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Advances help farmers practice conservation
JACKSON -- No-till farming, strip-till farming, crop rotation and cover crops have grown in popularity as Mississippi farmers face the challenge of conserving nutrient-rich topsoil while improving their bottom lines.
“I estimate that around 20 percent of Mississippi farmers practice no-till farming. There are probably many more who use some degree of reduced tillage,” said Ernie Flint, an agronomist with Mississippi State University’s Extension Service with more than 40 years’ experience in the field.
Conservation methods are more difficult to implement in Mississippi than in some other parts of the country, such as the Midwest, because factors including weather, topography and soil types make soil especially prone to erosion.
“We don’t have the long-term freezes in winter that help hold soil in place and preserve organic matter,” Flint said.
Rainwater runoff easily carries nutrients and cultivated topsoil off sloping land, and some soil types are difficult to rebuild.
“Erosion potential in central Mississippi is three times that of central Ohio, because of the amount and intensity of rainfall,” said Glover Triplett, a research professor in MSU’s Department of Plant and Soil Sciences and the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station. “If we have a system that keeps the soil covered with mulch and undisturbed, we can reduce soil loss to levels that will permit sustainable cropping.”
Reduced soil disturbance and rainwater runoff management slow erosion and usually lead to increased yields after a two- to three-year period.
“I’m seeing people who are new to farming or have begun farming family land after 30 to 50 years of dormancy start by planting seed into unplowed land. And they’re getting high yields, usually beating the state averages,” Flint said.
Strides in herbicide development have made it possible to control weeds without tilling, and advances in equipment have made it possible to plant into untilled ground. But the real game-changer is computer technology. For example, global positioning systems, allow for precise planting, fertilizer application and spraying.
“A second- and third-year corn crop likely will do better if the seed are not planted in the exact same spot,” Flint said. “By using a GPS, a farmer can move the planter as little as a few inches on either side of the earlier planting. There is no way this could be done accurately without GPS, even by the best equipment operator.”
In addition to saving soil, conservation practices can save money. Farmers who use one or more of these methods reduce the number of trips they make over the field. Fewer trips result in more planted acres with less labor, and it saves money on equipment, fuel, labor, fertilizers, chemicals and other inputs required.
As agriculture faces the challenge of feeding more than 9 billion mouths worldwide by 2050, a focus on sustainable cropping is increasingly important.
“What are future generations going to live on if we exhaust the land to the point it will not produce? They will starve. We just can’t allow that to happen,” Flint said.