To Howard W. Buffett, Yields and Conservation Just Go Together

May 29, 2014 07:25 AM
To Howard W. Buffett, Yields and Conservation Just Go Together

The young farmer nearly gave up his corn crop for dead after four straight nights of frost, but attributes its recovery to the management practices he uses.

In Howard W. Buffett’s second year of farming, water from the historic Missouri River flood of 2011 came within a mile of his Nebraska farm. The next year, drought ravaged the state, but he survived thanks to pivot irrigation. He thought to himself, "Good. Now I’ve cleared each extreme in weather."

But the experience didn’t prepare him for what he saw when he walked into his corn field in mid-May of this year. Four consecutive nights of frost and near-freezing weather had pretty much taken out his entire corn field, said the president of Buffett Farmers Nebraska, speaking at a recent Chicago Council on Global Affairs conference in Washington, D.C.

"I’m standing there, looking out over about 5.5 million corn plants on 160 acres, and they are all just brown and withered, laying on the ground. My heart sank," Buffett recalled. "This is just a horrible sight to see. It’s something that I’d never experienced, obviously. I’ve only been farming for four years.

"Then, fast-forward about 48 hours. We ordered up some good sun, and strong winds, and high temperatures, and the entire field rebounded. The corn was completely green again. It was standing up. It was already growing new leaves. And I thought, 'My gosh, that is really remarkable.'"

Though the corn variety Buffett planted probably played a role in the comeback, the young farmer attributes his success to conservation-based farming that he believes is "mandatory for preserving resources and increasing your yields over time." He attributes a 20% yield increase in his first three years of operation to conservation.

"To me, that illustrated two things," he said. "It illustrated the fragility of what we’re doing in agriculture and the lack of control that we have over things, including the weather. But it also illustrated the resiliency of our production systems, especially in the United States."

Buffet describes what he practices as anti-tillage agriculture, rather than no-till. He uses that term so as not to alienate farmers who are required to till the soil or who need to occasionally till their field.

Center-pivot, rather than flood irrigation, is another of his conservation techniques. Center-pivot irrigation, together with targeted nitrogen applications that’s better for plants and fields, reduces nitrogen runoff.

"We also look at residue as one of our nutrient management techniques—leaving it on the farm and not taking it off for biofuel production," Buffett said. "A lot of farmers call residue trash, which is too bad because crop residue actually breaks down and releases a lot of nutrients back into the soil. It’s a critical part of the system, from our perspective."

Crop rotation is another piece of Buffett’s strategy. "It’s become a habit of a lot of farmers to grow corn year after year and really put a lot of demands on the soil. It’s been shown that the best crop rotation would be corn, soybean and then wheat, depending on where you are in the United States, and then repeating that process again."

Buffett also grows radishes as a cover crop. "We’ve spent a lot of time looking at the effect of cover crops on farmland across the U.S.," he said. "I’m pleased to say that the use of cover crops has grown quite significantly. We’ve gone from about 2 million acres in the U.S. to roughly 10 million acres."

The young farmer is trying to take conservation practices to Africa through his father’s foundation, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation. But that means first making them applicable to local conditions.

"We launched a partnership with Pioneer and John Deere, focusing on how to create the right framework for small-scale systems that would utilize no-till—that’s challenging when you don’t have mechanization—as well as cover crops," Buffett said.

"We worked with John Deere to develop a no-till tractor that could be pulled by oxen. And we worked with Pioneer to develop the right cover crops for different regions of Ghana. That could be edible cover crops that would also serve as feed for livestock. We’re in the process of piloting it right now."

Buffett said that the Foundation is taking a demand-driven, rather than supply-driven, approach. The partners first tried to figure out what it would take to get farmers to willingly adopt conservation practices. Then it provided the necessary tools, including financial assistance.

"Part of what we’re doing through our family foundation is to help underwrite loans and put in first-loss capital," he said. "That can make this much more palatable for farmer cooperatives in areas where we’re trying to build this out."


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