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Monday December 11, 2017

Why do farmers plow the soil year after year

"Soil erosion is second only to population growth as the biggest environmental problem the world faces," Cornell professor David Pimentel once told the media. Although many factors contribute to the resulting loss of soil necessary to grow food, one of the most controllable is the tillage practices of farmers on that land. So why do farmers till the same fields year after year?

For nearly as long as civilized man has grown rather than gathered crops, he has tilled the soil for those crops prior to planting. Today's farmers continue that practice, for several reasons:

  • To improve the bed for seed to be deposited. Most soils in this part of the world naturally compact, settle or crust over, so tilling helps break up the soil structure, allowing water to soak in and air to penetrate, which prepares the soil to better nurture the seed once it's planted.
  • To reduce the number of weeds. Turning existing weed plants under by tilling kills them without resorting to chemical weed controls, and has been the most common method of weed control for millenia. Unlike in your lawn, effective weed control isn't just a question of attractiveness; actively growing weeds compete for water and sunlight with crops and can easily overwhelm them, leaving ground less productive.
  • To incorporate fertilizer, weed killer and manure. Tilling mixes those nutrients provided by fertilizer and manure and the chemical carried in weed killers so they get beneath the surface of the soil and into the "root zone," where they do the most good. Incorporating those elements also helps prevent a heavy rain from washing them off the surface of the soil and into streams and lakes, where they can cause a pollution problem.
  • To create beds, furrows and other specific surface configurations needed to accept the plants. Planting crops in orderly arrangements helps make other productivity-enhancing practices like weeding, irrigating, covering and harvesting possible.
  • To control insects and other pests. Turning over the soil to either bury and smother pests like weed seeds or, conversely, to expose them to the surface where birds and weather can destroy them contributes to natural control of those pests that can rob fields of productivity by competing with or parasiticizing crops.

Tillage can occur anytime between harvest of the previous year's crop and spring planting. In the Corn Belt, most tillage is usually done between March and May for corn, and can be as late as early June for soybeans. Tillage is often done in the fall, after harvest, as well, either to conserve soil moisture, to take advantage of natural cycles of weeds and insects, to better use farm labor or any combination of those. The best time to till to protect the soil from erosion is immediately before planting, although wet spring weather doesn't always permit.

In recognition of some of the problems traditional soil tillage may cause--not the least of which being it is the second most energy-hogging direct practice a crop farmer engages in (surpassed only by drying grain after fall)--more and more U.S. farmers have moved from conventional tillage to so-called conservation tillage systems. Conservative tillage includes several types of revised tillage, such as "no-till" "minimum till" "ridge till" "chisel plow" and "mulch till," all of which aim to preserve some amount of the plant material from the previous season's harvest on the surface of the soil, where it works as a natural blanket to help protect the soil from erosion caused by rain and wind. Conservation tillage is basically any system that keeps at least 30 percent of the crop residue on the soil surface at the time of planting. USDA estimates that for crop year 2009, more than one-third of acres representing the vast majority of the nation's cropland had now moved to no tilling operations prior to planting. Almost half of all soybean acres and almost 30 percent of corn acres were planted with no-till in that year.

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Why do farmers do that to baby pigs?

Several "undercover" animal-rights videos have now shown farmers appearing to mutilate baby pigs in large farms. Why do pig farmers do that to newborn pigs?

Almost all pigs raised in this country, whether in large barns or in small houses on outside lots, undergo what is commonly called "processing," usually within a week of being born. In most cases, that involves these practices:

Teeth clipping: Although not as common as it used to be, many pig farmers still routinely clip the tips off the piglet’s eight eye teeth, often appropriately referred to as “needle” teeth. Because piglets often are born into litters composed of eight, 10 and even 12 siblings, competition for space at the mother pig’s udder can be fierce. That competition often leads to fighting that can cause injury not only to the snout and face of fellow littermates, but to the sensitive teats of the mother—which can leave her reluctant to nurse, eventually depriving the young pigs of needed milk. By using either sharp sidecutters or an abrasive grinding tool, farmers remove the sharp end of the tooth to dull them and prevent their use to hurt other pigs.

Ear notching: Ear notching uses a system of shallow notches in the skin of the ear to permanently and inexpensively number baby piglets so they can be inventoried and tracked throughout their lives. Farmers typically remove one of more notches about a one-quarter-inch deep on both ears, which corresponds to a unique number for the pig and its litter, based on where the notch lies on the ear. Although little formal research has been done to try to quantify the amount of pain and distress the practice causes, farmers have traditionally compared it to ear piercing for a young girl—it does cause brief pain, which is apparent from piglets shaking their heads for several minutes after the procedure, but any longterm suffering is likely insignificant.

