Ionia County farmer Jeff Sandborn isn’t opposed to changing his farming practices.
“It gets kind of boring doing the same thing all the time.”
While change can be good, Sandborn is not one to dive in. That’s why he appreciates the flexibility of the USDA Conservation Stewardship Program. Farmers who enroll in CSP receive payments based on their conservation performance. A minimum level of performance is required to enroll in the program. The program also provides financial incentives for adopting additional conservation improvements.
Sandborn enrolled about 1,300 acres of mostly rented farmland in CSP. Formal rental agreements lasting the duration of the 5-year CSP contract allowed him to enroll the land. He was attracted to the program because he liked the idea of receiving payments based on his conservation efforts and also liked some of the enhancements available.
One of the enhancements Sandborn has implemented is a controlled traffic system where he uses the same path with his equipment when he plants, applies fertilizers and pesticides, and harvests. This allowed him to minimize soil compaction when working his fields during a wet spring.
Soil compaction in crop fields, caused by repeated use of heavy equipment, damages the soil structure and reduces water and air infiltration into the soil. Working fields during wet conditions, like many Michigan farmers experienced in the spring of 2014, exacerbates soil compaction.
Sandborn was able to limit soil compaction during a wet spring planting season by utilizing a controlled traffic system. Areas of his fields without equipment traffic have produced better crops, said Sandborn. As a side benefit, he believes utilizing a controlled traffic system also reduces fuel costs.
Soil compaction from working the land with heavy equipment has a long lasting impact, said Sandborn. This past summer, a Michigan State University researcher flew drones over his fields utilizing different sensors to analyze crop conditions. Traffic patterns from how the fields were worked 20 years ago were still visible.
“This stuff that happens on farms has long lasting effects,” said Sandborn.
CSP has the flexibility of allowing participants to implement conservation enhancements on only a portion of the land they enroll in the program, a feature Sandborn likes.
Applying a practice to all of your land and then comparing your yields to your neighbor’s does not mean much, said Sandborn. It’s more helpful to apply a practice to some of your fields and compare the results against the rest of your farm.
In addition to adopting a controlled traffic system to reduce soil compaction, Sandborn is employing additional precision agriculture practices to his land including global positioning system technology to more precisely apply fertilizers and pesticides. He is also experimenting with different tillage practices that allow him to work through heavy crop residue with minimal disruption of soil structure.