Land Line: Carbon Cow Stomp, CC Myths, Record Plantings, Dairy Bankruptcies, Rural COVID Cases, Dangerous Line Speeds

Feb. 21: An LSP Round-up of News Covering Land, People & Communities

A Different Kind of Land Management: Let the Cows Stomp

(2/17/21) The New York Times writes about how Texas cattle producer Adam Isaacs is using regenerative grazing to reclaim worn-out, weedy pastureland on some 5,000 acres. Highlights:

  • Regenerative grazing means closely managing where and for how long animals forage, unlike a more conventional approach in which animals are left to graze the same pasture more or less continuously. Ranchers also rely more on their animals’ manure to help keep their pastures healthy.
  • The 27-year-old Isaacs has a cow-calf operation and is using portable electrified fencing to confine the animals to a small area so that they can’t help but trample some of the weeds as they graze. “We let cattle stomp a lot of the stuff down,” he said. That adds organic matter to the soil and exposes it to oxygen, which will help grasses and other more desirable plants take over. Eventually, through continued careful management of grazing, the pasture will be healthy again.

  • His goal is to turn the 5,000 acres into something closer to the lush mixed-grass prairie that thrived throughout this part of the Southern Great Plains for millenniums and served as grazing lands for millions of bison. “These cows are my land management tool,” he said. “It’s a lot easier to work with nature than against it.”
  • The healthier ranchland can also aid the planet by sequestering more carbon, in the form of roots and other plant tissues that used carbon dioxide from the air in their growth. Storing this organic matter in the soil will keep the carbon from re-entering the atmosphere as carbon dioxide or methane, two major contributors to global warming.
  • The Biden administration, in its initial moves to combat climate change, has cited agriculture as a “linchpin” of its strategy. One idea is to allocate $1 billion to pay farmers $20 for each ton of carbon they trap in the soil.

Check out LSP's Grazing & Soil Health web page here. LSP's "100% Soil Healthy Farming Bill" recently passed a key Minnesota House committee by an 11-1 vote. For details on how to push this groundbreaking legislation past the finish line, check out our recent action alert; on that page, you'll also have an opportunity to sign the "100% Soil Healthy Farming" petition.

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Myth-Busting 8 Common Beliefs About Cover Crops

(2/17/21) Eight common myths related to cover-cropping were recently addressed in Morning Ag Clips by Rob Myers, Director of the Center for Regenerative Agriculture at the University of Missouri, and Jerry Hall, Director of Research for GO SEED. The myths addressed were:

  • There will be interference with cash crop production.
  • Cash crop yields will take a hit.
  • Water availability will be reduced for the subsequent crop.
  • New pests will be introduced.
  • Soil temperatures will remain too cold.
  • Pollinators will be fed.
  • Seed is too expensive.
  • Cover crops are the silver bullet.

Check out LSP's Cover Crops & Soil Health web page for fact sheets, videos, podcasts, and other resources related to cover cropping.

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Record Corn & Soybean Crops Possible as Farmers Chase High Prices

(2/19/21) Responding to strong exports and expectations of a U.S. economic recovery, farmers will plant 92 million acres of corn and 90 million acres of soybeans this spring, pointing to a record soybean crop and possibly the largest corn harvest ever, reports Successful Farming. Highlights:

  • Plantings of corn and soybeans, the two major U.S. crops, would be 5% larger than last year, corn up by 1.2 million acres, and soybeans up by 6.9 million acres, according to USDA chief economist Seth Meyer. Corn acreage would be the largest since 2016 and soybeans only a hair behind the record of 90.2 million acres in 2017.
  • Corn production could top 15 billion bushels and soybeans could total 4.5 billion bushels, assuming normal weather and the USDA’s projected yields for this year. The current records are 15.148 billion bushels of corn in 2016 and 4.428 billion bushels of soybeans in 2018.
  • Cattle, hog, broiler, and dairy production will expand modestly this year, said Meyer, with higher market prices expected for cattle, pigs, and broiler chickens. The all-milk price was forecast to fall for the second year in a row, to $17.15 per 100 pounds.

It can be tough to diversify a farming operation in Corn and Soybean Country. But as the Farm Beginnings grad profiled here makes clear, innovations focused on healthy soil and creative marketing can provide a path off the monocultural treadmill.

