It Takes Livestock, Land & People to Keep Nitrogen Out of Our Water

In October, I told the Minnesota House Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Finance Committee that we had begun to listen to our farm, an assertion lawmakers heard with some surprise. The occasion was testimony around the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s presentation of its “Nitrogen in Minnesota Surface Waters” report, which showed among other things that 73 percent of the nitrogen escaping into the state's rivers is coming from cropland. My statement was a plea, really, the expression of a hope that Minnesota’s farmers would begin farming again.

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When the last of the commodity hog market melted away in the fall of 1998 and we essentially lost the income support for this farm, we did several things. We resolved never to produce hogs for the conventional markets again. We slammed the brakes down hard on outside input purchases. And we took whatever outside work we could for a few years to survive.

As the initial shock wore off, we began to look around and notice what happened easily on the farm, what grew well and didn’t need much help, and what required large investments of inputs and was not dependable in production. We very nearly ceased with corn production for a few years, planting more small grains instead. Because we saw how much the farm wanted to grow grass in some of our lower and wetter areas we started establishing permanent pastures mostly by building fence and getting some animals out there to graze. The process continued until today; we have about 30 percent of our 320 acres in permanent grass, harvested by planned grazing of cattle and sows.

Soon after making changes, we noted that the runoff and ponding so typical of the farm in a heavy rainfall wasn’t happening anymore in the pasture. Unless the rainfall was six inches or more within 24 hours, the water just didn’t move much. We wondered about our cropping acres and spent hours walking around in chore boots at the end of thunderstorms and in the spring to see what the water was doing. Seeing still too many ponds, which are caused by water running off the land too fast and overloading the tile outlet to the river, we thought about change.

We needed hay, since the dairy heifer replacement service we had started to use the pasture grass needed to run over winters as well. We planted an alfalfa grass mix on a few of our acres, and that planting grew to the point where today it uses three years of our six-year rotation to produce enough hay to feed the cattle in winter, plus provide a forage supplement for the sow herd.

Today, our core crop rotation is three years of hay, followed by corn, then grain and then corn again. This is varied some, since every field cannot be treated in the same way, and because we must continue to experiment. We are now doing much thinking about and experimenting with grazeable cover crops, especially after the small grain is harvested. Cattle are expected to maintain themselves in late fall for a month or more each year on grazed crop residues. What they leave is baled and brought to the yard for bedding the hogs.

Cropland treated this way is beginning to show the same results as pasture did earlier. Rainfall does not pond unless the amount of rain is very large and the soil also does not dry out so quickly in late summer. Our corn often does not show drought stress in a hot, dry August as others around us do. When we do till, which is not as often, the field equipment pulls easier.

Our corn yields the past four or five years hover around 130 to 160 bushels per acre, compared to 100 to 110 bushels in the 1990s. It should be noted that we are now certified organic, and have been since 2004. These higher yields, in contrast to those in the 1990s, are not supported by crop chemicals, or fertilizers, or GMO seed. Crops get rain, sun, soil and manure from the hog operation.

In conventional agriculture, global positioning systems steer the tractor. Monsanto solves the production problems with GMO seed and crop chemicals. Livestock operations are huge, centralized and separate from the "farms."

There are problems with the conventional system. Too much manure is a problem for the livestock centers—too little manure is a problem for the crop farms. There is too much work and not enough pay on the livestock factories. There is too much technology and not enough human care everywhere. The community deteriorates.

But now society has gone as far as it can with specialization and simplification. It is impoverishing us and the land. We must think again, and think carefully. We will not keep the nitrogen out of the river until we get more people on the land. These must be people with their minds engaged and their hearts open. Government can have a role here—it is difficult to see how any of this could happen unless it at least gets out of the way.

Livestock, land and people must be brought back together and for the good of all three. There are no shortcuts.

Land Stewardship Project member Jim VanDerPol, along with his wife LeeAnn, son Josh and daughter-in-law Cindy, owns and operates Pastures A Plenty Farm near Kerkhoven, in western Minnesota. Jim is also the author of the 2012 book, Conversations With the Land.