Thank you all for having me here today. Before we begin let me say this has been an honor because so many of my favorite things & all in their own special way key components in my system originated in the United Kingdom; Hereford cattle, Angus cattle, Border Collies, Scotch Whiskey, & The Presbyterian Church for this & many other reasons the UK will always hold a special place in my heart.
My assignment is to address these 3 topics in 10 min…is the most challenging speaking assignment Ive ever had. I will do my best. Fortunately for me I have real talent up here with the others on the panel. And there will be plenty of time for Q & A & discussion The most important thing I can do today is listen to you. So I want you to feel comfortable in asking me anything about my farming practices.
Lets start with a little background. Pinhook Farm is diversified crop & livestock farm located in SW Iowa in the geographic region known as The Southern Iowa Drift Plain. Our Revenue comes from….. Elaborae on USDA You cant figure true cost without transparency. Im a farmer & I get money from the government. Your tax dollars are part of my revenue. There are reasons for this going back to the dust bowl. However, The point I want to make is it is very important that if you give me money I should give you clean water & healthy soil in return.
Prior to March of 1998 I ran Pinhook Farm with a total focus on production. I listened to Industry experts and farmed with the attitude that science, technolaghy, & determination could conquer any challenge mother nature threw at me. All the solutions made sense, except seeing a shivering baby calf trying to nurse a muddy udder on a cold March day. This never made sense to me, then I would attend a farmer meeting sponsored by a feed company, agronomy company, or the Farm Bureau & I would be reminded of how important it was for me to produce & feed the world. These people had just given me a free meal & most likely a free hat (It’s almost shameful what a farmer will do for a free hat)….So I’d let the left side of my brain take over and continue my focus on production. Then on March 11, 1998 a severe blizzard hit. I made it through, but it was something I never wanted the cows, calves, or myself to experience again. Instead of asking the experts how to deal with the problems caused by the blizzard, I asked the question that started my jouney into sustainability. I asked…
As I contemplated this question I decided to trust my gut.. Baby calves aren’t supposed to be born in cold rotten weather, they’re supposed to be born on warm spring days with lush green pastures. From that point on my primary focus would no longer be on production. My focus would be on having clean water, healthy soil, & happy cows. If I went broke so be it, but Id be able to sleep at night knowing Id done right by the cows and the land. That summer I waited to turn bulls out till the first of July meaning my calves would arrive in early April. With this simple change in management something pleasantly unexpected happened: When I stopped focusing on production my production increased & my profits went up. Basically The Demming Theory in action. Focus on Quality & Quality goes up & costs go down. When orginazations focus on cost, costs rise & quality goes down. I feel this is the foundation of a good system. Making a happy cow is a wonderful system and I have added several practices over the last 18 years to enhance my system. We have stopped using chemicals for weed control & interseeded clover in the pastures to reduce our need for commercial N, we continue to improve our grazing system and water quality. Ultimately all these practices contribute to greater herd health & production
Building a good system is a lifelong journey of continuous improvement. But as you start to see the results and understand how the parts compliment one another it becomes infectious. It wasn’t long before I applied the same principles I was using with the cows to the hay & row crop part of the operation
This series might help explain why Im still a “Conventional Farmer” This means I still currently use GMO’s, chemicals, & from time to time antibiotics. I don’t use them in a prophalactic manner. Rather I use them as tools to help build a sustainable farm. Here’s my best explanation. We’ve dealt with unintended consequences in agriculture since Mr. Deere invented the steel plow… Tillage, farming HEL, lack of proper crop rotation have taken a drastic toll on our soil. The degredation was increased after WWII with even greater use of Nitrogen & farm chemicals & pesticides that were just plain nasty. So for all the negatives we have with GMOs they were the tool that allowed me to move to a no-till system & move away from the post WWII pesticides. This dosent mean this is a “best practice” Sustainability is continous improvement & best practice insinuates your already there which we are not. For no till to really work it has to be part of a system of conservation & farming practices. The proper name is conservation agriculture ; This means Minimum tillage, using cover crops, crop rotation with 3 or more species, farming in a wildlife friendly manner, on PHF incorperating grazing systems, & as this picture shows identifying non productive land & not farming it. The results of putting these practices together are encouraging…
There are benefits to my system that are hard to measure. An example would be this year we had 108” of rainfall in a region that averages 36” Because of using cover crops in my system my soil has great structure & porosity which allows for better infiltration. Because of this I was able to plant my crop in a timely manner when many of my neighbors could not. On the flip side during times of drought my soils are able to hold moisture for longer periods of time. The greatest lesson to me has been yield and profit very seldom corralate. Tell the Childers COOP story
When we reduced our use of chemicals all sorts of wonderful things started to happen, first the forbs, flowers, & clover started to reappear
Then the birds followed. I feel that birds are an indicator that I’m moving in the right direction. I’ve walked through fields without birds & the silence is erie…
With the birds came a wonderful variety of other wildlife as well. And I realized something….
The laws off supply and demand still work… Heres the Indiana Bat: When he was named to the endangered species list many of my neighbors were annoyed that there were some restrictions to when they could cut down a hickory tree (The bats key habitat) I took a different approach and surveyed and established a grazing mgmt. plan to work around the bats lifestyle. Was the beginning of my relationship with GFEX and the land mitigation business. The demand for protecting natural resources is real. About 25% of my net income now comes from outfitting and land mitigation. This money has allowed me to accomplish many projects that I could not justify from cattle revenue alone. At the end of the day my job & my passion is careing for the land. To assume I can do this by simply raising corn & cows is rather selfish. All business have to continue to evolve.
