Collaborative Conservation between a Cow-Calf, Feedlot and Row Crop Operation
In the heart of the Upper Raccoon River watershed, which provides the drinking water for Iowa’s largest city and state capital, Des Moines, Lynn Smith’s family settled outside of Nemaha in 1886.
Lynn, who is currently the District 7 Director for the Iowa Cattlemen's Association, began farming there in 1971 and his son, Seth, followed in his footsteps in 2001. Now, the farm consists of 1900 acres of row crops, 510 acres of pasture, a 500 head feeder to finish hog barn, 210 cow-calf pairs and a 2200 head feedlot.
The farm is located in Sac County, in drainage districts targeted in the 2015 Des Moines Water Works lawsuit. But Lynn and Seth’s farm stands in stark contrast to the image of Iowa farmers depicted by the Des Moines Water Works and media.
Lynn, Seth and their predecessors have been pioneers in conservation in Iowa. From their use of conservation tillage beginning in 1977 to more recent feedlot and pasture renovations, their efforts to improve water quality and soil health on their row-crop acres go hand in hand with their expanding cattle operation.
Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy has focused on improving row-crop operations, largely through cost-share programs, and with limited economic ROI for farmers involved. The Smiths are part of a growing group of Iowa cattle producers who are demonstrating that the integration of cattle operations and row-crop farms can be, and should be, a valuable part of the nutrient reduction strategy.
The challenge for many farmers is the balance between the environment and economics. But the Smiths’ farm is living proof that environmental and economic goals do not have to compete against one-another. Incorporating cattle, whether it’s through a cow-calf operation, feedlot, or both, goes a long way towards meeting both goals.
The Feedlot Operation
The Smiths’ two feedlot sites have undergone several changes in the past few years with the goal of increased efficiency, animal comfort and environmental stewardship.
The home site, the epicenter for the farm’s row-crop operation, also houses 800 head and incorporates a double containment system for both manure and fuel. A 2011 tornado destroyed multiple buildings on the farm and opened the valve on a 10,000 gallon nitrogen tank. But the safeguards kept the nitrogen contained and prevented a large spill.
The feedlot there has two deep-bedded monoslope barns, bedded with cornstalks. The monoslope barns keep rain off the cattle manure, minimizing runoff. They also contribute to a more consistent manure source for use as fertilizer. Utilizing cornstalks as bedding and then returning them to the field, mixed with manure, creates a full cycle that maximizes resources that might otherwise go to waste.
The monoslopes also contribute to cattle comfort, blocking harsh winds in the winter and providing shade in the summer. Iowa State University research shows that cattle in confinement barns have a 5% or more advantage when it comes to feed efficiency because of protection from severe weather.
Open lots, some with concrete as the base, make up the remainder of the site. Dirt lots feature concrete in high traffic areas, such as around the feed bunks. The concrete allows manure to be easily scraped and then composted for later use on the surrounding fields. Manure runoff is minimized with a settling basin and dike system.
The second feedlot overlooks the Raccoon River, a visible reminder of the importance of environmental stewardship.
“Forty years ago, these hillsides were covered in feedlots. It made sense, from an animal husbandry perspective, to put your cattle on a hillside where the water would drain off quickly. Nobody knew that was causing problems downstream,” says Seth.
Now that those problems are evident, Smiths have taken several steps to ensure that their manure is not affecting water quality.
The river-side feedlot, originally built in 1977, is home to settling basins, which have been in place since the beginning. It also features two monoslope barns, which are bedded with cornstalks. The majority of the feedlot has a concrete base, and solids are collected in the settling basins. From there, a lagoon captures the remaining waste. The lagoon works in conjunction with an irrigation pivot that applies the nutrient rich water to an adjoining field. Solid manure and cornstalk bedding is windrowed and composted before being applied to the surrounding fields. Each animal provides roughly $47 worth of nutrients for the row-crops.
The Cow-Calf Operation
The Smiths’ most fragile ground has been taken out of row-crop production and converted to pasture, greatly reducing nitrogen and phosphorus runoff. Pasture ground has the potential to decrease nitrogen loss by 85% and phosphorus loss by 59%.
In one pasture, the Smiths built a pond, which collects and slows water from a drainage ditch. The pond is fenced off and a gravity system carries water from the pond to nearby pastures, providing water for the cows without allowing them access to the waterway.
The Smiths are working towards extending their grazing season by utilizing cover crops, cornstalks and small grains. Because much of their corn is chopped for silage, stalk residue can be baled and used as bedding in the feedlot or grazed by the cows. Either way, sufficient residue is left in the field to hold soil in place throughout the winter.
The Smiths’ combination of rotational grazing and an extended grazing season are a great recipe for success from an environmental health and financial standpoint. These systems allow rest on the pasture land and time for high quality forages to grow.
The cow herd is also managed carefully for efficiency and productivity. Performance plays a large part in replacement and culling decisions. “In our cow herd, if a cow can’t hold good condition on winter cornstalks and summer pasture, she is culled,” explains Seth. When raising replacement heifers, they are raised in the same conditions as the cows. If they can’t develop an adequate weight and produce a calf, they end up in the feedlot.
