By LARRY KERSHNER
AMES – Taking a holistic approach to farm management, three Iowa farmers on April 5 outlined their approach to long-term sustainable farming.
The three farmers – Nathan Anderson of Aurelia; Laura Krouse, of Mount Vernon; and Mike DeCook, of Lovilla – each indicated how they manage each part of the farming operation in terms of how the other parts are impacted.
In short, they said, no one part of the operations is separated from another. They are all linked and each decision for one affects the entire operation in some form.
“This is a good cross-section of farming,” Anderson said of the three speakers. “There’s a tremendous diverse perspective in how we raise food.”
“I hope this inspires more discussion about values in decisions made in raising food,” he added. “Value of the soil, value of the water and value of the community.”
The three served as a panel for the annual Shivvers Memorial Lecture at the Iowa State University Memorial Union in Ames. It was the first time the lecture series was held as a panel discussion.
Anderson and his wife, Sarah, have an integrated crop and livestock farm in Cherokee County.
He said no-till and cover crops are an integral part of his approach to sustainability.
“Sustainability is a good word,” Anderson told a room full of students, farmers and non-ag area citizens, “until you get into it. It’s complicated.”
He said the operation has incorporated cover crops on half of their cropping acres.
Anderson added they are still learning the best dates for planting, and how to graze their cattle on cover crops to extend the grazing season.
“It changes our row-crop management for the better long-term,” Anderson said. “Our operation has implemented holistic decision-making, assessing (decisions based on) the values of environmental impacts and the values of our labor.”
“We study what is not sustainable and what will eventually hurt the viability of the farm operation,” he added. “We don’t have all the answers, but we are making decisions as a suite of impacts, rather than separating the components.”
Anderson serves as a Cherokee County Soil and Water Conservation District commissioner and a board director for Practical Farmers of Iowa.
DeCook operates a ranch near Lovilla in southern Iowa, where he custom-grazes cattle and raises grass-fed bison. He said he is committed to restoring biodiversity of native plant and wildlife species.
He donated 200 acres of land to the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation to be permanently protected by a conservation easement.
It’s on these acres he runs his bison trying to create a natural space to roam and graze for the herd.
DeCook described the INHF donated acres as “rewilding” of the land. He also referred to “undeveloping” the farm land.
“We want the ranch to mimic the rest of the world,” DeCook said, which includes raising organic, grass-fed bison.
He said the bison graze the acres year-round. They don’t over-graze and they over-winter well.
DeCook said he has interplanted a diversity of prairie grasses and other plants – native prairie, savannah and wetland – for a “diverse forage.”
“We have no social stressing, we don’t wean or dehorn,” DeCook said. “For us, we are keeping it as wild as possible.”
Krouse, the owner of Abbe Hills Farm near Mount Vernon, said she bought her 72 acres in the 1980s as a foreclosure. Part of those acres are growing open-pollinated corn seed, which she sells to dairies north of her, who seek it as a natural feed source.
“I’m a pretty small farm,” Krouse said. “Most of my neighbors are 6,000 acres.”
Krouse said she studied soil conservation at ISU. She has installed contour strips and grassed waterways to hinder soil erosion.
Her crop rotation includes corn, soybean, hay and gardening (for farmers markets).
“I have lots of edges,” Krouse said, “and a diverse habitat for pollinators and beneficial insects.”
She plans to install solar power to run the farming operation later this month.
In addition to operating a 200-member CSA and selling vegetables and eggs locally, she markets Abbe Hill Open Pollinated Seed Corn, an heirloom yellow dent corn which has grown on the farm since 1903.
Krouse taught biology at Cornell College and is a longtime commissioner for the Linn County Soil and Water Conservation District.
When asked about grazing his cover crops, Anderson said he plants cereal rye into corn stubble for soybeans the next season, and oats into bean stubble for corn the following season.
“That way I can graze the oats in the fall,” Anderson said, “and I don’t have to kill them in the spring.”
“And I can graze the rye in the spring and don’t have worry so much about when to kill ahead of planting soybeans.”
Researchers are finding that cereal rye can be killed just a day or two ahead of planting without affecting soybean yields and the longer growing season of the rye creates a mat that controls weeds.
When asked about what he sees needs changing in state and federal conservation policy, Anderson said that what the federal government sees as tolerable soil erosion amounts – roughly about 5 tons/per year/per acre – is too much.
“We have to set a tolerable rating that is based on real science,” Anderson said, “and is truly tolerable.”
Krouse said she sees a need for extensive training of personnel at Farm Service Agency offices and at the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship to do more outreach to farmers on the use of cover crops.
“The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy is the real deal,” Krouse said. “We have to act now.”
“Only 1.5 percent of farmers use cover crops,” she added. “That’s not enough. Cover crops are effective in reducing N & P loss.”
When asked about herbicide use, both Anderson and Krouse said they do use some but would prefer not.
“No-till is a good way for farmers to cut soil erosion,” Krouse said, “but if you have that, you have to have herbicides. You can’t get around it.”
However, she added, she uses no chemicals on her gardens.
DeCook said his operation uses no glyphosate, but did not indicate if other herbicides are used.
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