Healthy farms need healthy communities & vise versa. We can’t have communities without people. Fed crop, the RFS, & 1031 tax free exchange are all well intended programs with significant unintended consequenses. As my mother always said the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The consequences have been innapropriate land use & the destruction of grazing infrastructure (ponds, fences, even corals, & buildings) And we pay for this with our tax dollars. Cheap oil is another sad one. At the end of the day because of subsidies and artificial markets a farmer my show a cash profit on some very marginal land. The reality is all that happened was he converted fossil fuel energy into grain energy & more often than not converted the grain back into fuel. We would be far better off if we made our decisions based on net calories per acre instead of just dollars. Desire is a big one, you have to really want to care for livestock. For me its very rewarding, however, it is a 24/7 commitment that many people don’t understand. Even this event was held in the middle of calving season. A more understanding approach to immigration policy would help Iowa and the US solve many of our problems in Agriculture & rural communities. Every time we add 4 rows to a corn planter farmers become more efficeint, with this efficiency comes consequences & poverty is one of them. Linear thinking As long as we keep asking our Industry how to solve problems we are going to coninue to get direct & obvious short term solutions. How do I increase yield? More N, How do I treat sick calves? Tetracycline, penicillin, and banamine. The real long term solutions are seldom direct and obvious. These solutions require us to really think about what were doing (which is isnt always pleasant) Then ask why: Why is my soil not more productive? Why are my calves getting sick? Why don’t I move my company to Iowa? ;) & most important of all Why work against Mother Nature?
Sustainability is a lifelong commitment to continuous improvement, on Pinhook Farm we will continue to improve our grazing system, specifically focusing on letting our calves spend more time in the pasture & less time in the feedlot, we will continue to look at ways to reduce our need for fossil fuel. I already have an electric UTV. The next step would be to install a solar panel or wind generator to charge it. But here’s the challenge: without significant changes in farming practices the efforts of Pinhook Farm and other conservation minded farmers wont be enough. So I am going to close with my wish list of ideas to help address the true cost of food for the US
First lets change the way we farm so we don’t just sustain, but actually regenerate our soil, protect our water, and enhance the habitat for all wild things. I believe if we do this people will move back to our rural areas & if people move back we can give small farmers the market they need to be successful. I believe is we focus on creating responsible land owners many things will fall into place. Owning & caring for land is a privlidge. But with privlige comes responsibility. Federal Crop has created an incentive to farm wetlands & highly erodible land. While I believe the compliance requirements are to weak, they first need to be enforced. Then ideally rewritten. We need both Science & technology are very important to my operation but sometimes we take it to far. For Science to really work it needs art and understanding. Our food system is complicted solving its problems will require us to use both sides of our brain.
That’s the story of Pinhook Farm “A happy place to be a cow”.
Seth Watkins - Integrated farming systems
1.) Experiences & financial consequences of diversifying a farm.
2.) Key economic & social barriers facing farmers in moving from
specialization to integrated crop & livestock systems.
3.) Farm as a holistic system & long term approach. What are the
benefits of investing in the future?
Land mitigation for LEED
SSc 5 credits
USDA subsidy payments
My wife’s great job as a special
Why am I working against Mother Nature
instead of with her?
“Good things as well as bad, you know are
caught by a kind of infection”.
Cost Pinhook Farm Traditional
Chemicals & Fertilizer 1 Acres @ $59.39 $0 $59.50
Nitrogen 2 acres @ $42.20 $0 $84.40
Winter feed @ $1.50 per cow per day $67.50 (45 days) $180.00 (120 days)
Cover crop grazing (grazing pays for cc) $37.50 (45 days) $0
Sub total: $105.00 $323.90
Pinhook Farm net savings per cow: $218.90
Steer weight @ 205 days 560# 560#
% calves weaned per cow exposed 93% 85%
Pounds weaned per cow exposed 539.4# @ $1.90 476# @ $1.90
Revenue per calf @ $1.90 $1,024.86 $904.40
Cost minus production ($105.00) ($323.90)
Pinhook Farm Production advantage: $957.36 $580.50
Difference of $376.86 per calf
(These reflect costs & production for comparable land in my region.)
Cost Pinhook Farm Traditional
Tillage @ $40 per acre $0 $40.00
Nitrogen $49.60 (80# @ .62) $93.00 (150# @ .62)
Sub total: $49.60 $133.00
Pinhook Farm net savings per acre: $83.40
Ag Solver data has documented revenue gains of up to $800 per acre by
identifying land not suitable for crop production & enrolling it in CRP.
Current data shows production as neutral, with the exception of drought
years. During drought years there is a documented yield increase from using
We don’t have a shortage of corn & soy.
We do have a shortage of clean water, healthy soil
and wild things.
• Population distribution
• Federal Crop Insurance
• 1031Tax Free Exchange
• Cheap Oil
• Desire / Apathy
50% of the US population is concentrated in
Change the way we farm to follow the principles of Conservation
Focus on creating responsible land owners
Enforce compliance on Federal Crop Insurance
Make decisions based on calories & dollars
Return to teaching Agriculture as an Art & a Science