Team D: Sustainable Solutions for Wisconsin Grain Farmers

Cordell Murphy, Agricultural Business Management, Environmental Studies B.S. UW-Madison 

Amber Dammen, Dairy Science, Life Sciences Communication B.S. UW-Madison


Scenario | Abstract | Introduction | Methods | Results | New Section | Limitations | Conclusions | Citations | Acknowledgements | About the Authors

Scenario

Amber Dammen and Cordell Murphy are University of Wisconsin-Madison extension researchers tasked with developing a plan-of-action for Wisconsin grain farmers that will help them mitigate the effects of climate change on their land. By utilizing their own experience, completing additional research, and conversing with experts, they have developed a set of solutions farmers can implement to improve their profitability, efficiency, and sustainability of their grain production operations.


Abstract

Wisconsin farmers are now directly facing the effects of a changing climate. Increased flooding, more extreme temperature changes, and an increased risk throughout the growing season have plagued farmers for multiple years. The resulting yield losses and subsequent financial woes can affect the farmers way of lives and their futures. In an attempt to help alleviate the burdens placed on farmers as a result of the changing climate, we conducted qualitative studies, reviewed literature, and explored experiments to provide solutions that farmers can deploy on their own land. Through our research we came across multiple solutions for Wisconsin farmers to implement to adapt and mitigate climate change effects. These solutions include cover cropping, integrating agroforestry and precision agricultural methods into their production strategies, and considering growing with genetically modified crops. Each solution provides different benefits to farmers that are sustainable and can help reduce the effects of climate change season after season.


Introduction: Climate Change Issues

Improving the sustainability of corn and soybean production in our state and across our country has the potential to be an incredibly impactful undertaking. The two crops contribute significantly to the national food supply and agricultural economies. In Wisconsin specifically, corn and soybean occupy approximately 2.9 million and 2.3 million acres of Wisconsin agricultural production land, respectively (Wisconsin Corn, WPR). However, the production of these two crops can be associated with severe environmental damage. Fertilizer runoff, high greenhouse gas emissions, and soil degradation are key concerns, among others. The production of these grains is being impacted by unordinary weather patterns, severe droughts and flooding, and adjusted growing seasons as a result of a changing climate. Cultivating, harvesting, and creating products directly from the land require farmers and other agriculturists to be dependent on the quality and prosperity of the land in order to make valuable products for consumers both nationally and globally.


The changing climate of our planet results in many unfavorable outcomes including not only a two degree Fahrenheit raise and more atmospheric carbon dioxide, but also many changes to the quality of water. Crop yields are no doubt sensitive to temperature and atmospheric carbon dioxide, but unpredictable, fluctuating and extreme weather conditions are also significant. The rise of CO2 levels has a direct correlation with water constraints available for crops to absorb (EPA). Extreme weather such as intense droughts, heavy rain downpours and reduced snowpack cause declines in surface water quality which can also put stress on water supplies (Jay et.al.). Additionally, floods and droughts prevent crops from growing. A wetter climate from floods provides an ideal climate for certain pests to thrive -- some that are known to growers and some that are not (EPA). Droughts, causing soil to become drier, leaves water supplies scarce, even for the option of irrigation (EPA). An increase in intense rain events in the spring, which is the beginning of the crop cycle, causes soils to get water logged. If fields have low enough moisture to be planted, the water logged soils can still delay planting, reduce yields and cause compaction (Agriculture Working Group). However, if heavy precipitation still occurs, re-planting, expensive field maintenance and a loss of soil productivity can still occur. After planting, droughts or floods provide even further yield loss, irrigation costs, and further soil productivity loss. Yield loss can also occur from over-wintering of pests from the warmer winter low temperature, the vigorous weed growth due to temperature, precipitation and CO2 changes, and higher humidity and nighttime temperatures in the summer (Agriculture Working Group).


It is simple to note the direct, immediate effects climate change has on agriculture. However, many indirect changes are also occurring. To manage the climate change effects, greenhouse gas emission regulations are increasing, which will increase costs. Unfortunately, the changing climate invites weed and pest species that are comfortable in this type of habitat and we will have to implement control strategies which can be costly and result in crop losses (Agriculture Working Group). Not only new weeds but added weed growth would make herbicide use increase. While this is a short-term solution, resistance increases, and pesticide damages can be a detrimental effect. The severe drought in 2012 highlights these climate change effects (Yousuf). While Midwest farmers saw corn prices hit near record highs, their yields were so low and poor quality that their wallets were not positively impacted (Yousuf). Another example of the effects happened in southern Wisconsin in the 2018 season, where snowfall in April delayed the spring planting by weeks, then late summer flooding hit farmers as they were preparing to harvest in the early fall. Farmers in southwestern Wisconsin have been dealing with heavy flooding for three years in a row (Davis).


