jim & ann werner | diagonal

Jim and Ann Werner family have recognized not all farmland should be row crops fence-row-to-fence-row. That philosophy has earned them the 2011 Iowa Environmental Stewardship Award.

Werner Family Angus

Ringgold County farm family demonstrates all the qualities of environmental stewardship

Erosion leaves scars on the land. Patience and planning are key skills that Jim and Ann Werner family apply to heal those scars.

Their work has restored numerous ponds, wildlife habitat and quality pastures for their cattle operation in the southwest corner of Iowa. It has also earned the family this year’s honor to be Iowa winners of the Environmental Stewardship Award Program (ESAP).

For more than 30 years, the Jim and Ann Werner Family Angus farm of Diagonal has recognized that not all farmland should be row crops fence-row-to-fence-row. That approach in the early 1970s converted much of the pasture land in southern Iowa to crop land.

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“Soil erosion became prevalent, and much of the land we acquired for our farm operation had been cropped extensively,” Jim said. “Gullies and ditches had formed in the fields, and sometimes they were large enough to swallow a combine!”

“Southern Iowa is highly suitable to cattle production. By converting all of the land to grass and pasture, we were able to heal the scars of erosion,” he said.

“One of our main goals is to keep the soil on the farm,” he said. “Our economic goal is to sustain and grow the cattle operation to provide a livelihood for the next generation.” 

Heritage roots important

In both their cattle business and their approach to managing their farm in Ringgold County, the Werners have a strong commitment to making decisions based on the next generation.

They can trace their Angus herd back to 1928, when it originated with Ann’s father, Wayne Lacock of Farnhamville (Calhoun County). He bought his first registered Angus cows then, and almost 50 years later, Jim and Ann bought some yearling heifers and bred cows from him.

“Since that time,” Ann said, “we have purchased only two cows from other herds. By keeping our own heifers generation after generation, we’ve developed a very strong, consistent genetic base.” Today, they have a 400-head cow herd, and introduce new blood lines into the herd by selecting AI sires on the basis of optimum traits rather than extremes.

Jim and Ann were named Iowa Seedstock Producer of the Year in 2001.  In 2010, Werner Family Angus ranked second in the state for the number of cattle registered with the American Angus Association.

There’s no doubt that the Werner Family Angus farm will stretch into coming generations. This truly is a family operation, and Jim and Ann feel fortunate that their four grown children and their families are all involved in the business in one form or another.

Their daughter Becky and husband Craig Hays own and manage UltraInsights, one of only three beef cattle ultrasound processing labs in the United States. They have recently built a facility for testing feed efficiency. Individual intake data is obtained on bulls and heifers which lays the ground work for selecting more efficient cattle.

Their other daughter Bonnie and husband Will Larson farm and have a construction business building ponds and terraces.  Bonnie and Will have joined Becky and Craig in ownership of Critical Insights, a cattle carcass ultrasound business.

Clint Werner works full time on the cattle operation. He has a degree in diesel mechanics and is the head mechanic. He also sells seed corn and is in charge of the crop farming.

Joe Werner has a degree in farm operations and works full time for the business. He is in charge of A.I. and calving. He also enjoys meeting with customers and selling bulls.

“Money spent improving the land pays dividends and helps us achieve our goals."

 - Jim Werner, Diagonal, IA

“Family is important to us,” Jim said. “We thank God that our business has grown, that our children live nearby, and that we can all work doing what we love.

”While the human resource for sustaining Werner Family Angus seems firmly in place, Jim and Ann have not overlooked the necessary environmental infrastructure either. For Jim, that begins with the soil.

Investment into land resource vital

“Money spent improving the land pays dividends and helps us achieve our goals,” he said.

The Werners have seeded most of the farm for pasture for their cow herd, as well as for wildlife habitat. (Their sons operate a leased hunting business, too.) On the acres that are cropped, the Werners plant into waterways so water flow is directed into the waterway.  However, the rolling hills of the farm and the soil type make their land nearly unlimited for siting ponds.

“We build one to two ponds per year. We have designed and installed watering systems on the new ponds we have built,” Jim explained. The system works well with their rotational grazing.

