When your family has farmed for five generations, you’ve seen a lot of things come and go, like the era when good farmers plowed everything black. By the 1980s, however, the Ehlers family tried ridge-till. 

“Dad adopted ridge-till to help save on costs during the (1980s) farm crisis,” said Kris Ehlers, 46, who farms with his brother, Mike, and their families near Marathon. 

Ridge-till helped save the soil, too, a lesson that wasn’t lost on the Ehlers’ father, Ken. “When Dad started farming full-time in the 1970s, he noticed there were some odd holes in his field southwest of Marathon,” said Kris Ehlers, who raises corn, soybeans and hogs in Buena Vista County. “He found out that’s where the tile intakes were. The plowed soil had washed and buried the intakes.” 

While ridge-till helped keep more soil in place, the gusty winds of northwest Iowa created other erosion challenges. “One windy spring day in 2004, the enclosed porch in our old farmhouse was covered in about a quarter of an inch of dirt,” said Mike Ehlers, 45. “A couple of weeks later, it happened again.” 

As the Ehlers brothers looked for solutions, they tried low-disturbance manure application, which injects manure several inches under the soil surface. This conservation practice, along with the Ehlers’ use of strip-tillage, means that less than one-third of the soil is disturbed. 

“I laugh, because Mike proudly walks around with his, ‘I’m one-third disturbed’ T-shirt,” said Mike’s wife, Michelle, who was a guest on a recent “Chop Talk” podcast with the Iowa Pork Producers Association. 

Continuous improvement
As the Ehlers, who are Buena Vista Farm Bureau members, have expanded the number of conservation practices on their farm, they offer five tips to help other farmers along their conservation journey: 

Start simple. While the Ehlers family uses cover crops, a bioreactor, buffer strips and more to protect soil and water quality, they added one practice at a time. “In the last four years, we’ve tried a new conservation practice every year,” Mike Ehlers said.

Find trusted partners. The Ehlers live next to the North Raccoon River, which flows to Des Moines and beyond. They’ve partnered with Iowa Soybean Association researchers on tile-water monitoring since 2016. 

They also work closely with the local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). When the Ehlers considered a saturated buffer to help manage nitrate, they learned that a bioreactor was a better fit, due to the landscape and the field’s soil types. They installed a bioreactor in 2018. “The results have been amazing,” Mike Ehlers said. “We’ve seen nitrate reductions from 85 to 100%.”  

Share the knowledge. The Ehlers host conservation field days to give others a first-hand look at their various conservation practices. Their low-disturbance manure application field day in 2015 attracted nearly 100 participants, who learned how new technologies can help meet the water quality goals of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. 

“It’s fun to share what we’ve learned,” said Mike Ehlers, whose family received the Iowa Farm Environmental Leader Award in 2016.

Promote conservation to landlords. The Ehlers family works closely with conservation-minded landlords. 

“I feel like we picked up a rented farm because of our conservation practices,” said Mike Ehlers, whose family received the Iowa Pork Producers Association’s 2020 Iowa Environmental Steward Award.

Challenge yourself to keep learning. The Ehlers installed pollinator habitat in 2020. Instead of tiling an area of their field that often stayed wet, they took 5 acres out of production and seeded the area with plants to benefit butterflies and bees. “We keep asking, ‘What can we do to make things better?’” Kris Ehlers said. “We want to leave the land in better condition than we found it.”

Maulsby is a freelance writer in Lake City.