Conservation Technology on the Ground

CTIC Spotlights Michigan Farming Practices and Climate-Smart Agriculture

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Participants in the Conservation Technology Information Center tour in central Michigan listen to a pitch about cover crop seed mixes from Indiana-based CISCO Seeds at Zwerk Farms near Vassar, Michigan. (DTN photo by Chris Clayton)

FRANKENMUTH, Mich. (DTN) -- Despite the drought this spring that recently gave way to rains in central and northern Michigan, Nate Rupprecht was pleased with his soft white winter wheat harvest, which came in at about 105 bushels per acre (bpa) despite using minimal inputs on his crop.

"My wheat never showed drought stress through all of this dry period this spring," Rupprecht said. "It stayed green and stayed healthy."

Two busloads of curious observers descended on the Rupprecht farm outside of Vassar, Michigan, Tuesday morning, a 450-acre operation with 60 milking cows that dates back to 1865. The family farm was spotlighted as part of the Conservation Technology Information Center's (CTIC) 15th annual conservation tour this week -- the group's first in Michigan.

Rupprecht attributed his good wheat yield amid drought conditions to maintaining living roots and multiple species mixes in the soil, which helped bank soil moisture in the ground. He began no-till farming a decade ago, but also began experimenting with cover crops and intercropping over the past six years, saying he felt he needed to add more nutrients to the soil than a monoculture crop allowed. This year he intercropped cow peas into his corn silage crop. "We're hoping it's going to add some extra forage and protein to the corn silage," he said.

The mix of cropping practices to add cover crops has caused him to look further ahead in his planting intentions. A key goal is to reduce heavy reliance on commercial fertilizers, which puts the crops "on a welfare system," he said.

"I'm getting so I am planning two or three years out in my rotations," Rupprecht said. "My goal here is to back off on some purchased inputs that we use when we were strictly on commercial-type fertilizers."

While the CTIC tour spotlighted producers who are using cover crops and intercropping mixes in their operations, tour organizers noted cover crops are only applied to about 6% of cropland. The program focused heavily on cover crops, climate-smart agriculture practices and potential market opportunities for farmers and livestock producers.

"For the first time, in the scale and magnitude that we're seeing, governments -- state and federal -- are putting real money on the table to help farmers and sustainability," said Ben West, executive director of Farmers for Soil Health, which held a luncheon panel. "Private companies, private organizations, are putting real money where their mouth is -- charting a new pathway for farmers and how we do things in American agriculture."

Farmers for Soil Health is a collaboration between the National Corn Growers Association, the Pork Checkoff and the United Soybean Board. The group received a $95 million grant from USDA under the Partnership for Climate-Smart Agriculture pilot program. DTN is a collaborator on the Farmers for Soil Health project to support monitoring and enrollment.

Farmers for Soil Health looks to enroll 1.3 million acres in as many as 20 states to provide cost-share payments to producers for planting cover crops. For producers who are new to cover crops, the program will provide $50 an acre spread over three years. The program will provide a smaller payment of $2 an acre for producers currently using cover crops. At least $25 million under the program will go toward technical assistance, working with agronomists and others to incentivize more cover-crop acreage.

West pointed out some programs may offer higher payments, but Farmers for Soil Health also plans to keep their enrollment and verification procedures as simple as possible to encourage farmers to join.

"We hope it is very much an entryway for farmers to get into cover crops," he said.

Another aspect of Farmers for Soil Health will be to create a way producers can connect with companies that are either marketing private carbon programs or looking to buy commodities grown using climate-smart practices. They pointed to efforts such as those from the Michigan milling company Star of the West to buy "sustainably produced wheat" and market wheat products that have a lower carbon footprint.

Laurie Isley, who farms with her family near Palmyra, Michigan, and is a member of the United Soybean Board's executive committee, said her family began looking at changes to their farming practices after seeing that chisel plowing essentially led to no structure in their soil.

"That was really a bit of an epiphany for us when we started to say what can we do differently that will help to protect our soil," Isley said. "And certainly, in the last 10 years, as many of you know, we've learned so much more about soil, and that soil is a living organism and that we can, we can make it healthier. And so, I think part of the reason why this is called farmers for soil health is because what we're really looking for is how can we create a healthier soil."

Still, Isley also pointed out that cover crops have a learning curve and create some management challenges. She highlighted the dry spring as the annual rye grass was pulling water that might otherwise go to the cash crop.

"So, that was one of the issues that we were concerned with," she said. "However, we've also seen, in some situations, if there's a really heavy water event, that having both the improved soil structure from cover crops, as well as the cover crop itself really helps to get that water pulled away from the surface so that we were able to sometimes plant earlier than maybe some of our neighbors were that didn't (use) cover crops. So, it's got pros and cons. It's not always going to make you an extra $20 an acre. That's not the way that it works. Many of the benefits of cover crops are going to be long-term benefits in improved soil structure. And we're going to see that, but sometimes those are difficult to measure."

Beyond specific benefits to individual farmers, others on the tour spotlighted broader benefits. Tom Wall, director of watershed restoration at the Environmental Protection Agency, also spoke at CTIC's lunch and pointed to USDA's $19.5 billion in funds under the Inflation Reduction Act as a possible boon for addressing some water-quality issues in agriculture.

"There is a real opportunity for water-quality co-benefits here," Wall said.

Ryan Heiniger, a wildlife biologist from eastern Iowa, came on as CTIC's executive director last year. He said CTIC will also work on the Farmers for Soil Health initiative by providing technical assistance to producers in Minnesota, South Dakota and Wisconsin.

"CTIC has some history of doing that (technical assistance), but we're going to be onboarding three full-time staff members to work with farmers in those states," Heiniger said.

While there have been issues with early adopters getting paid for their work, Heiniger said he believes one of the best ways for those producers to be rewarded is to "monetize their knowledge" of conservation practices. Heiniger said CTIC and others may look to recruit those producers to assist in educating others about no-till farming and cover crops.

Tied to some of the efforts launched by producer groups, USDA on Wednesday also announced plans to spend $300 million to improve measurement, monitoring, reporting and verification of greenhouse gas emissions and carbon sequestration in climate-smart agriculture and forestry.

A pair of U.S. senators earlier this week also introduced a bill they hope to get into the farm bill that would essentially expand on the same kind of greenhouse accounting that USDA is now launching.

Also see "USDA Unveils $300M Greenhouse Gas Measurement, Monitoring Plan" at… and "Carbon Credits Add Income Stream for Family Ranch" at….

Chris Clayton can be reached at

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Chris Clayton