Cedar River Watershed Project: Innovative Farmer

By Taylor on January 8, 2013 in Blog

Written by Larry Stone

ROWLEY, IA – Dick Sloan loves to ask questions:
Where did that pair of killdeers nest? What's the nutrient content of hog manure? What kind of dragonfly was that? How much organic matter is in my soil?

Sloan, who farms in the watersheds of Lime and Bear Creeks, between Rowley and Brandon, grew up helping his dad maintain waterways and practice minimum tillage on land his grandfather started farming in the 1930s. He and his brother have continued conservation work on land they bought more than 30 years ago, after Dick graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in biology.

But Sloan, who is an assistant Soil and Water Conservation District Commissioner for Buchanan County, is always experimenting on the 850 acres he farms. This year he's enrolled 4.5 acres of a rolling cornfield into a new Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) practice to establish strips of prairie between row crops. The goal is that the permanent vegetation will slow runoff and reduce soil erosion, as well as restore organic matter in the soil.

Dick Sloan of Rowley with a strip of prairie that he has seeded into a cornfield to prevent soil erosion and rebuild organic matter in the soil.

What's more, the diverse prairie – a seed mix he purchased through Pheasants Forever and seeded with help from the Buchanan County Conservation Board – should create good wildlife cover. And the native grasses and flowers should attract pollinating insects, which are essential to crop production.

Sloan already had been farming on the contour for many years, as well as planting corn and soybeans with reduced or no tillage, so soil losses were below the five tons per acre that traditionally has been considered allowable. But he worried whether that was good enough.

“Can we really afford five tons per acre?” Sloan wondered. “Maybe we're going to have to do more.”

Dick Sloan of Rowley checks the corn field where he aerial seeded a cover crop of rye in 2011, then no-tilled the 2012 corn crop into the residue. The objective is to reduce soil erosion and build organic matter.

Sloan also has tried planting cover crops to prevent corn or bean fields from remaining barren for half of the year. In September 2011, he hired an airplane to seed rye into standing corn and soybean fields. Thus, a new green crop was growing before he harvested the old one. He allowed the hardy rye to grow throughout the fall and into the spring before he applied a herbicide in preparation for no-tilling corn or beans. The dead rye residue should reduce erosion, as well as add more organic matter to the soil, he said. Growing vegetation on his land for several more months of the year also should encourage biological activity, thus improving the health of the soil, Sloan said.

To measure the success of the cover crop trials, Sloan enrolled in an eight-state U. S. Department of Agriculture “Coordinated Agricultural Project” on Climate and Corn-based Cropping Systems. The research includes soil tests to measure how much organic matter the practice can add to the soil.

“You're trying to get your ground to be more of a 'sponge,'” Sloan said, using the analogy of how the air spaces and organic matter of Iowa's native prairie and savanna soils could soak up huge amounts of precipitation with very little runoff. “You want to build more resiliency into your ground.”

If farmers are to cope with the prospects of heavier rain events, such as have occurred in the past few years, they need to find better ways to hold back the water – “and not just rush it into the stream so quickly,” Sloan said.

For several years, Sloan also has maintained a buffer strip along Lime Creek, as well as filter strips in nearby fields. He's eager to see the results of his new prairie strips, and is considering reseeding the older, bromegrass strips to native vegetation.

Sloan also is watching with interest as researchers at The Land Institute in Kansas attempt to develop high-yielding varieties of prairie plants, which eventually might become perennial commodity crops. Could raising crops without tillage or annual planting be the future of farming?

Although Sloan is primarily a grain farmer, he also owns hog facilities that he rents to a neighbor, and he applies the manure to his crop fields. He meticulously tests the manure's nutrient content so he can get the maximum fertilizer benefit and reduce application of commercial fertilizers.

Saving soil – and water – takes a commitment, Sloan admitted. He tries to understand and fine-tune each field's different soil types, fertility, crop rotation, crop history, and tillage practices. That commitment also has led him to work with a number of conservation groups. He was one of the founders and first president of the Lime Creek Watershed Improvement Association, and is a member of the Cedar River Watershed Coalition. He's also a member of Practical Farmers of Iowa. “You're always learning,” he said.

Read other articles in this series.


Originally published by the Cedar River Watershed Project

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