The young boy hopped and skipped across ground farmed by his family for generations, his dog trotting along behind him. Strips of thick cornfield stubble forced him to slow enough to maneuver over the rows before he encountered another strip of smoother ground again. His father had explained the strips, but his mind wandered elsewhere to the edge of thick grass and low trees that cut through the field only a few yards away. His raucous arrival at its edge was enough to spur the sudden flapping of wings. A pheasant jetted from the tall grass, startling him for a moment before the familiar roar of a diesel engine begged his attention and beckoned him back to the farmstead.

Creating idyllic scenes like this, where cropland gives way purposefully to wildlife habitat, are becoming more of the norm. In places where fences were once torn out to ensure more ground could be worked is now being turned into wildlife habitat. The use of sustainable farming practices are partnering highly productive crop production with environmental stewardship. It’s a serious balancing act that continues to play out across America’s heartland – and its success or failure will have lasting impacts for both agriculture and the environment.

For decades, farmers found themselves in a tug-of-war between consumers who demanded low grocery bills, and environmentalists and regulatory agencies demanding significant change.

Now criticism of agriculture has begun to boil over, and it’s no longer just the fringe groups sounding the alarm. Demons like agricultural runoff, improper use of chemicals, poor cropping techniques that rob soil of nutrients and other environmental harms continue to haunt the agriculture industry even as many farmers turn to the use of sustainable practices.

While it is typically high-input, conventional agriculture grabbing the headlines for all the wrong reasons, the bigger story unfolding in production agriculture today is the movement toward no-till and low-input farming.

So, with the demand from a growing population and increased use of biofuels, is it possible for modern agriculture and increased production of corn to coexist with sustainability – without putting soil quality and habitat for wild life at risk?

The simple answer – yes.

Today’s farmers are finding a variety of ways for production agriculture – even on a large scale – to work in harmony with the natural environment. And what may be surprising to some: they aren’t giving up profits or yields to do so. Over the next few pages, Vital gives you a few examples of equipment companies and farmers that have embraced sustainable practices without sacrificing their bottom line.

Precision Agriculture Meets No-Till

One of the ways farming is becoming more sustainable without sacrifice in productivity is with the use of low-inputs and precision agriculture techniques. Craig Hiemstra, Vice President of Marketing and Sales for Environmental Tillage Systems, Inc., points out that environmental tillage systems are growing in popularity among farmers, a sign that more are embracing sustainable farming practices, even on large-scale operations.

Environmental Tillage Systems, Inc. (ETS) manufactures conservation tillage and nutrient management equipment designed to improve soil productivity and farm profitability. Since its beginnings in 2004 on a farm in southeastern Minnesota, the company has grown to reach customers in the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

One example of sustainable equipment is the SoilWarrior, a flagship piece of equipment Hiemstra says acts like primary and secondary tillage implements all rolled into one.

“This one machine provides all the environmental benefits of strip tillage,” he explains. “The SoilWarrior helps save soil, labor, moisture and fuel while optimizing fertilizer efficiency.”

The SoilWarrior is designed to be a shallow tillage system, creating an aerated seedbed that is warm, dry and inviting for quick germination and early plant growth. Hiemstra says the SoilWarrior environmental tillage equipment also exhibits unprecedented soil management.

The SoilWarrior can also be used to band nutrients and create a fertile zone for strong early growth and sustained development. It minimizes compaction, supports conservation of soil and water resources, and saves both time and money, according to the manufacturer.

He credits development of the SoilWarrior with invention of the zone tillage concept, which keeps soil where it belongs – in the field.

“It does this by maintaining the root structure between each tilled zone and incorporating residue into the growing zone.”

High input costs have generated more interest in SoilWarrior because of the savings it offers by combining fertilizer placement with fall or spring tillage. Farmers are finding that it saves fuel and labor, while improving yield potential and extending the planting window.

In addition, SoilWarrior is appealing to farmers who have been working with local precision farming specialists and having zone tillage custom-applied for a contracted fee per acre. Of course, the new environmental tillage systems are also appealing to farmers who are good soil conservationists and desire to pass along a farm with good soil health to the next generation.

