Take a listen to or read the transcript of this NPR discussion about the discovery of phosphorus, the approach of peak phosphate and the huge roll Morocco will play in it, as well as an innovative use of pasteurized urine for agriculture. Consider how all of this fits in with the unabated exploitation of the minimal phosphate reserve in America.
Cover Crops, a Farming Revolution With Deep Roots in the Past
By STEPHANIE STROM – February 6, 2016
When Mark Anson came home with his hair on fire after a seminar on the seemingly soporific topic of soil health, his younger brother, Doug, was skeptical.
What had Mark lit up was cover crops: fields of noncash crops like hairy vetch and cereal rye that act on soil like a nourishing facial after the harvest.
Mark, 60, and his two brothers, together with assorted sons and sons-in-law, run Anson Farms, a big commercial soybean and corn operation in Indiana and Illinois. Concern about the soil quality of the family’s fields had nagged at him for some time. “Our corn was wilting when temperatures hit 103 degrees,” he said, and such heat isn’t so unusual in the summer. “I felt like I had a gorilla on my shoulder.” What he learned about the benefits of cover crops gave him hope.
But to Doug, planting some noncommercial crops seemed an antiquated practice, like using a horse-drawn plow. Cover crops had long been replaced by fertilizers. Still, he shared his brother’s concern about their soil. Its texture was different, not as loamy as it had once been, and a lot of it was running off into ditches and other waterways when it rained.
So in 2010 the family decided to humor Mark by sowing some 1,200 acres, which Mark describes as highly eroded farmland, with wheat cleanings and cereal rye. Additionally, they spread some cover crops to eroded areas in a few fields.
The next spring, Doug had to admit that the soil texture on that strip was better. And the water that ran off it during a rainstorm was clear, a sign that the roots of the cover crops were anchoring valuable topsoil in place.
But Doug didn’t become a believer until 2013, when the family was grappling with a terrible drought. “In the part of a field where we had planted cover crops, we were getting 20 to 25 bushels of corn more per acre than in places where no cover crops had been planted,” he said. “That showed me it made financial sense to do this.”
Now some 13,000 of the 20,000 acres that the family farms across nine counties are planted with cover crops after harvesting, and farmers around them are beginning to embrace the practice.
Cover crops are coming back in other areas of the country, too. The practice of seeding fields between harvests not only keeps topsoil in place, it also adds carbon to the soil and helps the beneficial microbes, fungus, bacteria and worms in it thrive.
These properties have led philanthropies like the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation to underwrite research on cover crops, while Monsanto, together with the Walton Family Foundation, recently put up the money to support the Soil Health Partnership, a five-year project of the National Corn Growers Association to identify, test and measure the impact of cover cropping and other practices to improve soil health.
Cover cropping is still used only by a small minority of farmers. When the Agriculture Department asked for the first time about cover cropping for its 2012 Census of Agriculture report, just 10.3 million acres — out of about 390 million total acres of farmland sown in crops — on 133,124 farms were planted with cover crops. The next census won’t be done until 2017, but experts say that the practice has spread. In an annual survey of about 1,200 farmers, the mean acreage reported as being sown in cover crops was 259 in 2014. That was double the mean reported by respondents in 2010, though results are not directly comparable because different farmers may have been involved in the surveys, said a spokesman for the Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education, a federal government program, which conducted the survey.
“We’ve never seen anything taken up as rapidly as using cover crops,” said Barry Fisher, a soil health specialist at the Natural Resources Conservation Service, an agency within the Agriculture Department.
Interest in cover crops is coming from buyers, too. Dan Barber, a prominent chef who uses locally grown foods, has championed incorporating cover crops like clover and millet into cuisine as a way of encouraging farmers to grow them.
The Blue Ox Malthouse in Maine was established to coax farmers there to grow barley as a cover crop, which the company then turns into malt that is sold to the state’s craft beer industry. Half a dozen farmers are producing good-quality barley as a cover crop, and others “are interested in turning the grains they’ve been growing as cover crops into something there’s a value-added market for,” said Joel Alex, Blue Ox’s founder and maltster.
One measure of how rapidly the practice is growing is the booming demand for cover crop seeds. Keith Berns, a fourth-generation family farmer in central Nebraska, started making cover-crop seed mixtures in 2010, and the business “just kind of took off,” Mr. Berns said.
He and his brother, Brian, turned what started as a hobby into a thriving enterprise. This year, Green Cover Seed, their company, will sell enough seed to cover 500,000 acres in cover crops.
