When Dwight Dial of Lake City began no-tilling in the 1980s, he wasn’t deterred by the comments of other farmers who weren’t impressed with this farming method. “‘I’d quit farming before I’d become a trash farmer’ is how they put it,” said Dial, who grows 700 acres of soybeans and corn in southwestern Calhoun County.

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, however. Decades of no-till on Dial’s 50/50 corn-soybean rotation have improved his soil’s organic matter from 0.5 percent to nearly 6 percent today. “Each point of nitrogen will give you about 10 pounds of nitrogen per acre,” Dial said.

Hog manure from Dial’s nursery/finish swine operation, along with anhydrous ammonia, provide the rest of the nitrogen his crops need. “I’ve been able to cut my nitrogen use in half through my conservation farming practices,” Dial said. 

“Higher organic matter makes nitrogen available all season long, which helps me produce 200-plus bushel corn.”

A better way 
Keeping this nitrogen in place where it can nourish his crops is important to Dial, who has a hard time understanding why Des Moines Water Works is suing three northwest Iowa counties for allegedly allowing nitrates from 10 drainage districts under their control to pollute the Raccoon River, a primary water source for the utility.

“We’re not deliberately dumping our nitrogen into the Raccoon River or other waterways,” said Dial, who raises sheep in addition to corn, soybeans and hogs. “We’re doing everything we can to retain nutrients in the field for our plants, but we can’t control Mother Nature.”

The lawsuit won’t deter Dial from im­­plementing conservation practices to im­­prove water quality in the Raccoon River watershed and beyond. He has extended an open invitation for Des Moines Water Works’ CEO and General Manager Bill Stowe to visit his farm. “Come up and see what’s going on here, because we have a good story to tell,” Dial said.

To date, Water Works officials have not taken Dial up on his invitation.

Learning and sharing
Learning from others and sharing best practices is important to this former ag teacher. “When I taught at Iowa Valley in Marengo from 1972 to 1974, I noticed that farmers there weren’t moldboard plowing every acre,” said Dial, who earned his bachelor’s degree in ag education from Iowa State University, where he later worked on his master’s degree in animal science. “It was a different system than I was used to, but it was working.”

Dial was also inspired by Jim Owens, an experienced no-till farmer from Lake City. “Parts of Jim’s operation made a lot of sense to me, especially when it came to reducing erosion,” he said.

No-till made even more sense to Dial when the farm crisis hit in the 1980s. “The bottom line is always a key consideration for any farmer. Switching to no-till meant my dad, Gerald, and I didn’t have to use as much equipment, and our fuel bill dropped way down. This helped us survive the 1980s.”

No-till has also helped Dial withstand the drought that hit his area in 2012. “More organic matter means the soil’s water retention capacity skyrockets,” said Dial, whose fields include Clarion-Nicollet-Webster soils. “My crops stayed green, even when the rain quit falling.”

Less compaction is an ongoing advantage of no-till, which fosters a thriving ecosystem in the soil. “The earthworm growth is phenomenal, which leads to more air and water channels that benefit the crops,” Dial noted.

Learning from the land 
No-till is just one of many conservation practices Dial has implemented on his farm. He has built terraces, added grass waterways and installed buffer strips to slow water runoff, along with using nitrification inhibitors and incorporating hog manure into the soil to mitigate leaching.

“I’m doing everything I can to retain nitrogen for my crops,” said Dial, who became one of the first farmers in his area to meet the highest levels of the voluntary Conservation Security Program from the Natural Resources Conservation Service. “The last thing I want to do is send nutrients down the river.”

In 2011-2012, Dial participated in the Certified Conservation Farmer program from AGREN in Carroll. He completed more than 40 hours of conservation education in the classroom and spent more time observing conservation on farms to learn about innovative methods for protecting the land from soil erosion, building soil organic matter and optimizing soil fertility while preserving water quality.

“Dwight uses an effective combination of conservation practices, including cover crops, on his farm,” said Tom Buman, owner of AGREN. “He’s not just doing things because someone thinks they’re a good idea. Instead he thoughtfully evaluates his options.”

All these efforts have earned Dial an Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) Environmental Lead­er Award, which recognizes the exemplary voluntary efforts of Iowa farmers who are committed to healthy soils and improved water quality.

“Iowa has tremendous farmers who are not only the most productive in the world, but who also understand that we must care for the soil and water and preserve it for the next generation,” said Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey.

Benefits are adding up
Innovating for the future is the hallmark of farmers like Dial who love the land. Dial, an avid gardener, plans to install a new windbreak at his mother’s farm this year, complete with nearly 250 crabapple and cedar trees. He encourages other farmers to re-evaluate their farming practices and test a new conservation practice on a portion of their acres this year.

While the benefits of conservation won’t accrue immediately, they do add up in the long run. “My goal has always been to build a sustainable farming operation and pass the land onto my children in better shape than I got it,” Dial said. “I want to leave a legacy of conservation.”