Conservation, diversification, automation and a variety of other "-ations" come together on the Ehlers farm, located near Marathon in Buena Vista County, where Mike and Michelle Ehlers raise wean-to-finish hogs along with row crops and cover crops.

“We really want to make certain that our operation is profitable and our fields are in good condition into the future,” Mike said last week.

The couple returned to farming in the late 1990s after meeting in college. They now row crop and raise hogs on land about 1 mile from where Mike grew up.

In 2000, as young farmers looking for ways to help their farm be financially sustainable, Mike and Michelle contracted with Land-O-Lakes for their first hog herd, constructing a confinement barn just down the street from their home.

They also leased land for row crops and started welcoming new additions to their home: son and daughter Clayton and Allison.

 “We’ve found diversification, adding livestock when we did, has allowed us to stay in agriculture,” Mike said.

“Having hogs is now vital to the cycle of farming that we follow.”

Wake-up call
But the adaptations and additions to the operation didn't stop with kids and a hog confinement.

A dust storm in 2004 was the starting point for the couple’s now decades-long conservation practices, everything from cover crops and low disturbance strip till to newer developments like an edge-of-field bioreactor and a pollinator plot on less productive ground.

The dust storm brought blew topsoil off farm fields to settle around, and even inside, their home.

“Mike’s mom come over to help us clean up after the storm,” Michelle recalled. “There were mounds on the porch, inches of dirt. After that, we really became interested in making sure our soil doesn’t blow away again.”

No- and low-till farming practices started shortly after, followed soon by cover crop applications.

Limiting runoff
In 2015, the couple hosted a field day where different types of manure applicators were de­monstrated. After seeing the effects on the field of the low-disturbance, injection-style applicator, the Ehlers moved quickly to incorporate it into their operation.

“We keep learning and growing as we try new stuff out,” Michelle said. “It sometimes makes pretty wonky looking fields.”

Mike regularly tests his fields for proper nitrogen levels prior to applying manure or fertilizer to his crop fields in the spring.

The addition of buffer strips and a bioreactor on the field’s edge has also helped reduce the nitrogen runoff from their fields to waterways.

Conservation focus
Cover crops have allowed them to reduce and, in some cases, even eliminate preemergence herbicide because spring growth of the cover between planted and fertilized strips has suppressed weeds.

These practices, along with regularly hosting field days and welcoming curious farmers to see how they farm, led the Iowa Pork Producers Association to award the Ehlers the 2020 Iowa Environmental Steward Award.

Adopting new technology
Over the last few years, the couple has made technical upgrades to their hog barn, in­cluding advanced temperature and humidity monitoring, along with closely tracking water and feed intake. The system can also operate independently if the remote connection is lost, maintaining temperatures in the barn to assure the animals are comfortable and healthy.

It also resulted in substantial savings in propane use, reducing both costs and exhaust.

As part of their most re­cent contract renewal with Maschhoffs this year, they are transitioning from wean-to-finish to feeder-to-finish.

In 2020, the grounds around the barn also got a face-lift. After planting fast-growing austrees years before, they decided to add evergreen trees.

The bald cypress trees and other conifers are much slower growing but will provide shade and protection for the building, as well as odor control, for many years into the future.