Last fall, the Berns brothers were recognized as White House Champions of Change for Sustainable and Climate-Smart Agriculture. “We have been kind of surprised at how fast our business has grown,” Keith said. “The reason is that because it’s working agronomically and doing what it’s advertised to do.”
Modern farming practices like applying fertilizer and herbicides have helped farmers increase yields and reduced labor, but they have also unintentionally interfered with root systems and disrupted underground microbial activity and insect life that are vital to plant and soil health. (Many farmers deploying cover crops continue to use herbicides, although often less than they did in the past, but they often can do without fertilizers.)
“We’ve concentrated on the physical and chemical aspects of farming but not the biological,” said Dan DeSutter, who farms 5,000 acres near Attica, Ind.
Mr. DeSutter began fooling around with cover crops about 17 years ago, after Purdue University used one of his fields for research trials. One spring he was repairing a drainage tile in the test field and came across the deep, webbed root system that some Oregon ryegrass had put into the soil.
“I thought to myself, I have been pulling the guts out of my tractor to remove compaction 14 inches deep with a ripper,” Mr. DeSutter said, “and this plant has just bored a system of micropores four feet deep between cash crops all on its own.”
The roots he stumbled across had created a natural aeration system that helped conserve water and trap nutrients in the soil, which would otherwise be prone to leaching. “That was the aha! moment,” he said.
Today, all 5,000 acres he farms are sown after the harvest of corn and soy with a mixture of as many as 12 different crops, including sunflower, sorghum, buckwheat, turnips and hairy vetch, each of which delivers a different benefit. Most die off in the winter and decompose, leaving behind a rich layer of organic matter that gradually sinks into the earth. Farmers use a planter or seed drill to punch the seeds for their cash crops into the decaying cover crop.
Before cultivation, Indiana was blanketed in prairie grasses and forest, and the carbon content of the soil was as high as 10 percent in places. Today, after decades of tillage, which moves carbon from the soil into the atmosphere, and monocropping, the level on many farms is below 2 percent, Mr. Fisher said. Cover crops restore organic matter back into the soil, at a rate of about 1 percent every five years.
“As we put carbon back into the soil, it gives us a bigger tank to store water naturally,” Mr. DeSutter said. “This is one way we build resilience into the system.”
The adoption of cover cropping has been especially rapid in Indiana — about one million of the 12.5 million acres of farmland there are planted with cover crops between harvests. A strong collaboration between Purdue University and state and federal farm services gave birth to the Indiana Conservation Cropping Systems Initiative, a program that offers education and research to farmers in the state.
Rob Myers, director of extension programs for the north central region of SARE, and a professor at the University of Missouri, said Maryland also ranked high in the use of cover crops. The state reimburses farmers for the cost of cover crop seed and has been informing them about the impact that fertilizer runoff has on Chesapeake Bay.
Despite the support for cover cropping in Indiana, there is still resistance to change. Farmers are notoriously reluctant to offer their neighbors advice about farming, and cover cropping carries with it an implicit criticism of practices — reliance on fertilizers and pesticides, and so forth — that farmers for the last generation have used to increase productivity and reduce work.
“All those old guys sitting around shooting the breeze at the feed store get real quiet when I pull up,” Mr. DeSutter said, only half in jest.
Neighbors have made pointed comments about his “messy” fields. The fields sown with a cover crop cocktail are often blanketed in dying, decaying and thriving plants at the same time. In December, spindly black stalks, the remnants of sunflowers, shot up here and there from one of Mr. DeSutter’s fields, which were covered in a yellowing broadleaf and bright green hairy vetch.
But the biggest obstacle to more farmers adopting cover crops is the lack of data and research on their benefits. “Fewer of our neighbors think we’re crazy than when we started planting cover crops, but there’s still a lot of skepticism out there,” said Rodney Rulon, whose family farms 6,200 acres in northeastern Indiana and plants about four-fifths of them with cover crops.
Rulon Enterprises, the family business, has begun collecting data on some of its fields. He has found, for instance, an increase in organic matter and higher corn yields — an average of 12.8 bushels an acre more in one of his cover-cropped fields, said Mr. Rulon, who shared some of this data in December at the 70th Corn & Sorghum Seed Research Conference.
“You really start seeing a difference in your soil within two or three years,” Mr. Rulon said.
The Rulons spend about $100,000 a year on cover crop seed, or about $26 an acre. But they also saved about $57,000 on fertilizer they no longer needed, and bigger yields mean about $107,000 in extra income.
