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Wetlands Lessons on My Farm

Over 15 years and with many mistakes, the land has taught me how to create a habitat that is sustainable.

The article “Starting A Wetland” by Betsy Freese in the December issue of Successful Farming magazine [page 66] prompted me to share my experience. My 40-acre wetland is on flatland on my farm near Washington, Iowa. My farm lies between the Skunk River to the south, Dutch Creek to the west, and Crooked Creek to the east and north. It was 100% tallgrass prairie in the 1800s. I still have a small patch of native prairie cord grass growing in an old fence row with roots that could be thousands of years old.

The first settlers came to my county in the late 1830s. My great-grandfather was told by early settlers that buffalo were attracted to the area of the farm because large wallows held water all summer long and gave them a place to cool off.

My great-grandfather bought this farm in 1905 and hired two men who spent three years hand-digging clay drainage tile. The land is so flat that the main tile line is 5 feet deep. I know it’s that deep because when I built the wetlands, I had to find it and plug it. I can’t imagine what a job that would have been to dig a trench nearly 10 inches wide and 5 feet deep. 

Even with the tile, about 10 acres would have standing water for several days after a heavy rain. Some years, those acres did not grow a crop; if they did, the yield was not good.

In 2000, a soil technician at the NRCS office tried to talk me into putting the 40 acres into a CRP Farmable Wetlands Program (CP27 and CP28). He wanted to have someone in the county enroll so he could show the project to other farmers.

After another wet year and a crop failure on part of the 40 acres, I relented and enrolled the acres. It was a hard decision to take 40 acres of some of the flattest ground in Washington County out of production. At that time in 2001 it was paying $180 per acre, which didn’t sound too bad.

I opted for the 15-year contract, which I really began to question when corn and soybean prices peaked a few years ago, and I could have been making $500 per acre farming the land.

Mistakes made

This being one of the first projects in the county, I made some mistakes. I had bulldozers dig out small depressions about 2 feet deep spread over the entire wetlands. These were not deep enough to hold water in dry spells.

Later, at my own expense, I had an excavator dig a depression 8 feet deep (shown above). This has never gone dry in 14 years. Instead of making hundreds of small depressions, I should have made several deep holes that would have provided water for ducks and geese.

When I built the wetlands, the seeding mixture was left up to the landowner. I seeded mostly big bluestem and Indian grass with some forbs mixed in. It is thriving today except in the really wet area where reed canary grass has taken over.

I also planted 600 wild plum trees and 600 red cedars for wildlife cover. The red cedars were killed when one of my prairie burns got into them. The plums survived, as they had spread from the roots so much that almost no grass was growing in the trees to burn.

I don’t do anything to the wetlands other than periodic burning. My only weed problem besides canary grass is Canada thistles. I try to spot-spray them, but the ground is so rough because of all the 2-foot depressions that it is hard on a spray rig.

Renew the project

I am a firm believer in the Conservation Reserve Program. I have around 14 contracts totaling 270 acres. The first were enrolled in the Highly Erodible Land Initiative in the 1980s.

I had a choice to make last spring when the 15-year CRP wetlands contract was over. I chose to renew the project for another 10 years. 

In 10 years I will be 79, and someone else will be making the decision on whether to continue the wetlands. The current rental rate looks pretty good right now. 

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