Jerry Hatfield

Jerry Hatfield, USDA Lab Director, USDA ARS, Ames, Iowa

MORRIS, Minn. – You don’t have to call what is happening to the weather or the environment, “climate change” or “global warming.”

It is pretty important, though, to look at your rain gauge and see how much rain has fallen, how soggy the fields are, or how many acres are not producing crops, said Jerry Hatfield, USDA Lab Director, USDA ARS, Ames, Iowa.

Recently, Hatfield gave the keynote address at the 2019 Midwest Farm Energy Conference. He talked about the future of crop production and using a variety of practices to help rebalance the ecosystem.

More variable rainfall during the growing season and storms with 2 or more inches, higher maximum temperatures in July and higher minimum temperatures in August are occurring. The atmosphere also contains more carbon dioxide.

If this continues, we will reduce crop production because of the increased variability in the weather during the growing season, Hatfield said.

“During the hot nights, basically all of the photosynthate (sugars produced by photosynthesis) that we produced during the last day, we’re respiring at night,” he said. “When you respire at night, you have nothing left to put into the grain fill. It really diminishes our capacity to produce a crop. It shortens the grain-filling period.”

In addition, rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere will decrease the protein in grass. This means that long-term, ranchers will have less capacity to stock livestock on pastures or grasslands – even as rain increases.

More rainfall is also leading to filled river banks and flooding, plus soil erosion, because the soils have reduced their capacity to infiltrate water.

Hatfield says farmers need to add small grains and hay back into the cropping system, along with no-till or strip tillage, plus cover crops. He thinks society is willing to pay farmers to do that.

Traditionally, agriculture in the United States has created new wealth through crop and livestock production for food, feed, fuel and fiber.

In addition, Hatfield says, agriculture can now offer benefits to the ecosystem as well as cultural benefits and improved quality of life. These benefits might not be paid to a farmer through a commodity price, but rather through a societal payment, or improved soil health and a better ecosystem.

“We need to get away from the primary objective of agriculture that has always been thought to be in the provisioning side,” he said. “The new mindset is that we’ve got to put it into the context of ecosystem services.”

A prairie system, he says, stores carbon in the soil where it belongs. A cover cropped, no-till field will do the same thing for the benefit of the environment. Cover crops, small grains and hay also reduce nitrates in the soil and improve the “water balance,” because these crop use up water early in the spring.

“Our future is really about how we rethink agriculture,” Hatfield said. “How do we begin to rethink agriculture from the viewpoint of all of the ecosystem products derived from farming?”

Just as farmers and landowners learned about important cropping practices during the “Dirty ’30s,” once again farmers and landowners can defend and improve the ecosystem through diverse cropping practices and conservation methods.