Conservation and water quality are hot topics in Iowa agriculture these days as the state’s farmers take on the challenge of improving water quality and reducing soil loss. But the focus on conservation is nothing new at Joe and Mary Ann Ledger’s farm near Fairfield in Jefferson County.

Saving soil and improving water quality have been high on the couple’s priority list since they started farming more than four decades ago.

“I guess I’ve really thought a lot about conservation since I started farming back in the early 1970s,” Joe said. “The way I figure it, we only care for the land a short time, and I want to pass it on to the next generation in better shape than I started.”

The bottom line, Ledger said, “is that I just don’t ever like to see dirt move.”

Over the years, the Ledgers, who have two adult daughters and three grandchildren, have steadily built upon their conservation practices on the farm where they raise corn, soybeans and forage.

They have added terraces, planted buffer strips and installed other conservation structures to hold the soil in place and protect water quality. They moved to a no-till system on most of their acres several years ago and have intensified their adoption of the practice over the years. The Jefferson County Farm Bureau members have also moved to a fertilizer program designed to spoon-feed the crop at optimum times.

In the past few years, the Ledgers have also become big believers in cover crops. About 80 percent of their acres are covered this winter.

“We’ve been planting cover crops for about six years now and really like it,” Joe said. “The cover crops have really helped to improve the soil texture, making it a lot more mellow in the spring,” he said. “We are also building organic matter in the soil, and we like the way the cover crops reduce erosion from the water and wind during the winter.”

Helping the garden

Mary Ann Ledger, who recently retired after a career in nursing, said planting cover crops has also improved the soil in her garden.

“I’ve really noticed a difference since we started planting cover crops,” she said. “The ground in the garden used to be hard as a rock when we tilled it in the spring, and now I can’t believe how mellow it is.”  

Like every new farming practice, there is a learning process to planting cover crops, Joe said.

The Ledgers have experimented with different species of cover crops and have tried different planting methods to determine the best fit on their rolling southeast Iowa fields. “We are trying different things each year to see what works the best,” Joe said.

They have determined that cereal rye works the best on their farm because of its vigor and early spring growth. And they like planting the crop right after harvesting corn or soybeans to help promote germination.

In addition, Joe said he’s experiencing fewer problems when planting corn after terminating a rye cover crop. “I saw more of yield drag issue when I started with cover crops a few years ago, but I really don’t notice that much now,” he said.

Cover crops catching on

Cover crops, Joe said, are really starting to catch on in Jefferson County. “There are a lot of farmers around here planting them now,” he said. “I think that Washington County, just north of us, is the state’s leading cover crop county, and that push is spreading down here.”

The Ledgers have also worked with landlords to help spread conservation practices to the acres he rents.

“They have really been receptive to that. They also want to improve the land and environment and are impressed with what we are doing,” Joe said.

While they are big believers in cover crops, as well as all conservation practices, the Ledgers admit it’s tough to afford them in an era of low commodity prices and tight margins. To help offset the costs of cover crops, the Ledgers have been raising rye on a few acres to harvest the seed.

“It is getting harder in this price environment, but we know it’s going to be important for the next generation,” Joe said.