Methods

To gather background information about climate change impacts on Wisconsin grains, we explored our own research questions and tested our own hypothesis by analyzing peer-reviewed journals, academic articles, and federal reports. After extensively reviewing our sources, we moved on to preliminary research into the solutions that were widely offered as the most impactful. During this time, we also conducted an interview with a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor with research interests on grain crop sustainability effects. Paul Mitchell, an Agriculture and Applied Economics professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is knowledgeable and passionate about solutions to climate change impacts for grain farmers. The following exploratory questions were asked to gather insight about this topic to offer Wisconsin farmers:

  • What are the climate change effects that farmers in this state are already experiencing?
  • What are some of the effects that they could be facing in the next decade or two?
  • How does water management play into the equation?
  • What are some adaptation and mitigation possibilities for farmers?
  • What are some of the best strategies large agri-businesses can employ to reduce their environmental impacts of their operations?
  • Any direction for us as we continue this project into climate change impacts on agriculture in our state?
  • Are there any promising sustainable solutions for the ag industry, especially in Wisconsin?
We then integrated the insight from Professor Paul Mitchell with other peer-reviewed articles and decided which solutions and adaptations we would offer to the farmers in our state. 


Discussion

After our preliminary research into the issues facing Wisconsin farmers, we began the process of using our methods to find solutions. Through these methods, we decided to focus on four distinct strategies to provide. Each of these solutions can provide direct benefits to farmers, their land, and their operations when correctly implemented. We found that each of these strategies proved to be the most effective because of the accessibility, ease of implementation, lowest cost, and are the easiest to communicate directly. For each of the solutions, we detailed what the benefits would be for them economically as well as environmentally, then offered scenarios of how each of these strategies could be implemented into their operations. The four strategies are cover cropping, integrating agroforestry, exploring crop genetics, and investing in precision agricultural technologies. We will explain each of the solutions in depth in their individual sections.


Solutions and Adaptions

Cover Cropping

Cover cropping is widely viewed by the soil and water conservation community to be an effective means for reducing soil erosion and nutrient loss and increasing soil health, yet relatively few farmers have adopted the practice (Arbuckle Jr, et al.). According to USDA data, cover cropping only occurred on approximately 2.3% of agriculturally dedicated land in 2014 (USDA-NASS). This low number is astounding, considering the fact that cover cropping during gap periods can provide so many environmental benefits, such as infiltration and reduced runoff and erosion (Gu, et al.). There are a few major reasons cover cropping has not been more widely adopted. The practice can be costly; just buying seeds and planting them in the correct period of time with in-season crops puts an extra financial burden on farmers. The crop can also be risky, especially in Wisconsin, because of weather and timing concerns during planting. There is also an issue of a lack of experience. Since there is such a low number of farmers cover cropping, most will need to be educated about how and why the practice should be implemented (Mitchell). This section will solve the educational problem by providing the best methods for implementation, while showing how cover cropping will benefit farmers environmentally and economically. 

Environmental Case

Researchers in the Midwest have studied the myriad of ways cover cropping can benefit farmers and their crops. Their findings show us how incorporating cover crops into their field rotations during gap periods between grain seasons can reduce soil erosion, improve the physical properties and increase the amount of nutrients in the soil, and reduce the sources of nitrate leaching (Gu, et al.). There is also evidence that cover cropping can suppress weed and pest pressure in the normal growing season (Gu, et al.). Each of these benefits can lead to increased stability and resistance for their corn and soybeans, and potentially better yields. Overall, cover crops are great for the soil and can prevent erosion and other degradation. 

Environmental Case

Source: Heggenstaller

Economic Case

The environmental benefits of cover cropping are apparent, but the economic concerns about the practice are as well. There can be large upfront costs, along with timing and weather issues that have the potential to cripple the practice. But with the right planning and management, the economic benefits of the practice show up season after season. The environmental benefits discussed above directly lead to these economic benefits: as the health of the soil is enhanced by the cover crop, there is little reason to apply the same amount of fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides as before, reducing dependence and associated costs. This improved soil health along with reduced erosion leads to improved yields and greater returns for the cover cropping farmer (SARE).  This is why cover cropping can help a farmer become more sustainable economically, lower costs and increased revenues. 

