Stewardship Pays Off

November 9, 2010 09:49 AM
Stewardship Pays Off

When Gibb Steele of Hollandale, Miss., learned he had been named an Upstream Hero by the Conservation Technology Information Center, he was a little surprised. The Upstream Heroes campaign recognizes outstanding nutrient managers who apply fertilizer only as needed and make sure it doesn’t wash or leach off their farms.

To Steele, who operates Steele Farms with his son Gibson, Franklin Coleman and other partners, preventing soil erosion and fertilizer runoff is just common sense. “Nobody wants their soil washing away,” he says.

Most of his neighbors farm the same way he does, Steele says. But the irrigated rice and soybean grower acknowledges he was an early adopter of nutrient management techniques. At the time, he was thinking about profitability more than stewardship; but it turned out that spoon-feeding fertilizer, preventing runoff and no-tilling benefited the environment and his bottom line.

Steele Farms’ heavy Sharkey clay soils are high in phosphorus and potassium, so the only fertilizer needed is urea on rice. The operators have moved beyond the traditional practice of applying two-thirds of a rice crop’s nitrogen requirement before flooding and one-third after.

“Based on our consultant’s advice, we spoon-feed urea in four equal increments: before flooding, a week after flooding, at ¼" internode elongation and a week or 10 days after that,” Steele says. “That reduces the chance of losing nitrogen. On our soil types, it seems to increase rice yields. Spoon-feeding is no more expensive, because aerial applicators charge by the pound.”

For early-season fertilizer applications, which go on dry soil, Steele adds a nitrogen stabilizer to reduce the risk of nutrient loss.

Land leveling, levees and gated outlets help Steele prevent runoff. “We level to 0.15" of slope per 100',” Steele says. “It costs about $1 per cubic yard, and most fields require moving 300 to 500 cu. yd. of dirt per acre. But it’s worth the investment because of uniform water application, reduced runoff and higher yields.”

Drainage tools. Permanent turn rows around fields provide space to build temporary levees, which prevents water from running off when rice fields are flooded during the growing season. The levees are knocked down when fields rotate to soybeans and then are reconstructed when you go back to rice.

“Building turn rows costs about $50 per acre,” Steele says. “But without them, water gets away. University research shows that with turn rows and levees, farmers can use at least 30% less irrigation water.”

Drainage pipes under the levees are regulated with risers to hold water or gradually drain it off. “You can get by without risers, but if you don’t have them, you will have soil erosion,” Steele says.

In some fields after harvest, Steele sets the risers to flood the lower third or half of a field. That provides habitat for waterfowl—and recreation for duck hunters like Steele and his friends.

Holding water on fields until about March 1 also reduces weed growth. “Prior to planting, we have to spray glyphosate on the unflooded areas, but not on the flooded areas,” Steele says. “So controlling drainage pays agronomically as well as environmentally.”

Funds from USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program helped pay for some of the water-control structures and turn-row construction.

Steele’s newest conservation measure is using electric timers to control irrigation wells so he applies only as much water as crops need. “Electric timers have been around for a while, but they were hard to use,” he says. “We had to either shut off systems in the middle of the night or let them run and waste water.”

Steele found a simple timer, made by Intermatic, that can be set from zero to 24 hours and works on both diesel and electric wells. “It only costs $100 for a timer and another $100 to install it,” he says.

Tillage management. No-till planting helps the operators build organic matter, improve water infiltration and lower the risk of runoff. But when Steele began no-tilling about 20 years ago, his motivation was economic rather than environmental.

“We wanted to raise our soybean yields,” Steele says. “We needed to plant earlier. But we were rutting up our rice fields every harvest season, so we had to work them in the fall, and often again in the spring. We didn’t get soybeans planted until July, which resulted in lower yields.”
Mounting flotation tires— 50" tires on combines and grain carts and 24½" duals on tractors—eliminated the ruts and the need for tillage.

“We lower air pressure in the flotation tires to 10 psi to 12 psi,” Steele says. “They hardly leave a track. If a rice field is wet, we leave the grain carts on the turn rows, and the combines go to them.”

After no-till soybeans proved successful, Steele began no-tilling rice. Recently, he added some shallow tillage in the fall, to make no-till planting easier the next spring. He runs a 45' Kelly Diamond Chain Harrow, a tool that originated in Australia.

“The harrow works our clay soil ½" to 1" deep,” Steele says. “It tears rice straw out of the ground so it dries out and we can burn it. We also run it after soybean harvest. We’re comparing the harrow with straight no-till to see how much it affects yield.”

Less tillage also means less equipment. “When we farmed conventionally, we needed 11 tractors, six of them four-wheel-drive, to farm 5,000 acres,” Steele says. “Now we use eight front-wheel-assist tractors to farm 10,000 acres.”

Like many farmers, Steele has a few fields that don’t lend themselves to efficient fertilizer use or profitable farming. He enrolled 300 acres of marginal land in USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program.

After decades of managing his resources, Steele says: “We’re concerned about runoff because it’s not just soil and water, it’s also dollars.”

Delta F.A.R.M. Salutes Its First Upstream Hero

It’s only fitting that Gibb Steele is the first member of Delta F.A.R.M. (Delta Farmers Advocating Resource Management) to be named an Upstream Hero, says Trey Cooke, the group’s executive director.

Delta F.A.R.M. is an association of growers and landowners who strive to implement practices that conserve, restore and enhance the environment. “Our goals are to document conservation practices used on farms and to encourage members to improve their personal environmental stewardship,” Cooke explains.

“Gibb has participated in Delta F.A.R.M. since its inception in 1997,” Cooke says. “He has been very proactive about environmental stewardship, applying practices that improve his own property while conserving natural resources. The Upstream Heroes designation is only the latest of many awards he has received for reaching the top level of environmental stewardship.”

In rice production, Cooke adds, “it’s all about water management. When you maintain water on fields through the entire season, you become aware of what’s going on with water upstream and downstream from your farm.

“That’s probably why, as a group, rice producers in the Lower Mississippi Valley are among the very best land and water stewards,” Cooke says. “Gibb, who began his efforts 20 or 25 years ago, is still ahead of the curve.”

For more about Delta F.A.R.M., visit

Three Reasons to Manage Nutrients

With today’s fertilizer prices, profitability is all the reason you need to make sure the nutrients you apply stay on your farm to feed your crops. But there are two other good reasons as well.

“Nitrogen and phosphorus can make their way down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico,” says Karen Scanlon, executive director of the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC).
“In the Gulf of Mexico, excess nutrients cause blooms of algae. When the algae die, it depletes the water of oxygen, making it impossible for some marine animals to live. That low-oxygen condition is called hypoxia.”

Exactly how serious hypoxia is, and how great a role agriculture plays, is still being studied. But almost everyone agrees with Cliff Snyder, nitrogen program director for the International Plant Nutrition Institute, that hypoxia is a real environmental issue.

“I don’t think it’s possible to farm and have no effect on water quality,” Snyder says. “The key is to optimize the efficiency and effectiveness of our farming practices to minimize water-quality impacts.”

There also are local water-quality issues, Snyder adds. The Environmental Protection Agency and state agencies have identified 6,826 waters around the U.S. whose quality is impaired by excess nutrients.

For these waters, states are required to develop a total maximum daily loads (TMDL). The TMDLs require every point or nonpoint source of pollution—including nutrient sources—to adhere to certain limits. Nonpoint sources of pollution include crop farms.

“Among water-quality issues that could affect my operation, I’m more concerned about TMDLs than hypoxia,” says Gibb Steele, a farmer near Hollandale, Miss., and one of CTIC’s Upstream Heroes.

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