Can we really feed more than 9.5 billion people expected to share planet Earth in 2050?  I believe we can, but only if we prepare now by maximizing productivity.  Sustainable intensification is the way to do that.

American farmers have achieved incredible gains in productivity in less than 75 years.  In 1940, one farmer could feed 19 people.  Today one farmer feeds 155 people.  This is not just a matter of larger farms; it’s higher productivity.

It’s because the average yield per acre of corn was 24.5 bushels in 1931; it’s 160.4 today.  It’s because we’ve jumped from 16.2 bushels of grain sorghum per acre in 1931 to 62.2 today.  And wheat production has risen from an average of 14 bushels in 1931 to 46.2 today.  Milk production is up, too.  In Wisconsin, the average production per cow was 5,140 pounds in 1933; today it’s more than quadrupled to 21,436 pounds.

Last week I spoke to folks at the Governor’s Pheasant Habitat Conference in South Dakota about the need to increase productivity on our very best acreage, and they understood.  We can maintain wildlife habitat provided we get top performance from our most productive land.  That takes planning, and it takes a systems approach to farming—sustainable intensification.  There’s no silver bullet—no magic seeds, no miracle fertilizer, no super growth formula.  It means finding a way to maximize production by employing optimal inputs on soil that’s been managed, cared for and groomed to peak productivity. 

Those of us who produce livestock like to talk about stocking rates—cows per acre or acres per cow.  But my friend Jerry Hatfield with the Agricultural Research Service in Iowa says we fail to remember we need to feed two pachyderms per acre.  The elephants he’s talking about are not the ones you find in the zoo.  In fact, you probably can’t see most of them at all with the naked eye.  He’s referring to the need to feed the ground itself—to maintain all the microorganisms in it that make it fertile.

We can’t just raise a corn crop and let it go at that.  If we do, we’re slowly starving our elephants, and the ground will come back to bite us in the future in the form of decreasing productivity.  We need a system in place to build soil health for our best acres.

In the last generation, we increased productivity by improving genetics, boosting mechanical power and making the most effective use of labor.  The next generation will be farming by the inch rather than by the acre—directing water, fuel, nutrients, sunlight and space in the optimal amount to the specific inch of ground where the inputs are needed.  This can involve both major nutrients and micronutrients as well as looking at issues like soil compaction and soil health.

It may take professional help—certified crop advisors and soil scientists—to tell us how to get the most out of what we’ve got.  This is not a short-term fix but a long-term proposition.  And the farmers who understand that are focusing first on the land they own.  It’s also an issue that landlords need to pay attention to.

It grieves my heart to see a renter near my ranch suck the life out of the soil, mining it for all it’s worth for short-term gain.  The landlord either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that when the wheat is harvested his renter rolls up the straw, hauls it away and doesn’t touch the field again until it’s time to plant the next crop.  The renter doesn’t control the thistles or other noxious weeds either.  This reckless chase for short-term profits is going to cost someone else a lot of money in the future.

What’s the payoff for adopting sustainable intensification—a systems approach to managing your land for maximum productivity?  Hard to put an exact figure on it.  The folks who sell seeds and fertilizer may be able to give you an estimate for a particular piece, but the best numbers are going to come from your own records as you build not just for today, but with the future in mind.  It’s an investment we can’t afford not to make.

Meanwhile, don’t forget to feed your elephants.

About the author: Bruce I. Knight, Principal, Strategic Conservation Solutions, was the Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from 2006 to 2009. From 2002 to 2006, Knight served as Chief of Natural Resources Conservation Service. The South Dakota native worked on Capitol Hill for Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Rep. Fred Grandy, Iowa, and Sen. James Abdnor, South Dakota. In addition, Knight served as vice president for public policy for the National Corn Growers Association and also worked for the National Association of Wheat Growers. A third-generation rancher and farmer and lifelong conservationist, Knight operates a diversified grain and cattle operation using no-till and rest rotation grazing systems


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