Over the last few years, I’ve noticed some shifts in the operations of the nearby farms that produce crops for animal feeds here in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Farmers are now practicing crop rotations in greater numbers than ever before; usually just corn and soybeans with grains mixed in occasionally. Using a leguminous crop like soybeans in the rotation harnesses their power of fixing nitrogen into the soil from the atmosphere replacing soil fertility lost to grain crops as well as cutting down on the need for synthetic nitrogen fertilizers with the included salts that damage soil life.
Occasional inclusion of grains also plays into the second major improvement I’ve noticed: cover cropping. Most grains I see used here are planted immediately after the long crop harvest in the late summer or fall to provide a winter cover crop. Some are never even harvested and knowing before hand no harvest will take place allows a much broader choice in crop selection. Preventing exposure of bare soil to the forces of mother nature and weather keeps erosion at bay. If the grains grow to maturity, some fertility is taken from the soil but if the frost kills the crop, roots and plant residue returns that fertility. I’ve seen radishes, turnips and other non-grains planted instead of the conventional choice of winter grains. These brassicas amass nutrients only to be killed by frost releasing the mineralized (bioavailable) nutrients back into the soil as well as providing aeration by leaving voids where the roots or tubers compost.
Another key change I’ve seen is the inclusion of no-till seed drills. While row cropping still requires herbicide application, the lack of tilling helps preserve fertility by reducing vaporization of nutrients. The benefits of not disturbing the microbial soil food web are likely lost to the burning salts in herbicides however. Yet a benefit is still seen with the seed drills: fall cover crops can be planted right into existing corn stubble or soybean residue. The former provides habitat for wildlife such as ground nesting birds and helps hold the soil in place as the cover crop gets established while the latter releases the mineralized nitrogen stored in the leguminous plant tissues.
While not in my home area, on a trip to the beach in Delaware, I noticed some soybean farmers leaving uncultivated and wild strips of weeds and wildflowers through their fields. I can only assume this is to harbor wildlife like native pollinators to ensure a full seed set in the crop of beans.
The next key step in more sustainable industrial fodder production is replacing the organic matter lost from soils to crop harvests removed from the farm for sale. No-till seed drilling is a step in this direction, but an inclusion of carbon matter if not compost would be ideal. Maybe it will take one of the big local names or the regional extension office to sway the masses.
Confined animal rearing operations have also slowly began to show signs of improvement. I’m noticing more and more carbon stockpiles amassing near livestock barns and poultry houses. Massive and numerous piles of chipped wood are being dumped on these farms and judging by the continuous changing of the piles, farmers are using it for bedding and using it frequently. Also judging the varying quality and chiping size of these mulches, these farmers are sourcing the carbon for free or cheap as waste from local government agencies, power companies or tree service companies that have to clear brush or trees. Carbon in this bedding bonds to nutrients and ammonia from animals wastes reducing vaporization (air pollution) and leaching (groundwater pollution) then composts directly in the animal house (providing free winter heat!) or on fields adding both fertility and organic matter back to the local soils. This formation of a winter manure pack is an old practice that will the backbone of improving my soils. I could not be happier about this development!
There are still a lot of farm practices I don’t agree with…especially in the industrial food production field. However it is vital to give credit where it it is due. Pitting industrial vs. sustainable agriculture is polarizing and damaging to both fields, not to mention building of animosity and the subsequent ability of human emotions to hinder progress. Remember, agriculture is historically slow to adapt to new practices so patience is vital in improving our overall food production systems. Very few of these practices would have been used even as little as a decade ago. Notice how the oldest practices of crop rotation and winter cover are the most widespread now even though the forces driving the practices have shifted from economic in gaining extra income from a winter grain crop to soil preservation. We can only improve from here and from the looks of it, conventional farms are already doing do!