Ag Policy Blog

Conservation Agriculture: Moon Shot or Forced Change is Coming

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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WINNIPEG, Canada --- Soil health, soil erosion, soil renaissance, soil degradation, soil sustainability, soil economics and soil mining were the terms that defined the World Congress on Conservation Agriculture that wrapped up Wednesday.

Soil erosion and degradation remain long-term problems that are underappreciated on the world stage. No-till practices are spreading globally, though. Roughly 380 million acres of farmland globally are considered no-till cropping and adoption rates are growing. North America accounts for about 133 million total acres of no-till farming.

David Montgomery, a University of Washington geologist and author of "Dirt, The Erosion of Civilizations," cited USDA's tolerance rates for erosion, which range from .4 millimeters to 1 millimeter per year. Montgomery was familiar with lands losing an inch a year, which can translate into long-term devastation of the land. As a geologist, Montgomery also looks at a longer-term view of how long society might survive based on its erosion problems.

"Convention agriculture is simply not sustainable at current erosion rates," Montgomery said.

Yet, Montgomery noted that modern society also has the ability to build organic matter and restore soils in surprisingly quick fashion. That requires aggressive use of crop residue and cover cropping, but it can be done. Society will have to put carbon back into the soils.

Howard Buffett spoke at the congress on Tuesday. His foundation was a platinum sponsor of the event. Buffett tends to preach to the choir when it comes to conservation agriculture. It might be far better to see Buffett speaking at Commodity Classic or the American Farm Bureau Federation than at an event with a collection of people who largely agree with his perspective on no-till farming and cover crops. Nonetheless, Buffett said American farmers are not embracing no-till farming on the same level of farmers in other countries.

"We have not changed our thinking nearly as quickly as we have our adaption of technology," Buffett said.

Farmers too often will quit no-till farming after a year or two if it is not working out as perfectly as hoped, he said. Still, Buffett acknowledged every field is different and may require different practices or treatments from another.

Buffett indicated farmers will eventually lose their water-quality battles in court or with the regulatory system if nutrient loads in rivers and lakes fail to decline. Until now, crop farmers have largely gotten a free ride in dealing with phosphorus polluting lakes or hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico. EPA will eventually come in with prescriptive cropping practices and standards if farmers don't take dramatic steps on their own to improve conservation practices and reduce fertilizer loading. Noting Farm Bureau's litigation in the Chesapeake Bay, "They think they can fight it and win it where I don't think they can fight it."

Instead, farmers are on a collision course with regulators and urban America over both water quality and water usage. Buffett said USDA needs to be more forceful in pushing for higher levels of conservation agriculture. "If they can't advocate for the right practices then you are never going to win."

As Buffett was making these statements I was thinking about the Beltway mentality of farm-state lawmakers and EPA at complete odds over water quality rules and the interpretive battle over the waters of the U.S. rule. USDA seems to be the one player in the debate searching, somewhat unsuccessfully, for some middle ground. Everyone else is playing an all-or-nothing game that will play out badly for agriculture in the long-term if Buffett is right.

Once again, such talks from agricultural leaders such as Buffett should probably be directed to a different group of farmers and organizations.

Jerry Hatfield, a USDA soil physiologist in Ames, Iowa, -- and a key author in both the National Climate Assessment and IPCC reports -- summarized some conference takeaways from speakers and conversations at the congress:

Treat cover crops as a cash crop. If farmers want to be successful with conservation agriculture then they need to invest the same management efforts in their cover crops that they do in their commodities.

Every place has its own challenges. With that, we are all biased by our own experiences. Farmers in Minnesota or Manitoba have different water and cropping challenges from those Texas or California.

What is the economic value of carbon in the soil? How does that get monetized in the value of land or nutrients in the soil?

Science needs to be built for continuous improvement but realize there is not a single solution for every field.

Farmers are about finance, not romance. Everything has to fit together economically or farmers are not going to be interested in changing cropping practices. This was a theme raised repeatedly throughout the congress. More work is needed on the economics of conservation agriculture.

