Managing resources more effectively during the current economic downturn in agriculture was on the mind of farmer Morey Hill at the Iowa Soybean Association Research Conference last Thursday in Ames. Hill grows soybeans and corn near Madrid in central Iowa. He was joined by more than 550 farmers, agronomists and project partners at the annual event.
"I want to determine optimum planting populations to maximize profitability," he said. "You just can't throw seed out there and hope for yield improvements." More effective resource management includes scrutinizing both agronomic and environmental performance, added Hill, a first-time conference attendee. "The conference offered tremendous expertise on how I can better manage our natural resources, particularly our water. Events like this provide the perfect venue to get the word out about what's happening on our farms while networking with other farmers. The sharing of experiences and details about what works and what doesn't work is invaluable."
Name change: it's now called the ISA Research Conference
This one-day meeting in previous years was called the ISA On-Farm Network Conference. Now it has a new name—the ISA Research Conference. "We want this event to feature the work and presentations of our ISA On-Farm Network program and our ISA Environmental Programs & Services teams," explained Ed Anderson, director of these programs at ISA. "There are synergies and tie-ins with both programs—crop production research and research on how to better manage soil and water and address to effectively and efficiently protect and improve water quality."
Nearly 40 information sessions were held throughout the day. Topics included precision farming, digital agriculture, soybean diseases, nutrient and nitrogen management, new soybean traits and technologies and Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy participation. ISA staff explained On-Farm Network trial results while farmer panelists discussed ways to continuously improve environmental quality, on-farm efficiency and profitability.
Learning more on how to improve soil health and water quality
For ISA president-elect Wayne Fredericks, this annual conference is a must-attend event. Farming near Osage in northeast Iowa, Fredericks has been a long-time On-Farm Network trial participant and based on what he has learned by participating he now uses additional practices on his land to improve soil health and water quality.
"This annual event is a real showcase about the Iowa Soybean Association," he said. "It's the culmination of a year-long effort to gather data and then pool that data with others to improve decision making. It's also a great opportunity to visit with farmers and suppliers to learn what's working and what may be relevant to try on my farm."
Roger Wolf, director of ISA's Environmental Programs & Services division, says the meeting's strong attendance and lively discussions are another indication of the value of ISA's approach to conducting and sharing research. "We're leveraging the integration within ISA and we see how all the pieces fit together including soil and water, hydrology and nutrient management to name just a few," he says. "Then, we aggregate science and data from across the state and we bring all of this information together in one place. It's all about helping farmers make better decisions that can improve their efficiency—and improve their stewardship of soil and water resources."
Nutrient management, with economics and environment in mind
For Morey Hill, the timing couldn't be better. "It's about making better decisions and using resources more wisely. Information from the conference will help me do both."
Prior to the day-long conference on Thursday, a panel discussion on environmental performance and farming was held Wednesday evening looking at critical issues facing farmers. The group included Wayne Fredericks of Osage, A.J. Blair of Dayton, Chris Gaesser of Lennox and Tim Smith of Eagle Grove. They explored how ISA research can help farmers stay competitive and be productive and profitable in a sustainable way.
More than 200 farmers, crop consultants, industry partners, government and academic officials, ag suppliers and others gathered in small groups to develop questions for the panel. Topics discussed included digital farming and "Big Data," current issues related to water quality and the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, research needs, competitiveness and economic challenges facing producers.
Considerable discussion about water quality and cover crops
Water quality and conservation efforts dominated most of the small group discussions. Farmers from across the state discussed what's worked for them. Cover crops—a critical part of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy to reduce nitrate and phosphorous loads in Iowa waterways by 45%--was at the top of the list.
Some of the top cover crop questions for panelists included: What types of cover crops to plant? What seeding method works best? When and how to terminate the crop? Answers varied depending on location and equipment available.
Cereal rye, tillage radishes, annual rye grass and seed mixtures were the most popular cover crops planted by the panelists. Most used a combination of aerial seeding and grain drills to plant their cover crops. Glyphosate herbicide is the most popular way to kill cover crops in the spring. If possible, farmers sprayed a week or more before planting corn and either a few days before planting soybeans or after right after.
Farmers trying to figure out how to best manage cover crops
Seth Watkins, a staunch environmentalist and farmer from southern Iowa, near New Market, said the panel and small group discussions about cover crops were particularly useful. "We're still figuring out how to use cover crops," he said. "That's what's good about talking about this at the table because we all have diverse operations and come from different parts of the state. There's no doubt cover crops are good and protect our soil and improve water quality."
How to best communicate with urban neighbors about what measures farmers take to protect soil and water is another pressing issue. The panelists agreed getting the public on farms and engaging with the media is the best way to tell the story of agriculture.
Smith said he's hosted several field days. "If the public can step on your farm, and learn about the soil conservation and water quality protection practices we use, that means a lot," he said. Fredericks said he invites politicians and neighbors to ride in the tractor or combine. Seeing conservation practices from the cab window is powerful. "You have a great story to tell and passion. People are hungry for that," he notes.
With lower corn and bean prices, farmers will have to be efficient
Commodity prices have plunged and margins have narrowed or disappeared this year. The panelists said the value of ISA research and replicated strip trials will shine and help farmers to be more efficient and productive—to help cope with tight margins. Sound science and data will help drive agronomic and environmental performance. The On-Farm Network has thousands of replicated strip trials available for farmers and the public to see, ranging from products and practices to planting dates and seeding rates.
The panelists said the return on investment feature of the strip-trial information will be particularly helpful this year. "It's kind of like opening a present that has a lot of layers. The science and data available is trustworthy and relevant," Blair said.
The panelists were asked for their view on the future of the soybean industry, given the recent downturn in prices. Fredericks didn't mince words. "Of all the grains out there, I'm most excited about the soybean industry," he said. "The soybean is the premier crop for desirable protein. As populations in other countries become affluent, they want more protein, namely in fish and meat and oil."
Conference seminars and speakers will be posted at www.iasoybeans.com.