Conservation counts in every corner of Iowa
While basketball fans across the country cheer for their favorite teams during March Madness, Iowa farmers are already standing firm in their number one placings.
Sure, we know Iowa produces the most corn, eggs, pigs and renewable fuels in the nation.
But what’s more impressive is how they’re leading the way in conservation.
Iowa is number one in buffer strips, filter strips, grassed waterways, water quality wetlands, conservation tillage, bioreactors and pollinator habitat.
Through these efforts, there has been a 27% reduction in phosphorus loads in Iowa’s waterways since the baseline period of 1980-1996. Other data shows progress as well.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture shows Iowa cropland erosion decreased by 47% from 1982 to 2017, and U.S. Geological Survey monitoring data shows nitrate concentrations have trended downward in the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers by 83% and 77%, respectively, from 2014 through 2021.
And the farmers contributing to this success can be found in every corner of the state.
Eric Elsbernd’s family farm falls in both Winneshiek and Allamakee counties. For him, conservation doesn’t only benefit the land but the community at large. That’s why he uses no-till, which leaves soil undisturbed, and plants cereal rye as a cover crop.
Cover crops prevent soil and nutrients from leaving the farm. Eric plants soybeans into established cereal rye and grows rye for seed, too. Once those seed acres are harvested, he plants the area to a mix of sunflowers, turnips, radishes, oats and buckwheat.
“Our goal is to have some sort of living root covering all acres, if possible,” he says. “It gives us the ability to build soil biology and organic matter through more diverse cover crop mixes.”
Eric has noticed these practices reduce soil erosion and improve soil structure. This helps hold water better, reduces runoff and protects water quality.
Mike Ver Steeg of Lyon County farms with his son, Cody, and family member, Nathan Nieuwendorp. Their conservation philosophy began with Mike’s dad who was a longtime no-tiller. Today, their family farm is home to grassed waterways, cover crops and a bioreactor—a woodchip pit that filters nutrients before they reach local streams.
Cody and Nathan also plant cover crops for other local farmers. Because the cover crops act as a weed suppressor, Mike said last year they didn’t use a pre-herbicide on their soybeans and still saw positive results.
Mike uses manure from the pigs on his farm as a natural source of fertilizer, and he takes responsible nitrogen management seriously. He samples the manure to better understand its nutrient content and uses a nitrogen stabilizer after injecting manure into the soil to prevent nutrient loss.
In areas where they do not apply manure, Mike uses variable rate technology to make sure nutrients are only being applied in precise amounts where needed to grow a healthy crop.
“We’re looking for ways to decrease soil erosion and make our soils healthier,” he says. “The more organic matter in your soil, the less nitrogen you should need.”
Frazee Farms in Montgomery County has been in the same family for more than 100 years. Iowa is home to nearly 20,800 of these “century” farms—a testament to Iowa farmers making sustainability a priority.
On the Frazee family farm, sustainability has taken the form of buffer strips, no-till, cover crops and terraces. Terraces can be easily identified as you drive around Iowa because they look like grassy stairsteps.
“It’s always a continual maintenance project to keep terraces up to snuff,” says Krista (Frazee) Huntsman. “From repairing washouts, pulling trees and identifying areas where additional terraces are needed to improve drainage and soil health.”
Terraces along with buffer strips on their farm help control erosion and runoff near creek banks and waterways. The strips naturally filter water before it reaches tributaries, keeping nutrients in the field for crops to use.
As a past Conservation Farmer of the Year award recipient, Jarad Weber of Lee County is no stranger to making conservation a priority.
From buffer strips and waterways to more than 5,000 feet of terraces and a bioreactor—Jarad finds opportunity to put practices where they can best work on his land.
As a cattle farmer, he uses rotational grazing. He moves his cattle around the land to keep forage growing at all times. This keeps carbon locked in the soil and out of the atmosphere. He also plants cover crops which are an additional feed source for his animals.
“It seems like it all happened at once, but it’s just a little bit at a time, and then it starts rolling along and it snowballs,” says Jarad of all the practices on his farm. “Now, we’re kind of in the middle of something really cool, and it feels like we’re just getting started.”
To learn more about the winning team of Iowa farmers and what farmers in your area are doing, visit Conservation Counts: Farmers in Action.
Want more news on this topic? Farm Bureau members may subscribe for a free email news service, featuring the farm and rural topics that interest them most!