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Seth Watkins, Clarinda, Iowa, is a big-picture guy. He looks out over a panoramic view of his fifth-generation southwestern Iowa Drift Plain farm and surveys the scene in front of him. His farmland is anything but flat. It rolls, pitches, flattens out, and rolls again – beautiful country in any light and all 3,000 acres of it under his hand. It’s not conventional Iowa high-productive corn and soybean ground, though.
“This southern Iowa Drift Plain, there’s not one magic bullet to solve my constant erosion problems,” he says. “I take a combination of the simple stuff that helps me the most first,” says Watkins. “Factors that have the biggest impact include no-till farming, farming on the contour, leaving headlands in sod so I’m not putting end rows up and down the slope. It's all commonsense stuff that I’ve known about for decades. Those things really do help. A lot of farmers have gotten away from those practices.”
Watkins is trying to create a method to manage soil loss and runoff and also to sequester nutrients. The first field he put into strips was a steep C-slope farm.
“My contacts at Iowa State University wanted a real-world erosion-control test on acres desperately needing erosion control,” says Watkins. “On that farm, I would have put in a diversion terrace to get strips established,” he continues. “As it turns out, things were holding. After a couple of nontypical 6-inch rainfalls, however, I got some ephemeral gullies in new seedings. There was serious erosion after that, and then I had a ditch.”
Enter the buffer strip idea. Or, if it were a movie, the title might be The Strategic Placement of Prairie. “The mind starts to think about strips on contours, but what I need to find is a name more suited to the strategic placement of prairie," he says.
“It can be a tiny wetland patch, but that might be a key entry point to a lot of nutrients,” continues Watkins. “Farming is both an art and a science. As farmers, we should use more of our senses. Farmers sometimes think, ‘If yields are down, let’s put more fertilizer on it; let’s feed it.’ Going back in history, you might realize that it’s just a naturally poor piece of soil and maybe you should just find another use for it.”
Pointing to a patch of prairie residing near a cornfield, he notes, “The sad thing is that it’s kind of like studying the desert. Some of these areas are cancerous. When they get weak, they just seem to spread their weakness to adjacent areas. I’ve learned that if I put some native grasses in those weak areas, not only do I control erosion in those spots but also I stabilize them.”
Watkins believes federal crop insurance programs encourage farmers to farm ground that shouldn’t be put into production.
“The big part of how I see it is this,” explains Watkins. “Taxpayers give me certain things to help me out on my farm. For that money, I owe them healthy soil and clean water.”
He sees the strips as a tool to accomplish that. “They’re very easy to implement,” says Watkins. “It can bring about a 95% reduction in soil loss, about an 85% reduction in nitrogen (N), and another 80% reduction in phosphorus (P). When you look at goals of the 45% nutrient reduction, that’s pretty impressive.”
In Iowa, polluted waterways went up 500% to 790% last year, with blue-green algae, toxic algae blooms, and P runoffs, says Watkins.
“This is a real issue, and we just can’t keep our heads in the sand. We have to solve it,” he says. “I really feel there’s correlation between a strong healthy ecology and a strong healthy community. Iowa has rough stats. About 50% of all species are declining – all living species. They’re not just talking about spotted owls or bats; it’s all things across the board. Many are not endangered, but lots of the species decline is coming from habitat loss.”
He sees the challenge in incorporating improvements with row-crop production, perhaps using some of the same tools to help restore habitat, turn around species loss, and, at the same time, purify water. Pointing to a stream that winds through his hills, he says, “We’ve had the farm program since the mid-1930s, and we do have to overproduce to help feed the world. But we have to take care of this land. If we really have to feed 9 billion people by 2050, we’re really going to need this soil.”
He has a piece of high ground that struggles to grow a host of plants. Mixed with the sunflowers are brassicas, cover crops, nitro radishes, tillage radishes, mung beans, rye, barley, and grazing corn. Compared with orderly rows of corn and soybeans, it looks like a bad hairdo.
“The concept is to plant sunflowers, and let the rest of the stuff grow beneath,” Watkins explains. “After I harvest the sunflowers, the cattle come in and graze on all the rest.”
There’s no need to be pretty and orderly for this to work, he says. “The idea is to break up the hardpan with brassicas. They put down a 4-foot-deep taproot. There’s nothing better to break up hardpan, and I get a living cover crop to hold nutrients in place. Mother Nature still leaches nutrients,” he says, “but I can work with her and make things better.
“I’d love to get where I don’t have to add N. My corn hit over 20 tons, so I’m getting there,” says Watkins. “I’m using soil sampling on the fields. Where it’s low in N, I’ll fence the area and put cows in there so their hooves work up the soil. Their manure will naturally build up N.
“Thinking outside the box, I’m amazed at the amount of forage I can grow on these marginal acres,” he says. “I’m of the impression that if I treat my cover crops with the care and attention I give my corn and bean crops, they’ll do really well.” The cattle, 600 Hereford and Angus brood cows, are a tool. “I rotational-graze them,” he says.
“If I could figure out a good way to get water to them, I’d like to move that herd every day, doing mob grazing on these marginal acres. Availability of fresh water is so important to the cattle,” he says.
“My challenges in moving them occur when I’m the busiest, during the spraying season.” During those times, he weighs the challenges of moving the herd. “With the price of pasture, I think it will be worth it,” he says.
He estimates that his land is probably 150-bushel-per-acre corn ground – at best. “It’s a long way from 300, so why fight it? Let’s raise more cows down here,” he says. “As farmers, we can learn from each other, but we have to be careful in telling each other what might work,” says Watkins. “All of our lands are similar; yet, all are different. What works here might not work there.”