Monday, February 15, 2016

An Open Mind Goes a Long Way

There is a growing interest in more non-mainstream agricultural practices lately and for good reason.
As profit margins grow thinner, farmers have begun to seriously look for ways to reduce costs and keep the red ink pen in the drawer. Some are more open minded than others. While in the company of certain farmers, big time operators (BTO) and small time operators (STO) alike,  I've been poked fun of for talking about cover crops and having a small grain in my crop rotation.  That combination however, made us more money this past year than corn or soybeans.  Nonetheless, I firmly believe that if people aren't skeptically wondering about what we're doing then I'm not pushing the envelope far enough.  If used correctly, we have found that cover crops can improve the profit margins of our grain farm as well as our livestock operation.  Using practices that intertwine grain farming, cover crops, and livestock works better for us and has been more profitable than each could have been alone.  Going into this down cycle of agriculture, I am confident that our diversification into more than just corn and soybeans will carry us through.

Corn-soybean strip cropping trial.  Yield was very impressive.
An open mind goes a long way.  If we as farmers aren't continuously trying different practices and technologies, then we fall into the cycle of "that's how dad did it and that's how I'm going to do it."  This is a very dangerous mentality.  Your dad or grandfather may have been an innovator in his time, but a lot of those practices have been pushed to the wayside by newer and more efficient methods.  A big part of farming is researching, innovating, and trying new ideas.  Old methods like moldboard plowing just because that's how the last generation did it makes no sense on today's farm. Someone has since come up with a better and more efficient practice; be it ripping, strip-tilling, or even no-tilling.  Just because you were taught to winter cattle in a feedlot doesn't necessarily mean that's the most effective practice either. With the future state of agriculture looking bleak, thinking outside the box on how to keep costs down will be necessary. With that in mind, why would we reproach someone trying a different practice like cover crops, bale grazing cattle (more on this subject in a later post), or a crop rotation involving more than just corn and soybeans?  One of the very few advantages I have by operating solo is I can do whatever I like.  There is no senior member in
3 week old cover crop drilled following small grain harvest.  Grazing
this forage in October and the nutrient credit it provided made this our
most profitable practice in 2015.
our operation to dictate what practices we use or don't use.  I am not implying all older (or younger) farmers are reluctant to embrace new or unpopular practices; some of the operators implementing the same practices I have are well into their 70's.  Age does not always determine an open mind.  I believe it is a responsibility of all farmers to continually search for a better way to operate during their tenure as a steward of the land.  We should leave the land in better condition than when we received it.

Trying new things means I fail.... A LOT.  But we learn, and our operation is more profitable and efficient because of it.  No one likes to have a field that is a train wreck, myself included.  Train wrecks lose money and can be an embarrassing reminder of what went wrong all summer long.  However,with careful planning and intense management we have managed to avoid any total disasters so far.  There are certainly risks with trying new practices, which is why thorough research is necessary.  The risks involved in trying something new seem much smaller than the potential long-term risks of never progressing in the science of agriculture.  So if you take anything away from reading this post I hope it's this: don't be afraid to have an open mind and ask questions.  I love talking about ways to improve our farm as well as our farming methods.  Agricultural practices are continuously evolving and so should your thought process;  "that's how we've always done it" is a dangerous frame of mind.
Thank you for reading.

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