Implementation

In order to assist Wisconsin farmers in their implementation of cover cropping, we’ve gathered some useful information in order to maximize the utility of the practice and overcome the biggest barriers. We will discuss the options for types of crops to use as cover crops and communicate the optimal timing for planting. Grasses such as rye, winter wheat, barley, and triticale are the most widely used cover crops (Heggenstaller). Each can provide different benefits for the grower, so doing a little more research on exactly what you would like your cover crop to achieve would not hurt. But, in order to gather the most diverse benefits, we recommend planting rye in mid- to late September for adequate spring forage yield and overwintering soil covert in a regular corn-soybean rotation (Binversie, et al.). Rye is great for building soil and improving nutrient retention, all while combating erosion and providing resistance against weeds and pests for the next season. Furthermore, planting rye is the easiest to manage (SARE). When planting a cover crop in the fall, the grasses mentioned above don’t need to be put in right away, which makes planting management easier. Rye is especially resistant, so planting it a little later when necessary shouldn’t impact the crop significantly (SARE). Planting methods will differ depending on what is available to each farmer, so our recommendations will have to be a little more site-specific. Some options are to use grain drills, modified row crop planters, high clearance or aerial seeding equipment, or manure slurry seeding (Heggenstaller). After planting, fertilizer will normally not be required. The only time supplemental nitrogen fertilizer would be considered would be if planting occurs on sandy soils, which will likely be the case in central Wisconsin, or if the crop is intended to provide a significant source of spring forage (Heggenstaller).


Researchers in the Midwest have studied the myriad of ways cover cropping can benefit farmers and their crops. Their findings show us how incorporating cover crops into their field rotations during gap periods between grain seasons can reduce soil erosion, improve the physical properties and increase the amount of nutrients in the soil, and reduce the sources of nitrate leaching (Gu, et al.). There is also evidence that cover cropping can suppress weed and pest pressure in the normal growing season (Gu, et al.). Each of these benefits can lead to increased stability and resistance for their corn and soybeans, and potentially better yields. Overall, cover crops are great for the soil and can prevent erosion and other degradation. 

Agroforestry

A mitigating and adapting service as climate change effects are impacting farmers is the implementation of agroforestry into cropping systems. The goal of agroforestry is to improve lands’ resiliency, mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, along with enhancing production by protecting the soil, air, and water and introducing a diversified income (USDA).

Environmental Case

Currently in the Midwest, climatic issues including alternating flooding and drought cycles and a high population of harmful insects are the biggest challenges (USDA). While a rather unique approach, agroforestry can provide natural resource protection by increased resilience to shocks, risks and any long-term effects from extreme weather patterns and change (USDA). The implementation boosts soil quality by improving the physical condition and fertility, and the reduction of soil erosion will protect the future productivity of the soil (USDA). Water quality can be protected with the moderation of water pollution and alleviate high stream temperatures (USDA). Additionally, introducing new biodiversity and protecting the current populations allows for pollinators and beneficial insects to flourish (USDA).

Economic Case

When considering the ecosystem services agroforestry provides, this system can be competitive even on prime agricultural lands. Agroforestry has the potential to modify the microclimate, which has been shown to improve crop yields 6 to 56 percent, depending on the crop type (USDA). The largest financial benefit to agroforestry comes with the ability to mitigate and adapt to climatic variability, especially during extreme weather events (USDA).

Implementation

Over the United States, producers are using different agroforestry practices, as highlighted in Table 2. Currently, some producers in the Midwest are using riparian forest buffers to reduce the water-quality issues many farmers are facing, especially as rainfall and flooding events are increasing (USDA). Additionally, buffering the increased temperatures by windbreaks and alley cropping can lessen the problematic effects on crops and promote beneficial insect populations (USDA). 

Table 2:

table 2

Source: USDA

Finding an equipment-sharing cooperative to partner with to make your land a more resilient landscape will be the best way to implement agroforestry and reap the benefits (USDA). Additionally, technical support is available through Federal and State conservation programs that can guide implementation and improve your planning, prevent maladaptation and inform investment and management of resources (Peterson et al., Vose et al., Walthall et al.).

Crop Genetics

Another cost-effective climate change mitigation strategy for farmers is using crop breeding and genetic technology to combat negative effects on crops, as suggested by our interview results. Finding traits to promote crop adaptation has been explored since the mid-20th century, however those adaptation traits have been mostly to limit input costs and provide the most profitability for farmers as possible. However, the possibilities of breeding traits and engineering plants to gain environmental resilience is can be a very productive solution to mitigate the climate change effects.

