Pine Bluffs Post - Serving all of Eastern Laramie County since 1908

By Mark Watson
Panhandle No-Till Educator 

No Till Notes: We're Leaking


[Editor’s Note: Mark Watson is still out of commission, recovering from surgery. This is an article he originally wrote in February of 2012, but has been ‘tweaked’ to reflect today’s wheat and oil prices.]

Dr. Dwayne Beck from the Dakota Lakes Research farm near Pierre South Dakota will be presenting at the upcoming PNTP Winter Conference, February 23-24 at the Gering Civic Center. He often begins to engage his audiences by asking the producers in attendance where they want their farms to be in 60 years or 600 years. He wants the producers to look to the future and start making decisions now to start building their operations to match their vision.

Dr. Beck also points out that with today’s modern approach to crop production our ecosystem is leaking and that leaking ecosystems eventually turn to deserts. He challenges producers to become managers of their ecosystem and not just their farms.

Agriculture has become too dependent on energy and we are losing the race with oil. In the 1970’s a bushel of wheat was priced at 33 percent of the value of a barrel of oil. Today a bushel of wheat is priced at roughly 10 percent of the value of a barrel of oil.

Agricultural producers use sunlight, water, and soil to produce products which we can sell. The crop production systems we are currently using are mining our natural resources. If we don’t manage our ecosystem and begin to plug the leaks within our ecosystem we will reach a point where crop production is no longer a viable and profitable enterprise.

Mother Nature managed an ecosystem which did not leak. Mother Nature’s management of this system also used the sunlight, water, and soil to produce plants which were grazed by animals and no natural resources ever left the system. The nutrients were brought to the top by the plants and were returned to the soil by the soil microbes. The animals that grazed the plants left their waste in the field.

With the use of our modern agricultural practices we have degraded our soil, mined our groundwater, and removed nutrients from the field. We have mined organic matter from the soil which has deteriorated our soil’s health. Our soils no longer are able to supply the nutrients our plants need to thrive.

We have introduced and become dependent upon commercial fertilizer to produce our crops. A striking fact that I was unaware of is we have already mined over 50 percent of the available phosphorous in the world that we use for fertilizer. I imagine the majority of this phosphorous has been used as fertilizer over the past 40 years. What do we do when the phosphorous runs out?

In areas, we are depleting our groundwater resource trying to produce enough food and fiber to feed the growing world population. Is this a wise use of our resource and is the goal of trying to feed an ever growing population attainable? I doubt that it is if we run out of fertilizer and irrigation water.

So how do we begin to close our leaking ecosystem? No-till crop production is a tool to use but is not the entire answer. Dr. Beck feels we need to go beyond no-till and begin managing our ecosystem to close our leaks. We will have to begin using perennial plants in our ecosystem to stabilize and improve our soil’s health. We will have to integrate livestock grazing into our system so we aren’t removing so many nutrients at the pace we are now when we haul so much grain off the fields.

We will have to become less reliant on commercial fertilizer and remove ourselves from so much dependence on energy. Dr. Beck points out that 5 pounds of nitrogen fertilizer uses the energy equivalent of 1 gallon of diesel fuel to produce and transport the nitrogen to its end use in our field.

We will have to become better managers of the precipitation we receive each year. This will allow us to improve our yields on our dry land acres and decrease the amount of groundwater pumping to produce our irrigated crops.

When Dr. Beck points out these leaks in our ecosystem this presents a lot of challenges to the managers of this ecosystem. How do we produce enough food and fiber for a growing world population without mining our natural resources? How do we begin to close the leaks within our ecosystem? These are challenges that modern agricultural producers need to take a hard look at and begin implementing management strategies in our way of doing business to close up the leaks in our ecosystem.


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