Ted Frank says his family’s operation eased into the use of environmental tillage systems. He farms in partnership with his wife, Kim; son Tom; brother Ed; and sister-in-law Cindy, as well as a full-time employee. The 1,000-acre operation in Mower County, Minn., is a farrow-to-finish hog enterprise that produces about 7,000 market hogs annually.

“We rented an eight-row SoilWarrior in 2011 and again in 2012, to learn about and evaluate the system,” Frank recalls. “We purchased our own machine in the fall of 2012.”

Their goals for reducing soil erosion and increasing productivity through better nutrient placement are the primary reasons they became interested in strip till. Use of the SoilWarrior has just been one step in their route to more sustainable farming practices.

“Another change we have made is to allow our manure application to work with our strip till system by purchasing a vertical tillage injection bar for our manure tank, and adding a flow meter, monitor system and auto steer,” he says. “The new equipment allows us to have control over manure rates and apply manure with minimal soil disturbance.”

The Frank family isn’t the only ones turning to environmental tillage systems. Benjamin Pederson farms about 3,000 acres of corn and soybeans with his father, Gary.

“Nearly 10 years ago, a seed was planted in my brain that we could do things better than how we were doing them,” Pederson relates. “Typical for our area, we were either disk-ripping cornstalks or moldboard plowing them. It was common for us to plow the acres that were to be corn-on-corn and rip the acres that were to be soybeans the following year.”

In both cases, they would run a stalk chopper over every corn acre to help with residue decomposition. Even on soybean stubble, they would perform some sort of light tillage in the fall. In the spring this was followed by one, or even two, field cultivator passes prior to planting.

“Fields and road ditches were black all winter. It was in examining the soil after all that tillage that I began to search for a better way. Even though there was three inches of loose soil making a good seed bed over most of the surface, the wheel tracks were always cloddy and hard, while over the rest of the implement width, there was a hard, smear layer at field cultivator sweep depth,” he recalls.

Then, there was the erosion. Almost every year, utilizing even more tillage, they would have to smooth out areas were water had taken the loose, unanchored soil and cut ravines and gullies on the rolling terrain.

“While I knew even in my youth that this was not at all desirable, it was thought of as an unavoidable loss, because of the prevailing conventional wisdom in northern latitudes like ours, where we get fewer growing degree units per year than most in the corn belt and we have some black soil with drainage problems,” he recalls. “Most of the older generations of farmers believed the only way around these problems was tillage, exposing the black soil to the elements to warm and dry it.”

As he pondered these issues, a practice called strip till came to his attention and the idea immediately struck a chord.

“Tillage right where you need it and nowhere else, and fertilizer right were you need it,” he remembers hearing.

At about the same time, he joined with some local farmers roughly his age in a running dialogue on soil, discussing what was beneficial and what was detrimental.

“The bottom line was this: tillage, most often, is detrimental to soil,” Pederson explains. “In 2011, after researching different machines and speaking with owners of different equipment – and building up a significant amount of courage – I made the decision to purchase a SoilWarrior.”

The system offered them a way to avoid fall nitrogen fertilization, which can be subject to significant loss, and apply it precisely where corn will be grown and incorporate it into the soil.

“My goals in utilizing SoilWarrior to perform strip till are simply to address all the issues I saw with our conventional way of farming,” explains Pederson. “While about 1,500 of my dad’s acres are still farmed that way, he has begun to have me strip till a great many other acres. The good part about this process is that we get to compare the differences. In 2012, two of our top three yielding corn farms were strip tilled. Soybeans yields also compared favorably, in about a dead heat.”

Pederson says another advantage SoilWarrior offers is the ability to strip till corn-on-corn without plugging with residue. He also saw an advantage this past fall when the machine was able to run in non-ideal, wet conditions while other farmers with shank machines could not do so.

“That is a big deal in November when most likely things are not going to dry out again,” he adds.