I recently attended a seminar hosted by my local Ag bank featuring a leading Agricultural Consultant. (Dr. Jay Lehr). Since nearly every other farmer attending was a grain producer his topics were geared towards that faction of agriculture. He proposed the future of agriculture being in the energy making business using Corn and Soya products. However, he made a statement that I feel missed the true potential of agriculture. He said that there was no future in solar or wind energy. While that might be true for energy used in other industry that certainly is not true of the agriculture industry. Solar energy is the number one source of production and renewable energy on any farm today, and wind and its associated weather patterns play an important role in what and how much we are able to produce.
The consultant delved into his picture of the future of agriculture where Precision Agriculture using Geographic Information Systems, Global Positioning Satellites, Remote Sensing, and Variable Rate Technology placing chemical fertilizer and herbicides only where needed as the norm with all farmers in 15 years. His prediction was that 100% of the seeds planted including Organic production will be GMO’s by that time.
He then related that the modern confinement livestock systems in the US would soon be the only operations utilized because of the efficiencies and the comforts provided animals in these controlled environments. He shared recently consulting for the large Fair Oaks Dairies just north of me and how they were the largest dairy operation in the US. And cows there were more comfortable than anywhere in the world. He then related that their new manure digesters would also produce some of the energy needed for those operations. While he built lots of excitement into his presentation for the future of agriculture, he failed to mention the fact that each of these technologies gives a large amount of our control as producers of agricultural products to those technology companies.
Being the “Outside the box thinker“ that I am I couldn’t allow him to miss the potential that we as farmers have, so at a break I introduced myself and presented “My side of the story” to him.
I shared that in my farming operation I used legumes and grasses to produce feed for my cows. I also shared that plants manufacture food in their leaves through the use of solar energy. Yet some people wrongfully assume plants produce food in their roots. Plants pull water and minerals from the soil, but the food factory is located above ground in the leaves and green stems.
While I had his attention I shared that minerals from the soil make up only about 5% of the solid material in plant roots, stems and leaves. Carbon, hydrogen and oxygen from the air and water make up most of the other 95%.
I continued the borage that the leaves take in carbon dioxide from the air through tiny pores. Using solar energy, the leaves re-combine the carbon with oxygen and hydrogen to make sugars and starches. The sugars then combine with minerals from the soils to make fibers, proteins, plant oils and fats. The plants use the sugars, starches, proteins, oils and fats to grow and reproduce.
While still holding his attention I then shared that my legumes grab nitrogen from the air as well as make that nitrogen available to the grass in the soil through the nodules on their roots. Thus reducing or eliminating the need for the use of chemical based nitrogen to produce my grasses, further reducing my need for outside energy sources.
Then I shared that because my cows consume young vegetative forages and sometimes weeds I didn’t need to use herbicides and that when needed a simple mowing right after grazing would reduce the competition from any weeds that survived the grazing.
Without giving him a chance to comment I then forged ahead stating that since I only needed to harvest enough feed for about five winter months, I used far fewer gallons of energy per cow than the large Fair Oaks dairies. And since my cows spread their own manure as they grazed that lush high quality forage that manure was immediately available to produce additional forage as soil nutrients and didn’t need to be collected in large holding areas.
I then shared that I too used GPS technology to measure the area of forage consumed daily by my herd. And observed heats in my cows while I was sleeping using radio transmitters mounted on the cows tailheads. I also mentioned that using Cornell Dairy Farm Business Summary I had found that my herd and herds like mine had been some of the highest profit herds in 2003.
I then asked if he realized that the Fair Oaks dairy had an average cull rate of nearly 40% a year and with a 16 month calving interval they would need to buy at least 10% of their replacement animals from someone else just to maintain herd size. He quickly agreed that this was a problem they were working on but that they hadn’t had problems finding adequate replacements. I then asked if he thought they would still find animals once all the small herds disappeared.. He didn’t respond only stating that I was a unique situation and most farmers wouldn’t farm like me. I then laid down a business card and said stop by some day and walked away.
Following the break he did mention to the audience that during the break one farmer had suggested that solar energy did have significant benefits on his farm but his was a very unusual operation. I wonder if the rowcrop farmers thought their operations were unusual as well.