S1:E2 Stewardship Learning Curves with Betsy Bower and Sina Parks
Bringing 30+ years experience serving farmers in stewardship and agronomy, Betsy Bower shares her insight on the common learning curves that farms can expect to work through when transitioning their practices to be more mindful of stewardship.
In this episode, podcast host Morgan Seger is joined by conservation specialist Sina Parks and agronomist Betsy Bower to discuss the common learning curves for farmers establishing new stewardship practices.
Here's a Glance at this Episode:
(01:41) Agronomist Betsy Bower discusses the way conversations about stewardship have changed in her 30+ year career.
(02:46) Conservation specialist Sina Parks mentions the importance of recognizing that stewardship practices have to be fiscally sensible for farmers as they manage their business.
(12:31) Betsy answers the top things growers should stop doing today to see improved soil health.
(15:03) Sina talks about the benefits of working with a trusted advisor to help through the transition process.
(19:04) Betsy lays out the key differences she's seen the introduction of stewardship practices make on farms.
(21:44) Data, data, data! Betsy and Sina brush on the importance of record keeping and data to track progress and identify needs unique to your fields.
Sina Parks grew up on a small corn and soybean rotation farm in Montgomery County, Indiana, and was an active member of 4-H and FFA. She studied at Purdue University and in 2014, after several years of experience with farm credit, Sina transitioned to a role in conservation. She joined the Ceres Solutions team as conservation specialist in April 2021.
Betsy Bower has been a trusted agronomic voice in the Indiana agriculture community for nearly 30 years. Her areas of expertise include working with all conventional and no-till customers on improving their cropping system regarding nutrient and water (irrigation) management and crop protection. Betsy brings a degree in agronomy from Purdue University and a master’s degree in agronomy from the University of Nebraska. She resides with her family in Tippecanoe County, Indiana, and travels the southern part of the Ceres Solutions trade area in her work serving local farmers.
Morgan Seger (00:00):
Every day we rely on food, fuel, and fiber. But how much do you know about these industries we depend on? In this podcast, we dive deep into the production and processes of these everyday essentials. This is Field Points and original podcast production from Ceres Solutions. Hey guys, welcome to Field Points. I'm your host, Morgan Seger. This is the second episode of our first series, and our first series is focused on stewardship. Today on the show, I'll be joined by my co-host Sina Parks and our guest Betsy Bower. Throughout our conversation today, we're going to be talking through some real life experiences on the learning curve that comes with stewardship. So Betsy shares some experiences, growers that she's worked with, have had as they've tried to adopt some of these new strategies. First, let's meet Betsy.
Betsy Bower (00:49):
Hi, my name is Betsy Bower and I'm an agronomist with Ceres Solutions. And, uh, I have been working, um, uh, consulting with farmers in the sort of from Rockville to Vincennes in the southwest part of the state regarding their cropping systems. So working with the farmers and Ceres Solutions branches for nearly 30 years. Um, and I work with all facets of crop production. So it's gonna be, um, crop nutrition, crop protection, as well as how farmers go to, um, uh, their cropping systems approach. So, so are they till, Are they no till? Are they a little of both? Have they added cover crops? Do they wanna add cover crops? So that's sort of my background
Morgan Seger (01:34):
Coming to this conversation with over 30 years of experience. She had some interesting perspective on the history of no till.
Betsy Bower (01:41):
So in, in the mid nineties when I started my career, I mean, we were doing, there was a decent transition into no-till at that point in time, but it was because it was labor shortage on the farm. And so that labor shortage, if they could go down to no-till, it was gonna reduce the time that they needed spending in the field, plus who they were gonna pay and a mid-size operation could do it all themselves. So they didn't do it for the soil health aspects at all. They did it for the economic aspects. The soil health came for free. I'm not sure we wanna say that, but I still think guys are doing it for the economics. The economics gets them started and then the wonderful soil health, um, if they pay attention and if they're looking for it, is what keeps them there.
Morgan Seger (02:24):
While soil health benefits were, in some cases a byproduct of an economic decision for a farmer today, many growers are focusing on these soil health benefits. Sina Parks, the conservation specialist with Ceres Solutions focuses her time on educating growers on how they can have both, how these decisions fit into the entire system on their farm.
