Randy Caviness, a leader in conservation practice and advocacy, has a message for people about the importance of soil conservation. “The first thing we have to do is stop calling it dirt. It’s soil,” he said recently. “It’s a priceless resource and we have to preserve and protect it.”

Caviness, who heads the family farming operation southeast of Greenfield in Adair County first embraced no-till in the 1980s, and has never looked back.

“It started with the mandate for highly-erodible land in the 1985 farm bill,” explains Caviness. He somewhat reluctantly complied. “They gave us five years to comply, but I hadn’t been impressed by previous no-till efforts we’d seen.” Much of the weed control relied on heavy cultivation that “moved more soil after planting than we did pre-plant,” and chemical use “pretty much came down to ‘the six reasons why chemical failure is the applicator’s fault’.”

By the early 1990s, about the time Caviness converted all of his ground to no-till, the picture was looking brighter. New planters had the capability to place seed into the untilled ground and new herbicides offered effective weed control. “It was tolerable,” said Caviness. “We began to see some savings – in time and equipment – with little yield loss.”

Gaining organic matter
And then something interesting happened. “We were doing our routine soil sampling, what we do every four or five years,” Caviness explains. “The testing showed the organic matter in the soil had increased.” He showed the results to the Natural Resources Conservation Service agent, who said he was beginning to see that from other no-till producers as well.

“A light bulb went on,” said Caviness, “and I realized we were really on to something. We wanted to improve soil quality and, guess what, we were.” Organic matter levels increased from 2 to 5 percent, with current levels running 6 to 7 percent.

About that time, he also began to notice a contrast to other fields. Where the some had ponding after a heavy rain, Caviness had adequate infiltration. Run-off was minimal. Caviness participated in an Iowa Learning Farm demonstration; comparing yield results in side-by-side plots for six years. The results were comparable without the costs of soil loss or tillage.

Within a few years, Caviness doubled his acres, and eliminated unnecessary equipment and labor. “We had to buy a bigger sprayer and harvest equipment, but it was a good trade off.” He spent the savings on terracing and tiling. 

“Farmers want to do the best thing economically,” Caviness said, “and this is it.”

Long-term commitment
But, he cautions, embracing no-till is a long-term commitment. “I see guys start to no-till, then every four or five years they think they need to tear up the ground. No. That doesn’t work. As soon as you disturb and expose the soil, you start to lose carbon. If you’re going to get all the benefits of no-till, you have to do it consistently.”

Beyond no-till
There are plenty of other conservation measure practiced on the Caviness farm.

There are filter and contour buffer strips, and plenty of terracing. Caviness’ home farm was the first farm in Adair County to sport terraces, and Caviness says keeping up with changes can be a challenge. “Those original terraces were built for farming with horses. Getting a four- or six-row planter between them would have been a challenge, let alone today’s machinery.”

Caviness utilizes cover crops in a few sensitive areas. “That’s more crucial for producers who chop corn for silage,” he said. For those who harvest the grain, Caviness says the approach is simple. “The less you do the better. Leave as much attached to the ground as possible.”

He also focuses on precision fertilizer and chemical application, soil testing to ensure the right products are being used in the right amounts. “Putting on the right amount is the ecologically proper way to do it,” said Caviness.

Education is key, and works from within the system to promote sound, and practical, land and water conservation practices, Caviness said. He sits on the Adair County Farm Bureau board, the Adair County Extension Council, the Conservation Districts of Iowa, and is chairman of the Adair County Soil and Water Conservation board.

“I try to be a moderating voice, to present the farmers’ perspective,” Caviness said. As government regulations tighten, he wants regulators to know the other side. “Compliance should be about what the farmer does, not a four-inch rain event.”

Everybody’s concern
And Caviness wants farmers to understand how their actions affect others. “We all want clean water and air. Keeping their soil in place on the farm is their responsibility. We all have to be realistic about the cause and effect.

Conservation is everybody’s concern, Caviness added. “And we, as producers, have to move faster than we have ever moved before. We have to get more farmers on board if we want to maintain local control without government mandates.”

He also cites public perception. “The public won’t tolerate us not being conservation-minded, so we have to do it.

Add the economic challenges of international competition and ag’s dwindling political power due to declining population, and for Caviness the path into the future is clear: “Farmers have to try harder – to realize savings now, and to preserve what we have for the future.”