Technology Helps My Farm… and the Planet

By Jon Greenwood

Editor’s note:  A dairyman at Canton, N.Y., the author is board chair of the Northeast Dairy Producers Association.  He presented this message at the 2017 Northeast Agribusiness and Feed Alliance (NEAFA) Annual Meeting, where he was asked to address GMO crops from a dairy farmer’s perspective. This piece is reprinted with permission from the NEDPA member newsletter and offers talking points for farmers to consider when explaining the benefits of GMO crops to other farmers and consumers… their neighbors

For me to explain how my farm uses technology, I want to talk a little bit about how I got started in farming because I think it helps explain why I think the way I do. I did not grow up on a dairy farm. After high school, I worked on my grandparents’ farm in Wisconsin for a year milking 12 Guernseys. I then attended college, graduating from what was Canton Ag and Tech. While there, I was working on the farm I currently own to put myself though college.

In 1978, the owner turned the business over to me. He financed me and I started with 70 cows, no young stock and 120 acres of tillable land. Today, we milk 1,400 cows and crop 3,500 acres. As a young farmer with limited experience, I turned to anyone who could give me advice. An older salesman, who I relied on for advice, stopped by one day and said, “I was told I should not stop here anymore since you are not buying from us. But I just want to let you know you are going to make it.” I replied, “What do you mean?” He said, “I have seen a lot of young farmers start out – and they want to farm the way dad did. You do not know how you are supposed to do things, so you are not afraid to try new things.”

Taking Care of the Cows and the Land

His remark has always stuck with me and maybe explains why I’ve made the decisions I’ve made on my farm. So, my motto on the farm was to take care of my animals and they would take care of me; and the same goes with our land. On our farm, we always want to do better; average has never been our goal. Our goal was always to be more efficient, take better care of our cows and constantly improve the land we use. So, I read a lot, attended meetings, turned to people for advice, and learned all I could. I have never been afraid to try new things. Some things worked, some did not.

In doing so, we adopted or tried new ways of doing things. We used rBST on our cows, GPS in our tractors, planted BT corn and reduced lignin alfalfa, as well as Roundup ready corn. We did no till and reduced tillage crops, installed tile drainage and land shaping. We added yield monitors on the chopper, cooling systems in our barns, activity and rumination monitors on our cows. We built a methane digester, and more.

My point is, I am not afraid of technology or change. It has made us better farmers, better care takers of the animals, and better stewards of the land in our care. It has allowed our cows to produce more milk per cow, more milk from the feed they consume, and allowed us to receive more tons of usable forage from an acre of land. Technology has allowed our cows and land to produce more, using fewer resources to produce a better, safer product then we did when I started farming.

Jon Greenwood’s dairy near Canton, N.Y.

The Many Advantages of GMOs

Let’s get to the real topic – the technology of today: GMO crops. I started using GMOs when I decided to try no till planting. I wanted to take a first cut of hay in the spring and then plant corn directly into the sod. GMO corn made this possible because I could spray Roundup to kill the sod, not the corn. I then started using GMO corn with the BT gene so I would not have to use soil insecticides, which can be dangerous chemicals to the user and me. Also, since our kids were around on the farm, we were always looking for ways to reduce risk.

If we turn our back on technology,
we are
taking a giant step back
and doing a
disservice to all mankind.

Beyond my personal preferences and concern for my family, GMOs also offer a host of benefits. It is estimated that GMOs reduce CO2 emissions by 62 million pounds a year, the equivalent of removing 12.4 million cars from the road. How is that possible? It is because using reduced tillage (or no-till) methods, which GMO seeds allow farmers to do, lowers the number of trips made over a field, which can help reduce soil erosion, leading to a decrease in sedimentation and the loss of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous – all of which are growing environmental concerns. They also reduce farm fuel use from five gallons per acre to one. That’s just the fuel savings. The estimated financial savings for an acre of herbicide-tolerant soybeans is $24.21.

GM crops also allow farmers to have higher yields. In 2012, it was estimated that to maintain production levels globally we would need 37 million more acres devoted to crops. Roughly 90% of the corn, soybeans and cotton acres in the U.S. are using GMO seed. GMO crops can require less water and chemicals, making them better able to survive drought, weeds, and insect pressure. So, if I stop using GMO crops I will have to buy corn seed that does not give me protection from corn borer, rootworm and other pests, forcing me to buy and apply pesticides, causing greater risk to the environment and my employees. I will lose the option of using Roundup, one of the safest herbicides for the environment, my employees and my animals. It will require me to increase the use of tillage tools, which also brings on the risk of erosion, soil compaction and burning of fossil fuel. The use of cover crops will be more difficult, resulting in the potential for greater soil, nutrient and herbicide loss. My crop yields, digestibility, and drought tolerance will all go down. My cows will not have as nutritious of a meal, nor will they produce as much milk, and the risk for micro toxins would go up. Overall, my farm’s productivity will decrease without GMOs and my farm will also have a greater negative impact on the environment.

In addition to all of that, my costs will go up without GMOs. While I could save on seed, less choice would mean more chemicals, more tillage, more fuel, more acres for the same amount of less digestible forage, which means less milk per cow. This increase in the cost of production will mean our products will not be as competitive on the world market. Because of the high cost of doing business, especially in states like New York, our advantage is the early adoption and use of new technology. Without GMOs, consumers who are the most in need of a safe, affordable food supply will see an even greater share of their limited resources going towards the purchase of that same food.

So why are we talking about GMOs? Because a company is looking for a market advantage and is playing on misinformation and the unfounded fears of the consumer. Maybe we should start marketing our products sourced from farms who have pledged to provide the best care of both the animals and land in their care by using the latest technologies to reduce land use, fossil fuel use and chemical use to provide cows and customers the most nutritious and safest products on the market. In my opinion, and science has proven it, GMOs allow farmers to grow more crops in more places using less land and fewer chemicals with less tillage, thereby decreasing soil erosion, reducing herbicide runoff, and reducing greenhouse gases and costs. Sounds like sustainability to me. If we turn our back on technology, we are taking a giant step back and doing a disservice to all mankind.