By applying conservation practices such as wind turbines, solar panels and manure management, Jason Russell has helped his family farm pave the way in conservation and water quality.

Russell and his wife, Sarah, both come from family farms, and the Russell family has been farming in the Monticello area for the past 60 years. Today, Jason and Sara Russell grow hay, corn, soybeans and hogs with Jason’s brother, Eric, his father, Dennis, and four uncles: Ralph, Moe, Dave and John.

Jason Russell manages the two 7,200 hog finishers, marketing more than 14,000 hogs per year as a partner of The Maschhoffs production network. The Russells started building the two sites in 2001, and the hog confinement operation began in 2003.

“We’ve gotten even more involved with conservation after building the hog barns,” Russell said. “We felt it was the right thing to do for the environment, it was better for public image, and helped us gain support from neighbors and legislators.”

Russell Brothers has been recognized for their conservation efforts with stewardship awards from the Iowa Pork Producers Association, Iowa Department of Ag and Land Stewardship, and the Coalition to Support Iowa’s Farmers.

Renewable energy and habitat
In March 2011, the Russells added a 50-kilowatt wind turbine, and in November 2014, they incorporated solar energy. Since installing the solar panels, Russell Brothers is now up to 100 kilowatts of renewable energy generation. The wind turbine currently accounts for 60 to 80 percent of the farm’s electric bill, and in a good year, Russell projects the solar array will cover the rest.

“The economics of it just made it a very easy decision,” he said. “It’s so windy here that we wanted to feel good when the wind blew. It’s amazing how much power it can produce.”

Russell has also been planting a number of trees around the farm over the years. After finding a Vermeer tree transplanter truck, he began to do side jobs for neighbors in the area. He says most of the trees he’s planted on the farm were free from people who wanted them cut down.

“We’re learning more about timber management and trying to get invasive species out,” Russell said. “The trees smell good and look good around the site, and they also provide a habitat for wildlife.”

Russell has planted about 1,000 trees on the farm so far, and would still like to add thousands more. Trees planted include Austrees, arborvitae evergreens, spruces, cotton wood and swamp white oak.

Water quality and conservation
The farm has built buffer strips, grassed waterways and riparian buffers in the fields to protect water quality. The Russells also switched from conventional tillage to vertical tillage and plant 150 acres of winter wheat and rye cover crops to improve yields and reduce soil erosion. 
“We’ve actually built our organic matter in our soil in 10 years of continuous corn,” said Russell. “The organic matter and good earthworms also help the water soak up instead of run off.”

The Russells use their hog manure as fertilizer, using a custom manure application system. Manure runs through a drag hose from the hog finisher pits to the applicator in the field. That system is 42 feet wide and pulled with a track tractor, so there is virtually no ground disturbance or compaction. The machine is steered by precision agriculture to monitor the flow and keep the application rate on target.

“Last fall, because of the weather, we were able to inject manure on all the ground we own,” said Russell. “We even have a field 10 miles away we were able to put manure on with semis.”

Rigorous testing
Russell explains that while hog manure is a great source of fertilizer, it isn’t as predictable as commercial fertilizer. Therefore, what some spend on fertilizer, the Russells spend on nitrogen testing.

“With the Conservation Stewardship Program, we’ve started doing more spring nitrate testing and tissue testing,” said Russell. “This tells us how the manure is reacting with weather conditions and to see if it’s necessary to add any fertilizers.”

Right after the corn reaches physiological maturity in the fall, the Russells also do a stalk nitrate test to see how well they did with nitrogen management that year.

This is the third year the Russells have been using precision agriculture to assist them with their conservation efforts. The farm has incorporated yield monitors, row shutoffs and auto-steering into their operation to achieve efficient and effective application methods.

“Precision agriculture can help you understand areas that may never need fertilizer, because they’ve been fertilized for years or with livestock manure,” said Russell. “Without precision agriculture, such as sampling, grid sampling, tissue testing and yield monitors, you could be wasting dollars.”

The technology has allowed the Russells to see if what they’re doing is working, and how these practices effect their production.

“Doing what you’ve done for the last 40 years isn’t necessarily the best thing,” said Russell. “We’re always open to change, and we’ve been fortunate to make these modifications and have it work.”

Always looking ahead
Moving forward, the Russells are thinking about putting in an anaerobic digester as part of a pilot project for an engineering firm next year. The anaerobic digester would be used to turn the hog manure into energy. In the process, micro-organisms break down the waste to produce biogas, which can be used for electricity and heat.

“We’re excited to put another leg on the stool as far as renewable energy goes,” said Russell. “The biggest things we’re going to continue to do is minimize tillage and maximize yield without added unnecessary nutrients.”