The environmental benefits of climate-smart practices like cover cropping, conservation tillage, and crop rotation are pretty well understood in how those practices are able to improve the soil micro- (and macro-) biome, prevent soil loss and erosion, and improve soil health and air quality.
But we’re putting together the puzzle pieces to strengthen our core mission, which is to help farmers sustainably increase productivity – what impacts do these practices have on crop productivity, farm return on investment, and the many risky decisions farmers make season after season?
This year we started down a path that we think will lead to a much better understanding of the impacts of these practices on farm operations. Two long-term, sustainability-focused trials – part of a larger Bayer Crop Science endeavor centering the effects of operational decisions on sustainability outcomes - at our Martinsville, Illinois and Sioux Falls, South Dakota research farms will unfold over the next ten years.
These sustainability trials are among the most complex we’ve ever run. We’re gathering data on every combination of these three core practices in a coordinated way that will generate insights season after season.
Our field trial protocol for these two sustainability studies combines cover cropping, rotation, and tillage practices to drive insights on every combination of farm practices.
We engaged in this project hoping for insights into the effects these decisions have on farming operations, and we’re pleased to find that from our first season we were learning things that we might not have expected otherwise.
Conservation tillage (also called no-till) is a practice that doesn’t disturb the soil prior to planting. This leaves fields generally a bit cooler and wetter, with plant residue still present on the field. Conservation tillage also promotes better air quality through a reduction in air particulate matter, and maintains soil health by keeping the soil a positive environment for organic matter and beneficial organisms.
The biggest and most obvious positive indicator for conservation tillage so far has been productivity. While it’s early in the life of these trials and as such still hard to make conclusions after only one year, we do have good early indicators highlighting no-till benefits. Understanding that conservation tillage is not a practice that has been broadly adopted in the regions around our two farms, we were pleased to see that the yield and productivity differences between conventional and conservation tillage were within two bushels at both locations.
Additionally, in ways we didn’t expect (since conservation-tilled land tends to be slightly cooler and wetter), we didn’t see any meaningful difference in germination and emergence at planting, in disease pressure mid-season, or in moisture content at harvest. All really great signs that point toward conservation tillage being a good option for farmers to consider.
The difference between conventional tillage (on the right, darker) and conservation tillage (on the left, lighter) is obvious visually, but what’s not as obvious is the clear environmental, productivity, and financial benefits no-till provides in many cases.
What this says to us is that moving to conservation tillage practices not only is a positive for the soil, but can also be a positive financial move for farmers to take as well. Industry estimates for the US Midwest are that tillage practices cost on average around $20 per acre per pass. Factoring that investment over hundreds or thousands of acres represents a significant expense for farmers each season.
The additional benefits by moving to conservation tillage are the maintenance of soil health and the reduction of erosion. Those factors can lead to maintained or even increased productivity over time, providing a more sustainable cropping environment.
One complicating factor to consider is the opportunity for crop diseases to take advantage of the plant residue present in a conservation tillage environment to a greater degree than with conventional tillage that turns the soil and breaks more residue down. We believe that this challenge can be mitigated through a seed portfolio more resistant to disease overall, coupled with seed treatments, fungicides, and seasonal crop rotation.
This season will be our first opportunity to directly measure the effects of cover crops on soil health and productivity. We expect to see that the move to cover crops will increase nutrient availability in the soil, and positively impact the soil microbiome as well, making it healthier and more robust.
The additional carbon sequestration made possible through these climate-smart practices is an important strategy to capture carbon dioxide in the soil and has become a critical component of the Bayer Carbon Program.
Planted before the corn harvest, oat and radish cover crops at our Sioux Falls, South Dakota research farm will lock in nutrients and sequester carbon in the off-season, shown here in a freshly harvested conservation tillage field.
Our partnership – across the teams focusing on both farm operations and sustainability goals – will allow us to perform soil testing in samples across all the above planted blocks, gathering much-needed concrete data on the exact effects of planted cover.
We’re thankful for an environment in which we can conduct long-term trials like this in a controlled way, given opportunities to measure sustainability outcomes and draw productivity insights in ways that few farmers are able to do.
Our teams have nine more years of learnings to gain from these trials. Each year we’ll get new insights about the effects of these practices on the land and will start to paint a bigger picture that includes a much wider variety of options for farmers to consider.
Because this is ultimately what we’re out to accomplish: giving farmers more tools to do their jobs better, helping them draw insights and come to their own conclusions, and removing as much ambiguity, uncertainty, financial stress, and environmental impact from farming as possible.