Sina Parks (02:46):
Well, and I think it's important to know, you know, that, that farmers are still running a business and so they still have to be profitable regardless. And so there's lots of things that drive their decision making process. And so costs are one of them. Rising costs drive. Can I afford to do another tillage pass? Can I not afford to do another tillage pass? And that goes into not only just having a person to do it, but also the fuel costs that go into that. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And so I think that it's important to keep in mind that these decisions aren't made just on one factor, that they're made by lots of different pieces. And that at the end of the day, a farmer still has to be profitable and still has to have a return on their investment, or they can't continue to
Betsy Bower (03:28):
Farm. And that's exactly right. And, and as part of that, um, as you change the operation, so they've made the decision that they want to go that direction, then there's that logistics piece. How do I get that practice incorporated? I'd love to do more cover crops, but how am I gonna get that done with the labor that I have on the farm? Do I, do I ask, uh, serious solutions to then apply some of that? How do I make that all work? Because not only do I financially have to do it, I also have to logistically do it. So one little change can have a big ripple effect, um, in a farm as well.
Morgan Seger (04:07):
I asked Betsy to walk us through some of her experiences with growers transitioning from a conventional way of farming to more stewardship minded practices. Here's what she had to say. I
Betsy Bower (04:18):
Have one farmer or one operation in mind that I've been working with for about the last seven to eight years. And, and the relationship started with the Soil Moisture Pro because they have irrigation. But then as we got into the discussions of our goals, uh, on working with customers, we both found out we had similar goals in, in having an interest more in stewardship. So they were interested in reducing their tillage, um, adding cover crops, um, uh, doing some of those practices. And so we started that work and, and, um, it has been overall successful. But one of the things that we needed to start with first was the soil itself, understanding some of the nutrition. It's not all about just going from, uh, tillage to no till. You've gotta think about all the other aspects of the, the farm that you need to ensure that you're in a good spot before you can transition as successfully as you wanna transition. And so we did some of those things. I, um, did some soil testing, uh, got the lime applied that needed to be applied and have been consistent in looking at prop nutrition, aligning aspects from year to year. So as you incorporate those new systems, you've got your soil working for you. How have
Sina Parks (05:37):
You seen that journey
Betsy Bower (05:38):
Progress? Um, it has, um, so in fits and starts a little bit. So, um, we've got a game plan in mind. The customer has has, um, he's done some reaching out to other farmers as well as I, I'm his sort of farm manager so to speak. Um, and he has, um, we've had some really good successes and then we've had some not so good successes along the pathway. All of it is about learning from what you did that year to make the next fail safe potentially weatherproof management decision the next year. So it's, as you change systems weather in, in any operation, changing part of your cropping system, there's gonna be some big benefits and there's sometimes gonna be some things you hadn't planned on that could be negatives. But overall, um, yield has improve and become more consistent on the farm. They have, um, used a cover crop successfully have planted into cover crops successfully.
We've just had a few issues along the way when they couldn't follow through with managing the cover crop. So one particular example is, um, the customer wanted to go to, um, they wanted to plant green, and it was probably too soon in the process to plant green. We really had didn't have the four to five years of no-till cover crops terminating the cover crops and then planting successful. We, we, we did it after two. The farmer couldn't, um, we had a, a weather situation that didn't allow him to timely terminate a cover crop. And so, um, we certainly had some, um, less than desirable yield happened to be a soybean crop. And, um, the, the, the stems were fairly spindly. We didn't, um, have, so we didn't have as good a pod. Um, we had, um, bowl damage where vs are little, um, are, um, mammals that come and sort of eat holes around their, um, their homes, which is gonna be an I'm not.