David Lobb, a soil science professor at the University of Manitoba, also cautioned against prescriptive definitions of what qualifies under conservation agriculture. After all, growers of potatoes, sugar beets or other root crops seem to be excluded from conservation agriculture under the strict definition of never disrupting the soil.

Dwayne Beck, who runs the Dakota Lakes Research Farm in South Dakota, said in the closing address that he did not think sustainability could be a bunch of metrics that tell us a farm is sustainable. It's akin to asking each person to define who is beautiful. We may not be able to define beauty, but we know beauty when we see it.

Beck said 80% of farm input costs are traced to the price of energy. He noted that 125 years ago farmers operated essentially free of fossil fuels and very well may have to do the same in 100 years. Dakota Lakes would be "fossil-fuel neutral" by 2026.

Beck believes the farm bill is a detriment to conservation agriculture. Farmers would be more willing to end tillage practices, diversify their crop rotations and integrate cover crops if they were not so able to reduce their crop risk through crop-insurance subsidies.

Beck said conservation agriculture needs a "moon shot." That would require the country to rally behind a determined push to reach a higher standard of overall conservation agricultural practices, much like John Kennedy declared the country would get to the moon by the end of the 1960s.

Chris Clayton can be reached at

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Don Thompson
6/29/2014 | 2:11 PM CDT
Very cute comment, Bonnie. However, I was referencing an actual incident that was taking place at a cafo not so far away and long ago from here. Apparently they did not hold pig manure in such esteem as you. Too bad a few bad actors make it difficult for others.
Bonnie Dukowitz
6/28/2014 | 3:57 PM CDT
Good grief, Don. Crop nutrients are much to valuable and needed for human and animal production. Manure down the drain tile, you must have been visiting a doggie park drain.
6/28/2014 | 10:27 AM CDT
You are right on Roger, nobody understands our problems in the Dakotas, you are not alone. We are behind in drainage development and are having the door slammed closed on us. I would challenge anyone of these guys that have all of their farm drained try to make things work in our conditions. They need to walk in our shoes! We should be entitled to the same tools as everyone else in the country.
Roger Neshem
6/28/2014 | 9:49 AM CDT
Well don look at old determinations that do not show all the wetlands we have now. We have been in a wet cycle here and things are very wet. My county is all no till and this past year due to excessive pp people turned away from no till to dry out ground. Ditches were black everywhere this winter because we had to do something to dry out the ground. I am all about saving soil but a person needs to do what he needs to do in order to get a crop planted. You want compromise let us tile and in return we will be notill all the time!!! The EPA does not fret about .1 acre wetlands but usda does. Maybe the usda should just follow CWA and then all these nuisance wet areas we could tile without nrcs as 90% of them do not meet current CWA guidelines. How about that for compromise don??? Ask any farmer what wildlife benfits from .1 acre wetlands that appear after heavy June rains??? The ducks don't as they have hatched and moved to big water after they nested in no till wheat stubble! We have land that is littered with these things and the mitigation process takes more land than what you tile so it's not a very good trade. I had a wetland determination don that took 2.5 years in a county where so far about 2 of us have installed drainage tile! Now you tell me is 2.5 years an acceptable timeframe for work to get done? I would call that a hindrance to tiling. Maybe you don't but I do and everyone who walks this ground out here does also. Our soils are heavy which leads to having high cec levels which keeps our nitrogen in our soil not in our tile lines so you can cross that environmental concern off your list. We direct band all of our phosphorus so it does not leave in surface runoff. So when you talk about all these problems do not lump us up here in with others. It shows your ignorance and incompetence. If you wish to see land managed poor look to mr buffets bnsf. The drainage issues, salt, chemical and pesticide pollution caused by their railroad dwarfs anything us farmers do. Our ground along the railroad will not grow anything because of pesticide run off from weed control on the railroad tracks. They have