fix technology will be commercially available within the next two to three years.”

This news post was written and compiled by K. McDonald.

The USDA’s Latest Report on Energy Use in Agriculture

It has been just shy of two years since the USDA came out with its last report on energy use in agriculture. The title of this month’s new report is, “Agriculture’s Supply and Demand for Energy and Energy Products.” This time they presented the subject by saying that energy inputs no longer have a linear relationship with agriculture since commodities are now used for the production of biofuels, and that farmers adapt in other ways to rising energy costs.

The agriculture sector in the U.S. uses less than 2 percent of total U.S. energy consumption. However, energy and energy-intensive inputs account for a significant share of agricultural production costs. For example, corn, sorghum, and rice farmers allocated over 30 percent of total production expenditures on energy inputs in 2011.

From 2001 through 2011, direct energy use accounted for 63 percent of agricultural energy consumption, compared with 37 percent for indirect use, as shown in the graph below.

Direct energy uses in farming include diesel and gasoline fuels to run machinery to plant, till, and harvest; to dry crops; for livestock use; and to transport goods. As shown in the graph, less fuel was used in 2011, when prices were higher. Electricity is used to heat and cool livestock and dairy operations, and for pump irrigation. Its use has remained relatively constant, along with its price during this time period.

Indirect uses of energy on U.S. farms include energy-intensive inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides.

The following graph shows shows a breakdown of the energy components, both direct and indirect, used in farming from 2001 to 2011.

Since 2006, the USDA has been doing surveys to find out how farmers are responding to higher prices for fuel and fertilizer. Farmers have responded to higher prices by changing production practices which increase efficient use of energy. The next graphs show us how farmers responded to higher prices in the year 2006.

The energy costs of industrial agriculture may pit farming methods against each other in the future. Because there are so many components within the system, and so many crop choices, gradually the waste in the system will be worked out and more efficient machinery and methods will be adopted. For some production, labor may again be substituted for fossil fuels. But, I’d also expect that the government will subsidize agricultural energy inputs in one way or another, given some future point in time when energy is more expensive. In many ways these costs are already being subsidized or supported through policy.

Smart, Innovative Farmers in the Dakotas

No-till planting of corn into a cover crop of barley. Photo credit: USDA NRCS.

Even as farm commodity prices have been strong, the input costs for industrial farming methods have been increasing. Given a fall in commodity prices, these inputs might not be recovered and these days we’re talking real money to plant a crop. Then, there is that pesky problem of Roundup resistant weeds so that additional labor or chemical expense is required anyway, on top of the high input costs already paid up front.

Where is this headed? I don’t know, but it just might be the way these smart farmers in the Dakotas are approaching farming.

Last month, Brian Devore wrote about some innovative Burleigh County, North Dakota farmers, for the Twin Cities Daily Planet. It was one of the best write-ups featuring a local farming trend that I’ve read in quite a while and I encourage you to read it, too. Part 1 is here, and Part 2 is here, but in the paragraphs below I will summarize the lengthy writing.

There are some real smart farmers in the Dakotas.
Some Dakota farmers are combining holistic techniques in a way that they believe has the potential to revolutionize the way agriculture should be done in the future. By combining multi-species cover crops, mob grazing, and frequent rotations with conservation tillage, they are investing in their soil and the future, and are being rewarded with huge productivity, too.

It all began when a North Dakota farming region that receives only 16 inches of rainfall per year realized that the practices of overgrazing, extensive tillage, and a lack of crop diversity had caused compacted soil which didn’t soak up water — because it contained only a tiny amount of organic matter.

Whereas prairies can contain 10 to 15 percent organic matter, poor, intensively farmed soils contain only 1 percent or less. If a modern farmer can increase the organic matter in soil from just 1 to 3 percent, it will soak up twice as much water. Organic matter, though a low percentage of soil’s composition, controls most of the soil’s functions.

“Those bad weather years were the best thing that ever happened.”
One of the farmers who developed the system featured in this article did so out of economic necessity. He ran out of funds with which to purchase fertilizer after a few bad weather years resulted in crop wipe-outs. Now, he says that those bad years were the best thing that ever happened to him. Because they led him to plant nitrogen fixing legumes instead of buying nitrogen fertilizer. He then saw great improvement in his soil and water absorption.

