OSCO, Ill. — Many farmers state their motivation to use sustainable practices as a way to “leave the land better than they found it,” without naming climate change.
On Gary Asay’s farm, a windbreak of evergreen trees is adjacent to a field of green, ankle- height cereal rye this time of year, not far from the hog barns and solar panels. Together they tell the story of the Henry County, Illinois, farm without Asay having to say many words.
Asay uses solar power, cover crops and manure management. He has been selling carbon credits since 2019.
Off-farm, he shares his expertise as a member of the National Pork Board’s Sustainability Task Force and Nutrient Cycling Task Force. Because feed is a key part of it, the pork board’s work overlaps with the National Corn Growers Association and the United Soybean Board in sustainability efforts, Asay said.
The combination of cover crops, manure management and no-till helps improve soil health, he said. They have seen their organic matter levels improve while saving on fertilizer.
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Solar panels provide between two-thirds to three-quarters of the power the whole farm needs. The power is used in the two 2,500-head barns for his wean-to-finish operation, which he rents out while retaining the manure.
Parked near the barns, his soybean planter doubles as a cover crop planter. He has tried a number of methods to plant cover crops, including aerial application, a seed drill and air seeder, but emergence for all was spotty.
“I like the soybean planter the best as it has the best seed to soil contact and control,” he said.
His shiny new cover crop crimper is ready to go as well. Crimping the cover crop this spring will provide some weed control and get his row crop get off to a good start, he said.
He grows wheat as a cover crop before corn and cereal rye before soybeans. His mixes this year also include barley and crimson clover. He has been growing cover crops for 12 years and using no-till for at least 15 years.
“Cover crops take time and some money to get started,” he said.
With an interest in sustainability, he signed up for a carbon credit program in 2019. Because he has been using some of the most popular practices for years, he doesn’t earn as much as those adopting new practices. But he earns some carbon credits for diversifying his rotation and adding to his cover crop mix.
“I think it’s a great thing,” he said of the carbon market encouraging new practices.
The work Asay has done on his farm and with the National Pork Board on their sustainability report released this spring “helps customers know we are not waiting,” he said of environmental practices.
Several Iowa pig farmers have participated in the Pork Checkoff’s pilot project on sustainability the last two years, said Ben Nuelle, Iowa Pork Producers Association public policy director.
“The project recognizes key sustainability metrics on the farm that can be tracked, measured and monitored. This helps farmers focus on how they can take actions that will leave the farm better than when they began farming, and the reports will be aggregated so everyone can see how the pork industry as a whole is doing,” Nuelle said.
Likewise, cattleman Justin Robbins is breaking ground in awareness of sustainability practices on his farm near Scranton in west central Iowa. His efforts were recognized by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
Robbins runs a cow-calf operation and what he calls “a moderate- sized row crop operation” as Robbins Land and Cattle with his wife Lacie. He is among six regional honorees in the NCBA’s 2022 Environmental Stewardship award program.
“My No. 1 goal is to make this place better when I’m done,” he said. “We can do our part to make things better.”
The family sells breeding stock and farm-to-table beef. The demand for beef grew during the pandemic and so did his online business.
His grazing management starts with planting cover crops in late summer and early fall so the cattle can graze in the fall and winter. He has several hundred acres of green cover crops this spring. Some stay for grazing, some are chopped for feed, some are sprayed before planting row crops or terminated using a crimper.
Robbins said he has most of the hay he needs for the year by May.
“Instead of harvesting hay a half dozen times of year, we let the cows do most of the work,” he said. “The cows can take care of the grassland on the farm and land we don’t want to, or shouldn’t, farm. The cows do a better job.”
In a livestock system, cover crops make sense for feed, he said, and they can increase yields on row crops if done correctly. Done incorrectly, they can also reduce yields, he said.
His advice for someone interested in trying cover crops is to start small.
“Don’t do the whole thing, try 20 acres,” he said.
Managing water resources is also key. Robbins uses solar-powered wells to give cattle water where they need it.
He harvested his rye in standing beans, which worked well, and used the rye seed for planting the next crop, he said. To prepare for the next generation and the next challenge, he keeps trying new things.