Tail docking: For reasons animal scientists still don’t quite understand, older pigs will occasionally fall into the vice of biting the tails of their pen-mates. If it becomes excessive enough to cause an open wound to the tail of the bitten pig, it can then escalate into a destructive “feeding frenzy” in which most or all pigs in the pen are attracted to repeat the habit. In severe cases, it can lead to infections, spinal abscess, paralysis and even death among the victimized pigs. So a common practice to help prevent tailbiting is to dock the tail while the baby pig is young--much as the tails of some breeds of young dogs are docked. Is it painful? Again, common sense would suggest it probably is, but researchers aren’t certain as to the degree. The entire tail does have developed nerves, even in the youngest pig, so it's apparent some pain may be felt. Docked piglets can be seen wagging the tail stump or clamping it between their back legs for a few moments afterward, which scientists believe does indicate a pain response. However, most pigs return to normal feeding almost immediately after the procedure, which farmers take to indicate as the best sign it causes no longterm consequence.

Castration: Almost all pork farmers carry out the longstanding practice of surgically removing the testicles of male pigs to prevent the tainting of pork with foul odors and off flavors, as well as to reduce aggressiveness of older boars. The vast majority still do it by cutting open the scrotum and cutting or pulling out the testes--without anaesthesia. Until fairly recently, it was assumed by farmers that young animals did not have as highly developed nervous systems as older animals, so they felt less pain when the process is done at a young age--the same rationale for circumsicing young boys without anasthesia. As with the other practices, some are now questioning that assumption. However, most farmers still concur in the belief that castrating before weaning causes much less stress than waiting until pigs are older, and the behavioral indications--eating, returning to interacting with the group, ceasing to squeal immediately after they're returned to the security of their mother and littermates--all indicate little or no long-term suffering.

Each of these common procedures can be performed in a matter of minutes--even seconds--by a farm-hand experienced in husbandry. What may look to the untrained eye as a flurry of knives, pliers and needles punctuated by screams of "terror" is a well-orchestrated execution of necessary procedures that, although they may cause short-term pain or distress to the confused piglet, benefit the animal over the long term.

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Most Iowa calves are born in later winter and early spring. Why?

Cold weather may seem a bad time to have baby calves, but here's why beef cattle farmers purposefully deliver them in late winter. It helps make beef more affordable for you.

Viewers of evening newscasts in the U.S. urban centers watched in horror this October as a sudden blizzard killed an estimated 3,000 cattle in Nebraska and as many as 15,500 in South Dakota. The devastation served as reminder again that "natural" farming practices like cattle ranching are often brutal and unforgiving.

Yet thousands of Nebraska beef cattle ranchers are even now preparing to enter a three-month season of trudging through the dark in rain, snow and mud to find, check and, if necessary, assist cows and their calves that are in the process of birth. For this part of the country, almost eight in every 10 calves will be born between the beginning of February and the end of May. Despite temptations to shift the all-important calving season to warmer, drier months, when the weather is not so harsh, farmers continue this traditional winter calving season. Why?

• It gives calves the chance to best use the feed Mother Nature provides—grass. Despite criticism that the modern beef farming system relies on “unnatural” feeding products like corn, the truth is nearly all beef calves raised in Nebraska and the United States spend most of their lives eating grass. Cattle farmers understand cattle are very efficient converters of grass and forage into meat, so the more opportunity they give the calves to eat grass, the more productive they are, and the cheaper it makes beef for your customers. Calves born in the late winter and early spring are being weaned from complete reliance on mother’s milk and prepared to start eating grass just as the fresh spring growth in pastures comes on strong. Ensuring those calves are ready to start grazing as soon as possible gives farmers the maximum number of months on grass to put on weight for sale by the end of the summer.

• Generally, having calves in the late winter and early spring is helpful in spreading out the work requirements on mixed family farming operations. There, farmers still rely predominantly or completely on their own labor and their family’s. Getting the high-labor tasks of calving out of the way before spring cropping season begins ensures the cow/calf enterprise doesn’t interfere with labor demands.

When are most calves born?

