Managing Crop Residues: Balancing Soil Quality and Farm Profitability

Final Report for GNC05-050

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2005: $9,970.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2007
Grant Recipient: Michigan State University
Region: North Central
State: Michigan
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Dr. Phil Robertson
Michigan State University/ Kellogg Biological Station
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Project Information


The role of sustainable agriculture has expanded in recent decades from a traditional focus on food and fiber production to also include ecosystem management responsibilities. Farmers may now have an opportunity to be compensated for providing a wide array of ecosystem services, such as sequestering atmospheric carbon dioxide into soil organic matter. Recent research indicates that maintaining maximum surface residue through cropping system practices is imperative for carbon sequestration in soils. Even though increasing surface residue can improve soil quality and reduce soil erosion, it can conversely slow spring soil warm-up and thus delay planting and immobilize plant available nitrogen. In Michigan there is a need for publicly available information to aid producers in evaluating these complex tradeoffs.

To help address this need we held two farmer focus group meetings (four producers each in East-central and Southwest Michigan) to help identify major impediments and incentives for maximizing surface residue cover. To illustrate how the major themes identified during these meetings are addressed on successful farms we consulted with four producers to serve as case studies. These case study producers have been involved with no-till management for 2 to 31 years in Southwest Michigan. An extension bulletin is in preparation to highlight the motivation of, the management techniques required to, and the benefits experienced by these producers by converting to no-till management.


The role of sustainable agriculture has expanded in recent decades from a traditional focus on food and fiber production to also include environmental stewardship. Midwest farmers now have an opportunity to be compensated for providing a wide array of ecosystem services, such as sequestering atmospheric carbon dioxide into soil organic matter. Recent research indicates that maintaining maximum surface residue through cropping system practices is imperative for carbon sequestration in soils. Even though increasing surface residue can improve soil quality and reduce soil erosion, it can conversely, slow spring soil warm-up thus delay planting and immobilize plant available nitrogen. These are complex tradeoffs that many North Central Region row-crop farmers struggle to evaluate. Adoption of no-till management practices that maximize soil organic matter sequestration rates has been limited. This project reviews the scientific literature for economic, agronomic, and environmental tradeoffs associated with the conversion of conventional to no-till management practices. Furthermore, we use farmer focus group meetings to identify impediments to no-till adoption and then use case studies to illustrate how these impediments are overcome by farmers that use a variety of minimum and no-till practices.

Project Objectives:

Our general objective for this project is to aid northern corn-belt farmers in incorporating carbon sequestration into their management decisions. Three specific objectives will be used to address the general objective:
1) conduct a literature review of the impact of maximizing surface residue cover in the northern corn-belt region on crop yields, soil C sequestration, and farm profitability;
2) determine major incentives for and impediments to maximizing residue cover through the use of farmer focus group meetings; and
3) highlight in an extension bulletin how four successful case study farms optimize residue cover and farm profitability.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Tim Harrigan
  • Henry Miller
  • Dale Mutch
  • G. Philip Robertson
  • Sieglinde Snapp
  • Kurt Thelen


Materials and methods:

This project was divided into three parts to meet each of our specific objectives. Subsequently, the approaches used in each of the three parts are as follows. First, we conducted a literature review to assess the availability of information regarding the transition of managing row-crop production systems in Michigan with tillage to no-till management. Second, we held two farmer focus group meetings, one in East Central Michigan and one in Southwest Michigan, to gain an understanding of the current perceived and real benefits and impediments to no-till management in Michigan. And third, we highlighted how four producers from Southwest Michigan address and perceive these impediments and benefits in their no-till operations.

