Adopting agricultural conservation practices can result in financial gains rather than losses

Ripon High School Ag Teacher and Ripon FFA leader Natasha Paris talks to participants about the five keys to soil health: Armor on the soil, minimize disturbance, keep as much living root as possible, incorporate diverse crops and incorporate animal impact. Incorporating soil health principles in a farm system increases organic matter, reduces fertilizer inputs, increases infiltration, reduces runoff and increases crop yields. submitted photo

by Alison Nieseier

Agriculture can be a grueling business. Volatile market prices, unpredictable weather and variable crop yields contribute to a growing set of risks determining whether a farm keeps its barn doors open or shuts them for good.

The second annual Green Lake Area Conservation Field Day, hosted at Pollack-VU Dairy last month, was an opportunity for more than 75 farmers, shoreline owners and community members to learn how these uncertainties influence a farmer’s crop-management decisions.

One assumption that often limits participation is that these management decisions — like planting cover crops, reducing tillage, installing contour strips and implementing a nutrient management plan — add cost to an industry already burdened by slim margins.

However, for Chris Pollack, owner of Pollack-VU Dairy and fifth-generation farmer in the Green Lake watershed, incorporating conservation practices has come with economic gains, not losses.

Between 2015 and 2018, Pollack has saved almost $6,000 on 650 acres of cropland by improving his soil health and thereby reducing his required fertilizer use. His yields even increased during this same period.

When changing farming practices, not all soil-health improvements happen overnight. “It often takes at least four years of trying to improve soil health to see a difference,” cautioned Becky Wagner, agronomist for Fond du Lac County’s Land and Water Conservation Department.

Wagner pointed out that Pollack’s management practices prevented 260 pounds of phosphorus from entering a nearby stream annually. While that amount may seem abstract, it equates to approximately 227,500 pounds of prevented algae growth downstream in Big Green Lake each year.

Pollack’s nutrient management plan helps stretch every penny further. Each crop — corn, soybeans, alfalfa and others — has specific nutrient requirements to grow.

The soil naturally provides some of this need, but nutrients required in greater amounts, such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, often need to be added to the soil annually.

Pollack uses SnapPlus, a free nutrient-management planning software, to calculate the amount of manure needed on each field to balance the plants’ nutrient needs. Often, the ratio of nutrients in manure does not match the ratio required by the plant, so purchased fertilizers are applied to close the gap. SnapPlus helps Pollack get the right mix of manure and fertilizer on each field to maintain both crop growth and environmental quality.

Asked what is the biggest challenge farmers face today, Pollack responded, “One word: economics,” as he described the current agricultural climate.

To the unfamiliar, the reality can be sobering.

A calculation published by Iowa State University estimates that it costs $627 to grow an acre of corn (following soybeans; 180 bushels per acre) in 2018. As of this publication, a farmer could only sell that same corn for $450 per acre, or at a loss of $177 per acre.

The same trends hold true for soybeans. It costs $473 to grow an acre of soybeans (50 bushels per acre) that a farmer can sell for only $330, or a loss of $143 per acre.

Farmers in the Green Lake watershed and beyond are likely losing money for every acre of grain that they are growing.

For Stephanie Prellwitz, executive director of the Green Lake Association, understanding the challenges of farming is critical when building farmer-led programs that incorporate conservation practices that jointly improve downstream water quality.

“We sometimes hear, ‘Why aren’t farmers in the watershed doing more to protect the lake?’, but when you see these numbers, you begin to understand why,” said Prellwitz to the field-day attendees. “I see the Green Lake Association and Lake Management Planning (LMP) team’s role as reducing this risk, so that farmers can overcome the learning curve and experiment with conservation practices without the concern of economic losses.”

Despite the challenges producers are facing in today’s climate, many are adopting soil health management practices and discovering the economic benefits tied to improved field conditions. In fact, in the past five years, landowners in the Green Lake watershed have installed more than $1.9 million in various cropping and conservation practices by partnering with members of the LMP team to cost-share their installation and/or maintenance.

For Pollack VU-Dairy, improving soil health and installing conservation practices comes down to economics, “We utilize conservation practices to improve soil health, which helps us grow better crops and ultimately improve our bottom line,” Pollack said.

Alison Niescier is the project manager for the Green Lake Association, a local not-for-profit that works to improve water quality for Green Lake.