• It helps the mother cows, as well. Because farmers typically get only one calf out of each mother cow per year, it’s critical to their success to make sure each cow gets the full opportunity to deliver and raise that healthy calf, and then be prepared to breed for the next year’s calf. To maintain their best fertility, cows are generally given about 1.5 to two months to rest and fatten up a little before they are bred for the next year's calf. By calving in the early spring, cows can take advantage of the natural pasture growth, which is relatively high in protein in the early spring, to put some flesh back on before farmers start breeding them.

• By carefully scheduling the breeding of those cows in order to concentrate the delivery of all their calves within a narrow window of time—typically within one month, ideally—farmers produce a more uniform crop of calves that can all go to market together at the same time, improving the efficiency of the marketing system and making the entire group more attractive to buyers.

• And last but not least, many ranchers still calve at a particular time of the year because that’s how it’s always been done on their farm.

Is agricultural productivity maxing out?

New University of Nebraska report suggests productivity gains will come more slowly than often predicted

We often hear the comment repeated that the food system will need to double its food output by the middle of this century to keep up with world demand. Are we up to it? Newly published research by University of Nebraska crop scientists raises a grim warning. They suggest the fields across the world in which almost a third of the rice, wheat and corn is raised have likely either peaked in their productivity or may actually be declining.

“Previous projections of food security are often more optimistic than what historical yield trends would support,” the researchers, Nebraska Agronomists Patricio Grassini and Kent Eskridge, write in the scientific journal Nature Communications. Many of those projections of farm productivity in the future assume the rates of gain in crop yields will compound, rather than simply grow in a straight line. But history doesn’t bear that assumption out, they believe. They challenged the assumption by testing six statistical models that are widely used in the economics literature for describing trends in crop yields over time. Using their framework to characterize past yield trends, the Nebraska researchers argue that straight-line increases are much more likely. Therefore, even though production can be expected to continue to increase, the relative rate of increase will slow over time, leaving production far below the levels the more optimistic compounded predictions suggest.

In fact, they believe, good evidence suggests crop yields have already either leveled off or actually fallen in some of the world’s major cereal-producing regions. Although their study did not specifically take on the task of predicting why those plateaus have happened, they suggest any farm will naturally face a productivity wall at some point due to limits of biology unique to the region, climate and crop.

“As farmers’ yields move up towards the yield potential threshold, it becomes more difficult to sustain further yield gain because it requires fine tuning of many different facets of management in the production system,” they write. “Such fine tuning is often difficult to achieve in farmer’s fields, and the associated marginal costs, labor requirements, risks and environmental impacts may outweigh the benefits.”

They believe that situation is now happening in the high-yield cropping systems for rice in China, Korea and Japan; wheat in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and India; and corn in Italy and France. Other factors could also be at work, they suggest, including changes in weather cycles, land degradation, a shift in where crops are produced to regions with poorer soils and climate, policies that restrict the use of fertilizers and pesticides, and reduced or poorly targeted investment in agricultural research and development.

For example, they say, ag R&D in China increased by three times from 1981 to 2000, but the rates of increase in crop yields there remained constant for wheat, actually fell relatively by 64 percent for corn and has been only negligible for rice. Similarly, in the United States, despite a 58 percent increase in both public and private investment in agricultural R&D in the United States for the same time period, the rate of increase for corn yields has only been linear, not compounded.

The overall implication? In order to keep up with expected increased demand, future grain production will require large increases in average crop yields in countries where current yield gaps are large—the countries that have the poorest access to technology, infrastructure and capital required for agricultural development. At the same time, continuing to improve the rate of gain on farms in developed nations will require adoption of technology that wrings even more productivity out of existing land, water and fertilizer. Such technology is often under attack today by opponents of modern, high-technology agriculture in the guise of such marketing schemes as "GMO-free," "natural," "antibiotic- and hormone-free" and even organic.

How pristine are small farms and farmers markets?

Thousands of people flock to the more than 8,000 local farmers markets around Nebraska and the rest of the country every Saturday morning. If you believe the numerous consumer surveys, they do so because they believe the produce there is higher quality, more nutritious and safer than what they could find at supermarkets. But “surprisingly little research” has really addressed the food safety practices used on small to medium-sized farms selling locally or in farmers markets, according to a team of researchers from Georgia, Virginia Tech and Clemson. So they looked into that question.

The results were not pretty.

