SMART-Sustaining and Managing Agricultural Resources for Tomorrow: Training for the Southern Region
US farmers are faced with growing environmental concerns and rising costs associated with highly specialized farming operations. They are searching for farming systems that are ecologically and economically sustainable. Such farmers are searching for ways to reduce their dependence on external purchased inputs while maintaining their productivity and profits through more intensive management of their internal resources.
A lower-input sustainable agriculture, microcomputer-based, farm decision support system (SMART-FRMS) has been developed through a nationally funded project to address the farm planning and decision making objectives listed below. The project proposed here will regionalize training and follow-up implementation of SMART-FRMS at the farm level.
(1) Assist farmers to develop sustainable farming systems by considering water quality, soil loss and financial impacts and risks as multiple objectives in a whole-farm, multi-year approach to farm planning.
(2) Provide regionalized, site specific, individualized decision support to farmers in developing plans for transitions from conventional to lower-input farming systems.
(3) Make the full range of existing LISA data available to farmers in a readily usable form by disseminating information about technologies, methods and practices which support sustainable farming systems.
Farm planning and decision making oriented toward the goal of sustainability requires that farmers deal with cropping rotations rather than individual enterprises and with whole-farm systems rather than individual farming practices or methods. The objective of such planning is to optimize management of the farm’s physical, biological and economic resources over time rather than maximize or minimize any single farm objective at any given point in time.
A resource management strategy (RMS) for a cropping system consists of a crop sequence or rotation, an irrigation system (if any), a tillage system, a fertility system and a pest management system. An RMS planning budget reflects the resource and input requirements, input costs, expected production, expected returns, potential conservation impacts and potential environmental impacts of individual crops as components of a cropping system. An RMS budget contains all non-site specific information needed to calculate expected soil loss, water quality risks, resource use, gross revenue margin and revenue risks.
The RMS budget data bases used in SMART-FRMS (Sustaining and Managing Agricultural Resources for Tomorrow — Farm Decision Support System) will contain budgets for cropping and livestock systems deemed appropriate for the geographic region of application. These data bases will be constructed by extension specialists familiar with local farming systems. Development of resource and environmental (R & E) budget components will be facilitated by a budgeting program, BUDGETOR, developed as a part of the SMART-FRMS project.
Each cropping system will be budgeted for up to four alternative input systems. An input system will reflect a specific fertility and pest management system. Most systems would be budgeted with unrestricted input, reduced input, and low input RMS alternatives.
Unrestricted RMS budgets will reflect use of typical fertilizer and pesticide inputs for a particular cropping system for use on fields with no significant fertilizer or pesticide leaching or runoff risk potential. Reduced input RMS budgets will reflect some lower level of inputs suggested for fields with significant nutrient or pesticide risk potential. Split applications and banding of fertilizers and pesticides might be a logical reduced input system, for example. Low input systems should reflect minimum levels of external inputs that specialists deem feasible for commercial production on fields with high nutrient loading or pesticide risks.
Each cropping system will also be budgeted for alternative tillage levels. Tillage options will range from unrestricted tillage to minimum tillage. Unrestricted tillage would be the suggested system for fields without erosion problems with minimum tillage suggested for highly erodible fields. Each tillage system should be matched with an appropriate complement of inputs. Consequently, some systems may have no low input, minimum tillage RMS, if such a combination of tillage and inputs is not considered feasible for a given cropping system.
The whole-farm planning program, PLANETOR, is a microcomputer-based decision support program which allows farmers to evaluate the potential impact of using various cropping systems or RMSs on their specific farms. PLANETOR is a field- based system. It allows the farmer to plan his or her farm field-by-field, year-by-year and to assess the RMS implications for each field, each year for the whole farming system, including livestock as well as crops.
All site-specific information and associated yield and environmental impact estimates are calculated within the whole-farm planning program. Thus, the whole-farm planning process begins with a field-by-field inventory of the land or soil resources of the farm. Much of the information related to soil erosion and environmental vulnerability can be derived from the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) data base of soil types. Soil texture, pesticide leachability, pesticide surface loss potential, average slope and slope length and yield capability classes are identified in the SCS data base of US soils; however, the farmer will be asked to verify yield potentials, soil characteristics and environmental impact estimates in the planning process. Estimates of soil loss, water quality risks from pesticides and fertilizers, and input toxicity will be evaluated for cropping systems rather than for individual crops.
Financial and resource implications of alternative systems will be evaluated for the whole-farm system for each year in the planning period. Acreage of each crop, pastures, set-aside or conservation reserve, expected revenues, input costs, gross margins, revenue risks, corn equivalents produced and needed, hay equivalents produced and needed, and non-renewable energy use will be summarized for each year.
