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Managing What You Can Measure

Change on a Farm Requires a Different Perspective on Management

By Gary Zimmer

Editors note: This is an article printed in the February 2023 Issue of the Acres U.S.A. magazine.

A definition of management I heard many years ago is “doing something about something you can do something about.”

Another helpful axiom is, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”

Farms and soils aren’t simple. You are working with a living entity with many unknowns and a whole host of variables we can’t control. Scientists say, for example, that we only know 1 percent of what lives in our soils and how soils work. Soils and how we farm are also influenced by weather — what can we do about that?

Maybe we can’t change the weather, but we can make our farms more resilient to cope with weather variations, more able to tolerate climate change, and better able to capture and hold moisture.

Far too often in today’s world, farmers rely on insurance management rather than soil management to take the financial risks out of farming. I always say that crop insurance isn’t for the farmer — it’s for the bankers, fertilizer and chemical suppliers, machinery dealers and landowners. With an insurance policy, you have to establish a base, but the farmer gets paid for poor-performing fields (for whatever reason — drought, hail, floods, etc.). You can buy a policy to insure at whatever level you want, to a point, but how much do you want to pay? You can insure to a certain amount and take some risk, but if you have a failure every year due to poor farming practices, eventually your base will drop and payments will decline.

Field of elderberry bushes with cloudy sky

People, farmers included, are motivated by two things: fear and desire. Insurance is about dealing with fear — it provides enough money to pay the bills. On the other hand, pride, responsibility to the land, producing quality food and feed, land regeneration, biological and organic farming — these are all about desire. This is the challenge and the fun of farming. It takes knowledge and requires acceptance of risk, but as your farm becomes more biological — more mineral rich, and with healthier soils — it becomes more profitable and resilient. There is a reward for taking that risk.

I have been on many poorly managed farms that depend on insurance to stay in business. This can’t be fun, and there can’t be any pride involved. And the lenders, who usually demand some level of insurance to mitigate their risk, take some or much of the control out of the hands of the farmer. I don’t think many farmers want to farm that way

What Do Farmers Really Manage?

So, if there are many things we don’t know or can’t control, what do farmers really manage?

If you farm to get an average crop compared to others in your area, that’s called conventional agriculture. Buy the cheapest sources of NPK, do as little tillage as possible, buy good genetics, use biotechnology, make sure weeds and diseases are controlled and spend some time marketing. Go the easy route — just call the local agronomist and tell them to make a plan for you. They aren’t going to take any risks or bring up new ideas; it’s going to be the same old stuff. Did you have a good crop last year? Well, then do more of the same! That’s why I believe that fertilizer use — amounts and sources — hasn’t changed in years.

Change requires risk. Farmers want to make sure something works, and they certainly don’t want to be the laughingstock of the neighborhood. We have measurement tools on farms today. Farmers can test things out or visit similar farms or attend field days. This is your biggest farm management challenge.

The good news is that today there is a movement for a better farming system. Today you can be a regenerative farmer — a local hero! — and take pride in what you accomplish. Good management, we know, can be harder and requires more knowledge, but it’s rewarding and profitable too. And it’s especially important for organic farmers.

To change to a new farming system — to change your management style and practices — both fear and desire need to be addressed.

Most farmers today rent land — sometimes on just a yearly basis. That makes it hard to fix the land — even to deal with the basics, like lime — but it can be done. We just rented an additional 100 acres that had previously been farmed in a way I like to call “hydroponic farming” — corn on corn grown with irrigation. The crops looked good, but the soils were simply a place to put plants in — lots of soluble chemistry was used, pHs were 4.4 to 5.0, and tillage was just a big disc every year. With the recent increased input costs I’m sure the risk went up, but this was okay as long as the markets were up, too. The farmer retired — he didn’t seem passionate about farming, even though he had been doing this a long time.

So how are we transitioning this land to organic? We know it won’t be fixed in a year or two, but we have a multi-year management plan to build a healthy, mineralized soil. We began with a soil test to help us understand where the soil mineral levels were as we started — what was low and what was in excess. There are many choices on how to sample soils and how to do it — grid, soil-type, Veris testing, or following yield maps. None of these are perfect, but test as you intend to manage. For instance, if you are going to use variable-rate spreading, test that way. Always start fixing a soil with calcium and phosphorus. Remember, too, that there is fixing and there is crop fertilizer. Soil tests don’t predict yield, but they will tell you what is in the soil and what is hopefully available to the crop.

In spring, we sowed oats (with no inputs) and under-seeded with clover. Most of the clover died — we suspect from chemical carryover. The oat crop was clean and did well, however, with enough nitrogen and chemical carryover. After the oats were off, we limed the field at a rate of two tons per acre, put on compost, deep ripped it and planted fall rye. Next spring we’ll frost-seed a cover-crop blend. We’ll harvest the rye next summer, then put on more lime, additional compost, and apply a crop fertilizer with traces. Hopefully we will have a beautiful clover cover crop to work into the land the following spring, its first year of organic.

We will have invested about $1,000 per acre into this land before we sell our first organic crop. The soils won’t be completely fixed but will be fixed enough to grow decent organic crops. Within five to 10 years, the soils on this land will be totally different from when we started.