Um, so they, they're dens and then so he had some lost crop production. Um, any number of things. Um, we had some volunteer cover crops come up in the fall that impacted how he harvested. And so, um, it was, it was, was not a good day on, on either of our parts, but the acres that he did termin, terminate, timely, yielded exactly like, um, his other no-till acres. And so he knew from that aspect, when I can follow through, I can make this practice work, but I'm gonna have to be sure that I can follow through. I'm gonna have to be sure that I've got my ducks in a row with, with help on the farm so that I can follow through. So we don't have this negatively impacting a situation again. But from that we learned from it, we learned what we needed to look at at that operation. What are the logistics, you know, how do we get this all done so that he could be more successful? And he's still using cover crop. So it wasn't the, the end all be all, um, that, that I thought it could have been <laugh>. Sure, there are still enough of the benefits with improved soil tilth with water infiltration with, um, the direction that they wanted to go overall.
Morgan Seger (09:13):
Okay. I'm glad to hear you didn't just throw in the towel. <laugh>. Yes.
Betsy Bower (09:16):
That's always good.
Sina Parks (09:18):
How do the growers that are making these changes in implementing these soil health practices measure their success?
Betsy Bower (09:25):
Yeah, so, well that, that's sort of an open ended question because everyone has a little different, uh, thought of what success is. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Um, so, so some of our growers, I mean, every farmer's a little bit different and where he wants to be financially, there are certainly growers that believe in the practices that have decided that, um, I'm always gonna have cover crops. I'm always gonna plant, uh, right into those cover crops following and termination or soon after. And if it costs a little bit of yield, that's not a big deal to me cause I know that I'm doing the right thing for the acre. Then we've got growers that want to at least keep yield consistency if after adding a practice, um, some of our practice no-till and or no-till and cover crops, if my yield stays consistent and, and my cash receipts are fairly, um, comparable to other years, I call that a win.
It's sort of a wash and I, it's a practices practice that I want to, um, help employ, um, continue to use, continue to use. Um, then we've got growers that want to, um, that, that improved yield is what they're looking for overall. Now they have the patience, uh, for improved yield yield to happen over a number of years. Um, but they wanna see either improved yield or more consistent yield. So the customer that I described didn't have consistent yield from year to year. And so even bringing a consistent, um, more desirable yield was gonna be what he was for, uh, what he was interested in. Overall,
Morgan Seger (11:04):
How long do you think it takes for them to kind of get to where they're, I guess, comfortable or predictable in seeing those types of results?
Betsy Bower (11:13):
Oh, it's probably in that four to five year range. Um, still the goal with, with every customer that starts with, with, um, some of these, um, stewardship practices is to start slow and learn from those practices that you've started with so that you can add those to other acres on the farm. Uh, but four to five is sorta in there. We certainly have ways that we can speed some of those that transition up a little bit. Um, and there's just lots of ways that you could do that. But in that, that four to five and, and as, as you transition, you shouldn't, um, I don't, I think working with, um, like Cena said, getting the, getting the team together, um, and, and having some phone, a friend either from a, from a a, an agronomist or a, a fellow farmer that, you know, in the area, all of those things, um, certainly helps that transition go better as well
Morgan Seger (12:17):
As more and more growers have sustainability practices top of mind. I asked Betsy if she had an ideal world, what are the things she wish growers would or could stop doing now to see the biggest improvement in soil health?
Betsy Bower (12:31):
Um, I think the first thing that I wish growers would or could stop doing would be some of the very intensive tillage practices. If we could start reducing some of those passes. Um, reducing the number of passes, understanding maybe when the right time is to make that pass, if you think that you need to pass, uh, make that pet tillage pass, get something growing soon after that tillage passed so we could start to keep that soul in place. That would probably be number one, always nutrient management. There's some things that we can do with nutrition. Um, timings of nitrogen for sure would be another one that if I would, would be, if my silver ball, if I could, uh, um, you know, get guys thinking about potentially, um, some more in time or just in time nutrient management practices with nitrogen. That would sort of be number two on the list
Morgan Seger (13:27):
In addition to things that we could stop doing today and start seeing improvements on. I asked CNA and Betsy if there are any quick wins when it comes to soil health. This question was a little bit harder to answer.
Betsy Bower (13:40):
Sina Parks (13:41):
<laugh>. I don't know if there's any quick wins necessarily. I think, um, I mean if you got a year that you have the perfect weather, when you make decide to make those changes, I think it does make it a little easier for a, a farmer to with, um, some of those practices that they've implemented. But I think that there's so many variables that play into a, a growing season. You know, you've got, whether you've got input prices, you've got commodity prices, like there just everything is so variable that I don't know that there's necessarily a quick win. What do you think Bessy?