The detrimental actions of pests or pathogens on crops is known as “biotic” stress. “Abiotic” stress on crops comes from the environment. A demand for crop varieties containing resilience traits to both abiotic and biotic stressors including heat, drought, pests and diseases is likely to increase as farmers are seeing the intensification of climate change (USDA).

While genetic engineering of crops provides enhanced yields, tolerance to abiotic conditions are very beneficial to farmers. In Brazil, low latitude daylight adjustment, aluminum tolerance and calcium-use efficiency were increased in soybeans when they had delayed flowering. These characteristics allowed for a higher tolerance for drought and deeper rooting (USDA). Table 3 highlights stress sources on crops and the ability for implementation of crop traits to mitigate climate-change related stress.

Table 3: Types of stress and genetic adaptation to climate change
Source: USDA/Economic Research Service


 Sources of Stress  Will new crop traits be useful for adaptation to climate change-related stress?
 Temperature (overall & extremes) Very likely -- global climate models predict increasing temperatures under variety of scenarios in many geographic regions 
Drought and excess moisture   Likely -- greater unpredictability in precipitation is expected, but global climate models differ about geographic distribution of precipitation changes
 Biotic stresses (pests and diseases)  Unclear -- greater pressure likely, but extent and severity unknown

Environmental Case

Other than improving plant resiliency and health, utilizing crop genetics and breeding to combat climate change can also mitigate water quality issues. For example, a variety of corn that fixes its own nitrogen and is native to Mexico has been identified and grown in Wisconsin (Deynze et al.). This variety could be bred with commercial corn seed varieties to include both nitrogen-fixing and yield producing qualities. This nitrogen-fixing corn secrete mucus-like gel around its aerial roots along it stalk. Bacteria lives inside this gel and has the ability to convert atmospheric nitrogen into a form usable by the corn plant. The ability to convert its own nitrogen would allow for a decrease in need of artificial fertilizers (Deynze et al.). 

Genetic engineered crops have many benefits, but the potential improvements in water quality could arguably be the largest. GE crops resistant to glyphosate, the main component in many herbicides (ScienceDaily). Additionally, herbicide-resistant crops require less tillage to control weeds, improving soil quality, water filtration and erosion (ScienceDaily). In Wisconsin, where the unabsorbed fertilizer and pesticides are gathered in runoff water, utilizing crop genetics to combat this issue has great potential.

Economic Case

The genetic improvements of crops in the United States account for approximately half of the yield gains since the 1930s (Rubenstein, et al.). In 2015, a $15.4 billion impact from GM crop technology contributed to the global gross farm income (Brooks et. al.). For the United States, farmers saw a $72.3 billion extra income between 1996 and 2015 (Brooks et. al.). Insect resistance and herbicide tolerance, the two main trait types in GM crops, account for 58% and 42% respectively of the total income gain (Brooks et. al.). 

The costs of supporting genetic breeding technology are usually relatively modest; however, the potential benefits may be very large. GE crops can provide lower production costs and higher yields and allow for a greater flexibility in pesticide spraying and less exposure to harmful pesticides (ScienceDaily).

Implementation

While seeds with lower resiliency traits may be more expensive, the cost of reduced yield, poor quality or even losing a season’s worth of crop due to extreme weather patterns such as flooding and drought can be even more financially detrimental. When purchasing seeds, we recommend finding seeds that are high in resiliency traits and yield productivity in order to mitigate climate change effects. 

Precision Agriculture

Increasing efficiency in farming is an important goal that can lead to the industry becoming more sustainable overall. This idea is playing out on a large scale with the rapid rise of precision agricultural methods, technologies, and equipment. Precision agriculture refers to using these tools to make the practice of farming more accurate, controlled, and monitored when growing crops. Some examples of new precision agriculture technologies include GPS guidance, soil sampling, variable rate technology, monitoring and control systems, drones, and use of apps and software, among many others (Schmaltz).

Economic Case

There are three main focuses behind precision agriculture: increasing profitability, efficiency, and sustainability. Using precision ag technologies can lead to increased efficiency throughout the growing season; more precise planting for lower seed use and better stand counts, optimized fertilizer, pesticide, herbicide, and insecticide use for lower input costs, and better monitoring and scouting methods for quick diagnosis and treatment of any problems. Using precision agricultural methods and technologies can help Wisconsin farmers reduce costs, inputs, and their impacts on the soil and ecosystems surrounding their fields (Schmaltz).

