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Nutrient Pollution

Farmer Story: Keeping the Creek on the Family Farm Flowing and Clean Makes Good Environmental and Financial Sense

David Schroeder farms about 1,200 acres of soybeans and corn around Coon Rapids, Iowa. He first started using no-till techniques in the mid-1980s. In 2013, he was named an Iowa Farm Environmental Leader by the state of Iowa.

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Brushy Creek runs through my farm. When I was growing up, I loved cooling off in Brushy Creek. It was fun. The water was fresh. We’d splash around and try to catch fish with a little net.

We never had much time for vacations when I was young. School might be over for the summer, but chores never were. So we didn’t go on many trips. But that was okay because we loved the farm. And we had our creek.

As I grew older and started taking over the farming operations from my dad, I realized it really wasn’t just our creek.

As I grew older and started taking over the farming operations from my dad, I realized it really wasn’t just our creek. Any soil or nutrients that washed off our land went into the creek and downstream. Our family farm in Coon Rapids, Iowa, also is close to Beaver Creek and a branch of the Raccoon River, so we know our land can affect our neighbors.

Today, I’m farming nearly 1,200 acres of soybeans and corn with one of my sons. I want to be a good steward because I want my children to enjoy the area with their families for a long time to come. Besides, being a good steward saves money.

Of course, we never knowingly hurt our land, but in the mid-1980s, I noticed erosion and washouts. So I started reading about no-till farming and asking around. Most people saw it as something strange 30 years ago, but I knew we had to change or risk hurting our farm, our profits, and our future. I just figured that if you don’t try new things, you won’t get new gains.

I wanted to save money and save our soils. The local county agricultural office was offering $4 an acre to those who tried no-till farming on 40 acres, and I was happy to sign up. We left the ground alone after a harvest and planted our next crop of corn into the remnants of a soybean crop. It worked out well, so we tried to do more.

After consulting with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Farm Service Agency and continuing to read agricultural publications and talk to other farmers, we’ve figured out how to use no-till techniques on about 720 acres. We’ve been planting winter cover crops such as rye and a tillage radish plant that puts down expanding roots, which breaks up compacted soil. That means better water absorption, less runoff and less need to till.

No-till saves me about $12-$15 an acre in fuel costs and hundreds of hours of labor because, it eliminates two trips out to the fields. On 720 acres, I can save nearly $11,000 in fuel alone.

On 720 acres, I can save nearly $11,000 in fuel alone.

We also decided to plant only grass on steep hills. Cultivating some of those slopes would be time consuming and likely cause runoff and erosion. We have buffer strips around the creeks, so that natural vegetation remains intact, stabilizing the banks and absorbing any nitrogen runoff before it hits the creek. I still have to use some manufactured fertilizers, but I’ve sent samples of our growing plants off to agriculture labs to see what they need and to ensure we don’t use more fertilizer than necessary.

Leaving fields unplowed over the winter and allowing cover crops to decay there doesn’t always make for the prettiest sight. I rent some land for farming and a property owner told me he didn’t like what he saw. It wasn’t manicured. Nevertheless, he came to appreciate and approve of the way our no-till techniques preserved his land. I always liked the title of an article I once read called: “Farm Ugly.” Some fields may look more like the rough on a golf course than the grass on the putting greens, but the results save soil, water and money.

We’ve also cleaned out our runoff waterways and laid plastic tiling underground to control drainage. And we’ve put in a bioreactor. It sounds futuristic, but it’s essentially a large underground filter made of wood chips. The wood chips absorb excess nutrients from the water, so we don’t harm our creek or our neighbors downstream.

We played in Brushy Creek a lot when I was a boy. And my boys liked going down there, too. I always planned to pass this land on to my children. So I want to protect it the best I can and keep it viable for them down the line.