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Western Wisconsin Leads The Nation In Farm Bankruptcies, Again

(2/9/21) Western Wisconsin continues to lead the nation in farm bankruptcies, reporting the highest number of new filings in 2020, says Wisconsin Public Radio. Highlights:

  • A Chapter 12 filing allows farmers who are carrying too much debt to reorganize their business into a more profitable system and potentially have some of their debt forgiven. This debt is usually owed to unsecured creditors, like a local feed mill or a machinery dealership. But the most important part of a Chapter 12 bankruptcy is that tax debt generated by selling land or other assets during the reorganization also falls in this category.
  • Federal court data shows the Western District of Wisconsin had 39 new Chapter 12 bankruptcy filings in 2020. The Eastern District of Wisconsin came in fourth in the nation with 30 new filings, right behind Kansas and Nebraska.
  • Paul Swanson, a bankruptcy attorney in Oshkosh, Wis., said most of the farms filing for bankruptcy in Wisconsin are smaller dairy farms that have borrowed too much since milk prices plummeted in 2015.
  • The Western District of Wisconsin, which covers 44 counties and more than half of the geographic area of the state, tends to have more small farms than the eastern district. Swanson said those farms are struggling to compete with the growing number of CAFOs in the area.

Feeling stress as a result of emotional, economic, or weather-related pressures? Check out LSP's Farm Crisis Resources web page. During the 2021 session of the Minnesota Legislature, LSP and its allies are pushing for a moratorium on new or expanding mega-dairies. For more on this and other LSP legislative priorities, see this recent blog.

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Rural Covid-19 Cases Drop While Rural Death Rate Holds Steady

(2/16/21) The number of new COVID-19 infections in rural counties fell recently to the lowest level since October. But COVID-related deaths in rural America grew slightly, showing the lingering impact of the winter surge that peaked more than a month ago, according to The Daily Yonder. Highlights:

  • New cases in rural counties fell to 81,952 last week, down from 115,359 new infections the week before. The rate of new infections in rural counties has dropped by about two-thirds since the COVID-19 peak in the first full week of January.
  • Meanwhile, the number of COVID-related deaths in rural counties plateaued for the past month. Last week’s rural death count was 3,599, up by 17 deaths from two weeks ago. The rural death toll has lingered between 3,500 and 3,600 since mid-January.
  • In metropolitan areas, the rate of new infections also fell last week, but COVID-related deaths climbed by about 10%. There were 586,000 new infections last week in metropolitan counties and 18,071 COVID-related deaths.
  • Only six states added rural "red-zone counties" — defined as having 100 new infections in a week per 100,000 residents. Nebraska added eight, and South Dakota added seven. Minnesota, Louisiana, and Colorado each added three counties to the red-zone list. North Carolina added one.

Has your farm been affected by COVID-19? Recent COVID-19 relief funding approved by Congress has authorized a Paycheck Protection Program 2 (PPP 2). The deadline to apply is March 31. Details are here.

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As U.S. Pork Plant Speeds Up Slaughtering, Workers Report More Injuries

(2/21/21) Seaboard, the second-biggest U.S. pig producer after Smithfield Foods, sped up its operations in Guymon, Okla., last year after the U.S. government removed limits on pork plant line speeds in late 2019. It was the first plant to operate under the new rule, which was intended to allow processors to produce meat more quickly. Some workers say they have suffered physically as a result, reports Reuters. Highlights:

  • Under the new rule, pork plants can slaughter as fast as they want, as long as they prevent fecal contamination and minimize bacteria. Previously, the government-imposed limit was 1,106 pigs per hour.
  • President Joe Biden’s administration, which pledges to prioritize worker safety, withdrew a Trump era proposal to allow all poultry plants to operate faster. But reversing the pork rule would be trickier, lawyers said, because it is already in effect.
  • Seaboard now requires employees to slaughter between about 1,230 and 1,300 hogs per hour, two plant workers who are also union stewards told Reuters. That compares to under 1,100 an hour in 2019, said one of the workers.
  • The 2019 elimination of pork line speeds by the USDA was part of the New Swine Inspection System, which also lets pork plants use some company inspectors instead of USDA ones.
  • The Seaboard plant in 2020 reported five lacerations on the slaughtering floor that required paid medical treatment outside of the plant such as stitches, a three-year high, according to the company. That compares to one laceration claim in 2019, zero in 2018, and five in 2017.
  • Nationwide, inspections of serious incidents at meat plants rose last year. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) conducted 27 inspections at non-poultry meat plants in 2020 due to either a “fatality” or a “catastrophe,” up from one in 2017, three in 2018 and five in 2019, OSHA data shows.

An LSP blog describes the key role local meat processing could play in creating a more resilient food system. In another blog, LSP member-farmers Jim and LeeAnn VanDerPol propose the creation of community owned meat processing in Minnesota.

Brian DeVore is the editor of the Land Stewardship Letter.