Land O'Lakes SUSTAIN's precision conservation pilot shows promise

Delivering SoilVantage® technology at El-Na Farms in Wisconsin

El-Na Farms In Wisconsin

Kewaunee County, Wisconsin, is dairy country. It’s even a running joke that there’s more cows here than people. But although the region’s milk production is immense, it’s terrain poses challenges for agriculture. With limited top soil and limestone rock just beneath their fields, farmers face soil erosion and water quality concerns as they grow the crops to feed their cows. It’s an issue they’re not taking lightly and Land O’Lakes, Inc. has begun digging below the surface to help.

As a farmer-owned cooperative, Land O’Lakes provides tools and services to help its member-owners manage their businesses as efficiently and economically as possible. In 2016, we took that approach to the next level when we formed our new Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN business unit to help farmers employ and measure their conservation practices that help improve environmental outcomes for air, soil and water without sacrificing profit potential.

With soil erosion bubbling up as a key concern of farmers in Kewaunee County, Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN was primed to jump into action and pilot its precision conservation technology, the SoilVantage® suite of tools, with El-Na Farms, a Land O’Lakes dairy member-owner in the county.

El-Na Farms gets on board

El-Na Farms is a sixth-generation farm milking 1,500 cows and managing 4,500 acres of corn, hay, soybeans and wheat. Lonnie, Barry and Shane Fenendael took over the operation from their parents in 2000. El-Na Farms has been a Land O’Lakes member-owner since 1983 and has been in operation since 1858.

Barry had heard about Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN’s offerings through his role on the Land O’Lakes leadership council. When Tai Ullmann, sustainability manager for Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN and Tim Patchin, senior dairy services advisor for Member Relations, approached the brothers about the Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN SoilVantage® pilot, in February 2017, they were on board.

“A big concern for us here is depth of soil because of our bedrock. We’re always looking for ways to help the soil stay put,” says Lonnie, who manages El-Na Farms’ agronomy operation. “A lot of the same issues that are talked about here are addressed as part of Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN—the things you can do and see as far as soil loss, erosion, which really boils down to loss of nutrients.”

How it works

The SoilVantage® suite includes tools that help farmers understand and manage areas in their fields most susceptible to soil erosion. SoilCalculator is the foundation and sets a baseline for erosion by analyzing the farm’s crop rotation and tillage methods within the field boundaries. Utilizing aerial imagery, soil maps and elevation data, a field specific report shows the soil loss on 9 meter grids including average soil loss per acre and estimated potential yield and nutrient loss quantified in the clearest of terms: dollars per acre.

Farmers can compare these results to another two management systems to better understand how changing tillage, rotation and/or adding cover crops affects soil loss. Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN works exclusively with Agren, an Iowa based software company, to offer the suite of tools.

The pilot, which was the first time the SoilVantage® technology was implemented on a Land O’Lakes dairy member-owner farm, was fairly simple to get off the ground. Gathered in El-Na Farms’ front office in February 2017, Tai, Tim, Dennis Frame from a local producer-led watershed group, El-Na Farms’ agronomist Nathan Nysse, and Stan Buman, Soil & Water Management specialist with Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN, demonstrated the SoilCalculator tool and reviewed the farm’s crop and tillage history. From there, Stan loaded El-Na Farms’ 172 fields into the tool. The beauty of the SoilVantage® tool is it doesn’t require a lot of time from the farmer. There’s no in-person field trials or analysis, SoilCalculator takes the farm’s crop management information and electronic field boundaries and runs scenarios for soil erosion and loss.

“As farmers, we know what fields are performing—or not—as far as erosion and sediment loss. It was interesting to see when they put a dollar amount to it; the income we were losing because of the sediment that was moving either off the field, or within the field,” says Lonnie. “I don’t know a farmer that’s thought of it that way.”

The SoilVantage® suite helps farmers think differently about their fields. For Lonnie, he learned it’s not always sediment moving off the field that’s the problem. His results showed that hills and knolls within the fields are losing soil, too. So, by implementing a cover crop, he could save nutrients and the sediment on the top of the hill. Cover crops are often utilized off-growing season to provide roots in the soil for microbial bacteria to build organic matter on and provide cover on the soil surface; both of which help prevent erosion.

“El-Na Farms had been utilizing cover crops, but hadn’t ever thought about where the cover crops should go to best protect the soil. That’s what SoilVantage does, it brings recommendations to address a field on a sub-level. Now they’re thinking about utilizing cover crops on the more erosive parts of all their fields instead of just seeding down several fields,” explains Stan. “We’re helping farms validate or improve their existing conservation efforts.”

That’s just one recommendation Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN provides as part of the SoilVantage® tool. Others include less tillage or adding grass waterways to a field, which Lonnie is considering to install in fall 2017.

What’s next for SoilVantage® Technology?

SoilVantage® technology being delivered from Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN’s Conservation Dairy platform, which has continued to refine and refresh its full offering. Though the business unit was formed in 2016, we’ve been paying attention to, and measuring our environmental impact for many years. Whether it’s creating partnerships, developing products and services, or measuring farms’ environmental impact, we have a strong understanding for the sustainability needs of farmers, customers, and consumers alike.

At El-Na Farms, Lonnie will continue to monitor fields for erosion, but what’s been most promising is that the pilot data validated what he’d thought all along—he’s doing nearly the best he can to preserve water quality on his farm.

“I think stability is huge. We want to be sustainable for the next generation, and with some of the issues we’ve been having here locally with water quality, we’re trying to show people we’re doing things correctly,” he says.

Lonnie is also working with Peninsula Pride Farms, a local farmer-led coalition in the watershed that’s leveraging the ingenuity of the agriculture community, university research, scientists and businesses to meet water quality challenges in northeastern Wisconsin through programming, practices and products. Lonnie and Stan presented the results of the pilot to the watershed’s board in May and received promising feedback about how it’s helped him make strategic decisions about cover crops on farm.

Though this was the first offering of SoilVantage® technology to Land O’Lakes membership, the plan is to take what El-Na Farms learned and refine the offering. Eventually, the goal is to expand across dairy members and to member-cooperative ag retailers across the Midwest and central plains. We’ll deliver updates on rollout timing and in the meantime, if you have questions, call Stan Buman at (712) 830-7713.

“Validation through data—that’s the missing piece in conservation for farmers. Their questions are, ‘What’s the return and how do I know it’s working?’” says Stan. “We were able to answer that for them, and showcase the value of being proactive in this space. We’re paying attention to what’s happening at and below the soil surface, not just from the ground up, to help farmers keep these acres productive.”