neglected the drains on the railroads and it has led to ponding and salinity issues where there should not be any. Come to ND and see for yourself who the destroyer of the soil and environment is. Me or buffet? I do everything I can to make my ground better. It is my life and my passion. I know more about my every acre of my land than you will ever know about your yard where you call home. Us folks in ND need to start forming groups and collecting hundreds of millions of dollars and then telling the east coast what they should do. It is almost tyrannical the way these out of state groups have come in here with unlimited caches of dollars trying to write policy. My disdain grows for them more daily as I see and read what they do and how they do it. None of them will ever visit this state but they sure love to tell us how to run it. I invite them all to spend 10 straight years here and if they do then they can have a say in policy. Until then enjoy your east coast and all the trash that comes with it. Ewg is located in Washington, D.C. I'd suggest you clean up the trash there before trying to "fix" other areas. If I were the redskins I'd be offended to have Washington attached to my name. Ewg loves to hate on crop insurance subsidies. I don't like them one bit either. I am all in favor of doing away with those subsidies and programs. The problem is then the government would hold no authority over the farms and that is very very bad in the minds of the left and the ewg. We could deal with the EPA and CWA as it is today as 90% of our wet areas do not fall under CWA! My question is would the ewg stop attacks at farmers of everyone was no till and subsidies were abolished? My guess is they wouldn't as they have an unlimited thirst for power and money. I would love to share all of my private land dealings with you but an Internet comments section is the last place for that. As they say an argument on the Internet has no winner. As I have posted on the past around these parts I have an open invite to anyone who wants to come out and ill show you these problems I speak of and you will get an education in just how wrong your policies are.
Bonnie Dukowitz
6/28/2014 | 7:51 AM CDT
I try not to get into a debate. Sorry for participating. But Jay, your last entry, I agree with much, except the GOP reference. The conservatives you so seem to despise have done and are doing some of what you claim to have done because they have a conscience and conservation is the correct thing to do. Many accomplishments without the generosity of the taxpayer. Those who support mandates, might do so for emotional gratification and perhaps job security within whatever activity they are involved in. The worst smog you blame GOP for, like in LA and Chicago are certainly not GOP strongholds. And yes, we cooperate with Soil & Water, NRCS as well as Extension with activities which are of benefit to the landscape. And yes, if the government sends me a check, I CASH it, so have at it EWGers.
Don Thompson
6/28/2014 | 6:48 AM CDT
Roger Neshem, Why does NRCS make it impossible for you to install drainage tile? How about some facts? Exactly what are the objections? We work within the framework presented and are frustrated often and succeed with our plans for the most part but I know nothing of your condition. But I would truly like to see your NRCS opinion before I make judgement. Could you post it for us?
Donald Carr
6/28/2014 | 6:12 AM CDT
Roger Neshem as a 6 year former employee of EWG I can clearly state that Chris spends little time patting that org on the back. In this blog he is doing a great service to farmers getting the message out that the current pollution load into US waters is unsustainable. Eventually if things don't change regulation will be the only option.
Roger Neshem
6/27/2014 | 10:04 PM CDT
Hey don! We are no till and have been a long time. The only thing we are trying to change is drainage. We had not done much and now we are trying to tile and the nrcs makes it impossible. We don't lose soil we just are too wet! I'd be willing to bet my farm is a better example of conservation than yours. Obviously all your land has tile already and that is not an issue for you. Maybe walk a mile in the persons shoes you are trying to tell what to do before you open your mouth. Maybe we can follow Obama plan to be a poor society so that we can worship these politicians that you seem to selince you don't believe in yourself. Maybe we can get to Venezuelans level of socialism someday. Heard they went dark. That would be great so I wouldn't have to see the stuff the idiotic left puts out daily.
6/27/2014 | 5:39 PM CDT
