Have you seen those commercials on TV, where a couple kicked a bad habit like overindulging in brownies, cookies and donuts? While the husband boasts about dropping weight and needing a smaller pant size, the same dietary change didn’t give the wife nearly the same results. Our bodies, our ages, our genetics—there are so many factors that can affect success, that no single approach works for all.

And honestly, that’s not too far off from how conservation practices on farms work, too.

During Soil and Water Conservation Week, farmers and agricultural groups across our state have been sharing what soil health and water quality practices they use, and there are more and more every year! In fact, according to the Iowa Department of Land Stewardship, last year 1,000 farmers used a new practice on their farm ground to improve water quality. The practices are far, wide and varied. That’s because what works on one piece of ground, may not work on the other, even in adjacent fields.

For example, farmers who have very hilly ground may find planting terraces, which look like grassy stair steps, can help slow down water moving across the land, reducing runoff and soil erosion. This same farmer may also choose to plant their crops in a “contour,” following the curve of the land instead of planting straight rows. While someone who farms flat ground may find grassed waterways in low spots in their field can also slow water movement across their land, keeping soil and nutrients in place. 

Many farmers have shown an increasing interest in cover crops, a type of vegetation that grows after the fall crop is harvested. In 2017, Iowa farmers planted 760,000 acres of cover crops, 136,000 acres more than the year before. Although this is increasingly becoming a well-known water quality practice that helps hold the soil in tact over the wintering months and nutrients are held in place by the cover’s roots, there’s still a learning—and economic value—curve to implementing this strategy.

For example, depending on if a farmer lives in the northern or southern part of the state, one species of cover crop may work better than another. And how they’re planted brings choices, too, like being drilled straight into the soil or flown on by plane. Each approach brings a different challenge.  Did you know crops planted aerially are at the risk of poor germination due to weather—that is, if there isn’t a fall rain, they may have trouble growing? Even this year, some cover crops didn’t grow as well as previous years because of temperatures in what seemed like our never-ending Iowa winter.

Location, location, location—it isn’t just important for real estate—it matters for conservation, too! The Conservation Reserve Program makes more sense in some areas over others. In Iowa, farmers have enrolled 1.4 million acres, more than any other state, in targeted, continuous CRP. Planting unproductive land that isn’t making a profit to prairie grasses is a win-win for many including the wildlife that inhabit and nest in these grounds.

Strategically placed and sized wetlands have the potential to remove 40 to 90 percent of nitrates from water transported from upper-lying land, and they also benefit wildlife! Through the Iowa Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, Iowa farmers have helped restore 83 targeted wetlands, with a capacity to capture 1.3 million pounds of nitrogen.

With so many factors, it’s great to have choices, which is why the Nutrient Reduction Strategy is considered a wonderful menu of options for farmers, no matter what they raise or grow or where they farm.

So, while a friend can order a double-bacon cheeseburger without gaining a single pound, someone like me would have to run five miles to not see a scale tip. And it’s important to have the freedom to try different options and find out what works for you—whether that’s a healthier lifestyle or increasing conservation practices.

By Caitlyn Lamm. Caitlyn is Iowa Farm Bureau's Public Relations Specialist.