Including the value of improved soil quality, less erosion and other improvements, Mr. Rulon estimates that Rulon Enterprises gets about $244,000 of net economic benefit from cover crops annually, or a little more than $69 an acre.
The federal government is mulling ways to persuade farmers to adopt cover cropping. There is a small subsidy system; Rulon Enterprises, for instance, gets $40,000 to help offset the cost of cover crops and support other conservation practices.
But Mr. Rulon and Mr. DeSutter believe that landowners are the real key to taking cover crops mainstream. Most farmers work some fields leased from absentee owners, and thus have less incentive to maintain and invest in improving soil quality on that land.
“Why should landowners see the value of their land diminished because the soil on it has become unhealthy?” said Mr. DeSutter. “I’d like to see landowners give preferential treatment to farmers who are working to improve the value of the land they lease by using cover crops.”
Correction: February 14, 2016
An article last Sunday about the resurgence of cover-cropping as an agricultural practice described incorrectly the effects of so-called no-till farming, in which farmers plant into the residue of a previous crop rather than tilling it in. It can reduce soil erosion; it does not increase it.
The phosphate mining company Mosaic is currently seeking permits that will allow them to mine more than 50,000 acres in Manatee, DeSoto and Hardee Counties. These mines will negatively affect the Peace River watershed water and Myakahatchee Creek which provide both Sarasota and North Port with drinking water, and encroach on Myakka State Park. Since Mosaic now owns exclusively all the phosphate reserves in west central Florida, people may wonder why you can scarcely turn on a radio or television these days without hearing or seeing their advertisements? Why do they blanket area newspapers with their reassurances and promises, with direct mailings and billboards extolling their virtues as trustworthy “stewards of the land,” planters of trees, and conservers of water resources? The answer is simple: Mosaic doesn’t need to sell its product in Florida since its main customers are huge fertilizer consortiums in Brazil, India and China. Here Mosaic needs only to sell its image and its brand.
Part of Mosaic’s current strategy to enhance their image and their brand is to align themselves with environmental causes through their charitable foundation. Their most recent partnership happens to be with one of Sarasota’s most prestigious attractions: Marie Selby Gardens. During the month of October the Selby Gardens website home page prominently featured the Mosaic name and logo at the top of the page. It is particularly disillusioning to see this association, since Selby Gardens in their mission statement describe themselves as champions of “environmental conservation,” emphasizing the ecological importance of epiphytes and the conservation of epiphytes and their natural habitat. Do they not have any idea of the hundreds of thousands of native orchids that have perished and will perish if the latest round of Mosaic strip mine applications is permitted? Not only will the orchids themselves be destroyed by strip mining but so will all the unique and complex environmental conditions that would ever allow them to grow there again.
Outside the virtual world of image-making and branding, Mosaic is responsible for the utter destruction of literally tens of thousands of acres of native Florida eco-systems and wildlife habitat – plunder that has been going on, decade after decade, for over a century. The rural southern portions of Polk and Hillsborough Counties have been ravaged. Phosphate mining has left vast disposals of clay slimes laced with fuel oil and other toxic chemical wastes, overgrown by pernicious and invasive grasses. Elevated low-level radioactivity occurs throughout their operations. Mountains of phosphogypsum – an acidic radioactive waste product of fertilizer production – dot the landscape near their manufacturing facilities with no disposal solution in sight. Water levels have dropped on an area-wide scale, springs have dried up and a major river is disappearing. It was recently revealed that Mosaic dilutes their waste effluents with clean water from the aquifer in order to meet regulatory water quality standards. If Mosaic is allowed the permits they are currently seeking, they will perpetuate their grim harvest for at least another four decades into the future, and beyond.
For a company that recently reported annual sales of its products at $10 billion it is probably less expensive to launch a massive media campaign to enhance its public image than it is to devote itself to trying to repair the environmental damage their strip mining operations and fertilizer production have caused.
Incidentally the fertilizer giant was recently sued by EPA. Mosaic had to agree to pay $32.4 million in civil penalties and for upgrades of their air emission systems in Mulberry and elsewhere.
Do the distinguished directors of Selby Gardens have no awareness of these matters? Are they so mesmerized by Mosaic’s promotional efforts that they actually believe them? Or are they so strapped for money that they just hold their nose and put out their hand?
The Mosaic Co.said Wednesday it is cutting phosphate production for the short term as cautious North American farmers have lowered demand for the fertilizer.
