New Year, New Goals for the Family Farm
For me, sustainability on my family farm means getting better every single year. If I want to improve each year, I need to set goals for myself and my family farm so I’m always making progress and leaving our farm a little bit better than I found it. At the end of the year, I’m always thinking ahead to the new things I want to tackle that I believe will improve our farm for the next year.
1. Cover Crops: Cover crops are non-cash crops that are planted in the fall to keep the ground covered over the winter and spring until our cash crop can grow. Cover crops – often grasses like wheat and rye, tubers like radishes, or some combination – can do a lot to improve our soils. Growing plants help with soil compaction and aeration. They improve organic matter, and hold soil in place so my family isn’t losing valuable top-soil due to the winter freeze, thaw, and spring rains.
Each year, I hope to plant a few more acres of cover crops than I did the year before. This process is still an experiment for me. My goal is to protect our natural resources without losing money, and that is not always possible. Still, I know the continuous experimentation is valuable to the progress I seek.
2. Fertilizer Use: I understand that over-applying fertilizer is a water quality hazard AND a financial hazard. Why would I want to pay for increasingly expensive fertilizers that the plants I’m growing don’t need?
This year, I am building a solid plan to apply more of my fertilizers in the spring when the growing plants can use it. It’s tempting to apply fertilizers in the fall because you have nice weather, and nothing is keeping you out of the field. But if I hold off on a few more acres each year and apply a little more in the spring, research shows that I’m saving money on average and I’m doing good for the environment.
3. Soil Testing: When I soil test, I’m taking samples of the soil in a grid pattern so that I can understand things about my soil, like how much of which nutrients are already in the soil and how my organic matter looks. Soil testing empowers so many of the precision ag technologies that are available to me so I can get better each year. As an example, I can use my soil tests to understand where I need additional phosphorus for my corn plants and where I do not. I can upload that map to a computer in my tractor and only apply phosphorus to the specific areas that are short on phosphorus. This saves me money and protects the environment.
I’m hoping to use my soil tests for even more prescriptive management each year by adding different soil health test measurements and linking my soil tests to my yield maps to make even more precise applications. I can also use my maps to see if there are areas of a field that may be better suited for non-cropped purposes like pollinator or wildlife habitat.
As the calendar rolls over and we’re starting a new year, it’s an opportunity for me to make new progress and make my farm better. I pray that this mindset of continuous improvement also becomes an example for my daughter and a strategy for the management of our family farm for years to come.