Bridgewater cattle producers are nominees for environmental award

Nichols Farms LTD of Bridgewater is the 2014 Iowa Cattlemen’s Association’s nomination for the national Environmental Stewardship Award Program (ESAP). The family farm operation is managed by Dave Nichols, Phyllis Nichols and Lillian Nichols, and covers Adair, Adams and Cass counties.

As Iowa’s ESAP representative, Nichols Farms has been nominated for recognition at the regional level, which includes four other states. If it is successful in the regional competition, Nichols Farms will move on to the national level.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association initiated the environmental award program in 1991 to highlight exceptional work done by cattle producers to protect and enhance the environment. Since its inception, Iowa cattle producers have won 15 regional awards and three national ones.

Nichols Farms is known internationally for its innovative techniques in using genetic and production data from cattle to produce beef more efficiently. However, the farm operation has always been conservation minded since Dave Nichols’ parents purchased land in Adair County in the late 1930s. The family purchased farmland that had been highly eroded, and in some cases abandoned, and began the process of nursing it back to health.

Dave Nichols says the philosophy used by the family is simple: “It needs to be better when you are done.”

The area where the Nichols both own and rent land is known as the Hungry Canyons area, which is identified with deep cut gullies and stream trenching. Over 70% of the farmland managed by the Nichols (some owned, some rented) has been designated as highly erodible.

Typically in the area row crops are grown on 64% of the land, with 29% in grassland and pasture production. Nichols Farms has 46% of the farmland in row crops, and 54% in grassland and pasture production.

Dave says one of the goals for the farm was to grow “two blades of grass where my Dad grew one, and to produce twice as many pounds of beef on each acre.”

“Managed livestock production is a crucial component to rebuilding highly erodible land that has been mismanaged,” Dave Nichols says. In the 1960s and’70s, Dave and his brother Lee outlined a plan to include livestock production which would hold soil in place and reclaim the land’s productivity.

“It took at least three to ten years of both commercial fertilizer and manure applications to get the land to be marginally productive,” Dave says. Between owned and rented farmland, Nichols Farms has 1,480 acres that has been in no-till for 34 years. There have also been 35 ponds and 50,860 feet of terraces built. There is also more than 2,700 acres of refurbished pastures.

The work has paid off, as the farm reached both of its goals.

Dave says the greatest challenge in maintaining the farm operation was when his brother Lee died in the early 1980s. Lee had been the leader on the crop production side of their cattle and crop farm. “After Lee’s death, I walked out to the machine shed and looked at seed corn stacked to the ceiling and a no-till planter that Lee had built (commercial planters were still scarce at the time), and I thought ‘I can’t do this.’”

The response from his wife Phyllis, and Lee’s widow Lillian, was strong commitment to moving the farm operation forward. “Their support, along with the support of four very committed employees, kept the farm operation alive. Together we formed a team,” Dave says.

Nichols Farms continues to be well-known for the team that works together on beef cattle seedstock, beef production, crop production and environmental conservation.

ESAP is supported by the National Cattlemen’s Foundation, Dow AgroSciences, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.