Sustainable Agriculture in Wisconsin

What is Sustainable Agriculture?

Sustainable agriculture aims to meet today’s needs without sacrificing tomorrow’s production by increasing productivity, profitability, and the abundance and quality of natural resources. To meet these goals, there are a variety of tools used by farmers such as cover crops, conservation tillage, eco pest management, and rotational grazing. All of these tools aid in creating a more productive environment, with fewer purchased inputs, that ultimately decrease costs and increase profits. Below are general explanations and benefits of these tools as well as some examples of how they are being implemented here in Wisconsin.

What are Cover Crops?

Cover crops are a long term investment that help to increase soil structure and fertility, preserve water quality, improve biodiversity, and manage pests. In essence, they serve as crops to grow for the soil that will help reduce the need for herbicides and fertilizer. Increasing the biodiversity of the farmland and increasing the organic matter in the soil will help reduce costs while also boosting yields.

What is Conservation Tillage?

Conservation tillage differs from standard tilling in that the goal is to disturb the soil as little as possible while leaving at least 30% of residue on the soil surface. Whereas traditional tilling kills beneficial soil organisms and damages the structure of the soil, Conservation Tillage leads to healthier and more stable soil. Conservation Tillage protects the soil from erosion, increases water retention and quality, cycles nutrients, and increases the fertility of the soil. This creates healthy farmland that will require less water, fertilizer, herbicides while also increasing yields.

What is Ecological Pest Management?

Overuse of pesticides creates insects that are increasingly resistant to continued pesticide use and degrades the farm ecosystem by killing non-target, beneficial insect species. In order to manage pests more ecologically, there are four goals that help to facilitate Ecological Pest Management: Increase biodiversity, create a healthy crop habitat, dial back on disruptive pest controls, and reduce off-farm inputs. These goals are best met by using systems such as crop rotation, cover crops, and planting more flowering species. This creates a habitat for more beneficial insects that help manage pest populations and also creates a healthier crop environment. Pesticides should only be used as a last resort and it’s recommended to start with the least toxic to maintain biodiversity as much as possible.

What is Rotational Grazing?

While Rotational Grazing requires more labor input, it greatly increases pasture vigor and soil health. By managing livestock so that only a portion of pasture is being grazed on at a time, it allows other pastures to rest leading to variety of benefits. Rotational Grazing leads to improved soil fertility, increased organic matter found within the soil, supports water retention, and leads to more productive forage. Properly managed rangelands and pastures also provide the best opportunity for carbon sequestration than any other agriculture production system which is a great asset in the fight against climate change.

What are the Economics of Sustainable Agriculture?

Traditional agriculture practices focus on increasing yields by investing more into technology and increasing inputs which ultimately leads to increased costs. In order to support those costs, returns must also remain high. Conversely, by using natural resources and inputs more efficiently profits begin to increase as costs decrease. This decrease in costs occurs when reliance on inputs such as water, fertilizer, herbicides, and livestock feed use lessen due to the impacts of adapting sustainable agriculture practices.