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Conservation in Iowa needs flexibility, farmers say

Iowa farmers are taking many different approaches in maintaining and improving soil and water quality, proving there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach.

That’s the view of a panel of farmers who shared information about their efforts in soil and water conservation last week during the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation’s (IFBF) annual meeting in Des Moines.

Randy Caviness, an Adair County Farm Bureau member in Greenfield, established no-till practices on his farm as a result of the 1985 farm bill.

"It was a r­­equirement that on highly erodible soils that we establish no-till," Caviness said. "I didn’t think much of no-till at all. I thought it was the biggest joke. From what I saw, it was pretty much a complete failure."

But then Caviness tried it on his farm and was amazed at what soil tests showed. "The light went on as we watched our soil tests and we started noticing that the organic matter in the soil going up," he said. "We’re seeing soil samples what was 2 to 3 percent organic matter (improve) to 5, 6 and 7 percent now after 25 years."

Caviness has been an advocate for soil and water conservation and worked with his county Farm Bureau to secure grants for a watershed project.

IFBF SHARE grant

The Adair County Farm Bur­eau was awarded a $10,000 SHARE grant through the Iowa Farm Bureau to help fund a three-year project aimed at protecting and improving a sub-watershed consisting of 23,327 acres located in Adair and Cass counties. The group was also awarded a $300,000 grant from the Watershed Improvement Review Board (WIRB). The 135 landowners in the sub-watershed also have a financial stake in the project, Caviness said.

"We’re trying to work with farmers to help put in permanent structures to help them, but also to help educate them on other practices they could do in conjunction with that," Caviness said.

Farmers are encouraged to establish cover crops and no-till hay crops through incentives.

Through this project, the annual sediment load reaching the West Fork of the Middle Nodaway River from this sub-watershed will be reduced by 2,500 tons per year, or approximately 7.2 percent of the estimated total annual amount of sediment delivered.

Will Stromer, a farmer from Garner in Hancock County, has become a resource for other farmers after implementing strip-tilling practices on his farm in the summer of 2012.

"My father likes to use the quote that you can put in all the waterways and filter strips and windbreaks that you want, and that’s great, but the truth is that’s only a Band-Aid. Until we do what is right in the middle of the fields, we’re not going to stop the erosion, stop the soil from going in our water," Stromer said.

"By no means is this the answer to every farm in the state or in the nation, but everybody needs to be thinking about how we’re going to keep our soil in the field," Stromer said.

Reducing soil loss

Brent Renner remembers one specific part of his summers growing up: the man-made lake where he and his friends would fish and swim and take a break from the summer heat.

But that 22-acre lake in the southeast corner of Hancock County isn’t suitable for much now. Sediment from area land has filled the pool and killed the fish that once lived there.

"There is a portion of the lake that’s deep enough to support fish and keep the water from completely freezing to the bottom, but the nutrient load has become so high that it depletes the water of oxygen, and that’s why the fish are dying," Renner said.

Renner is hoping the $12,000 grant the county Farm Bureau was recently awarded will help reverse the condition of the lake. An event was held this summer at the lake to explain its conditions and what farmers can do to help clean it up.

Spreading the word

As farmers continue to step up their efforts in conservation, it’s important to communicate those efforts, especially to those in urban areas who might not have a connection to the countryside, said Curt Zingula, a farmer from Central City in Linn County.

A conservation tour in Linn County in July provided county supervisors and area leaders the opportunity to ask farmers about their conservation practices.

The tour included a stop at a wetland restoration project and then to Jason and Sarah Russell’s hog barn, where the guests learned about wind energy and how the Russell family uses the manure from their pigs to fertilize their fields. The third stop was a visit to Zingula’s 17 acres of riparian buffer.

The tour concluded with a presentation about variable rate technology and the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.