Literature review:
Our approach to the literature review was focused by the conversations and results of the farmer focus group meetings we held on the topic of no-till management in Michigan. One of the main results from these meetings was that information available regarding no-till management from the center of the cornbelt (Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana) was not perceived useful for management practices in more northern parts of the cornbelt, like Michigan and Minnesota. These farmers perceived Michigan’s cool-moist spring weather as a major determining factor in the usefulness of no-till management in Michigan. In light of this result, we were specifically interested in published information on the costs and benefits of no-till management versus tillage management in Michigan. We searched three databases (ISI’s Web of Knowledge, Agricola, and Michigan State University Extension’s Knowledge Repository) for published research on this topic.
ISI’s Web of Knowledge is a large database of mostly peer-reviewed scientific literature. It includes most of the agriculturally oriented scientific journals (e.g., Soil Science Society of America Journal, Agronomy Journal, Journal of Production Agriculture, Soil Science, Plant and Soil, etc.) and is a common database to query for information regarding agricultural practices. We searched the ISI database for keywords in the following combinations: Michigan and tillage; Michigan and no-till; Michigan and tillage and sequestration; Michigan and no-till and tillage and sequestration. The search period was from 1914-Feb 2007.

Agricola is a database that is more specific to agricultural scientific publications and also includes articles from the popular press and extension bulletins. We used the same search keywords in Agricola as we used in ISI and across the time period of 1970 to 2007. Additionally, we searched the MSUE’s Knowledge Repository for extension publications that would indicate Michigan State University Extension’s involvement in disseminating information regarding tillage practices.

Farmer Focus Group Meetings:
We conducted two meetings during February of 2006 with four farmers each. The first meeting was held in East Central Michigan and the second in Southwest Michigan. The intent of these meetings was to engage a small number of farmers in a discussion regarding the costs, risks, and benefits of reducing soil tillage in Michigan's row-crop production systems. To stimulate and direct the farmers discussion we follow this general outline:

Motivation for meeting and bulletin:
1.Are high fuel prices and potential C credits making no-till more attractive relative to conventional tillage systems?
2.No-till does not work on every farm and every rotation, is this your experience or perception?
a.Are cool wet soils a problem for your production system?
b.Yield penalty (does no-till yield less than conventional or mulch tillage)
i.Is it persistent?
ii.Is it temporary?
iii.Is this your perception or based on personal experience?

Proposed Extension Bulletin
1.Does the yield penalty exist in SW or EC MI? and if so, where and to what extent?
a.What are the factors contributing to yield difference?
2.What information is available for Michigan producers to help them reduce tillage?
3.What are the major hesitations that producers have about converting to no-till?
4.How have these issues been dealt with on real farms? Case studies.

Introduction – each farmer addresses the following
1.describe farming operation
a.crop rotation
b.tillage system
c.soils / weather
d.labor / family
e.strengths and weaknesses of current management system

Question, answer, and discussion
1.What sources of information do you use to make decisions about residue/tillage management? Which is the most important for your operation?
2.At what fuel price would it pay for you to change tillage systems? High and low?
3.How high would C sequestration credit payments (on a per acre basis) have to be before you would convert to no-till?
4.What information did you use or would you like to have before converting to no-till?
5.For no-tillers: Did you observe a transitioning period following conversion? For how long?

Develop questions to be addressed in bulletin through case farms
1.What questions would you like to see discussed in a bulletin on transitioning to no-till?
2.What further research would you like to see by MSU or industry scientists?

Case Studies:
To illustrate the decision making processes and experiences of producers that have converted to no-till and minimum-till soil management, we consulted with four producers from Southwest Michigan to serve as case studies. The main goal of these case studies is to include their experiences into a bulletin to help other producers reduce input costs while improving soil quality and C sequestration. Minimizing or discontinuing tillage is one management option that has been highlighted for several decades to achieve these goals; however, no-till management adoption still remains meager. The farmers from the focus group meetings identified several real and perceived impediments and incentives to adopting no-till management. We summarized these results into to the following questions to be addressed by the case study farmers.

1.What convinced you to convert to no-till management?
2.What were five key management changes that you had to make to implement this conversion?
3.How did conversion impact your crop yields and your profitability?
4.How has no-till management influenced the soil quality on your farm?
5.How will no-till management help you compete in, for example the emerging biofuels market?

The responses to these questions make up a major component of the results of this project.

Research results and discussion:

Literature Review:
The primary question for this review is how does no-till soil management compare to conventional or mulch tillage in regards to crop yields, input costs, profitability, and soil carbon sequestration rates in Michigan row-crop production systems? We limited our review of the scientific literature to research conducted specifically in Michigan because the farmers we consulted in the focus group meetings were concerned that research conducted in the center of the cornbelt (Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana) was not relative to the conditions in Michigan. They felt that the cool-moist springs of Michigan made their field conditions distinctively different from further south in the cornbelt, especially in regards to tillage operations.

