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Multi-faceted approach to soil health and conservation

Article cover photo
Ray Gaesser stops for a photo in his field near Corning, IA. (Photo Credit: Katie James/Iowa Soybean Association)

By Bethany Baratta, ISA senior writer

Iowa farmer and past Iowa Soybean Association president Ray Gaesser thought he was doing everything he could to protect his farm from erosion and soil loss. He had switched to no-till more than 20 years ago and built terraces. But a true defining moment was a 4-inch rain in one hour.

“That was our gut-wrenching, defining moment,” Gaesser said. “It took all the residue we had to protect the surface and floated it all away.”

That moment transformed Gaesser’s approach to conservation. He had to do more. The answer, he told a crowd at the Drake Soil conference recently, was cover crops.

“Cover crops have helped us hold residue in place, build organic matter, sequester nutrients and keep our water clean at the same time,” Gaesser, from Corning, said.

The family’s farm is 100% no-till. The multi-generational family farm has increased its acres of cover crops since 2010. The Gaessers also started growing their own cover crop seed in 2013.

Undoubtedly, climate patterns are shifting, Gaesser said. And farmers must adapt to these changes, becoming more resilient to extreme weather events.

“I feel personally responsible and compelled to take action to adapt and experiment, to learn what works and what is practical,” Gaesser said.

That conservation-minded attitude can help create valuable change to Iowa’s landscape, said Jerry Hatfield, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment.

“We’ve become extremely susceptible to the weather variation that’s out there,” Hatfield said, noting the wet spring of 2019 put Iowa through the “world’s largest aggregate stability test.”

Hatfield said tillage is the No. 1 culprit of soil degradation in the state as it takes the organic matter out of the soil. The loss of organic matter leads to greater variability within fields.

The change has led to the creation of essentially three zones in a single field:

  1. Highly productive stable zone. Highest yielding part of the field, no matter the weather due to good soils.
  2. Low-yielding stable zone. No matter the weather, this part is always low yielding.
  3. In-between/unstable zone. This zone is entirely weather dependent; good weather, good yields. Poor weather, low yields.

Gaesser’s approach to soil conservation with the no-till system and cover crops is an approach that can help positively change the carbon balance within a field within 2 years.

Hatfield also pointed to studies on Wayne Fredericks’ farm near Osage in far northern Iowa. Fredericks, an Iowa soybean farmer on the American Soybean Association board, showed the switch from strip-till to no-till, combined with the addition of cover crops, positively affected soil health.

“Wayne made his fields more water use efficient, more nutrient efficient, and reduced variability within his field,” Hatfield said.

The changes also increased organic matter from 2% to 4%.

Soil health policy

There are 10 states that have passed legislation to develop policies relating specifically to soil health. Other states, including Iowa, have introduced legislation, but so far nothing has been implemented in the state. There were three bills introduced in Iowa’s last session that had ties to soil health. Though none of them made it very far, they “cracked open the conversation” about soil health, said Katie Rock, Polk County Soil and Water Conservation District commissioner.

In Iowa, the Iowa Soybean Association works with other partners through the Soil Health Partnership to focus specifically on soil health.

On one hand, a state-by-state approach to soil health policy perhaps lacks the effectiveness that a federal approach would.

But “having a common definition of soil health is a start,” Rock said.

On the other hand, she said, a federal approach would likely fall short in addressing the variations in soils across the nation.

Federally, the USDA and the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) has defined six soil health indicators. These indicators—and the Soil Health Partnership—are a start to defining what soil health is and how efforts to improve soil health could be funded. This is a good start, Rock said.

“This gives us a benchmark on how we define soil health, and how we can measure it.”

Gaesser continues to encourage other farmers to try new practices on their field, especially no-till and cover crops.

“We have to have a ‘can-do’ attitude,” Gaesser said. “We need to make it a priority as farmers and do our best to encourage others to try new things. When we do those things, we protect our soil and also clean up the water we’re concerned about.”

Contact Bethany Baratta at

For media inquiries, permission to republish articles or to request high-res photos, please contact Katie James, ISA Public Relations Manager at © 2020 Iowa Soybean Association. All rights reserved.

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