Betsy Bower (14:15):
Well, there are times when the weather participates extremely well that the quick wind that the grower, if he's really intent on making these practices successful, he goes out and he walks it and he sees that, hey, water is getting into that cover crop. I'm not seeing it just laying on top of the soil. So there's some visual quick winds that he thinks, Oh yeah, I'm on the right track. How that translate into the recipe of the year, like you said, Cena, where we don't know what all is, uh, uh, gonna happen for weather and, and planting and all of those. I agree with you. Um, some of those first visual things though keeps him, um, going, It keeps him motivated. Exactly. Keeps him motivated and, and, and still working at that system, even if at the end of the year it was a little less successful than in what he saw at the beginning.
Sina Parks (15:03):
<laugh>. Well, and I think it's important to note too, that the quick wins, like Betsy said, keep him motivated, but then it's also just learning from the experience. Yes. Whether they see it as a successor or a failure or didn't go as well as they hoped. I think it's just the little things that they learn each year and the conversations that they're able to have, whether that's with the, the, you know, a farmer they trust or they're co-op or they're agronomist or whoever those people are that they trust and, and they're having these conversations with. I said, I think it's just having some of those reflection times Yes. About what they're seeing and, and what they're learning
Betsy Bower (15:38):
Exactly. And having, yeah. Having good people to bounce the ideas off of to explain maybe why that may have happened and then have some suggestions of how they learned either from, um, agronomist crop specialist, you know, what had they had seen on other farms work in the past to try to say, Oh, well this is why I learned from a few years ago. Maybe that's something that you ought to try. Yeah.
Sina Parks (16:02):
Betsy Bower (16:02):
Builder confidence trying to, Yeah.
Morgan Seger (16:06):
So if you're a grower listening to this episode and you're thinking about making some of these changes, I asked Betsy and Cena to walk us through a step by step guide in getting started.
Sina Parks (16:17):
I think one of the first things that they need to think about is, is what are their goals? What do they wanna accomplish by making this change? Um, you know, Betsy mentioned earlier, is it increased yield? Is it sta yield staying the same? Are they okay with losing a little bit of yield? Like they need to know not only what their goal is, but like what are they okay with so that they can use the team that they have available to them to help them plan and implement the correct or hopefully the correct process.
Betsy Bower (16:45):
Yes, exactly. So I agree, starting knowing where you wanna go, um, doing some of your research on the farm, um, is gonna be help that background, create that team. Who do you want on your team to help you through some of those situations to help you talk through, to help you bounce off ideas? Um, your local, um, um, serious solutions professional can, can be part of that for sure. Cuz that's the person that also help you walk fields and, and, and think about things or walk fields for you to help you think about things. Um, having some, some others in the area that you respect that you can bounce some ideas off of going to meetings. Um, and then really honing in on with all of that, that team that's in place, just continue to bounce ideas off of, but then keep in, keep in contact with that team. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, um, uh, let him know, um, uh, what you're seeing the same grower that I talked about, having the, the negative experience with cover crops. We talk almost weekly about what he's seen, what's going on in the field, have you seen this, um, um, to, to just to help that process along. And so it's more of a relationship.
Sina Parks (17:59):
I think another key piece in that step by step process is knowing where you wanna start physically on the farm. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> like what, where, what's the challenge that you wanna overcome and what are you, you know, when you know that goal and like what's, what's leading into that goal is where do you wanna start? You don't have to do the whole farm. No. And honestly, I wouldn't recommend doing the whole farm. I think that's, that's probably not always the best way to start. Um, but starting small and finding that place. Or do you wanna try a trial and do you wanna split a field and just do it on farm trial on your own farm where you can see, you know, it's great for all the research that we have and all these different people that can talk, but do you wanna see it physically on your farm and see how different practices work? So I think knowing some of those things as you're talking through that process and your goals is, is also knowing where you want to do it.
