By Larry Neppl

I guess you would not say I am the typical landowner. My father built the first terraces in our county on a farm that he rented. He also served as a commissioner of the local Soil and Water Conservation District for several years. He taught me the value of conservation. 

For over thirty years I managed farms in northwest and northcentral Iowa for absentee farm owners whom I worked closely with to make soil and water conservation an important part of our farm plans. I convinced my farm operators to stop moldboard plowing, move to chisel plows and eventually leave soybean stubble untilled in the fall. 

By the time I retired in 2000, nearly two-thirds of the farms I managed were practicing ridge-till where we left all crop residue on the soil surface following harvest, banded our P and K fertilizer in the ridge instead of broadcasting them on the soil surface, banded our herbicides which further reduced the costs of inputs and used only two cultivations in the tillage processes. This also reduced the machinery costs and fuel costs for the operators. 

In 1989 we were recognized as the first-place winner in the Professional Farm Manager division for soil and water conservation practices by the National Association of Conservation Districts.

TURNING TO NO-TILL. My wife and I own 40 acres in Palo Alto County, Iowa, where she grew up. Our farm was in a corn/soybean rotation, crop share lease and with full-width tillage. Several years ago, I started studying and reading a lot about no-till, strip-till and cover crops. We decided to move to this type of operation and wanted a farm operator who had experience with no-till, strip-till and cover crops so we could hit the ground. We also wanted a younger farmer so we could help him/her with more land.

I went to local coop elevators, banks, chemical and seed dealers asking if they knew of a potential farm operator. Lastly, I went to the local NRCS office in our county, and they gave me the name of a seed, chemical and fertilizer retailer whom they knew was doing custom strip-tilling. We met with him and found that he had about five years’ experience planting cover crops in the fall, strip-tilling and placement of fertilizer in a band in soybean stubble in the fall before corn the following year, and then no-tilling corn and soybeans. He was 33 years old, an ag graduate of Iowa State University and worked as a crop consultant for the retailer we called, in addition to farming.

On another 50 acres farm we own one-third of in Webster County, Iowa, we decided the next year to find a new farm operator as we were not happy with the yields and the way it was being farmed. I knew of a young farmer in the area who was doing the kind of farming that we wanted and had about 5 years’ experience with no-till and cover crops. He was about 35 and an ag graduate of Iowa State also, and a young farmer we could help.

On both farms we are going to add small grains and legumes to the rotation to further improve our soil health.

We have been in this system long enough to start seeing the benefits of reduced soil erosion, vastly improved soil health and texture, increased soil organic matter and reduced costs of inputs. We are also convinced we are farming in an environmentally responsible manner to keep carbon in the soil and keep our topsoil and fertilizer nutrients and chemicals on the land instead of in the water systems.

NO-TILL INCENTIVES. For many years I thought that government programs needed to increase the financial incentives for farmers and farm owners to substantially increase the use of practices that will reduce soil loss by wind and erosion and handle the climate changes taking place so that we could leave the earth better than we received it. It didn’t seem like the payments were sufficient to get farmers to do no-tilling, strip-tilling and cover crops and they didn’t last long enough.

However, I recently read The Land Remains: A Midwestern Perspective on Our Past and Future by Dr. Neil Hamilton, the now-retired head of the Agricultural Law Department of Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. He made a compelling case that, yes, landowners own the land, but that doesn’t mean they can do with it as they please. The land is part of our heritage and has been passed down for generations. All of society has an interest in that land for our food production and recreation, and therefore the owners and renters have a responsibility to treat it in the best possible manner. Society, in fact, has a right to place certain restrictions on the manner the land is farmed for the good of the whole society. He has convinced me. 

To further substantiate my feelings on this, I recently attended a webinar conducted by the Soil Health Nexus about conservation practices. Dr. Linda Prokopy of Purdue University and her colleagues have done extensive research about farmers’ and landowners’ conservation practices, why they do them and why they don’t. 

Most landowners don’t understand today’s farming and know little about conservation or soil health. Many farmers want to farm the way that their forebears did and falsely believe no-till will not work on their soils and they are in love with their huge horsepower machines needed to farm the way they do. Landowners and tenants rarely discuss it. 

Dr. Prokopy said that their research states that it will take more than financial incentives to get owners and farmers to move to soil health and needed conservation practices to minimize erosion and reduce agriculture’s effects on the environment.

My feeling is that the farmers and other landowners using the “good practices” as well as Extension Service professionals will need to work with other landowners and show them the benefits of conservation practices, especially from an economic standpoint. 

A friend of mine has extensive data showing his advantage with the “good practices” mentioned above gives him about a $170 acre advantage over those farmers using full-width tillage. I think a very important part of the education process will require pointing out the environmental damage being done with full-width farming and appeal to the good senses of the owners and farmers on what must be done voluntarily or be faced with government mandates. It is going to be a tough sell.

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