Don: Where do you flush your toilet? Where is that lagoon, in the flood plain of a river?
Don Thompson
6/27/2014 | 2:00 PM CDT
Unknown: Kindly define local. If your area of operation is worldwide than you would consider the earth as local. If you are pumping manure down a drainage tile in the upper reaches of the Mississippi drain system and the sea life in the Yucatan are suffering from the effects of it, then your local is messing with their local. Hence, someone other than your local has to step in to solve their local issue. Makes sense to me. If you are the upstream pumper, you may feel put upon. And you may indeed want to be conscious of your 5th amendment rights when the authorities come knocking.
6/27/2014 | 10:39 AM CDT
Don: Local problems should be decided locally, people dealing with problems should be a majority of decision making. These one size fits all solutions without any input from the people that are going to be affected by the new rules isn't working and surely isn't realistic or workable. If it works people, will openly use the new tools of conservation. They should not be rammed down peoples throats with mandatory rules that violate 5th amendment rights. When people talk about forced changed that should raise concern.
Don Thompson
6/27/2014 | 10:20 AM CDT
Dear Unknown: One being's disaster is another's opportunity - or at least I think that is what Darwin would have argued. Reality is in the eyes of the beholder. Bonnie, From my personal observation, every successful organization or organism is consumed by change. Always seeking the best alternatives. Some less successful must be forced to do so whether through a positive or negative motivation. You appeared to have already discovered what works for you and are steadfast in your opinion. Bravo. My father always graciously said the university types were always just a little behind the farmers. Let's just let them play through and assess objectively.
Bonnie Dukowitz
6/27/2014 | 10:06 AM CDT
I thought the subject matter was Buffet and his ignorance. Sorry to disappoint a couple of you. Our farm is only tilled as needed. No recreational tillage here. Been planting cover crops before many of you even heard of such a thing. They, however, are not the magic bullet in all situations. Why change, Don for the sake of change? Unbiased research and trial error are what is needed. Not Buffets propaganda, nor Obamas' politics.
6/27/2014 | 9:28 AM CDT
Don are you telling me to prepare for a wreak?
Don Thompson
6/27/2014 | 7:47 AM CDT
Dear neo - cons & Bonnie: Sounds like the concept of any change is quite unsettling. Life is tough - wear a helmet
6/27/2014 | 7:33 AM CDT
Jay you say you have made "water ways", you must not live in the Dakota's, you would be thrown out of compliance. Sounds like your being treated differently than us or we are being treated differently. When you give these head of organizations such great power and no accountability it leads to abuse of power. I'm glad to hear things are great in your perfect world but I think many agree things aren't so perfect everywhere.
melvin meister
6/27/2014 | 7:19 AM CDT
Good answer Jay;Some people must think we are the last people to live on earth Conservation is everyone"s job .Thanks Chris for the post.
Jay Mcginnis
6/27/2014 | 7:04 AM CDT
Think what I am saying? I am DOING what I am saying, no-till, terraces, waterways, rotations, solar farming, geothermal heat pump, electric car and lawn mower,,,,, far from being Chinese who's cities are a GOP wet dream with smog so dense you can't see from no regulations! If Obama wanted us to be more like China he would join the Tea Party! If you don't want regulations then do what is proper, you have an obligation to society and future generations to NOT send your farm down the river, to NOT waste our energy and resources, to NOT change the climate! If you guys had any respect for the environment and future generations then you wouldn't need regulations!
6/26/2014 | 11:02 PM CDT
Jay, we are the wealthiest nation in the world. Why? Your hero, Pres. Obama, wants us to be more like the Chinese you seem to condemn with their powerful central government. Perhaps you need to really think about what you are saying!
Jay Mcginnis
6/26/2014 | 9:49 PM CDT
My farm has been 100% no till for over 25 years, very high yields and I have built terraces and water ways in order to fight erosion. It is great to see minimal wash after the serious storms this year. It is great to have an administration that has vision and respect for the environment and I am happy to participate in soil conservation along with clean energy and less fossil fuels, it is the 21st century, we are the wealthiest nation and one to set example for the world instead of crying we can't have dirty air and dirty water like the Chinese.