A search of the ISI’s Web of Science database (ISI 2007) yielded 59 unique publications that relate to no-till practices in Michigan. Additionally, a search of the Agricola database (Agricola 2007) resulted in 4 more unique publications. A search of the Michigan State University Extension Knowledge Repository (MSUE 2007) did not yield additional sources of information. Thus 63 unique scientific, popular press (e.g., Michigan Farmer Magazine), and extension publications were identified from these sources. Of these 63 publications, 34 of the publications were explicitly from studies conducted in Michigan on production systems that included corn and soybean production. Four unique studies were identified out of these publications with only 2 of these studies lasting more than two years. The first study, conducted near East Lansing on Capac loam, was established in 1980 compared fall moldboard plowing to no-till corn and soybean production. The other study started in 1988 is a corn-soybean-wheat rotation experiment that is on-going at the Kellogg Biological Station (KBS) on Oshtemo and Kalamazoo loams near Hickory Corners. This study compares (among other things) no-till and fall-chisel plow management. Of the 34 publications, most (28 out of 34) were derived from research carried out on the experiment at KBS on the Long-Term Ecological Research site (KBS-LTER).

No-till and fall moldboard plow tillage produced similar corn and soybean yields throughout the 12 year experiment conducted near East Lansing (Krause and Black 1995). Likewise on the KBS-LTER experiment, no-till and conventional tillage management resulted in similar yields in all but 3 of the 14 years analyzed thus far (Grandy et al. 2006). During those three years no-till out-yielded conventional (chisel-till) management. Thus the only published results from Michigan yield trials indicate little yield differences between no-till and conventional tillage practices.

Michigan producers are currently eligible to contract with a number of firms that are selling carbon offset credits that are being traded through the Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX - These carbon offsets credits pay producers ~ 2$ per acre per year for managing their fields with no-till practices (MFB 2007). Results from the East Lansing experiment and the KBS-LTER experiment suggest that no-till management sequesters between 300 and 1000 lbs of C per acre per year relative to conventional tillage.

Krause and Black (1995) compared operation costs, variable input costs, and equipment capital outlay across the period of 1955 to 1993 for no-till and moldboard plow tillage in corn and soybean production in Michigan (on Oshtemo soils). They conclude that while machinery operational costs (fuel, repair, and labor costs) were substantially lower for no-till and variable input costs (seed, fertilizer, pesticides, machinery, labor, interest, and fuel) were similar for no-till and moldboard plow management, profit margins were only slightly better for no-till than plow till. With this conclusion Krause and Black suggested that producers were unlikely to transition from plowing to no-till management unless both of their tractor and planter needed to be replaced within a few years of each other. Further they suggest that the profit margin differences between no-till and conventional till are sensitive to labor, fuel, and machinery prices, such that increased prices of labor or fuel would make no-till more favorable. Since 1993 energy price were flat (1993-1999) and then dramatically increased (1999-2007) (US-DOE 2007). Although we have not conducted a more recent cost/benefit economic analysis, current energy related prices (thus fuel, fertilizer, and herbicides) are likely to be an important consideration when producers reevaluate no-till management.

From this literature review we conclude that although the research comparing no-till and conventional tillage management is limited to two studies (East Lansing and Hickory Corners) there appears to be no support for a yield drag or yield penalty under no-till management. No-till management also appears to promote soil carbon sequestration and reduces soil erosion by water and wind relative to conventional tillage management. Two recent economic factors may peak producers interest in no-till management; 1) higher energy prices and 2) soil carbon sequestration credit payments.

Farmer Focus Group Meetings:

The major results of the farmer focus group meetings were the questions that the farmers themselves generated that were to be discussed by the case study farmers. The questions are as follows:
1.What convinced you to convert to no-till management?
2.What were five key management changes that you had to make to implement this conversion?
3.How did conversion impact your crop yields and your profitability?
4.How has no-till management influenced the soil quality on your farm?
5.How will no-till management help you compete in, for example the emerging biofuels market?

Case Study Farms:

Here we highlight the answers given by the four case study farmers to the above questions.

