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Farmers demonstrate how practices build resiliency to variable weather

Article cover photo
Dave Walton (right) makes a point while participating in a farmer panel with Bill Couser (left) and Bryan Sievers (center). (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association)

By Bethany Baratta, ISA senior writer

Iowa farmers are adapting to variable weather patterns by making their farms more resilient to changing climate and market conditions.

Three farmers explored the challenges and opportunities of these changes as part of a panel discussion during the "Agriculture in a Changing Climate: What the Future Holds for Iowa" forum in Des Moines earlier this week. The event was co-sponsored by Iowa State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Iowa Smart Agriculture Work Group.

The panelists included:

Bill Couser, a fourth-generation cattle and grain farmer from Nevada, Iowa, work with Bayer and other companies to study various farming and conservation practices on a 220-acre AGvocacy Learning Farm.

Bryan Sievers operates a cattle feedlot and grows corn and soybeans on the family’s farm in Stockton, Iowa. Anerobic digestor projects on the farm allow the family to generate electricity and sell it back to their local service provider, Interstate Power and Light (Alliant Energy). Manure and other co-feeds are also transformed into fertilizer for their fields.

Dave Walton is a sixth-generation farmer from Wilton, Iowa. He and his family grow soybeans, corn, alfalfa and hay and raise cattle and sheep. He is an Iowa Soybean Association (ISA) district director and treasurer on the ISA executive board.

The panel was moderated by Lois Wright Morton, a former professor of rural sociology at Iowa State University. She’s currently raising blueberries, asparagus and red raspberries on 50 acres as a seventh-generation farmer in Northeast Ohio.

Q: What sorts of weather variability have you witnessed on your own farms?

 Bill: In 2004, we built our feedlot to hold “24 in 25” — or what we had seen as the most rain in a 24-hour-period over the past 25 years. Since we built that, the amount of precipitation has doubled, and we’re learning how to manage that.

Bryan: The weather and climate challenges we’ve faced over last 3 years have been very, very significant. The window of being able to get all of our fieldwork accomplished and bales made for our cattle has decreased.

Dave:  We have seen more extremes in the weather. We’re seeing 3- to 6-inch rains that are really hammering us, and it’s coming more often.

Q: What practices on your farm have helped deal with these erratic weather swings?

Bill: Since my son, Tim, came back to the farm, we’ve added cover crops to our fields and we’re no-tilling. Working with Bayer and other groups, we’re taking a look at how we can make each acre more profitable while taking care of soil health and water quality.

Bryan: The anerobic digestors help speed up the process — breaking down materials in a matter of 28 to 40 days versus years. It allows us to recycle organic matter, saving on fertilizer costs and helping build soil health. A lot of my corn and soybeans went in in June, and despite those challenges, I still harvested 70-bushel beans and 230-bushel corn.

Dave: The combination of no-till and cover crops have helped improve our soils. We started no-tilling in 2008-2009. The drought of 2012 sealed the deal for me. I saw resiliency in fields that were no-tilled versus tilled. Even in middle of the drought I could push back residue and see soil moisture. On tilled ground, there were cracks you could stick your hand in. On wet years, we’re seeing greater infiltration rates.

Q: How do you measure the effectiveness of these practices?

Bill: We’re working with Bayer and Agri Drain and others on projects to measure and track water quality progress on our farm. It’s very important to us to have the real-time data to show what progress is being made.

Bryan: The combination of terraces and grassed waterway We’re seeing improved water quality in our grass waterways. We’re seeing decent yields despite adverse weather conditions.

Dave: You believe what you can see, and we can see that sediment isn’t moving off the fields. We rely on the experts through the Iowa Soybean Association’s On-Farm Network as well as Iowa State University and their science to determine the effectiveness of programs and practices.

Q: How do we normalize this behavior of making changes and becoming more resilient to weather variability?

Bill: It’s about taking risks and learning to fail gracefully. Now only that, but also demonstrating what we’re doing on our farm. If we can demonstrate those things and see results, maybe there’s an incentive and a way for farmers to get paid to do those things that are building resiliency.

Bryan: We don’t have time for another 10 years of research; we need to act a little more quickly. I think the Iowa Soybean Association is helping to lead the way in this. It’s time for all of us to make some changes. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and we don’t want it to be a train and run us over.

Dave: It’s through leading by example. It’s showing that something — like no-till — can be done. It’s showing other farmers that by doing this practice I’m not only saving time, but also improving my bottom line.

Contact Bethany Baratta at bbaratta@iasoybeans.com.

For media inquiries, please contact Katie James, ISA Public Relations Manager at kjames@iasoybeans.com or Aaron Putze, ISA Communications Director at aputze@iasoybeans.com

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