Betsy Bower (18:45):
Morgan Seger (18:47):
Once we get started down this road of stewardship practices on our farms, I wanted our listeners to be able to gauge what types of changes they could be seen in their field. So Betsy walks us through the differences she sees when growers start implementing these changes on their own farms.
Betsy Bower (19:04):
Yeah. So healthy soil. So, so some of the, um, things that we see with healthy soils is that after large rainfall events, um, they've got the structure built so that, uh, soil moisture of rainfall can actually infiltrate the soils at a faster rate than than tillage soils. And so while everyone gets that same inch of water, the tilt soils may only receive, actually get into the soil a half an inch where the no tilt soils or no till with cover crops may be able to get into that full inch. Um, you can see that there's, um, if, if there's any in, in the stream of water that might be leaving a field, typically the healthier soils gonna be a little cleaner, not gonna have, um, much soil that's being moved. Uh, where the tillage fields, you can see quite a bit of, of, of runoff of soil at times, depending on the event, depending on the soil type.
Um, exa for example, there, um, the difference between, um, healthy and on the healthy and unhealthy soils regarding what the look of the crop is. Um, you know, sometimes early on in the season, some of, of the, the um, no till cover crops might look a little different than our tilled soils. And some may feel like that's good or bad or whatever. Um, but understanding that what gets in the grain tank is what's the most important. And so you don't always see, each farmer doesn't always see what gets in the grain tank. Um, um, at the end between those two earthworms looking at, at castings in the spring of the year is definitely way know that there are certain soil types that earthworms don't like. Okay. And so that isn't always the overall predictor, but certainly, um, um, looking for those castings either in the spring of the year, in the fall of the year after rainfall looking for, um, you can watch, um, earth worms and you can see their trails across the top of the soil that certainly earth worms are good <laugh>. They're actually,
Sina Parks (21:17):
I think you make a good point, Betsy, when you talk about soil types and knowing what would be healthy versus unhealthy for your soil type. Because like you mentioned earlier, sandy soils versus not as sandy soils. Like there's a big difference in what works and doesn't work on those types of, um, different soil types. So I, I think that's kind of a big key point that I think we forget a lot of times is, is knowing what, what works and what doesn't for your soil type.
Betsy Bower (21:44):
Yes, exactly. I do have a case in point. So as I, we, we, um, install soil moisture probes in irrigated fields, um, within our geography and we certainly have tillage and we've got no till farmers. And what I do find is that those that are no till farmers typically, we probably, um, on, on most years, we don't have to irrigate near as quick and we can turn off those irrigators sooner, uh, at the end of the season because they have a little bit more stored water capacity on similar soil. So that's sort of a, uh, interesting point and certainly have measured some of that water infiltration in the fall with till versus, um, or no till versus cover crops in the same field that we see a little bit more water infiltration in the cover crops versus not. Um, and so we can see water use longer into the season in, in some of those healthier, similar soils, uh, when we start to have some stresses. So, so those are some of some the key indicators that we can see. And, and certainly, I mean, uh, CNA I think would agree too is, is having data, having data on your farm, uh, taking some of those, um, you know, um, putting some, some qualifications to what you're seeing or, or marking it down so that you can pull upon those experiences, um, on down the road is gonna be pretty key in some of
Sina Parks (23:11):
This. Absolutely. Absolutely. Having that data to know, um, either field by field or whole farm or just, just to reflect back on mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Yeah. Awesome. Well thank you guys so much. I appreciate you taking the time to talk with me today about soil health.
Betsy Bower (23:28):
Sina Parks (23:29):
You. Thank you.
Morgan Seger (23:32):
Thanks for tuning in to the second episode of our stewardship series here at Field Points. I love the team approach that the series solutions agronomy division takes for each customer that's interested in taking the next step towards stewardship. In our next episode, we will be featuring one of Siri solutions partners, Tru Tara. They'll be talking us through how to track the sustainability moves that you're making on your farm, and we'll also touch on the carbon markets and how growers can take advantage of those benefits today. The show notes for this episode will be available at series dot co-op, that's c r e s dot c o o p. If you enjoyed this deeper dive, be sure to subscribe and leave us a review. Your review and feedback will help other listeners like you find our podcast, and we are so thankful for that.