Farmer A:
Along with two family members Farmer A manages 2400 acres of Kalamazoo and Oshtemo soils to produce seed corn and commodity corn and soybeans. The entire farm has been managed as no-till since 1988 when they discontinued their mulch-tillage program on the entire farm. Now their chisel plow and disk are only used occasionally to reshape the soil surface after ruts develop during harvest. Until 2003 livestock production was a significant portion of their farm enterprise. They miss having the manure from the livestock to fertilize the crop fields, but have not noticed any changes in the soil tilth. Farmer A was convinced to convert to no-till when he decided that the labor savings of fewer trips across the field in the spring would help balance the work load across the farm’s enterprises. Additionally, they have some highly erodible acres that they wanted to farm without destroying.

In 1988, Farmer A converted all of his acres to no-till in a single year. Over the years they have determined that the most important component to no-till management is the planter. Farmer A’s approach to setting up his planters has changed over the years as new technologies emerged, but he is adamant in telling other producers that no planters is ready to plant all of their acres on the day that they bring it home from the dealer. He says that each planter has to be adjusted to match the particular conditions and soils of the farm. In 1988, Farmer A’s planter setup had three Rawson coulters ahead of the seed slot coulter to chop residue and disturb the soil surface enough to promote faster soil warming. This setup disturbed the surface inch or so of depth and in a strip of 3 inches. Now Farmer A uses Martin row cleaners™ ahead of a single coulter, the seed disc opener, and Case IH gauge wheels on his Kenzie planter. He found that this setup requires less maintenance than the three coulter system in his stony soils. To minimize field passes Farmer A applies all of the starter fertilizer in the seed box and all of the nitrogen as 28% in a strip 6 inches from the seed row. For weed management they spray a burn-down in the spring so that they never plant into a weedy field and have been using Roundup Ready corn and soybean seed on their conventional acres the past few years. Traffic control is another key to Farmer A’s success. He says that you always have to be aware that where you drive this fall will impact yields next year.

Farmer A has continued managing all of his acres with no-till for the expected labor and fuel savings as well as several unanticipated benefits. Some of their fields have considerable quantities of field stones which had to be picked up every year to reduce wear on equipment and maintain a consistent plant stand. After converting to no-till management, the stones were no longer being dragged up to the surface with tillage and thus became less of an issue with time. The soils on the farm have also changed after starting no-till management. Their fields vary in soil texture from sandy to clay loam and they have found that both of the extremes in texture are mellower under no-till management and have started to behave more similar to their loamy soils. One of the most noticeable soil responses to the no-till management is the increased water infiltration rates. Farmer A has noticed dramatically less water ponding under no-till management than with conventional tillage. Related to this increase in water infiltration Farmer A sees less erosion on the steeper slopes.

Farmer B:
Farm B is a partnership between two family members who run a cash crop and livestock business on 1000 acres on Schoolcraft loam soil series. They have been producing corn and soybeans with no-till management since 1976 when they first implemented the practice to deal with a labor shortage on the farm. Livestock has been a major component of the farm with beef cows grazing on pastures and winter gleaning of the row crop fields. In 1998, they began to incorporate liquid manure from two newly constructed swine finishing barns into a quarter of their acres each year. The manure is injected into the soil using a chisel like tool in the spring and then the field is field cultivated to smooth out the surface before planting. All of the planting is done using no-till planters in their corn-soybean production system. Thus the combination of applying manure ahead of corn planting every other corn year results in tillage on each field one out of four years.

These producers (farm B) have witnessed many changes in no-till management in the past three decades and say that getting started in no-till management should be easier than ever. They go on to say that with Roundup Ready corn and soybean varieties and the available selection of post-emergence herbicides that weed control has become much simpler. Keeping a weed free field early in the growing season is one of their keys to success with no-till management. They point out that soil fertility maintenance of no-till and conventional or mulch tillage systems are fundamentally similar, but that the differences are important to pay attention to. For example, with no-till management they have noticed that the soil pH of the surface inch or so of soil tends to be more acidic than lower in the soil. They attribute this stratified pH to the acidifying affect of urea fertilizer being spread on the soil surface. To counteract this stratified pH they apply lime at lower rates but more often then recommended so that the surface maintains a more ideal pH. They feel that planting into dry soil conditions is important for achieving a good plant population, but under no-till the water infiltration rate is so much better than their neighbors who till that they have more days available to plant each spring. They use row cleaners ahead of the planter box to manage the residue, but say that they usually don’t have a lot of residue left in the spring after the cows glean the fields.

