Phil Winborn, Johnson County, Iowa farmer, has been around the soil loss equation for a long time. He knows it tells him which practices are losing soil and how much, but says using the SoilCalculator program offered by his local ag retailer, Stutsman Agricultural Products of Hills, Iowa, is quick.
“In a matter of 20 minutes to a half hour you can put your information into the program and find out which tillage systems or cropping systems are beneficial to you. It’s more detailed than we’re used to seeing, plus it would take months to get a conservation plan and then you have to thumb through a bunch of pages. When you can look at it on a computer screen and make changes right in front of your face, it’s more effective. It shows me where there’s room for improvement, and where I’m doing pretty good.”
Another Stutsman customer said, “It was surprising to me how much soil you could save and really how easy it was (to reduce erosion) just by applying, in my case, rye as a cover crop. It was pretty dramatic.”
A DISCUSSION STARTER
“Regardless of whether you are talking about soil or nitrogen, most growers and landowners don’t have any idea what they’re losing and what it costs,” says Stan Buman, conservation specialist for United Suppliers, Inc (USI), a crop protection and nutrient business cooperatively owned by ag retailers.
“In 30 minutes SoilCalculator answers how much soil is being lost in 30 square foot grids across the field. The SUSTAIN nitrogen tool can help landowners understand their nitrogen loss potential during the past three years. We plug in a farm shape file, nitrogen rate, application method, and the model shows nitrogen loss under three management scenarios.”
The software is a discussion starter. “‘Do you know how much soil you’ve lost?’ Farmers want to know,” says Buman. “They’re shocked when they see results and ask, ‘What can I do to save it?’ Facts motivate. It changes the conversation.”
Buman and Agren (Iowa-based developer of tools used by USI) have made it their mission to put accurate, fast conservation planning tools where farmers want to do business. “Many growers do not use government services,” says Buman. “If good tools are available from their most trusted advisors—chemical and seed dealers—they may be more apt to ask for the facts and implement.”
DESIRE TO HELP
Buman shared these thoughts on a wintery evening in Okoboji, Iowa, where he spent two days educating USI owner/retailers about soil conservation and nitrogen loss, why they’re important, and how conservation planning tools help farming customers. The former Natural Resources Conservation Service conservationist knows the complexity of conservation delivery and is pragmatic,
“These member/owners want to help farmers become more sustainable. Retailers traditionally orient to products, not services, but we’re figuring out how they can integrate conservation planning into retail systems. They are committed for the long haul.”
SHARED GOALS, MARKET-DRIVEN DEMAND
Buman began working with USI after Matt Carstens, Vice-President of Crop Nutrients, met with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and discovered they had similar goals—to keep fertilizer where it is applied and available to the plant. As USI refined their nutrient management strategy, Agren’s tools were added to round out the strategy. The USI Sustain platform was developed. Buman was hired to provide conservation planning services to the farmer through USI’s retailers.
Suzy Friedman, EDF director for agriculture sustainability, said in a 2015 blog post: “The supply chains for numerous food, beverage and pet products start with grain farmers—and fertilizer. To put it simply, these supply chains are complicated. They can include hundreds of companies in many different industries and locations. But they share a common problem: excess fertilizer is lost to the air and water as pollution.”
U.S. agriculture and conservation leaders are now determining ways to define and measure the sustainability of food, fiber and fuel production through Field to Market: The Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture. The effort is driven by new standards defined by Walmart and other retailers and processors, who will make documented environmental accountability a reality for many growers.
Buman, Agren, Carstens, USI and other advisors throughout the Midwest are working to help farmers succeed at both production and resource protection in a region where more than 70 percent of land is used for agriculture, and is therefore vulnerable.
“Everyone wants crop nutrients to stay where they are applied, to grow the crop,“ says Buman, “It’s common ground. We all want the same thing. SUSTAIN is the platform our retailers can use to help their farmer customers improve fertilizer efficiencies.”