Tim Bennett of Taylor County lives where keeping soil on hills is an ongoing challenge. To combat the problem, Bennett has turned to grass, seeding 36 acres of marginal cropland to hay.

“I would probably do more if there was a better market for hay,” says Bennett. He is able to utilize some of the hay in his cattle operation. Since he began farming in 1985, he has regularly sold excess hay but not on a commodity basis. 

“Creating more grassland is near and dear to my heart,” he adds. “More acres should be in grass.”

To make the transition, Bennett tapped the Taylor County Water Quality Initiative (WQI). The program through the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship partners with Iowa State University Extension and area conservation and livestock entities to provide access to technology, economic assessments and cost-sharing programs to help farmers make better use of non-productive areas.

“There are areas that just shouldn’t be in row crops,” Bennett said.  

He also focuses on conservation through use of terraces and tiling, seeded waterways and no-till. 

Bennett, a Taylor County Farm Bureau member, has planted cover crops, especially after chopping corn silage, but his off-farm job doesn’t allow him the time to explore the practice as much as he would like. 

Realizing savings

Planting hillsides to grass slows soil and nutrient loss. “When you see the ground eroding, you know you have to do something — either more tile and terraces or more seeding,” says Bennett.

Monitoring has shown Bennett was able to reduce nitrogen loss by 17% and phosphorus loss by 38% on the targeted hillsides. Water samples were taken from a tile line running from the project area. 

He also saved more than $5,000 the first year, according to WQI economic analysis. It took into account the reduction in nutrient loss, using the hay as cattle feed rather than more expensive grain and reducing production costs by eliminating the repeated equipment passes required of row cropping.

Tapping the helping hand

The water quality initiative is part of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy created in 2013.By utilizing private and public resources, the program uses targeted voluntary conservation measures based on re­search and new conservation methods.

Farmers like Bennett are able to access cost-share assistance along with technical advice. “Like everybody else, we do what we can with the money available,” he said. 

He received his first WQI grant in 2017 and another in 2019. The program dictates his ground stay seeded to hay for at least five years. “The hay growing on the hillsides has worked well for us,” says Bennett. “We’ll stick with it as long as the hay is viable.”

He recommends farmers be aware of new and existing programs and try to fit them into their operations where possible. 

“Everyone’s farm, and soil, is different,” said Bennett. “And everyone’s cash flow is unique. But it’s important to do what we can. There are resources and programs that can help.”

Among the benefits he has seen is the ability to better weather the weather. A hearty topsoil root structure increases the ground’s ability to absorb and retain runoff, and thus makes it better able to withstand heavy rains and periods of drought.

“More of our highly erodible land should be seeded back to grass,” says Bennett. “It’s worth the effort.”

Queck-Matzie is a freelance writer in Greenfield.