6/26/2014 | 9:46 PM CDT
These test tube farm practices don't work in the real world and certainly don't work with anti-drainage policy. It's definitely is a moon shot, when we got there there was nothing there. Trying to promote cover crops that become weeds to the crops that are going to be grown actually promotes more chemical use in a time of chemical resistance and more tillage and cultivation to kill the cover crop . That will be the end of notill. To make this a mandatory practice is crazy!
Roger Neshem
6/26/2014 | 9:34 PM CDT
Heck Buffet doesn't even haul grains on those train cars anymore just basically all oil. THey didn't even want to disclose how much oil they are hauling. Oh and how convenient we cant get a pipeline built and the person with the presidents ear owns a railroad. Hmmm now if he weren't a liberal what would the media scream about every day?????? Its so good to know Howard Buffet has the presidents ear and is saying USDA needs to be more "forceful". Gee that sounds like a government for the people by the people then again it sounds more like the status quo for the most corrupt administration ever......when the real reporting is done and the dirt is all dug up. Little Buffet should take his money and his mouth elsewhere. After all Liberals don't seem to like free speech whenever someone opposes them.
Bonnie Dukowitz
6/26/2014 | 9:11 PM CDT
I wonder how many of Buffets locomotives run on solar power and how many of his bridges have retaining capabilities like farmers fuel tank requirements. Don't see too many cover crops, but a lot of chemicals on R.R. tracks.
Roger Neshem
6/26/2014 | 8:59 PM CDT
Howard Buffet is a leader in ag? When did this happen? He farms 400 acres of Pivots with a new 4wd tractor pulling a 16 row 3 bushel boxed equipped planter all while talking about cover crops and stuff but when I saw the video he posted there was no cover crop residue!! Howard should stick to his other job that he has as an advisor to Barack Obama. Oh wait Obama is showing how great he is at pretty much nothing and he surrounds himself with yuppies like Buffet. Give me a break. You calling Howard a leader totally buries your stuff deeper on my to read list. COme visit us real farmers who deal with drainage issues and spend less time patting EWG on the back. Because of the lack of drainage in the Dakotas people are moving away from no till because the only weapon we have against water is cold hard steel. Don't give me all these other excuses because we have tried them. Behind either surface drainage or subsurface nothing works when its too wet to get in the field all year. It is so easy to farm and tell everyone what to do when you don't have to do it yourself or make money yourself since your grandpa is the Bufffet who acts so nice but in the end is an abortion funding, miser who only wants more money.
Bonnie Dukowitz
6/26/2014 | 10:54 AM CDT
Seems strange to me individuals like Buffet, who do not walk the talk can receive so much attention. As far as conservation practices of food producers, where are such things as tillage practices the same as 50 or 75 years ago. Strange how when buffalo, then cattle were drinking out of the lakes, there was not an issue. Now with all the impaired waters with shorelines filled with docks, without insects on them, every 75 or 100 feet and golf course landscaping, completely around the lake, it is the farmers fault.
6/26/2014 | 8:21 AM CDT
Chris, why are you pushing an agenda. When the media has given such credibility to people like Buffet who "bought their way in" leads us to question the credibility of yourself and the media in general. When writing articles like this criticizing the Beltway Farmers who have farmed their land for many generations and their property rights is terrible. You do not address the cities storm sewer dumping of road salts and all of the city lagoons in the flood plains of the rivers. I take it you live in a city and are yourself impervious to rules of these kinds or truly don't understand them. You have pushed an anti-drainage farm bill with great inequities and now are pushing an anti-drainage EPA proposal. Without drainage there will be no no-till, no cover cropping, because you will not be able to get on the land. Water submerging cropland destroys the good bacteria in the land. Why don't you start writing articles stating the benefits of drainage. It all starts with good soil drainage any good soil scientist will tell you that, drainage is the foundation of good soil management.