Loran Steinlage was out scouting his farm a couple years ago when he decided to head down to the creek. To his amazement, he happened to catch fish swimming upstream — brown trout, to be exact — and right then he realized he was on to something.

“Trout need good, cool, clean water ... so I knew we were doing something right,” said Steinlage, a second-generation farmer and Farm Bureau member from West Union in Fayette County.

Steinlage has spent the better part of a decade implementing conservation practices across the 900 acres he farms with his wife, Brenda. 

“We’ve got native trout in the creek out there … in a drought year … not in the hills, but on flat ground with no trees. That means we’ve got pretty good, clean water.”

It was a validation of sorts for what Steinlage saw as his vision back in 2006 when he first grabbed a bucket and hand-spread annual ryegrass, scattering it among the cornrows. He had heard about these practices as a way to diversify the farm and contribute to better water infiltration and soil holding capacity. And he wanted to give it a try, hoping to mimic native prairie.

“We didn’t know what the potential was; I had just heard that getting all that going was going to help us,” Steinlage said. “And I asked myself what would our elders do. I kept (thinking) how can we implement that in our system”

Two decades later and the results are undeniable on Steinlage’s farm in northeast Iowa. Growing cover crops helps with soil health, mitigates compaction and soil erosion, crowds out weeds, controls diseases and pests, and assists the soil in holding onto water, thus reducing runoff.

“The water holding capacity and infiltration … it skyrockets,” Steinlage said. “We’re not flushing those nutrients out. Data has shown that if everybody in our watershed would use our farming practices, we’d mitigate flooding by over 50%.

“And when you’re going for the cover crop benefit, that below ground aspect is just as important as what we see on top, if not more. That’s where the magic is happening is in the root zone.”

Fine-tuning his focus

Steinlage says his life experiences have shaped his farm manage­ment techniques over the years. He and Brenda have raised their three children – Kelli, Rolan and Kassi – on the home place and now have grandchildren Oliver, Jolie and Aspyn.

Steinlage scaled back the number of acres he was farming to spend more time with his family when Rolan was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2009.

He used his interest in building and setting up equipment to facilitate the move to a more conservation-minded enterprise on fewer acres and “do better with what we had.”

“I enjoy figuring out equipment, setting it up, building it and figuring out how to make it work,” he said.

The interseeding and strip-till practices he had dabbled in from 2006-11 morphed into a whole-farm effort by 2012, with additional conservation measures to include full-farm, no-till with relay-cropping to capture the soil health benefits as well as the economic benefits of double-cropping.

“Those were the decisions we had to make considering the challenges we had faced,” he said, ”and they’ve worked out pretty well.” 

Adapting and adjusting

Today, Steinlage has become an expert in cover crop implementation and sharing his story about the benefits through presentations, webinars, podcasts and speaking engagements. 

He’s quick to point to continued education as the key to development. No two years are the same and being able to adapt and adjust on the fly is critical, he said.

Consider that his farm includes 25 different soil types, which demands greater management to optimize crop yields and reduce environmental impacts.

“Learning to manage that has probably led me to where I’m at today,” he said. “When you’ve got to figure out how to handle all those different soil types, you have to think a little different.”

As planting season approaches, Steinlage said they’ll experiment with a few different crops this year, yet to be determined, from corn and soybeans to cereal rye, camelina, winter wheat, oats or malt barley as options in their relay cropping set-up. He planted cereal rye last fall with the intention of planting soybeans into it this spring.

“We’ll take the cereal crop out in early August and then harvest beans in the fall,” he said. “If we do a good job, we can get a full crop of rye and a full crop of soybeans. It takes getting things lined up and Mother Nature has to cooperate.”

In a perfect year, they’ll chase the combine with a drill and plant buckwheat after taking out the cereal crop. Three crops in a year isn’t impossible, Steinlage said.

“We’ve done it,” he said. “That doesn’t work every year this far north, but it can. Whoever thought you could triple crop in northeast Iowa? Timing is the big thing.”

More so than the economic benefits of harvesting three crops, learning how to keep a live plant in the ground year-round is a challenge Steinlage says produces multiple conservation benefits.

“Handing off from one crop to the next crop to the next crop…that’s when you really start seeing the soil health pop,” he said.

Improving soil health is an ethic he’s learned from his father and the elders who championed for the land years ago.

“It’s part of my heritage,” he said. “Take care of what you have. Waste not want not. Watching the elders is probably why I do what I do. Everything I’ve thought of came from my dad.”