Conservation Agriculture: Soil, Savings and the Realities of Farming

For the following, featured farms, conservation and financial success are a wedded pair. ( Farm Journal )

According to the plain realities of farming, conservation agriculture’s yardstick is efficacy and profit. For the following, featured farms, conservation and financial success are a wedded pair. Each of these farmers has long stood at the vanguard of an effort to mix crop management with environmental awareness and produce tangible benefits to soil and nature, without sacrificing dollars.

Farming Practices Can Improve Water Quality

Rob Stout
Washington County, Iowa

Conservation looks different on almost any farm, but there’s always something you can do. That mindset helps Rob Stout, who manages a 9,000-head hog operation and grows 1,100 acres of corn and soybeans, conserve nutrients and ensure the water that leaves his operation is in better shape than it would be otherwise.

Stout runs 60' buffer strips on two farms with a creek in between, allowing native grass roots to suck up nitrates and keep soil in the fields. He also maintains a farm pond to drain nearby acreage and enable nitrates to bubble to the surface and escape. In addition, Stout has an edge-of-field bioreactor covering 75 acres that serves as a wood-chip filter to pull nitrates out from tile water. “Over five years, we’ve seen a 70% reduction of nitrates from that ground,” he says.

With no idle iron except a 40-year-old piece of equipment to level tile lines, Stout calls no-till a “financial no-brainer” based on expenses. “I’ve only got a planter, sprayer, combine and a livestock operation. I save on equipment costs, labor and time. No-till also doesn’t cost me a bit in yield, and some years I know I’ve got extra yield when it’s so dry.”

Federal Grassland Easement Delivers Beef Profits

Chad Schooley
Hamlin County, S.D.

In the late 1990s, fifth-generation producer Chad Schooley wrestled with, and frequently lost, the battle with a quarter section that included light ground that burned in summer and heavy ground that often stayed too wet for consistent crops. He decided the marginal land would make productive cattle ground and converted his first tillable acres to grass, placing the quarter section in a federal grassland easement.

“It was a great financial move for my operation even when commodity prices were high, because I was looking for long-term ROI,” he says. “The program is a perpetual easement, and the grass can’t be broken again.”

Several years later, Schooley bought another quarter section of grass with the same easement in place. Fast forward to 2015: He converted a third quarter section of rented marginal ground, implementing a rotational grazing system with six paddocks.
“If I want to be a conservationist, I still have to make money or I won’t be in business to conserve anything. I can prove profit on the converted grassland by my stocking rate. We’re able to run more units [cow-calf] on that ground, and I make more money on it than I could have with crops,” he explains.

On the rest of his crop land, which includes alfalfa, corn, oats, soybeans and wheat, Schooley has planted cover crops for soil health and cattle consumption the past decade. “Cover crops, rotational grazing systems, above-ground water pipelines, riparian buffers; I’m always trying to make my marginals better and improve the land, and keep my soil from going down the Big Sioux River. I want my black dirt to stay right here.”

Avian Army Naturally Fertilizes Delta Rice Fields

Mike Wagner
Tallahatchie County, Miss.

In the 1990s, Mike Wagner was intent on switching the playbook on diesel consumption, irrigation, tillage, aquifer depletion and labor issues on his farm. He pulled an about-face, financed his own research and drove toward crop quality and conservation. The result is one of the most unique agriculture operations in the U.S.: Two Brooks Farm.

Wagner powers his farm with an avian army. Waterfowl arrive by the thousands after harvest, demolishing stubble and depositing fertilizer at the dollar-saving rate of 60 units of nitrogen per acre. The birds move from acre to acre stamping down rice straw, enabling Wagner to broadcast seed during spring planting with minimal nitrogen applications. In addition, Wagner doesn’t put out insecticides or fungicides on his rice.

A Delta rice field can easily suck up 2-acre-feet or more of water per acre, but Wagner uses only inches—averaging just 8.9" per acre across the entire farm—and the difference is dollars.

75-Plus Years Of Proof That Conservation Pays

Pete Hunter
Coahoma County, Miss.

Pete Hunter says the legacy of conservation at Stovall Farms traces all the way back to the 1940s with crop rotation, fallow ground and cover crops, followed by land-forming and pipe-and-pad irrigation in the 1960s.

With the advent of glyphosate-tolerant crops in the 1990s, Hunter began using conservation tillage on heavy soils. “There are so many ways to save money, and minimum till and no-till greatly reduce costs per acre in field preparation. People still think you can’t plant a seed into cotton stalks from the year before or into weeds that you’ve killed. They think you can’t get a stand; I know you can because we’ve done it so many times.”