Other farmers took note, and decided to take his actions a few steps further. They, over time, came up with a plan to combine a diversity of cover crops, livestock grazing, and no-till agriculture that would prove to drastically improve soil quality, and consequently, productivity through better water retention. North Dakotan NCRS representative, Jay Fuhrer, was instrumental in working with the farmers to develop the systems.

Biodiversity to the rescue.
As more bad weather luck would have it, another drought hit during a field experiment of cover crop combinations. The year 2006 was one of the driest years on record in Burleigh County, North Dakota, which tested the cover crop plots beyond conditions any of the farmers believed were survivable that year. They were amazed to find out that the test plot which mixed eight of the cover crop species together was the only one that survived, and survive it did, as the plants in that plot didn’t even look stressed. Even the combinations of three cover crops together had failed that year.

The experiment demonstrated how the diversity of planting the species together helped them all survive. They knew that it was what was going on below the ground that was creating the fertile environment, not unlike a real prairie ecosystem.

Now these same farmers are using as many as 20 species together as cover crops.

Their typical system today looks something like this
A planting season consists of using four crop types: warm season broadleafs such as alfalfa, buckwheat, chick pea, cowpea and sunflower; warm season grasses such as corn, millet, sorghum and Sudan; cool season grasses such as barley, oats and triticale; and cool season broadleafs such as canola, flax, vetch and sweet clover.

Winter wheat is harvested in June or July when the warm season crops are planted. They are grazed from late summer into fall and early winter. This enriches the soil through manure, urine, and trampling of the soil in preparation for a crop such as corn the next spring.

“Ron Hein Crop Response 2007″
Photo credit: pdf document “Building Soil Health”. NRCS.

They believe that mob grazing might be even better than rotational paddock grazing for the soil.

They emphasize that it is the combination of all of the methods they use which achieve their high production and great soil health.

The chemistry and biology of the soil is extremely complicated and often mysterious. And, not to be ignored, is the fact that this system is fixing large amounts of carbon into the soil. Globally, soil stockpiles 1,500 gigatonnes of carbon, more than the Earth’s atmosphere and all the plants on the planet.

Most importantly, the economics of this system work. Farmer Brown, featured in the article, says that the organic matter he’s built up in his soil is worth $3,775 per acre. His 2011 corn crop netted him $5.38 per bushel, after expenses. He grows corn, spring wheat, triticale and vetch on one-fourth of his land and the rest is pasture.

But, what about high-value cropland seeking yields?
These farmers believe it is a mind-set problem. Producers focus on buying more inputs to treat problems rather than treating the symptoms. They learned through personal experience that adversity drives change and they think everyone should reexamine their systems and the true potential of their soils.

Brown says that though there are farmers in many locations doing this, he just has the biggest mouth. Yet, since the longer he does this, the more questions he has, farmers with systems like this could all benefit by banding together to exchange information, as they question agriculture’s conventional wisdom.

They just think that the soil needs to be fed and eat, just like we do, and then good things will follow for the farmers. Much of this is counter-intuitive. One of the tough sells is that today’s modern industrial agricultural system is a system of immediate gratification. Chemical input in, big crop out. On the contrary, this Burleigh County Soil Health Team’s system requires the faith and knowledge that the practice is a valuable investment for a future that is sustainable, resilient, and profitable.

Not only that, the innovation of these farmers practicing like this is causing some young to want to farm in the region because of all of the positive energy being generated. The region’s soil microbiologist keeps pushing these farmers further to try to achieve yet higher organic matter in their soil — to try to approach that of the native prairies.

Finally, they realize that the general public’s awareness is also a key ingredient. Because, the public will benefit, too, in the way of a cleaner environment and a more resilient food system.

Being a follower of many ongoing and current discussions about global food security, one of the problems often mentioned is how do we teach the developing world ways to improve their farming output and methods. There is a consensus that government involvement is one important key. Might we have a similar problem in our very own nation? Our USDA is very large, and certainly the conservation divisions within it are doing a wonderful job, but more could be done to promote biodiversity and soil conservation farming practices that are capable of increasing yields while decreasing input costs and offering greater resilience to drought and climate change weather surprises.

After just returning from a wheat conference held here in Colorado, yesterday, the message was similar. We’ve got to get more crop per drop if we want to improve wheat yields, and the residue provided by no-till farming has proven to give higher yields to wheat farmers practicing no-till here in Eastern Colorado. But, might there be more lessons from Burleigh County North Dakota for Colorado and other wheat growing regions which all receive similar amounts of rainfall? And beyond these areas as well?