Over the years they have acquired new fields that have been managed for every purpose from swine pastures to conventionally tilled row crops. They always begin managing these new fields as no-till. In their experiences, the soil seems to take three or four years to begin behaving like a no-till system, but they have not witnessed any changes in yields compared to their neighbors. They think that they spend less time in the fields because they are not tilling and they have more days in the spring to plant because they do not have to spend time tilling before planting. Even though they have starting field cultivating their fields every fourth year they still never have standing water in the fields like their neighbors who till. The water infiltration rate differences are the most visible impacts of no-till management. They say that for a young farmer getting into the business that no-till is the way to go because they only need to purchase a tractor and a no-till planter to get started. You can hire out most of the spraying and harvesting if necessary but they will not have to purchase the horsepower necessary for tilling and the tillage implements.

Farmer C:
Farmer C manages 1700 acres of irrigated Oshtemo loam soils with the help of two employees. Seed corn and soybean makes up the bulk of his rotation with winter wheat and green beans being double cropped into the mix when the markets are right. Farmer C first tried no-till management in the late 1970’s but was unsatisfied with the plant stand evenness required to be successful at seed corn production, so he went to using a chisel plow ahead of this corn planting. In the 1990’s farmer C was renting some of his acres out for potato production that he would rotate with seed corn. At first this was a good rotation. The potatoes were harvested by early August. This allowed enough time in the fall to establish a rye cover crop to improve soil quality after the destructive potato harvest; however, as the potato market changed the potato harvest was pushed back into September. With this later harvest there were insufficient growing days remaining in the fall to establish a cover crop. Without the fall cover crop the soil quality on farmer C’s fields was deteriorating and so he looked for a new system. In 2005, farmer C purchased a strip-till plow that only disturbs about 4 inches of the soil surface per 30 inch row, thus still qualifying as no-till management.

Two key technological developments have allowed farmer C to continuously no-till his acres since the spring of 2005. First, is the 15 row strip-till unit which he uses to prepare a seed bed after killing his rye cover crop in the spring with herbicide. Second is the GPS guided AutoFarm ® RTK AutoSteer system which allows him to use his three mounted no-till planter to easily plant directly into the center of the 4’ wide strip-till seed bed. As farmer C is going through this transition he is concerned about soil compaction becoming a problem so he is paying close attention to his traffic patterns in the field. If soil compaction does become a problem he will consider using a deep ripper to correct the soil compaction. Weed management without tillage is a new game for farmer C. Learning the best pre-emergent and post-emergent herbicide combination for broadleaf weeds is similar to with tillage, but grass weed management is more of a challenge because of the crop residues influence on moisture to activate the herbicide. Farmer C’s fertility program uses potash banded over the row and a split application of N using 28%. The first N application is made with the planter and the second is determined by a pre-side-dress nitrate soil test. For seed corn an additional N application will occur in the irrigation water at ear silking.

After two years of strip-tilling farmer C says that it is too early to tell if soil quality has been changed, but he likes to see the residue on the soil surface. Likewise, yields appear to be similar under his previous mulch-tillage system. However he feels that the operation is more profitable now because of the labor savings that the strip-till management provides. They have reduced their tillage trips from 3 or 4 down to 1 pass without increasing the passes for herbicide application. Farmer C estimates that he is saving 3 gallons of diesel per acre with the strip-till system. Farmer C is very interested in qualifying for soil carbon sequestration credits and feels that the strip-till system should be a good system to meet any requirements that will come down the line if the USDA’s Conservation Security Program is implemented.