Other conservation measures he has adopted include: automated irrigation, flow meters, well timers, surge valves, computerized hole selection, variable rate fertilizer, low-stage weirs, tailwater ponds, two stage ditches to help soil nutrients settle before leaving the farm, and more.

Lake Erie’s Champion Of Soil Health

Les Seiler
Fayette, Ohio

With thousands of Toledo residents’ eyes turned toward his farm this past year, Les Seiler became ever-aware of the potential impact of nutrient loading into the Lake Erie watershed. As a result, he decided to go above and beyond to protect the soil on his family’s 1,620 acres and keep nutrients from entering the watershed.

To address deep gullies from water erosion, Seiler, who farms with his brother, adopted no-till. He also watches phosphorus and potassium levels closely and manages all nutrients based on soil tests, which he does every other year, based on yield zones.

Cover crops are also a key, and after 10 years of use, he says the organic matter added from the winter annual crops is invaluable. Overall, Seiler says the family’s farming practices including no-till, cover crops, tile runoff monitoring and planting green have led to at least $50 per acre in savings—including the cost of cover crop seed and cost to plant.

Sometimes You Need To Try Something New

Peter Rost
New Madrid, Mo.

Standing in his recently planted corn field, Peter Rost watched in agony as the seedlings were decimated. With every gust of wind, he felt the proof—the sting of soil hitting his face, arms and legs—as the wind took the seedlings and soil as far as they would fly. His topsoil was vanishing right before his eyes.

“At that point I realized what I’m doing wasn’t working,” says Rost, who farms 3,000 acres, primarily corn and soybeans, in partnership with his dad. At the time, he didn’t till his bottom ground soils, but he did till the irrigated ground one or two times each year, which contributed to the wind erosion. Rost swore he wouldn’t make the same mistake again.

After that windy reckoning five years ago, he switched his farm to 100% no-till and began experimenting with cover crops. Today, cover crops blanket every acre of his farm, and despite trial and error, he’s dedicated to keeping it that way.

“We’ve had a lot of learning moments. The second year we did cover crops they grew so big that even after crimping they were so thick we couldn’t plant—we had to burn them,” he says. “Now we plant cover crops in the fall and terminate early in the spring, so they’re graveyard dead when we plant the cash crop.”

In the future, he’d like to try planting into green cover crops but realizes there’s still a lot he’ll need to learn and evaluate before going full-bore. Before trying anything new on his farm, Rost asks these questions:

  • What are the equipment needs? Am I set up for this type of operation?
  • Can my soil handle this practice?
  • Do I have the labor needed to accomplish my goals?

In the case of no-till, Rost saw equipment and labor savings. In labor alone, he estimates $50,000 in annual savings because he doesn’t need a full-time employee anymore. In addition, the Rosts sold their tillage equipment and got immediate savings in maintenance.

Technology Drives Tillage, Tiling and Nutrient Application

Tim Malterer
Janesville, Minn.

With today’s tight margins, Tim Malterer is keeping a tight hold on his pocketbook. Every dollar counts, and errors by ignorance can be costly—especially when it comes to nutrient and soil management.

“It’s our responsibility to be sustainable,” says Malterer, who shares equipment and labor with another operation. “We apply enough nutrients to optimize production, not necessarily just to maximize, and manage soil with drainage and tillage practices.”

With precision technology and mindful awareness of soil needs, Malterer uses variable-rate technology to give every acre what it needs—and not a cent more. For some areas that means using greater seeding and nutrient rates, while in others it means lowering both. It all boils down to what the ground “tells” him to do.

“We grid sample every acre and from those samples we work with an agronomist to make nutrient recommendations and apply variable-rate nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium,” he explains.

Malterer uses the Advance Yield System (AYS) program to get field prescriptions. AYS analyzes both yield and financial implications of nutrient application and provides recommendations based on the farmer’s goals.

“Because of this I know if my conservation practices are good for the pocketbook, too,” Malterer says. “We’ve been doing variable rate nutrient application of phosphorus and potassium since the late ‘90s and added nitrogen in the past four years. Adding the precision of the AYS program is giving us four to five times our money back.”

The return comes from saving money on inputs where yields are less and adding nutrients where they can drive yields higher. Tracking this data and cost also helps quantify returns by acre and practice. In addition to nutrient management, Malterer is tracking the effect of tile and tillage by acre. There is too much risk to go all no-till on the cool Minnesota soils, he says. So, he strikes the balance between tillage and keeping soil where it belongs by using tile.

These farmers have more to share about their conservation practices. Read more at