Earth Week – 2004
Last week, April 18-24, was “Earth Week” across the United States. During that week there are lots of news stories and feature articles on what is wrong with the environment and possible political and management solutions. However, there are not very many stories on what has been done in the last two or three decades to help improve the environment. As I reflect on what has happened in agriculture, there has been considerable improvement in environmental stewardship by farmers and ranchers in recent decades. Conservation tillage methods are now used on more than 60% of the crop acres in the U.S. to help reduce wind erosion and field runoff. There are over 60 million acres nationwide where crops are raised under reduced or minimum tillage systems. Soil erosion rates in the “dust bowl” years of the 1930s were as high as 40 tons/acre in some areas. The average soil erosion rate in the U.S. was about 4 tons/acre in 1982, and has dropped to near 2 tons/acre today. Nearly 40 million acres of highly erodible land have been taken out of production in the last 20 years in the U.S. through programs like CRP, CREP, RIM, etc. During the past 12 years, over 12 million acres of wetlands have been restored through the Wetlands Reserve Program. Farmers and landowners enrolled in CRP have installed almost 2 million acres of filter strips, riparian buffers, grass waterways, shelterbelts, field windbreaks, living snow fences, etc. Farmers have installed another 1.54 million miles of conservation buffers through other USDA initiatives. In addition, farmers have planted thousands of trees on farms each year through the SWCD and other programs.

Livestock producers have also been doing their part regarding environmental stewardship. In Minnesota, all new commercial livestock facilities and operations are thoroughly reviewed prior to construction by the MPCA and by County officials regarding proper facilities and management to protect the environment. Most commercial sized livestock operations in the state now have a well-designed manure management plan that is updated regularly. Most producers are applying manure at rates and with methods that are beneficial for crop production and to help protect the environment. Livestock farmers have invested a considerable amount of their own money through commodity “check-off” programs to fund educational efforts targeted for producers to enhance environmental stewardship.

Are there still efforts that can be added or strengthened to improve environmental stewardship in agriculture? Absolutely. However, the U.S. and Minnesota agriculture industry has come a long-way on environmental stewardship and protecting our natural resources since the very first “Earth Day” in the early 1970s!

Welcome Rainfall
Most areas of Minnesota received some rainfall during the period from April 17-21, which will certainly be very beneficial for seed germination and planting conditions. Most portions of southern Minnesota received an inch or more of rain from various showers and storms during that period. This was the first significant precipitation during April in many locations. Prior to the rainfall, above normal temperatures and strong winds had dried out topsoil considerably across the region, to a point where there were planting concerns. There was also considerable wind erosion from strong winds prior to the rainfall on some newly tilled fields in some areas. Ideally, most crop producers would like to see a period of warmer, drier weather for the next couple of weeks to aid spring planting of corn and soybeans.

Planting Progress
A fair amount of corn was planted in south central Minnesota prior to the rainfall that occurred. Several producers were back in the fields again by April 23. Corn planting progress across the region ranged from 25 to 50% completed by week’s end. Most growers have reported excellent tillage and planting conditions, which should be more uniform following the beneficial rainfall that fell in most areas. Corn that was planted prior to the rainfall has begun to sprout. Average soil temperatures at the 2-4 in. depth in south central Minnesota have been above 50ºF for the past couple of weeks, which is ideal for corn planting.

Early planted fields of wheat, oats, and other small grains have emerged and look excellent, as do early planted pea fields. Most alfalfa fields appear to have avoided serious winter injury, and should benefit considerably from recent rainfall. Nationwide, planting progress for corn is running well ahead of normal. Excluding a major drought, early planting usually means very good corn yields in most areas of the Country.

Editors note: Kent Thiesse is a former University of Minnesota Extension educator and now is Vice President of MinnStar Bank, Lake Crystal, MN. You can contact him at 507-726-2137 or via e-mail at kent.thiesse@minnstarbank.com.