“With the watering system, we are able to fence off the ponds, run a pipe under the dam into a recycled heavy equipment tire surrounded by recycled concrete and provide clean water to the cattle year round,” he said.

“The carrying capacity in our pastures has almost doubled with rotational grazing. Water quality has improved. Many ditches that were once not passable by a tractor are now healed up and passable,” Jim said. Their efforts have stopped the sediment before it flows into waterways.

When it is necessary to renovate pasture ground, the Werners no-till the crops and plant on the contour for three years before reestablishing hay or forage. On the few acres they chop for silage, they no-till rye into the stubble to prevent wind and water erosion.

In areas where they feed cows, catch basins are installed below those areas. That helps tackle the challenge of runoff from heavy rains. “We have installed catch basins below our feeding areas to slow the runoff and catch the sediment before it flows down to the ditch. In some of the washouts we’ll set big bales of hay with net wrap still on. As the cows eat the hay, the residue is worked into the soil,” Jim said.  This forms a mat to prevent erosion and to heal the ditches. 

Methodical approach

The Werners point out that they’ve worked with district conservationists and government programs in order to put the pieces in place over the years. For example, the Natural Resouces Conservation Service worked with the Werners to design eight sediment basins on the farm. NRCS also provided some cost share and design assistance for ponds, fences and water tanks in these projects:

  • 2001 - 331 acres were placed into an EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program) contract. Scrub bush on the land was cleared and sprayed; four ponds with watering systems were built, as were two miles of fencing to create eight paddocks.
  • 2002 – Installed a buffer strips along Crooked Creek and built approximately one and a half miles of fence.
  • 2007 - Enrolled 205 acres of retiring CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) ground into GIP.  Built five-and-a-half miles of 5-barb fence, installed five ponds with watering systems, laid a half-mile of water pipe, cleared and sprayed brush, and inter-seeded clover. This created 10 paddocks for rotational grazing.

In all, the Werners have built about 14 ponds over the years and now try to build a new pond with a watering system each year.

While efforts to manage for rotational grazing and brush control paid off by providing quality pasture in a soil-saving way, the Werners also adopted a management practice that reduces their use of energy. During price spikes in energy, the use of winter grazing has been a key for economic reasons, as well as for the on-going environmental ones.

For 30 years, the Werners have practiced stockpiling pastures and hay ground for winter grazing. “This practice is environmentally friendly by saving the fuel and machinery costs of making hay, hauling it in, and then hauling it back out to the cows. It also save costs of spreading manure as the cows spread their own manure,” Werner said. The stockpiled forage also prevents soil and wind erosion throughout the dry summer and fall months.

There is also a benefit in winter grazing to the genetics side of the cattle operation, Werner said. “We challenge the mother cows to harvest their own feed year around.  Cattle that perform in a challenged environment perform even better under optimum conditions,” he said.

Werner noted that a winter grazing program will not fit every operation, and it does take special planning. However, the benefits pay off in many ways.

Mother Nature Provides

Being exceptional with environmental practices is more than just investing time and money to restore farmland to what seems its more practical use. It’s also making that land productive without robbing it of production capability.

For the Werners, they could see that there was a practical use for the many hedgerows of Osage Orange trees that lined their farm operation. “We are able to harvest posts from the trees, but instead of pushing them out, the stumps are left to re-grow so the trees will produce more posts in the future,” Ann said.

The hedge posts are also naturally resistant to rot and decay so chemically treated posts are unnecessary. In essence, by using what Mother Nature provides directly to them means they don’t have to use resources from other locations.

The family also manages wildlife resources. Wildlife abounds -- deer, turkey, pheasant, quail, duck, goose, coyote, raccoon, rabbit. All can be seen over the 1900 acres owned and managed by the Jim and Ann Werner Family Angus operation.

"God has given us a rich and bountiful country. It is our job as stewards to nurture and care for the land so that it can be improved for future generations," Jim states.

The Iowa Cattlemen's Association is proud to name the Werners the 2011 Iowa ESAP winners. They join a long list of Iowa cattle producers who have been recognized both statewide and nationally for conservation efforts that improve Iowa’s soil, water, wildlife, air and quality of life.