Plymouth-based Mosaic (NYSE: MOS) said in a news release that it is cutting phosphate production by as much as 250,000 tons through the end of March.
“The current spot prices in this market do not reflect our outlook for the business, nor do we think they are sustainable,” Mosaic CEO Jim Prokopanko said in a statement.
But Prokopanko said he still expects above-average demand for phosphate in 2012.
“We are confident strong farmer economics and agricultural fundamentals will ultimately prevail over the near-term cautious sentiment,” he said.
Texas AgriLife Research economist said manure generates higher economic returns than anhydrous ammonia.
ScienceDaily (June 29, 2010) — No significant differences in corn yield were found between organic and chemical sources of nutrients, but a Texas AgriLife Research economist said manure generates higher economic returns than anhydrous ammonia.
Dr. Seong Park, AgriLife Research economist, recently had his research published in the Agronomy Journal. The work was from studies he conducted in the Oklahoma Panhandle while at Oklahoma State University and finalized while in his new position at Vernon. The long-term experiment involved the use of pig and beef manure on irrigated corn fields, he said. The testing was conducted in part due to a rapid growth of animal population and density in that region, as well as the northern part of the Texas Panhandle. Park said when swine manure, which is normally stored in open-air lagoon systems, is properly applied and the economics figured, the effluent can be used as manure with minimal environmental and nuisance concerns. Animal manure, he said, benefits producers by reducing waste management costs and the need for chemical fertilizers because it contains multiple essential crop nutrients, according to previous research. Park said the key between animal manure transitioning from a cost (for disposal) to a benefit (as a fertilizer) is determined by agronomic and economic factors such as chemical fertilizer costs and equipment and labor needed to apply each. Anhydrous ammonia was the most costly nitrogen source across all three equivalent nitrogen rates of 50, 150 and 450 pounds of nitrogen per acre, with costs of $30.86, $54.88 and $126.95 per acre, respectively. He said the higher costs of anhydrous were due to the purchase price, which is not required normally with the use of beef and swine manure. Swine effluent had the lowest costs at $12.06, $17.98 and $34.51 per acre for the three application rates. The lower costs for the swine effluent are associated with the ability to apply it through existing irrigation equipment, requiring only minimal purchase to pump from the lagoon to the center pivot, Park said. Both the anhydrous and beef manure require the purchase of application machinery, he said, which adds a fixed cost. Because of that cost, beef manure application costs were higher than swine, at $30.52, $35.47 and $47.19 per acre, respectively at the same rate. Beef manure, however, becomes a more economical choice if the crops are located away from the originating farm of either manure, Park said. While swine effluent has a lower breakeven price, it is too bulky to transport off-farm to other producers. “The breakeven is figured by using the actual price of corn plus the cost of fertilizer,” he said. “During this study, there was a widening margin in the breakeven between the animal manure-treated corn crops and anhydrous ammonia-treated corn crops, which generated an increased profitability for producers and increased the economic viability of marketing beef manure as a commercial fertilizer.” Park explained if beef manure averages $2.20 per ton with a shipping cost of 50 cents per mile, it can be profitably transported up to 29 miles from its point of origin in the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles and be competitive with high anhydrous ammonia prices, as experienced from 2005-2007. Another benefit of animal manures is the improvement of soil properties such as micronutrients and soil pH, Park said. Throughout his experiment the beef-manure and swine-effluent plots maintained higher soil pH levels than the corresponding anhydrous plots. Additionally, continued application of anhydrous can lead to acidification and thus losses in productivity, he said. Appropriate nutrient-management practices should be implemented to prevent environmental damages. Park also warned that site-specific conditions such as weather, animal waste management practices and soil properties would need to be taken into consideration when adapting this information to locations outside the Oklahoma Panhandle. “This is a unique economic study on various nitrogen fertilizers using rare and valuable data from a long-term field experiment from 1995 to 2007,” Park said. “The next step is to determine best nutrient practices based on this experimental data.” Story Source: The above story is reprinted (with editorial adaptations by ScienceDaily staff) from materials provided by Texas A&M AgriLife Communications. The original article was written by Kay Ledbetter. ________________________________________ Journal Reference: 1. S. C. Park, J. Vitale, J. C. Turner, J. A. Hattey, A. Stoecker. Economic Profitability of Sustained Application of Swine Lagoon Effluent and Beef Feedlot Manure Relative to Anhydrous Ammonia in the Oklahoma Panhandle. Agronomy Journal, 2010; 102 (2): 420 DOI: 10.2134/agronj2009.0166