Environmental Case

Environmental issues arising from use or over-use of crop inputs are among the most commonly cited problems for agriculture. (Mitchell, et al.) Applying too much fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides can lead to widespread damages to waterways, pollinator populations, and aquatic species. (Mitchell, et al.) Using precision agriculture methods to improve efficiency during the application of these chemicals could dramatically reduce the environmental impact of agriculture overall. This same idea can be applied to the amount of water used in agricultural production, where approximately 80 percent of the nation’s consumptive water is used. (USDA) Precision agriculture technology can monitor the amount of water going onto the fields and determine the optimal amount for the crop. These technologies can help farmers improve efficiency across the board, helping to optimize the amount of inputs needed to produce a great yield. This is great for the individual farmer as well as for the environment.

Implementation

In order to implement precision agriculture technologies onto a farm, it will be key to familiarize the farmers with how these technologies work, and what are the best available to them. We will need connect farmers with soil-testing services, mobile apps, and online data platforms. Most farmers have a lot of data available to them, they just need the means to make use of it all. Using University extension resources and on-farm experimentation will be important steps to take, because studying and understanding their land specifically will lead to greater precision and accuracy. 


Conclusions

In a study conducted by Rejesus et. al., a significant proportion of farmers do not perceive climate change as scientifically proven; and further, are not concerned about an adverse effect of average crop yields and yield variability. However, through education and outreach, we are going to work with farmers to provide solutions for their farms to ensure economic, environmental, and social sustainability. Through our research, we identified four strategies that farmers can deploy to improve the sustainability of their grain production operations. We found that integrating cover cropping and agroforestry and using crop genetics and precision agriculture resources will spell widespread benefits. The farmers integrating the strategies would experience greater returns and improved efficiency, and each would provide extensive environmental benefits. With these strategies and continued progress, we would come closer achieving the ability to feed the world while simultaneously protecting it for future generations. 


Citations

Wisconsin Farmers Plant Record Amount of Soybeans as Tariffs Loom, WPR 2018 https://www.wpr.org/wisconsin-farmers-plant-record-amount-soybeans-new-tariffs-loom


Wisconsin Corn Facts: http://wicorn.org/resources/corn-facts/


“Cover crop adoption in Iowa: The role of perceived practice characteristics”, Arbuckle Jr, Roesch-McNally. 2015:


Lei Gu, 2017, “Climate change adaptation of corn production in the US Midwest: evaluating the benefits and tradeoffs of cover crops”


USDA-NASS 2014, Census of Agriculture, Census by State. USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service. http://www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2012/Full_Report/Census_by_State


Heggenstaller, Andy. “Managing Winter Cover Crops in Corn and Soybean Cropping Systems.” Pioneer, www.pioneer.com/home/site/us/agronomy/library/managing-winter-cover-crops/#nitrogen.


Managing Cover Crops Profitably, SARE: https://www.sare.org/Learning-Center/Books/Managing-Cover-Crops-Profitably-3rd-Edition


Binversie, Liz, et al. Planting Cover Crops after Corn Silage for Spring Forage Harvest: Opportunities and Challenges as Told by Dairy Farmers and Their Consultants in Wisconsin.


Deynze, Allen Van, et al. “Nitrogen Fixation in a Landrace of Maize Is Supported by a Mucilage-Associated Diazotrophic Microbiota.” PLOS Biology, Public Library of Science, journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371%2Fjournal.pbio.2006352.


Brookes, Graham, and Peter Barfoot. “Farm Income and Production Impacts of Using GM Crop Technology 1996-2015.” GM Crops & Food, Taylor & Francis, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5617554/.


“Genetically Engineered Crops Benefit Many Farmers, but the Technology Needs Proper Management to Remain Effective, Report Suggests.” ScienceDaily, ScienceDaily, 22 Apr. 2010, www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/04/100413112058.htm.


Schmaltz, Remi. “What Is Precision Agriculture and How Is Technology Enabling It?” AgFunderNews, 24 Jan. 2019, agfundernews.com/what-is-precision-agriculture.html.


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Agroforestry: Enhancing resilience in U.S. agricultural landscapes under changing conditions; USDA 2017: https://permanent.access.gpo.gov/gpo90991/gtr_wo96.pdf


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Acknowledgements

We would like to thank Professor Paul Mitchell for his efforts in this project, providing us with sources, insight and commentary. 


About the Authors

Cordell Murphy is a senior studying Agricultural Business Management and Environmental Studies. Amber Dammen is also a senior majoring in Dairy Science and Life Sciences Communication. Both come from rural Wisconsin and have a passion for sustainable solutions for their farmer neighbors. 




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