Conservation Agriculture: Savings, Soil and Realities of Farming

Mike Wagner was farming out of his pocket in 1990, severely undercapitalized and short on options, but mindful of a high number of conventional farmers going broke. Minimum till rice drills had just hit the market and he snapped the first one off the shelf, hopeful for a good start on leased land. When he punched ground on a May morning (assisted by blue, 15-gallon drums of D Pak) a steady stream of trucks stopped along the edge of his fields as drivers peered at the spectacle: Wagner was planting seeds into weeds.

According to the plain realities of farming, conservation agriculture’s yardstick is efficacy and profit, and in four operations in Mississippi, Iowa and South Dakota, conservation and financial success are a wedded pair. Leading edge can be bleeding edge on any part of agriculture’s stage, but Mike Wagner, Pete Hunter, Rob Stout, and Chad Schooley have long stood at the vanguard of an effort to mix crop management with environmental awareness, and produce tangible benefits to soil and nature, without sacrificing dollars.

Avian Army

In the 1990s, Mike Wagner was intent on switching the playbook on diesel consumption, irrigation, tillage, aquifer depletion, and labor issues on his farm outside of Sumner, Miss. He pulled an about-face, financed his own research and drove toward crop quality and conservation. The result is one of the most unique agriculture operations in the United States: Two Brooks Farm, situated in the heart of the Mississippi Flyway in Tallahatchie County.

Wagner powers his farm with an avian army. Waterfowl arrive by the thousands after harvest, demolishing stubble and depositing fertilizer at the dollar-saving rate of 60 units of nitrogen. The birds move from acre to acre stamping down rice straw, enabling Wagner to broadcast seed during spring planting with minimal nitrogen application. In addition, Wagner doesn’t put out insecticides or fungicides on his rice: “I have pretty damn good luck without ’em.”

A Delta rice field can easily suck in 2 acre feet or more of water, but Wagner uses a matter of inches and the difference is dollars. Concisely, what he pumps, he keeps. His zero grade fields use 6” of aquifer water (8.9” average across the entire farm), and the remainder of Two Brooks’ water use comes from green sources. Nutrient runoff isn’t an issue due to water recycling, and Wagner also uses irrigation canals as settling basins to hold potential runoff.

When a paddy needs to be drained, the water is channeled into an adjoining field in a staggered approach that requires minimal electricity and diesel. If a timely July rain hits, Wagner doesn’t lose a drop of water from his zero grade fields. (In 2016, he cut off well pumping on July 10 for the entire season.)

All of his efforts are aimed at keeping machinery out of the fields. “Fuel, equipment, labor and fertilizer savings are incredible over the long haul,” he says.

Financially, the return from Wagner’s conservation approach has been consistently strong, he explains: “We pull out old tillage equipment every five or so years. We invest in planters and combines. Our equipment costs stay down and our yields are comparable or better, but we irrigate a little less than our neighbors.”

Conservation begins with a questioning process, Wagner continues: “Put a small part of your farm in conservation and you will question what you can do to make it better, and then leverage those questions into answers that can be used as a broad basis. Imagine if everyone had just 20% of their ground in no till or minimum till. We’d be heading toward a 20% reduction in erosion and runoff, and lots of help for the Gulf, although I’m not about to let all the blame for hypoxia fall on farmers. Des Moines, St. Louis, Memphis and other cities flush all their mess in the river and conveniently pass all blame to agriculture.”

In the future, Wagner is considering the SRI rice system to make even more efficient use of water and lower plant populations—more calories with less resource use. Also, he grows group III soybeans, but wants to experiment with more group II. “If everyone in the Delta grew IIIs instead of late IVs, I believe they could chop off an irrigation, and if they could chop off two, that would balance the annual aquifer drawdown water deficit. I’d like to grow some IIs, maybe at 300,000 live plants up per acre, and we might be able to cut our irrigation to nothing.”

Even a small portion of an operation placed in conservation-minded production is highly significant, he concludes: “My ideas can’t necessarily be implemented on another guy’s farm, but something else will work because everyone’s land is full of unique opportunity and their soil is unique.”

Stovall Legacy

A short hop from the Mississippi River in Coahoma County, Miss., Pete Hunter has long walked the line for 40-plus years between crop management and conservation in the north Delta on the historic ground of Stovall Farms. A legacy of conservation at Stovall Farms traces back to the 1940s and 1950s, with crop rotation, fallow ground and cover crops, followed by land-forming and pipe-and-pad irrigation in the 1960s.

“Conservation has been a part of Stovall for so long, and we always investigated new practices and implemented whatever worked and would benefit the ground,” Hunter describes.

With the advent of glyphosate-tolerant crops in the 1990s, Hunter began leaning toward minimum till and no till, with strong results on heavy ground. “There are so many ways to save money, and minimum till and no till greatly reduce costs per acre in field preparation. People still think you can’t plant a seed into cotton stalks from the year before, or into weeds that you’ve killed. They think you can’t get a stand; I know you can because we’ve done it so many times.”

Hunter has enacted a lengthy list of conservation measures: cover crops, automated irrigation, flow meters, well timers, surge valves, computerized hole selection, variable rate fertilizer, CRP on select ground, low-stage weirs, tailwater ponds, two stage ditches to help soil nutrients settle out before leaving the farm, and significantly more.

Hunter emphasizes soil loss enhanced by exposed ground each winter. “Naked and bare is what so many Delta farmers embrace, and frankly, that’s the worst thing for conservation. Guys don’t realize that a single inch of rain releases tons of soil every time.”

xcruciatingly tight margins mean growers must have excellent drainage, Hunter notes, resulting in fast-moving water. “Everybody wants their ditches cleaned with high-speed backhoes; the rain hits and runs off, bam, it’s gone. Water blows off our farms and charges into streams and river faster than ever. We’ve done a much better job getting water off our land, but that comes with a really high conservation cost.”

“Everyone’s land and geography means their recipe will be different, but if everyone took just a few percents of their acreage and put in grass waterways, or CRP in the right spot, or covers, or something else, the Gulf dead zone could be greatly reduced. The dead zone is never going away because a lot of it doesn’t come from farming, but we could still make a big impact for the better.”

“There are so many ways to save money through conservation because there are so many ways to conserve on a farm. At least ask questions, find out what matches your ground, and you’ll even be surprised by what cost-sharing is available,” Hunter adds. “Soil health is vital to profitability in today’s farming industry, and cover crops are the most effective and affordable ticket to good soil health."