That’s why testing before you start making changes is needed. Without a test, we wouldn’t have known low pHs were the main problem — which leads to a lot of other problems, like poor soil structure and nutrient misbalance. You could also do a soil health and plant test, but once you know the pH is off, those tests will lead to more spending. You may want to add some of the other short nutrients in the crop fertilizer, but don’t get carried away, as things will change once the pH changes. And remember, lime isn’t lime — you must choose the type of lime that fits your soil. If the magnesium is high, choose high-calcium lime.

two piles of soil, one healthy and one dry
Soils from adjoining fields. On the left, conventionally farmed; right, biologically managed.

Why Don’t More Farmers Do This?

Why don’t more farmers do this, even if they choose not to be organic? This is rented land, and we do have a seven-year rental agreement — two years to get it ready and certified organic, and five years farming it to recover our upfront investments. We do hope we can continue farming it longer than that, but there’s no guarantee.

To change to a new farming system — to change your management style and practices — both fear and desire need to be addressed. Most farmers I know would rather be part of the solution than part of the problem. They’d like to grow healthy food, make their land healthier and more productive, and be part of solving climate issues. But we do have to acknowledge that reluctance to change, economics, and risks are issues standing in the way. And then there is peer pressure, too.

I always say that management starts with knowledge — but whose knowledge? If I’m to manage a new farming system, who do I believe? Who do I trust? There are lots of businesses out there trying to sell magic products and miracle tools that will fix all your problems.

I can say that in my career, we have figured out a farming system that works for us. We understand the minerals — we know there are more than 20 that are required to grow healthy crops. We know that there are over 70 minerals involved — that’s why using some natural products like kelp, sea minerals and natural-mined materials all provide essentials above and beyond what we can measure. I also like to put dairy manure into the natural-materials category. Cows’ digestive systems are a large fermentation vat with lots of biology. They are fed a variety of different feeds, and many get a pound of minerals a day in their feed rations, with a lot of that ending up in their manure. Even more natural “bugs” can be added by running the manure through an anaerobic digestor or composting it.

We also know that there are a variety of sources for minerals — some better than others — and that the ratios between minerals also need to be addressed. The goal is to get those minerals exchangeable for the crop — they need to be in a carbon-biological cycle. Putting them in solution or making them totally soluble, however, is not the answer. Small amounts can be used to get plants started, to add supplemental nutrition from these materials, or to address some minor missing nutrients, but soluble amendments can’t be relied on to provide all that you need.

One goal you may have is to reduce your annual crop fertilizer and crop protection inputs. These solutions may be needed in the beginning, but as soils are fixed, you don’t need to keep spending on them. They also can have side effects. Making this transition is a hard management decision — you have to have the right soil, believe it’s possible, and earn the right to lower inputs.

Management starts with taking a soil test. Work on adding what the test shows you is in short supply and don’t add more of what’s already in excess. Then provide nutrients to feed the crop above and beyond what the soil can provide.

The next step is building the biological life in your soil. We know that you need to create an ideal home for the billions of soil organisms and feed them. That usually means cover crops and things like compost. You need to have plant diversity, understand how to manage the cover crop, and know which one is best to use on your land. To change the type and amount of biology, remember that it’s energy in versus energy out. Create an ideal home for soil life, reduce the negatives like chemicals, minimize disturbances, and feed them more than you are taking off with crop removal. You can add certain types of biology for certain purposes, but changing the soil changes who lives there — as does changing their food sources with the variety and maturity of what you are feeding.

Knowledge is a huge part of management. You have to understand digestibility, how fast plants break down when worked into the soil, and which types of soil life you need to feed for the desired result. For example, do you want to feed soil bacteria for quick nutrient release or feed fungal organisms for soil building?

Another key management decision is tillage. Tillage is best defined as thoughtful disturbance of the soil. Why are you tilling? The farmer’s job is to control air and water and manage the decay of crop residues. Shallow incorporation of residues and deep ripping fit a lot of types of land, while tearing up the middle zone certainly causes a lot of rebuilding of soils.

Why don’t more farmers get the basics fixed? I believe the reason is bad advice and products. As farms get bigger, more people get involved in decision-making — people whose goal is sales, not farm improvement. A lot of testing (whether soil, sap, tissue or biology) is unfortunately used primarily to generate product sales. I’m not saying these products don’t help and provide an economic return sometimes, but you can become hooked into a cycle of using them. 

I think it is wise to have a plan with less dependency. Fixing soils, growing cover crops, changing tillage, regenerating the soils — these practices are sustainable. Always chasing the highest yield may not be what’s best for the land, or, in the long run, your pocketbook.

Gary Zimmer is the co-owner of Otter Creek Organic Farm in southcentral Wisconsin and the founder of Midwestern BioAg. He is the author, with his daughter, Leilani, of The Biological Farmer and Advancing Biological Farming. He has attended every Acres U.S.A. conference for the past 40 years and has been a presenter for the past 30. Learn more about his On-Farm Intensive event at OnFarm.AcresUSA.com.