Iowa’s farmers need attitude change

Iowa’s farmers need attitude change

John Gilbert 11:25 p.m. CST January 30, 2015

(Photo: practical farmers of Iowa)

As farmers we have little choice but to take the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit over nitrate levels very seriously. Maybe not "the sky is falling" serious, but the seriousness that comes from realizing business-as-usual is no longer an option.

We must remember while nitrates are the immediate problem, the issue of water quality includes other nutrients (phosphorus causes the algae in Iowa water), bacteria and eroded soil. Water quality issues are really soil stewardship issues.

The good news is practices that protect the soil will help with all these problems. Even better, we already know most of what we need to do. While some may involve learning new skills, most don’t require large financial investments. Capital projects usually have cost-share potential.

Some of the biggest changes needed are in our attitudes. The first change is to not stick our heads in the sand. Mandates will be much less comfortable than being proactive. The second is to understand we are all responsible and must all pitch in; there’s always more that can be done. The third is to realize the current corn-beans-confinement livestock may not be the best use for all of Iowa. Lastly, we need to start now planning for changes this coming season.

Cover crops get a lot of attention because they’re easy to get on large acreages economically, and when done well have potential to hold both nutrients and soil. If we start on a few acres, we’ll gain confidence. The most bang for the buck is on acres where we plan to sell stalks, use manure from confinements, or chop silage. Also consider a few acres of winter grains to grow cover crop seed for the following year, and to add a little diversity.

We must install waterways, terraces and buffers along streams and tile inlets. The local Natural Resources Conservation Service personnel can help. Cost share is available, but many smaller projects can be handled on-farm. On rented ground, we must stress to owners and managers that basic conservation work is a matter of proper maintenance to protect the value of their property.

We must move away from heavy reliance on full-width tillage. Some form of no-till will work in most situations, with no-tilling beans into corn stalks the easiest place to start. Once we limit continual soil disturbance, our soil structure will "mellow," allowing for more pore space, increased water infiltration, and better nutrient retention and microbial activity. We need to plan for building soil organic matter to hold nutrients and water. Tillage decreases organic matter.

John Gilbert (Photo: Special to the Register)

Better use of fertilizer is the low hanging conservation fruit, but not a solution. From there, consider the advice ISU agronomist Rick Cruse got from his father: "In the absence of rules or referees, the most aggressive and least ethical will decide how a game is played." Change quite likely will require the people in our communities to act as referees (as was traditional for thousands of years) to call out those who chose to not use our soils wisely.

A sense of injustice develops when people have to pay a price for what is perceived as someone else’s responsibility. When the safety of something so fundamental as drinking water is called into question, fear results. Combining fear and a sense of injustice — like is happening with a half-million Water Works customers — puts us, as farmers, in a very untenable position. Protestations about our noble roles or the difficulty in reducing nitrates fall on deaf ears. Change is coming, we must act if we want it on our terms.

JOHN GILBERT and his family farm and raise dairy cows in Hardin County. Contact: gibralterfarms