Their study, just published in November’s Journal of Food Protection here, evaluated current food safety practices used by 226 small to medium-sized farms and 45 managers of farmers markets in Georgia, Virginia and South Carolina, based on responses to a series of mail and online surveys. The results showed:

  • More than 56 percent of the farmers used manure for fertilizer. Although manuring crops is a longstanding traditional source of plant nutrients, the important issue is that of those farmers who said they used manures (including, in one case, composted human waste), only a fraction followed what USDA’s organic standards consider the proper composting procedure to ensure those manures present no risk of contaminating produce. Disase-causing germs like E. coli O157:H7 and Salmonella have been shown to survive up to, respectively, 70 days and 159 days in manure, depending on temperatures. Proper composting of manure builds up enough heat to kill those organisms, if the process is given sufficient time: In the case of the National Organic Standards, that’s at least 120 days if the composted manure will be used on produce that directly touches the soil (like potatoes) or 90 days for crops that don’t (like strawberries). Yet, in the Journal of Food Protection study, of those farmers who use manures, one quarter waited less than 90 days before using composted manure, fully one third used raw manure or a mixture of raw and composted manure and 16 percent didn’t compost manure at all.
  • Just over half of the farmers said that farm or domestic animals—like dogs, cats, chickens and other fowl—had free access to produce-growing areas.
  • More than 27 percent of the farmers reported the water they used for irrigation had never been tested for possible contamination—16 percent didn’t test the water they used to wash produce. Although most of the farmers did test their water sources, almost a third said they used water from streams or ponds, untested well water or rainwater for irrigation. One farmer reported drawing untested surface water or rainwater to wash fruits and vegetables.
  • In 43 percent of the farms, farmers reported they do not sanitize surfaces that touch produce at the farm, and only 33 percent of farmers always cleaned their transport containers between uses. Of those who cleaned containers, 46 percent used water and detergent; however, responses included a variety of methods including bleach and water, soapy vinegar water, and rain and sun.
  • Although half of the surveyed farms said their crops are harvested by workers with their bare hands, only two out of three said they made bathroom and hand-washing facilities available near the fields or packing sheds.
  • Only 41 percent said they had given their workers any kind of sanitation training when harvesting, cleaning or packing crops.

Once those crops reach the farmers market, the study showed, sanitation conditions don’t improve much.

  • Responses from market managers indicated that over 42 percent have no food safety standards in place for the market.
  • Most market managers reported that they do not ask farmers questions about how the products are grown or handled before they are brought to market. Only from 2 percent to 11 percent asked, depending on the practice they were asking about.
  • Of the 45 market managers responding, only a little more than half provided hand washing facilities for workers and vendors in the market.
  • Less than one fourth of the farmers markets sanitized their surfaces and only 11 percent always cleaned market containers between uses.
  • Over 75 percent of the market managers offered no sanitation training to their workers or vendors, even though 27 percent allowed on-site food preparation. Many markets also allowed sampling of products but offered no training for vendors on how to do this safely.
  • More than half of the managers said no cooling methods were used in their markets. For the other half, a variety of cooling methods were identified , with the most common method, at 49 percent, being the use of portable picnic coolers with ice. This method raises concerns about the safety of the water used in making ice and also in the sanitary handling of it in an outdoor market, the researchers noted.


In patnership with the Nebraska Grocery Industry Association

The Nebraska Grocery Industry Association was formed in 1903 by a group of Omaha grocery store owners, wholesalers and vendors to allow them to promote independent food merchants and members of the food industry, and to promote education and cooperation among its membership. NGIA continues to represent grocery store owners and operators, along with wholesalers and vendors located throughout Nebraska, by promoting their success through proactive government relations, innovative solutions and quality services. NGIA offers efficient and economical programs. NGIA also lobbies on both a state and national level, ensuring that the voice of the food industry in Nebraska is heard by our representatives.

Supported by the Nebraska Corn Board

The Nebraska Corn Board, on behalf of 23,000 corn farmers in Nebraska, invests in market development, research, promotion and education of corn and value-added products. The board aims to work closely with the farmer-to-consumer food chain, to educate everyone about the role corn has in our everyday healthy lives. The Nebraska Corn Board is proud to sponsor the Farmer Goes to Market program to help bring its mission of expanding demand and value of Nebraska corn to the consumer, through the strongest touch point in that chain: the Nebraska retail grocer.

Supported by the Nebraska Farm Bureau

The farm and ranch families represented by Nebraska Farm Bureau are proud sponsors of the Farmer Goes to Market program. We take great pride in supporting Nebraska's agricultural foundation. A key part of that effort is to make sure we produce safe and affordable food. This newsletter is an important part of our effort to connect the two most important parts of the food chain -- the farmer and the grocer -- with the goal of increasing consumer awareness and information about how their food is raised in Nebraska.

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