As Earth Day approaches, Indiana Farm Bureau, the state’s largest general farm organization, celebrates our land and everything Hoosier farmers do to protect it.
Farmers take seriously the responsibility that comes with feeding the world, while preserving the natural resources entrusted to them. Farmers continuously take active steps to reduce their carbon footprint. In fact, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, agriculture is responsible for 10 percent of America’s greenhouse gas emissions, much lower than transportation, electricity generation and industry.
“On the farm, every day is Earth Day,” said INFB President Randy Kron. “We’ve been protecting the land for generations. Sustainability and efficiency go hand in hand in agriculture.”
“Hoosier farmers are improving efficiency and promoting healthy soil by planting cover crops to replenish nutrients and hold down topsoil,” Kron explained. “They also adopt practices that reduce and, in some cases, eliminate the need for tilling—or plowing the soil – so nutrients stay locked-in.”
According to the Indiana Agriculture Nutrient Alliance, while the national adoption rate of cover crops and reduced/no-tillage is around 10 percent, Indiana farmers have adopted those practices at the highest rate in the Midwest. And this has happened in a relatively short time frame, from roughly 200,000 acres in 2011 to nearly 1.5 million acres of living green cover in 2021.
The 2021 Indiana Department of Agriculture transect data shows that 80 percent of farmed acres in the state utilize conservation tillage such as strip till or no till, and 1.5 million acres use cover crops.
The Indiana Conservation Partnership — a coalition of Indiana agencies and organizations who share a common goal of promoting conservation — also issued a report showing that landowners helped prevent more than 1 million tons of sediment, 2.2 million pounds of nitrogen and 1.1 million pounds of phosphorus from entering Indiana waterways in 2020.
That equates to enough phosphorus to fill over five 50-foot train cars, enough nitrogen to fill over 11 50-foot train cars and almost 11,000 50-foot train cars worth of sediment.
Additionally, the Indiana Conservation Partnership helped to plan 232,000 acres of cover crops in the state in 2020, which sequestered almost 148,000 tons of carbon from the atmosphere, equal to the emissions of more than 28,900 cars.
Jon Sparks, INFB District 6 director, and his family have farmed corn, soybeans, wheat and cattle in Hancock County for over 35 years. Jon has used no-till crops for several years and has increased his cover crops usage.
“We continue to try to put nutrients that the soil needs in areas that need them,” said Sparks. “We live in these communities too. The quality of the environment and the water is just as important to us as it is to our neighbors. Farmers want to have a positive impact on the environment, not be a detriment to it.”
Another way farmers are good stewards of the land is by properly handling the manure that is produced on the farm. Manure is not a waste to be disposed of, but a nutrient-rich fertilizer that allows farmers to be less reliant on commercially-based fertilizers. Pork farmers store their manure in large concrete pits underneath their barns until the appropriate time comes to apply that manure at an agronomic rate to be used as a fertilizer for crops.
Livestock farms are highly regulated by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management which ensures land application of manure only occurs during appropriate ground conditions and only at agronomic rates so that it can be properly utilized as fertilizer by a crop. If a farm does not abide by these prescribed rates, it is subject to penalties. In fact, only 10 percent of Indiana cropland receives manure for use as fertilizer from a regulated livestock farm.
Aaron Chalfant, INFB member from Randolph County, raises corn, soybeans and hogs. His farm is four generations deep. He tests his manure yearly and is very cognizant of soil fertility.
“We sample and analyze the manure so we know we are spreading at an agronomic rate,” said Chalfant. “We also work with an environmental consultant who comes up with a nutrient management plan for each field, so we can be as cost effective and environmentally friendly as possible. Most farmers work with an environmental consultant to make sure that proper nutrient loads are utilized by the different soil types.”
Pork producers are actually doing more with less. Compared to 50 years ago, farmers are using 78 percent less land, 41 percent less water and have a 35 percent smaller carbon footprint per pound of pork produced, according to the Indiana Pork Producers Association.
Much like pig manure, cattle manure also contains valuable nutrients for the soil.
Layne Koester, INFB member from Vanderburgh County, is a third-generation farmer. His grandfather started milking cows in the late 50s and his family turned it into a robotic dairy in 2012.
“We try not to overmanure our land,” said Koester. “Still, we want to get the fertilizer from the manure, so we create buffer zones using cover crops to combat any run-off that could be caused by the manure.”
Dairy farmers are dedicated to being good stewards of the land and its natural resources. They reuse water as many as five to six times. For example, Koester uses a plate cooler full of water to cool the cow milk. Then the water is stored in a tank until it is needed to fill up the cows’ water troughs, wash the barn or even use as a mist to cool down the cows in the excess heat.
According to the American Dairy Association Indiana, a gallon of milk is produced using 30% less water, 21 percent less land, and has a 19 percent smaller carbon footprint than it did in 2007. Additionally, dairy contributes only 2 percent of all US greenhouse gas emissions, while providing significant nutrients.
“One thing we are looking into is solar,” Koester noted. “It would be nice to get solar panels on our big barn roof to capture renewable energy and make the barn more efficient. We are looking at grants for this for the future.”
From cover crops and manure management to reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and renewable energy, Hoosier farmers are providing nutritious food while being good stewards of the land.
“Farmers are continuously looking for ways to do more to protect our environment,” said Kron. “That’s why INFB is a founding member of the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance, a consortium of agriculture, food, forestry and environmental groups.”
“On this Earth Day, and every day, we try to be good stewards of the land so we can leave it better than it was before.”