Livestock is key to family farms and soil health

Soil health and family farms ... Rural Dorchester farmer George Beardmore, pictured at left in the photo above, said it takes many partnerships to be successful in improving soil health on his farm. One of those important partners is soil conservation technician Steve Scholtes, pictured at right, of the local NRCS office. Here they review the results of a variety of tests on soil health. Photo courtesy of the Iowa Pork Producer Association.

Editor’s Note: The following article features rural Dorchester farmer George Beardmore. It originally appeared in the May 2019 issue of Iowa Pork Producer magazine and is being reprinted with permission from the Iowa Pork Producers Association.

George Beardmore is keenly aware of the soil structures of the land he farms in Allamakee County.

“We’re in the Driftless area with highly erodible ground,” he said on the day he talked about efforts he has made to protect that soil and the water quality in the area. “This has just made us more aware of the things we need to change.”

The Driftless area of northeast Iowa (along with the area in Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin) is more susceptible to erosion because no glaciers covered the area 12,000 years ago, and so there was no sediment deposited there to help protect the soil.

Some people want farmers to leave the land untouched, and to certainly not raise livestock there. But Beardmore’s experience in farming the area has taught him that raising livestock and farming can be done in harmony with the land.

“I want to adopt to change, and I keep looking for better ways to use practices that have less impact on the soil,” the 70-year-old farmer said.

Incorporating no-till, cover crops and the injection of pig manure from two sow barns on his farm have allowed him to increase crop production on D-slope land (as defined by NRCS) while improving the soil structure and keeping the soil in place.

On one field, what started as 160 bushels per acre six years ago is now producing at an average of 180 bushels.

Beardmore credits the team which provides him technical support for farming practices and using pig manure for inputs. That team includes people working at USDA’s Natural Resources and Conservation Services Center (NRCS) in Waukon who help him plan conservation measures, and then conduct tests to see if soil health is improving.

Another part of his team is at the Waukon Feed Ranch, which helps him plan fertility needs and the best way to use the swine manure from his barns.

Making changes
One of the changes Beardmore made was to shift from discing in manure applied on the soil surface to a manure injection system. “Injection is less disturbance and injected manure is less likely to leach.”

Beardmore cites agronomy research done by Dr. Antonio Mallarino, a professor of agronomy and nutrient management research at Iowa State University, that showed injecting manure decreases the amount of P (phosphorus) and K (potassium) that leaches when compared to surface applied fertilizer.

And like most pig farmers, Beardmore is focused on continuous improvement. “We just keep looking for better ways to farm,” he said.

In addition to the environmental benefits, Beardmore said including pig production in the farm operation allows smaller family farms to be economically viable. “Livestock is what keeps family farmers going in northeast Iowa,” he said.

Beardmore farms with part-time help from his son, Chris, and brother, Jim. “I hope to have that flip soon!” he said in reference to his son, when it will be Chris farming full-time and George doing the part-time work.

But he continues to take the temperature of public opinion about pig production. “If a livestock moratorium was applied to the Driftless area, we’d see livestock and small family farmers leaving northeast Iowa,” he said.

Proof is in the soil
Beardmore has not made changes for the sake of change. He’s made changes that have been measured in proven ways to assess soil health. He has worked on that part of his efforts with his NRCS team; soil conservation technician Steve Scholtes and NRCS District Conservationist LuAnn Rolling.

Scholtes said they can do a variety of tests, but focused on three key tests on Beardmore’s farm in 2018.

One of the ways that Scholtes has worked with Beardmore is to measure soil respiration, or the CO2 in soil samples. In a field where Beardmore has been using swine manure for 11 years and no-till operation for five years, a Solvita test indicated that the field measured 4.8 on a 0 to 5 scale. A zero indicates a lifeless soil, while Beardmore’s soil had a desirable high score.

The field also had an organic matter rating of 2.7-3.8. Rolling said that’s the kind of score that makes her feel she “had died and gone to heaven!” On a practical level, the NRCS testing was finding five earthworms in every shovel of soil.

The third type of test Scholtes used was infiltration to test soil compaction. “NRCS used to focus only on controlling runoff, but now we want to solve the infiltration issue rather than treat the symptom.” Beardmore’s farm scored in the middle for this test.

“We’re encouraging farmers to think about soil health as a whole picture rather than just one measure,” Rolling said. “We find that it is essential to have livestock and manure use on the farm to do it right.

“Manure is very different from commercial fertilizer. It has an organic component that helps farmers get optimum soil health,” she concluded.

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