Five steps to successful conservation work (GRDDA) in Iowa

Since at least 50% (about 12 million acres) of Iowa crop land is farmed by someone other than the owner, landowner buy-in is critical to the success of conservation work.

Note: This concept, (GRDDA) is my own intellectual property. If you cite it or use it in any way, I expect you to give me credit. Thank you.

I suggest that landowners consider these steps on their farms:

  1. Get to know your land personally. Walk it. Look for erosion sites. Find out where the tiles are. Learn the soil types on your farm. Check on the crops. Identify the birds, trees, and plants. Check the fences if there are any. Keep a rain gauge on the farm and track the rainfall. Walk the farm after a snow fall and identify the wildlife tracks.
  2. Research conservation practices for your area. Attend field days. Read research reports. Talk with your operator. Which practices are taking hold in your area?
  3. Decide which practices would make sense on your farm: cover crops with no-till, terraces or waterways (do you have some obvious erosion?), prairie strips, a bio-reactor or a saturated buffer (if you have a creek or drainage ditch).
  4. Determine possible cost share availability (local, state, and federal programs that might help to pay for the installation of these practices). Would EQIP, RCPP, pollinator, or water quality funds help pay for any of these practices? Could you work with the Iowa Soybean Association or Pheasants Forever, for example, to install edge-of-field practices? Can you enroll some of your marginal land in CRP?
  5. Act on your decision. Get estimates from local contractors. Look into renting equipment or hiring local contractors to install practices. If you are considering no-till or cover crops, meet with your farmer to discuss how you can work together to make it happen. Perhaps you can hire your tenant to prepare and seed waterways or filter strips?  Offer to share expenses. Meet with other owners who have already installed these practices. Look into financing for your conservation work.

Feel free to read my op-ed in the May 7, 2018 Des Moines Register.

 

 

 

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“We don’t stand together very well…farmers are weak.” Richard Baugh, English hog farmer

Mr Baugh, English hog farmer, says it well. http://www.bbc.com/news/business-42353256

But we can change this situation. The National Farmer’s Organization tried, and the National Farmer’s Union is trying to unify farmer voices to improve markets for farm commodities and government policies.

Direct marketing is one proven strategy, but this does not work so well with industrial grain production where the producer is at the mercy of both Big Ag inputs and Big Ag markets. It does work well at the small scale level, but it’s a heck of a lot of work.

A second strategy is to diversify grain farms in the upper Midwest. That is, we all know here in Iowa and southern Minnesota that we produce too much corn and too many soybeans.

 

New water plant in Ames: What are the protocols for dealing with excess nutrients in the raw water?

via ILF Staff Tours New Ames Water Treatment Plant

Cover crop update

We finally have regular and sufficient moisture to get our cover crop off to a good start. This year we put on cereal rye and tillage radishes with a Hagie rather than a plane. Our local cooperative worked with Hagie/Deere & Co. to provide the seeding. We will pay the cooperative for the seed only. Next year we will mostly likely need to go back to seeding with a plane since the farm will be in soybeans and there would be too much damage to the beans with driving through the field with a Hagie in that situation.

covercroprye&radish_10062017

Cereal rye and tillage radish seeded on August 30. Germinated about September 19 at first rain after seeding with a Hagie provided by Heartland Cooperative.

In-field & edge-of-field conservation practices

Here we are a month in to the cover crop growing season and we finally have some decent growth. We put our cereal rye and tillage radishes on with a Hagie this year. It was equipped with seed tubes that dropped the cover crop seed on the ground between the corn rows.

cc_09222017

Our cover crop mix this year is 45 lbs of cereal rye and 3 lbs of tillage radish/acre. Radish on the left and the cereal rye on the right.

Due to the dry weather we had the seed did not germinate until about mid-September when we finally got an inch of rain. Then last week we got a very nice storm that dropped another 3.2 inches.

raingauge_09292017

At home, 1/2 mile north, my gauge showed 2.3 inches. As you can see, my farm gauge showed 3.2 inches.

 

So, what are in-field practices? Cover crops and no-till are two examples. We have also installed edge-of-field practices. One example is the saturated buffer we installed on September 1, 2017. Saturated buffers de-nitrify tile water by running it through a vegetative buffer before it reaches the creek. The plants and grasses in the vegetative buffer take up some of the nutrients in the tile water, thereby leaving the water with less nitrate when it reaches the creek.