Farmer D:
Farmer D and wife manage 900 acres of corn and soybean on Kalamazoo and Oshtemo soil series. They are primarily swine producers with a farrow to finish operation. Up until 1996 they were in a family partnership in which all of their swine were raised on pasture. In this system they would rotate 3 to 7 years of the swine pastures with one or two years of corn. To rotate out of a pasture they would they moldboard plow, disk, and field cultivate before planting corn. In the second year they would no-till plant corn before rotating back into pasture. So farmer D has been no-till planting a few acres (<100) every year for 20 years, but two key events convinced them to no-till all of their acres. First, one spring after plowing a pasture to prepare a seed bed a large rain storm cut significant gullies into a hill slope. The site of those gullies made farmer D sick with the thought that if he continues to till these highly erodible soils he will undo all of the soil quality benefits of the previous pasture system in no time. Secondly, soon after this event the family partnership was being dissolved. This allowed them to make some changes in their operation. They decided that to save labor they would construct swine confinement buildings, move all of the swine inside, and manage the entire 900 acres as row crops. Given that they were busy converting the swine system over to confinement they wanted to manage the row crops as minimally as possible without eroding the soil. No-till management matched their requirements of minimal labor and equipment, so they have been no-tilling all 900 acres since 1996. The key management adjustment that farmer D had to implement to be successful with no-till management centered around outfitting a corn planter, developing a new weed control program, managing crop residue at harvest, manure management, and time of planting. They use a John Deere no-till drill to plant soybeans and for corn planting they use a John Deere no-till planter. The corn planter is outfitted with Martin free-floating row cleaners ahead of a single narrow fluted coulter and behind the seed tube they use a Keeton seed firmer. They prefer to plant early in the season as soon as the soil is dry. In the last few years they have had all of the acres planted by May 1st. They spray 4 oz. of Roundup per acre in the late fall to burn down any winter annuals. They found that if these winter annuals were allowed to grow all winter that they would form a thick mat of residue in the spring that would slow soil warming. By killing these weeds in the fall they produce less residue and impede soil warming in the spring less. To manage crop residues, farmer D installed a residue chopper and spreader on their combine to evenly distribute the residue and then they chop the corn stalks with a rotary mover. Moving the swine inside drastically changed the manure management on the farm. At first they were injecting the manure into the soil with a V-ripper type tool; however, they found that this applicator actually created a tunnel in the soil for the manure to flow down hill if applied to a slope. They would see pools of manure forming in the swales. This manure application system also made it difficult to determine when the manure spreader tank was empty, thus sometimes they would under apply manure. Now they broadcast apply the manure at a low rate (~1800 gal per acre) and never have a problem with it running off because of the improved infiltration rate as a result of the no-till management. Farmer D says that they are producing better yields of corn with fewer inputs than their previous management system, while soybean yields remain similar to neighbors who till. And the input savings goes beyond labor and fuel. The machinery costs for no-till management he says is significantly less than tilling and the no-till fields are easier on machinery operators. They say that the custom herbicide applicators prefer to drive over their no-till fields than the tilled fields because no-till fields are not as rough. The fields on their farm have many short hills with lots of small swales that have been too wet to farm for as long as farmer D remembers. As kids they would even ice skate on many of the frozen swale ponds, but now they farm those swales with no problem, the swales are dry. They attribute this change to the fact that they no longer have water running off of the slopes into the swales, because the infiltration rate has improved so much with no-till management.

Agricola. 2007. Agricola database. On-line at

Grandy, A. S., T. D. Loecke, S. Parr, and G. P. Robertson. 2006. Long-term trends in nitrous oxide emissions, soil nitrogen, and crop yields of till and no-till cropping systems. J. Environ. Qual. 35:1487-1495.
ISI. 2007. ISI Web of Science. On-line at

Krause, M. A., and J. R. Black. 1995. Optimal adoption strategies for no-till technology in Michigan. Review Ag. Econo. 17:299-310.

MFB, M. F. N. 2007. Michigan Farm News - Carbon credits: A buck's a buck. On-line at
MSUE. 2007. Michigan State University Extension Knowledge Repository. On-line at
US-DOE. 2007. Retail Gasoline Historical Prices. On-line at

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

Loecke, T. D. 2007. Soil resource heterogeneity and ecosystem processes: Effects of litter aggregation on soil microbial processes and plant root foraging. Ph.D. Dissertation. Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Economic Analysis

No economic analysis was conducted for this project.

Farmer Adoption

No formal farmer adoption analysis was conducted for this project.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.