The Row Crop Operation
Long before Iowa farmers received national attention for nutrient run-off issues, the Smiths began incorporating a variety of practices that reduce nitrogen and phosphorus loss and nearly all of them are tied directly or indirectly to the cattle operation.
The Smiths apply very little commercial fertilizer to their row crop acres, typically only side dressing liquid nitrogen in the summer. The rest of their nutrient needs come from composted cornstalk bedding, cattle manure and a neighbor’s turkey manure. Not only is this a sustainable use of what would otherwise be a waste product, but the dry manure increases soil health.
“We continually work to close the loop in our system,” says Seth. “Feedlot manure is composted on site during the summer. As we combine our corn and haul it in, the truck dumps a load of corn at the bunker and then loads compost and hauls it back to the field.”
In 2001, some of the row-crop acres were transitioned to organic production, and now 600 acres are certified organic. An extended crop rotation of corn, soybeans, corn, oats, and alfalfa minimizes pests and weeds, and allows for minimum tillage.
In 2008, the Smiths began experimenting with cover crops. Cover crops are gaining popularity as a way to improve soil health and meet the goals of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Rye, in particular, has the potential to reduce nitrate loss by 31% and phosphorus load by 29%. Cover crops are associated with a decrease in erosion and soil compaction. They also take up nutrients from the soil and prevent them from leaching into groundwater. As the cover crops decay in the spring, the nutrients become available to corn or soybeans.
However, implementation of cover crops can be a challenge for some producers because of economics. It costs roughly $25 an acre to install cover crops annually.
According to late spring nitrate tests and fall stalk tests on the Smiths’ farm, cover crops scavenge about 60 units of nitrogen per acre that would otherwise have been lost. For the Smiths, that savings is almost enough to cover the cost of seed and planting. However, by grazing the cover crops in the fall, Seth estimates the forage value of the cover crop is approximately $40 per acre.
The integration of cattle and row-crops enables farmers to plant cover crops earlier in the fall. Traditionally, cover crops cannot be planted until the corn and soybeans have been harvested, allowing a very short time period for the seeds to germinate before winter sets in. But when corn is harvested for silage, the cover crops can be planted earlier, offering a better opportunity for germination, root development and plant growth.
On the Smith farm, the corn that is harvested for grain is also harvested earlier, at 25-30% moisture. This allows it to be stored as fermented corn, which is more efficient cattle feed, and also allows cover crops to begin growing sooner.
The Smiths have also incorporated precision agriculture through grid sampling of soil, yield mapping, variable rate lime application, and an advanced, hands free GPS system in the tractors and combines. Conservation tillage is used on 100% of the row-crop ground, and by controlling traffic in the field, the Smiths have reduced their fuel usage and soil compaction. Erosion is controlled through 13 acres of grass filter strips along the Raccoon River and a tributary, a 3-acre grassed waterway in one field, and 3,880 feet of terraces on steep ground.
The corn produced on the farm is either corn silage or high moisture corn that is not dried, minimizing energy use post-harvest. The corn is also used locally, much of it fed to the Smiths’ own cattle. Excess is sent to a nearby ethanol plant, where it is processed for biofuels. By-products of ethanol production, such as wet distillers grains and corn syrup, are then returned to the farm to be used in feed rations.
Outcomes & Accomplishments - benchmarks, data, before/after images, documenting success
The integration of all three farm endeavors – row crops, cow-calf and feedlot – have enabled the Smiths to make advances in environmental stewardship and profitability.
As efficiency increases, so does sustainability and profitability. Utilizing manure instead of commercial fertilizer, saving fuel through reduced tillage, extending the grazing season with cornstalks and cover crops, and other practices have all lowered input costs, increasing profit margins even when cattle and crop prices are low.
Over the years, feedlot and cow-calf profitability has increased because of upgrades to cattle comfort and health. “The more comfortable they are, the healthier they are, the better they perform,” says Seth. “We have extremely high quality genetics and when our cattle are comfortable, they can put all that genetic potential into performance instead of staying alive."
The combination of feeder cattle, cows and row-crops have given the Smiths the flexibility to use their land in a way that maximizes environmental sustainability while also maximizing profit. The increase in profit has enabled the Smiths to re-invest in the farm regularly, making improvements that benefit cattle health and the environment.
As controversy surrounding the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit has ramped up in Iowa, Seth Smith has actively engaged in the conversation. He attended a tour of the Des Moines Water Works facilities in April of 2016 and spent time face-to-face with Bill Stowe, the CEO of the Des Moines Water Works. Seth has also hosted Des Moines Register reporters on his farm and participated in media interviews. While many farmers in the area targeted by the lawsuit are hesitant to draw attention to themselves, Seth has taken this opportunity to show the positive, progressive changes that farmers are already making to improve environmental sustainability and water quality.