SBinstall_09012017

My water letter addressing HF 316/484 in the Iowa House

Letter to the Editor: Why try to fix something if it ain’t broke?

Lee S. Tesdell, Slater, IA

March 8, 2017

Water is a personal issue for me. When I lived in Amman, Jordan, tap water was generally safe, but it flowed in the pipes only once a week. In Saudi Arabia we could not drink the tap water and boiling did not make it safe. My employer provided potable water from a desalination plant.

So the first thing I read when I got here to Xiamen, China 12 days ago, was familiar: “Be careful not to spoil your trip to Xiamen by drinking the tap water, ….” Source: http://www.world-guides.com/asia/china/fujian/xiamen/xiamen_life.html

A couple of days after arriving I read some news from Iowa in regards to House File 316/ HF 484, which would disband Des Moines Water Works (DMWW) in favor of a regional water utility controlled by local municipalities and proposed by Jarad Klein of rural Keota; to be honest, I think Klein is trying to fix a system that is not broken. Here in Xiamen, China, the system is broken; (I buy bottled water and boil the water out of my tap) in rural Slater, Iowa, where I live and drink DMWW water, it’s not.

DMWW guarantees my rural water is adequate and safe water at a reasonable price. I pay about $20.00 a month for between one and two thousand gallons of water for household use. My own well supplies the barn.

Clearly, House Bill 316/HF484 targets Bill Stowe, the “Des Moines Hippie”, as one of my good friends calls him, and the lawsuit against the county boards of supervisors of Sac, Buena Vista, and Calhoun counties. Due to high levels of nitrate from tiles in those counties, DMWW has to run expensive equipment during peak nitrate flows to purify the water for me and about half a million customers in central Iowa. I have a sneaking suspicion that to find out the names of the big boys behind this legislation, we have to “follow the money”; I can guarantee you it is not the majority of customers of DMWW.

Leaving aside personal vendettas, this really does get down to the core issue of improving our water quality. We know certain facts through current research: we have excess nutrients in our watersheds, we contribute to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, and a number of our own watersheds are impaired. We also know that most of the excess nutrients, mainly nitrates and phosphorus, enter our watersheds from our farm ground in Iowa but that there are solutions: cover crops, buffer strips, no-till, prairie strips, saturated buffers and reduced fertilizer applications.

Like Klein, I am the 5th generation to live on land in Iowa that my immigrant ancestors settled 150 years ago, so I appreciate the history of agriculture, soil health, and water quality in Iowa. On my farm in the Fourmile Creek watershed, I have implemented some of those solutions; I know what comes out of one of my farm tiles because the Iowa Soybean Association regularly checks both the water in and the water out of my woodchip bioreactor installed on that tile; three years of data shows that I reduce the nitrate level by 47%. Our other conservation measures, research shows, decrease the nitrate and phosphorus leaving my farm: cover crops, no-till, and buffers in the Fourmile Creek watershed.

Frankly, Klein and his colleagues would move us farther down the road to better water (and that really is the important goal here) by dropping this attempt to disband DMWW and support legislation that funds robust conservation measures throughout the state.

The “Des Moines Hippie” keeps my water safe, abundant, and affordable. What needs to be fixed? Nothing that I can see.

 

 

 

Winter soil erosion

You might be surprised to know that topsoil erodes even in the winter when it is frozen. As you can see in the photograph from southern Minnesota where they do a lot of fall tillage, the topsoil does not stay put. Exactly how does topsoil move into the snow drift in the ditch in this photograph? Let me explain. This road between New Richland and Waldorf, Minnesota, runs east-west. The prevailing winds that bring snow in the upper Midwest are usually west/northwest winds. That means if the field on the north side of this road is loosened up by fall tillage, the wind, as it blows the snow into the ditch, will also pick up some of the soil particles and deposit them with the snow, into the ditch. This field was in corn last year, since you can see a little corn stubble showing up in the black topsoil. The farm operator chisel-plowed this field after harvest last fall.

The next question we have to ask is, so what if the soil erodes? Another related question is, is it possible to create new topsoil with conservation practices?

 

winterwinderosionscmn_02082017

This is a photograph from February 8, 2017 on a state highway between New Richland and Waldorf, Minnesota. You can also see the snowmobile tracks in the snow.

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