Soil conservation and water quality are hot topics today in Iowa farming. But for Rob Stout, who has worked more than three decades to incorporate conservation practices on his own grain and livestock farm and in his community, it’s the way he’s been farming for years.

“Since farmers own the majority of the land in Iowa, we have a responsibility to leave it in better shape than we got it,” said Stout.

Stout, a Washington County Farm Bureau member, began farming with his father in 1978 after he graduated from Iowa State University. Shortly after, he became interested in no-till planting. “I began attending field days to gain some insight,” said Stout. “In 1983 we purchased our first no-till planter, and never looked back.”

The key, Stout said, is to keep learning.

“I go to conferences, have discussions with other farmers in the area, read as much as I can, and utilize what I learn in my farming operation,” said Stout. “I figure, if you’re not learning something new, then you’re falling behind because the world is always changing whether you like it or not.”

Stout has also hosted a no-till field day at his own place to share information and give demonstrations. He explains that neighbors, Extension and other farmers in the community were a great resource when he first began looking into no-till and conservation methods.

In addition to no-till planting, Stout has built terraces and buffer strips to reduce erosion, improve soil and protect water quality.

“If you don’t protect your farmland, it could take up to 100 years to get back the soil you might lose in a bad rain storm.”

Cover crop veteran
Five years ago, he also began using cover crops such as cereal rye, radishes and crimson clover.

“We’ve had good luck with cereal rye,” said Stout. “We are able to get much deeper roots with it versus the others because the cereal rye can withstand the colder temperatures in the fall.”

It seems figuring out what does and doesn’t work is all part of it, as Stout explains he has learned to “tweak” things over the years.

“Ten years ago, I didn’t even think about doing cover crops,” said Stout. “You just have to be willing to try new things so the soil stays on your farm, where it belongs.”

Stout’s advice for farmers interested in cover crops is to talk to someone who has experience, and do a modest amount the first time. Stout only did 10 acres of cover crops the first year, and is now up to 600 acres.

“If you’re thinking about trying it, start small,” said Stout. “Set up some strips, so you can compare and see the results for yourself.”

Watershed project
Four years ago, Stout was approached by Iowa Learning Farms to help jumpstart a watershed improvement project in his community. Since then, he has worked to increase farmer involvement, organized meetings and met with representatives from National Resources Conservation Service.

The goal is to have approximately 40,000 to 50,000 acres of cover crop in the watershed. Right now, only a few thousand are in there, but Stout hopes it will expand as more farmers participate and increase their acres each year. 
Recently, the watershed’s demonstration project, “The West Fork Crooked Creek Water Quality and Soil Health Initiative,” was one of eight demonstration projects in Iowa to receive a grant through the Iowa Department of Agriculture and its Iowa water quality initiative.

The grant will enable the watershed to perform nitrogen testing, and find ways to lower the amount of nitrate-N and phosphorus in streams.

Stout’s conservation efforts and dedication to protecting the environment is getting noticed. 

In 2012 his family received an Iowa Farm Environmental Leader Award in 2012, the first year they were awarded. The Stouts were one of 67 families to receive the award, which was presented to them by Governor Branstad at the Iowa State Fair.

“It’s an honor to be recognized by our peers,” said Stout. “We are just trying to do the right thing by taking care of the environment, which is important to us.”