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It has been said that farmers are the original environmentalists. Today, new agricultural tools, such as biotechnology, are allowing farmers to continue their legacy of preserving and protecting the environment. In the last five years, thanks primarily to improved weed control through herbicide-tolerant soybeans, we have more than doubled the amount of soybean acres in conservation tillage.

Instead of plowing and disking our fields, we are leaving a blanket of leaves, stems and stalks from the previous crop on the surface of our fields. This protective layer of crop mulch minimizes chemical runoff and soil erosion, conserves fuel and benefits wildlife.

As a farmer who grows 750 acres of reduced-tillage soybeans, I've observed firsthand a reduction in fuel consumption and a return of birds and other wildlife to my fields. Studies also show that conservation tillage results in improved water quality in lakes, streams and rivers and reduced emissions of greenhouse gases.

A new survey by the American Soybean Association proves what many farmers already know - biotech soybeans are driving reduced tillage practices. According to the survey results, 63 percent of growers say the advent of herbicide-tolerant soybeans was the one development that enabled them to reduce or eliminate tillage on their fields.

The main reason farmers would till their soil was to plow under weeds and weed seeds. We applied herbicides to the soil to prevent weeds from coming back. With the new Roundup Ready soybeans, we can apply herbicide over the top of our soybeans and get rid of weeds without harming the plants. Instead of applying multiple herbicides in multiple passes across the field, we are usually able to make a single application that contains Roundup herbicide.

A study by the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy has shown that soybean growers are making 19 million fewer herbicide applications per year than in 1995, before herbicide-tolerant soybeans were available.

Reduced-tillage practices also eliminate the need for half-dozen or more trips over the field with farm equipment. According to the ASA survey, 45 percent of soybean growers are making zero tillage passes over their field. It is estimated by the Conservation Technology Information Center that these reduced passes conserve nearly 3.5 gallons of fuel per acre or 1,750 gallons on a 500-acre farm.

Reduced-tillage practices also benefit wildlife. Leaving organic matter on fields provides nourishment and cover for pheasants, quail and other animals. And when soil is undisturbed, the number of earthworms increases dramatically, creating healthier roots and plants. Most important, precious topsoil remains in the field instead of washing off into streams, forming sediment that could harm fish and aquatic plants and create additional work for water treatment facilities.

These benefits explain why farmers who were surveyed told the ASA that 49 percent of their soybean acres are no longer tilled at all. An additional 34 percent of soybean acres are managed with a reduced-tillage system. Only 17 percent of soybean acres are still managed the old-fashioned way, with farmers plowing and disking multiple times.

Since the introduction of Roundup Ready soybeans five years ago, growers have moved to these crops in a major way. Biotech soybeans currently make up 68 percent of total soybean acres, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or about 74 percent according to the ASA survey. Nebraska is among the leading states, with 76 percent of acres planted in herbicide-tolerant varieties, according to the USDA.

We can only expect more growers to adopt the technology and improved tillage practices, as they realize they can do better for the environment while improving their bottom line. AM

Bart Ruth farms near Rising City, Neb., and is president of the American Soybean Association.

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