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1007 PD: The View from Here

Mike Gangwer Published on 27 September 2007

Summer is fading. The daylight hours are fewer. The mornings are cooler. The autumn of our year approaches. Even some leaves are slowly making different pigments behind the slowly fading green that they now reflect.

Our growing season in the Upper Midwest has been one of two extremes. We entered the growing season with water having filled nearly all the void space at the rooting depth. But then little rain fell from that time forward. There are, however, a few exceptions. Often a thundershower provides an intense amount of rainfall in a short period of time. Yet rain can fall at uneven amounts from two points in the same crop field.

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The corn yields here will be less than average over the entire rain-fed system, but where thundershowers delivered rain they may be above normal. The variable rainfall at some volume depths are the largest driver for crop yields. We have no control over when and where and how much rain falls.

I spend a lot of time helping others understand the components of conservation planning with particular attention upon farms with livestock. These farms have crop fields, too, so we are always working with a holistic approach. That is, the integration of all the systems, including rainfall, which work together. These are dynamic. And in a year like this one, the impact of the weather, especially the distribution of rainfall throughout the growing season, is an extraordinarily important part of the farm system.

Yet, while we may develop a comprehensive conservation plan, the components, such as rainfall, can change the plan significantly.

I often tell people that I work in a small cubicle without a window in an office building. Yes, I do get out in the field often, but to a large extent, I find myself removed from the actual components on a farm. In Flint, Michigan, I recently told a group of our conservation planners that sometimes we do forget that we work in a technical field but live in a dynamic world.

What do I mean by this statement?

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I often make the claim that we place a lot of emphasis on creating a conservation plan that must meet the quality criteria for the holistic suite of resources, such as soil and water. I often follow that statement with an acknowledgement that it is merely a model. That is, it’s a prediction for how we think these systems work. Yet at the time the plan or the model is developed, the components are already dated, and changed, and in some cases significantly.

In our farming systems, the dynamics of change occur within seconds or decades depending upon the component. We know that the soluble concentration of phosphorus (P) in soils change many times a day. The forms of P that shift to and from labile to in-solution are constantly shifting. Thus, soil fertility is different today from tomorrow or yesterday, although the degree of difference may be nominal.

An example of a decade-long change might be the progression of new buildings on a livestock farm. During a recent farm visit in Missaukee County, Michigan, the dairy farm had four distinct sets of barns, each built by one of the generations of the owning family. The newest barns are currently under construction.

I am often frustrated in my work as a conservationist. The heart of my frustration is centered on the degree of effort we place in planning without adequately taking into account the parts or components of the farm system that are dynamic. I strongly believe we owe landowners the type of plan with emphasis on empirical knowledge (real-world and not cubicle-based).

I began this article with comments about rainfall distribution over the growing season. I claimed that we develop plans based upon models of average or typical values. And for this year, these plans are wrong, but they can be and should be updated.

The importance of developing conservation plans is obvious but so is developing the kind of plan that requires some flexibility. We should shift some of our effort towards developing a strategy for how the plan will be implemented. I do not believe we have yet committed that kind of effort.

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For you, the livestock grower across the country, with swine, dairy, beef, poultry and other livestock, we owe the kind of plan that will be, at the time of implementation, accounting for the variables of a dynamic system, including lower crop yields because of too little rain so that adjustments can be made.

When I talk about conservation planning, I often talk about one of the best planning tools we have in the dairy industry – that of DHIA records. Readers of this article do not need to have this tool explained. I pose it to my supervisors and all of our conservation partners, including the landowners that are part of the Farm Bill program, such as EQIP. We need a DHIA-like farm records system for our livestock growers. Such a model would be based on a robust record-keeping system. The records, as a farm investment, help a farmer manage the components on the farm. The effect is a change in management, so that the farm improves efficiency and its economics (profit or return on investment) while, as a conservation consequence, the environment progresses.

These three big “E’s” (efficiency, economics and environment) will define the comprehensiveness of the farm system. Our plans should be written to help you have the kinds of records and attributable data so these E’s can be evaluated.

A change in management is wise if the evaluation of an existing condition discovers the trend is moving in the wrong direction. This step only happens with records comparing the change in the system over a period of time.

Farmers cannot make rain fall. But farmers can make certain adjustments because of a dry year. In fact, they do nearly every day. So it seems to me, that as a conservation planner, I ought to develop the kinds of plans that are less rigid and more empirically based. Or, in other words, plans that emphasize a comprehensive record-keeping system as a set of tools so that the big E’s can be evaluated.

On our livestock farms, we need conservation plans (CNMPs or NMPs) that will help you evaluate the performance (trends) of all components on the farm. I do not think we have this model yet, hence my frustration. I suggest that we can build this type of conservation plan.

At this point in my career, this task is at the top of my list. PD

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