As 2023 gets underway, it presents a good time for farmers to set some New Year’s resolutions for their operation, even if they are a bit belated. Ciji Taylor, a public affairs specialist for the USDA, recommended keeping conservation in mind when making future plans about your farm. “People can be good stewards of the land while making good decisions for themselves,” she said.
Here are just a few suggestions for a successful year full of responsible agricultural conservation:
- Incorporate cover crops into your operation. Cover crops are plants grown principally to benefit the successful growth of other future crops. They help reduce soil erosion while improving overall soil health. The presence of cover crops can crowd out weeds and control pests and diseases. While increasing biodiversity, cover crops can also increase a farm’s profitability.
- Extend your growing season by using a high tunnel. High tunnels, also called high hoops or hoop houses, are temporary structures that extend the length of a growing season. These covered structures are set up in the field in order to protect crops from rain, wind, overly cool or excessively warm temperatures and pests. Just imagine being able to get a jump-start on your plantings while not having to live in fear of the frequently fatal first frost!
- Improve your soil health by utilizing no-till practices. No-till farming is an agricultural technique for growing crops or pasture without disturbing the soil through tillage. While decreasing costs by requiring less fuel, labor and tilling equipment, this practice decreases the amount of soil erosion tillage causes in certain soils, especially in sandy and dry soils on sloping terrain. No-till farmers have said that the practice allows them to farm more acreage overall.
- Restore wetlands. Wetlands can benefit farmers by creating cleaner water through what is essentially a natural filtration system. Additionally, the unique relationships between diverse species living in wetlands often maximize plant growth and nutrient production. Restoring farmable wetlands improves groundwater quality, helps trap and break down pollutants, prevents soil erosion and reduces downstream flood damage, all while providing a habitat for water birds and other wildlife.
- Use filter strips. A filter strip is an area of permanent vegetation, frequently long grasses, used to filter sediment, organics, nutrients, pesticides and other contaminants from farm sheet flow runoff. Filter strips can maintain and even improve local water quality. As filter strips slow the velocity of water, they facilitate the settling out of suspended soil particles, infiltration of runoff and soluble pollutants, adsorption of pollutants on soil and plant surfaces and plant uptake of soluble pollutants. Filter strips are most effective and useful on land with less than 10% slope at the lower edge of crop fields.
- Reduce input costs by focusing on nutrient management. Soil nutrient management is defined by the USDA as “managing the application of commercial fertilizers, manure, amendments and organic byproducts to agricultural landscapes as a source of plant nutrients.” A common framework for approaching nutrient management is known as the Four Rs: the right amount, the right source, the right placement and the right timing. By considering the Four Rs, growers can maximize the nutrients taken up by a crop and minimize the amount of additions wasted or lost to the environment. Careful consideration of soil nutrient management provides growers with optimum crop yield and economic benefits while reducing the negative impacts that excess nutrient amendments may have on the environment.
While production and fiscal goals are often at the forefront of a new year’s list of things to achieve, take some time to look into conservation goals as well. Something small invested today can lead to significant dividends down the road.
by Enrico Villamaino