CALMAR, Iowa — Northeast Iowa Community College has implemented comprehensive conservation practices on all the cropland used to feed its dairy herd as a way to set an example for new farm techniques.
“It fits with our vision statement to live the values of innovation and stewardship,” NICC President Liang Chee Wee said.
The project will demonstrate that conscientious stewardship can and should coexist with production agriculture, Wee said.
As a key component of the Central Turkey River Nutrient Reduction Demonstration Project, NICC has adopted 100% no-till and cover crop practices on its 180 tillable acres — not only for the sake of saving and improving the soil, but also as a profitable investment and as a laboratory for students enrolled in the ag curriculum.
“This is the right thing to do,” said Dave Lawstuen, dairy operations chairman at NICC.
Lawstuen said the conservation practices complement the school’s mission to showcase innovative farming techniques — most notably the highly automated dairy center that attracts more than 5,000 visitors per year.
“Most of our ag students are from conventional farming backgrounds, and as many as 40% of them return to their home farms after graduation. We are hoping to open their eyes to what we can do for the environment out there in our grain fields,” he said.
The combination of no-till cultivation and cover crops will improve soil health, virtually halt erosion and greatly reduce the loss of nitrates and other water pollutants, said project coordinator Michelle Elliott with the Winneshiek County Soil and Water Conservation District.
“All of these practices will reduce nutrient runoff to streams, which is the goal of Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy,” Elliott said.
Lawstuen said NICC officials hope the project also will show that conservation practices, far from being simply an expense, actually can improve a farm’s profitability.
Lawstuen said NICC had been “extremely conventional” in its tillage practices until September, when its “dramatic change in culture” began with the drilling of a rye cover crop into corn stubble immediately after the crop was chopped for silage.
This spring, after the rye is harvested for silage, corn will be planted into the crop residue. Manure from the dairy operation — about 2 million gallons per year — will be injected into the soil twice a year to nourish each growing crop.
“No soil will be disturbed, enabling beneficial microorganisms to flourish. The soil will be covered the year-round and held in place by growing roots,” Lawstuen said.
Equally important, he said, Iowa’s Dairy Center, a partnership between NICC and the Northeast Iowa Community-Based Dairy Foundation, will harvest all the corn and rye silage needed to feed its high-producing 120-cow herd.
The demonstration project, one of 13 underway as part of the Iowa Water Quality Initiative, also encompasses extensive re-engineering of NICC’s Calmar campus to improve management of stormwater bound for the Turkey River.
Improvements include two restored ponds, two sediment basins, conversion of turf grass to native prairie, a bioswale to hold rain water coming off a large parking lot and a shallow wetland in a nearby crop field to slow stormwater runoff and filter nutrients.
One of those ponds was 18 feet deep when NICC was founded 48 years ago, but accumulated sediment over the years has reduced its depth to 6 feet, Lawstuen explained.
The dredged and rehabilitated ponds will combine with a butterfly garden, a trail and other “green” features to enhance campus recreational opportunities, he said.
NICC’s farm and campus, while serving as a focal point, comprise but a small part of the demonstration project, which encompasses 75,000 acres and 400 landowners.
The project offers $60 per acre cost share for no-till with cover crops, as well as incentives for several other conservation practices.