Monticello farmer Dave Lubben had some guests coming over for a pasture walk, so he decided to head out for a hike on his Jones County farm and brainstorm ideas for discussion.

It was 1994, a year after historic Iowa flooding had caused damage statewide to both urban and rural settings. Maybe he should touch on flooding issues?

Coming upon an area near a stream where his beef herd had been located, he glanced to his left and saw an area that had been continually grazed.

“It looked just like a golf course,” he recalled. “They ate it down to nothing. The creek beds were all buffed out.”

Then he looked downstream where he had recently implemented management intensive grazing, a practice that rotates the cattle through paddocks daily to keep the grass fresh and limit access to the stream for only watering purposes. He was amazed at what he saw.

The grass was tall, and the streambanks were thriving and holding tight with massive amounts of vegetation.

“I just stumbled upon it,” he said. “By limiting that access, all that grass can really flourish along the creek banks. It looked completely different.”

So there was his pasture walk talking point — stream stabilization and management applications.

Lubben took some photos and sent them to experts, and soon he found himself on the speaker circuit discussing the benefits of management intensive grazing.  It’s a conservation practice he’s been sold on since he first read about it in a magazine nearly 30 years ago and implemented back in 1989.

Conservation award
It's just one of the many conservation practices employed by Lubben, who is being honored as the 2022 Iowa Conservation Farmer of the Year for his ongoing efforts to protect water quality and soil.

The conservation award is sponsored by the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation and Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. As this year's statewide winner, Lubben will receive free use of a John Deere 6E Series utility tractor for up to 12 months or 200 hours of use. The prize, valued at more than $12,000, is donated by Farm Bureau partner Van Wall Equipment of Perry and John Deere.

“When you combine Dave Lubben’s inspiring passion for conservation with the great pride he takes in being a teacher and mentor to others, it is quite evident that he is worthy of being honored as Conservation Farmer of the Year,” said Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig.

Cover crops, trees
Management intensive grazing allows for the natural propagation of grasses and legumes, gives each area a rest period, and provides cattle with fresh pasture every day.

The cattle are rotated through paddocks portioned off by electric fence, so they don’t get back to the initial grazing area until 30 days later. “They just come running when you start rolling up the poly wire,” Lubben said. “It’s a stampede.”

Lubben implements other conservation efforts on the farm he operates with his wife, Lisa; son, Clayton; and daughter and son-in-law, Neal and Lydia Grant. They have 770 acres of conservation tillage; 307 acres of no-till soybeans; 160 acres of dry hay, haylage and baleage; and 450 acres of pasture for 220 head of commercial beef cattle with a 500-head feedlot.

Strip till, vertical till and no-till beans were among the first practices enacted on the farm along with the management intensive grazing, and they have since been complemented with waterways when needed, a prairie strip and a pond.

Cover crops and trees are additional practices employed during the past five to 10 years.

“Cover crops are pretty neat,” Lubben said. “We seed some winter rye and are seeing the benefits,” which include limiting soil erosion, helping water quality and improving organic matter.

“The things we’re probably noticing the most are weed control and less soil erosion,” Lubben explained. “Once in a while in the spring you get that 2-inch rain and you think, boy, I’m glad I have that winter rye down.”

Having the rye grow green into the beans and terminating it weeks following planting helps with weed control, he’s found.

Five years ago, Lubben planted 8,000 hardwood trees, creating a timber stand on the farm. “I had an area that didn’t grow much, so I thought, how about growing some trees?” he said. “I look at those as my legacy to the grandkids. We’ll do more next year.

“My grandfather planted some walnut trees probably 100 years ago, and so I thought, well, I’m going to do my part, too.”

With the trees, Lubben said he’s proud to say Lubben White Oak Farms is diversified with five different environments that include a pond, slough, pasture, corn/beans and timber. “It’s a lot of maintenance, but also a lot of things to enjoy all on one farm,” he said.

Conservation importance
Lubben said he’s humbled to receive the conservation award, as he sees many of his colleagues doing many of the same practices. As a general rule of thumb, most farmers want to improve the land and leave it better than when they started farming the ground, he said.

“That’s our underlying goal,” he said. “Most farmers, if you ask them, that’s what they’d tell you. All of these conservation efforts like cover crops or management intensive grazing just enhance your underlying belief.”

Most conservation practices are being done simply because they’re the right thing to do, he added.

“The environment’s telling us, hey, there’s a problem here, and we should fix it before it becomes a bigger problem," he said.
“I guess that’s how I look at it.”

Regional winners
In addition to the statewide award, regional winners in the 2022 Iowa Conservation Farmer of the Year program are Ron and Nancy Vos of Sioux County, Jason and Kelli Fineran of Sac County, Jerry Ouverson of Cerro Gordo County, Kelby Vorthmann of Pottawattamie County, James and Julie Petersen of Marion County, John Fitzsimmons of Poweshiek County and Robert Fox of Lee County.