The ecological vulnerability of each field will be identified by color-highlighted codes for high, medium and low levels of vulnerability to soil loss, pesticide leaching and runoff. Each cropping system and RMS likewise will be color-coded with respect to its potential for soil loss, water quality and pesticide toxicity risks. These two sets of codes, one for the field and the other for the RMS, will be combined to yield a similar color-coded set of implications for using a given RMS on a given field.
Each combination of field and RMS will have a color-coded indicator of soil loss, pesticide and nitrogen water quality risk, and input toxicity. A set of “red R”s for a given RMS on a given field, for example, would indicate severe ecological problems. Such problems would be associated with using a particular RMS on a particular field. The same RMS might be okay on another field but a different RMS might be indicated for this particular field.
A similar approach will be used in the financial risk and resource sections of the program. An unacceptable income level for a given year would be color-coded with a red “R” or some similar sign. The farmer might first consider shifting rotations to get more high income crops in a given year, if the problem occurred only for one or two years; however, if the problem occurs for several years, he or she may consider some more intensive RMSs that will generate more income in more years.
Inconsistencies between labor needed and labor availability would be flagged, indicating a need for better mixing of high and low labor crops or spring-fall and winter-summer labor crops by shifting rotations. If shifting rotations won’t work, the farmer may be advised to change to lower labor RMSs or to hire labor during peak need periods if feasible. Feed needs and production would be handled in a similar manner. A red light on risk might suggest adding diversity through selection of alternative cropping systems, adding livestock to the system or possibly considering off-farm employment for income stability.
The Center for Farm Financial Management (CFFM) in Minnesota became involved with the project in a programming capacity but became full partners with the task force in final stages of overall program development. The CFFM has accepted responsibility for future program development, software maintenance and training. The national task force will work under the leadership of the CFFM over the next year to carry out and assist with orientation and fieldtesting.
The SMART-FRMS system was introduced at a national Sustainable Agriculture workshop for ES, SCS and other public and private farm-level advisors in the summer of 1990. The regional orientation sessions will be much more intensive and are expected to leave farm advisors prepared to begin direct work with farmers in planning for 1991 crops and developing tentative plans for the following six years.
Specific proposed activities include:
(1) Fieldtesting of SMART-FRMS with farmers in specific regions — completed by March 1991.
(2) Regional training of farm advisors, up to 45 participants per region — completed by March 1991.
(3) Follow-up consultation with farm advisors during 1991.
(4) Further fieldtesting, to be conducted in 1991 with follow-up in 1991-92.
Eighteen states have agreed to develop prototype Resource Management Strategy (RMS) Budgets to support the SMART-FRMS program; one region has funded a comprehensive RMS budget project and another has set aside a portion of LISA funds for budget development in 1991. Continuing support and development of the project has been funded through USDA/ES for cooperation of the national task force with the Center for Financial Management during the fieldtesting phase.
This program addresses the legislative mandate to make LISA-related research results readily available to farmers in easily usable form. The full range of existing and future research results and information can be reflected in resource management strategy budgets made readily usable by farmers through the PLANETOR program. For example, ecologic and economic impacts of cover crops, intercropping, relay cropping, etc., in various rotations can be reflected in alternative RMS budgets. Uses of legumes and livestock manure for fertilizers as well as alternative systems of fertilizer application can be included among the RMS alternatives to be considered.
Impacts of alternative tillage systems and residue management programs on potential soil loss will be an integral part of the budgeting process. Alternative weed, insect and other pest control systems, including specific pesticide uses and their potential human and water quality risks, will be reflected directly in the environmental components of each RMS budget.
The whole-farm planning process allows farmers to synthesize profitable and sustainable farming systems by integrating relevant RMSs with their particular set of land, labor, machinery and management resources. They can select RMSs that are well-suited for their soils, climate and location-specific pest problems. They can integrate systems of livestock and crop RMSs that tighten or complete nutrient cycles, facilitate energy flows and enhance the ecologic and economic viability of their farming systems.
Farmers using the whole-farm planner can evaluate potential impacts of using various levels and types of nitrogen fertilizer on specific fields. They can match tillage systems and soil conserving practices with specific slope and soil characteristics of fields to reduce erosion. They can assess risks through evaluation of diversification effects of alternative farming systems and develop systems that are resistant, resilient and regenerative.
SMART-FRMS will not result in a recipe for success. It is just a tool to facilitate farm planning and management. A farmer who chooses an alternative to his or her current system will be advised to gather as much additional information as is available before adopting a new farming enterprise or practice. He or she will be strongly encouraged to talk with other farmers who have experience with the practice under consideration. Farmers will be encouraged to visit other farms where the practice is used before they change their own operation. They will be advised to work into any new system slowly so they can learn as they go.
SMART-FRMS will not ensure a more profitable or sustainable farming system. However, it will allow farmers to evaluate the potential impact of alternative LISA technologies and strategies within the context of their particular farming situation without doing the necessary research and testing on their own.