We've all heard the saying “knowledge is power.” Well, for a group of Iowa growers, it's power and profit. These innovative growers are willing and determined to examine every aspect of their farms to find the best environmental and economical practices.

The Iowa Soybean Association (ISA) offers a three-pronged environmental program that helps farmers be environmentally responsible and increase their profitability.

“We tell everyone we're environmental stewards, but in the past we've had no way to prove that,” says Steve Henry, who farms 3,500 acres with his wife, Laurie, near Nevada, IA. “The strength of ISA's environmental programs is that we now have a way to plan what we do, do what we say, verify we did it, analyze it and improve it.”

The Henrys participate in two of the three environmental programs offered by ISA (see accompanying story, p. 18), called the On-Farm Network and Certified Environmental Management Systems for Agriculture (CEMSA).

Through the On-Farm Network, the Henrys test agronomic practices to see what works best on their farm. They've conducted trials on nitrogen (N) application rates and timing, planter speed, comparing Bt to non-Bt varieties, comparing no-till to conventional till, disking vs. chisel plowing, potash application, varieties and comparing 15-in. and 30-in. row soybeans.

“Last year I set up strip trials to compare no-till vs. conventional tillage. Most people here conventional till. They say they can't no-till because they lose yield. I wanted to see if there was really a yield response,” Steve says.

“I don't know any farmer who doesn't want to do things better,” says Laurie. “The challenge is to be able to interpret, understand and have confidence in what really is better.

“Technology makes all these tests possible, but unless you really understand what all that technology — or all those numbers — are telling you, you may not be able to react as quickly as you need to,” she adds. “That's where ISA's involvement has been tremendous, starting at the very base with CEMSA and moving into the field and farm level to interpret the data we're collecting to help us determine how we can improve.”

Through on-farm tests, Steve reduced N on their commercial corn acres by 25 lbs./acre and switched from fall to spring application. Switching to 15-in. row soybeans and slowing down planter speed resulted in better yields. He knows these changes are economically advantageous because of the trials they've conducted.

Steve and Laurie appreciate the structure CEMSA offers. Studying their farm operation from every angle has helped them develop plans and create a way to verify the work has been done.

“We develop written plans and we have records of what we do out in the field. I have planning sessions with our employees so they know what my goals are, how things should be done and why they should be done that way,” he says. “This has made my life easier because I don't feel like it's me directing everything. I have very capable people working with me. They don't have to wait for me to show up to tell them what to do.”

Providing growers with ways to test and evaluate their agronomic practices also gives them confidence to try something different.

“Farming has been around for a long time, so you're always being challenged those who question why we're doing something different,” says Laurie. “It helps to have the confidence to say we know what we're doing. We're measuring our results and making decisions based on those results.”

ISA developed the CEMSA program to help farmers document and demonstrate environmental improvements. That, in turn, should also help growers answer the right questions when it comes time to sign up for farm programs.

“Lawmakers are faced with a lot of emotion. In order to make sound decisions that impact our industry, they need to have support for their decisions — to be confident that they aren't acting with emotion,” Steve says.

“The regulatory approach is to apply the same cookie-cutter requirements to everyone,” says Roger Wolf, director of environmental programs at ISA. “But CEMSA isn't about taking someone else's plan and making it work. There shouldn't be a cookie-cutter approach to farming. Geographically there are too many differences. We can do better. We have a much greater chance of having a positive impact on the environment if we can apply site-specific, flexible management approaches.”

Denny Friest and his family farm 1,500 acres of corn and soybeans and run a farrow-to-finish hog operation near Radcliffe, IA. He uses On-Farm Network results to guide his agronomic decision-making.

High pH and soybean cyst nematodes are two challenges he faces. Through on farm trials he continues to find ways to best manage them.

“I can identify things on our farms specific to our management and agronomic practices that give me more economic return,” he says. “Through GPS technology I'm able to pinpoint where my problem areas are and determine what I should do to address them. On one field we identified that it's not economical to plant soybeans because of high pH. Tracy (Blackmer of ISA) estimated there's probably a $70/acre advantage to growing continuous corn on that field compared to a corn/soybean rotation.”

Friest has also dramatically reduced the amount of N he applies, although he was previously applying the recommended amounts. “I've cut back from 150 lbs./acre to 125 and now I'm looking at reducing it another 50 lbs./acre,” he says. “If I can find out I need less nitrogen, that's a dramatic savings, both economically and environmentally.”

By switching to spring application, he maximized N use; mapping pinpointed areas that needed N the most. Best of all, because of ISA funding that would reimburse losses for N study participants, Friest reduced his N use at no financial risk. Friest finds on-farm testing so valuable that he participates in trials through ISA, universities, company trials, and even conducts some of his own to find agronomic answers.

“ISA helps me ask the right questions so I can get the answers I need to figure out what works on my fields,” he says. “Having all the maps and numbers from the yield monitors doesn't mean much — I need help evaluating the data.”

For instance, last year Friest studied conventional vs. minimum tillage. The cost of running a deep ripper was about $10/acre more than less invasive tillage practices, coupled with the fact that no significant yield benefit was observed. “At least for this year, this showed me there wasn't much value in deep ripping on my farms,” he says.

“Many farmers have GPS and yield monitors, but they aren't utilizing them the way they could,” Friest adds. “Through its guidance, ISA helps us be better managers.”

Project Sheds Light On Ag's Environmental Impact

The West Buttrick Creek Watershed Demonstration Project (WBCP) measures environmental impacts on a larger scale.

“Farmers haven't been able to demonstrate that they're doing a good or bad job of nutrient management,” says Roger Wolf, director of the Iowa Soybean Association's (ISA) environmental programs. “In most cases they're doing what they're told — they're following standard recommendations or practices. But maybe we can do better. Through the watershed project, we can evaluate performance and optimize farmers' operations based on the results.”

ISA administers a water sampling study and a three-tiered management system evaluation program.

In tier one, farmers participate in a seasonal performance survey. Data is gathered from late spring tests for nitrate and fall corn stalk testing.

In the second tier, participating farmers enroll fields in strip test configurations to evaluate the performance of alternate practices, such as the timing, application rates or placement of nitrogen.

Tier three involves monitoring the water quality for entire farms and micro-watersheds.

Wolf estimates that the watershed project will last at least 3-5 years.

ISA's Environmental Programs

The Iowa Soybean Association (ISA) provides a three-pronged approach to agronomic and environmental performance. The three facets of the program include:

  • On the field scale, On-Farm Network helps farmers evaluate, validate and demonstrate in-field performance of various practices. Data collected includes grain yield, soil type and conductivity, remote sensing, topography and grain yield in relation to slope. More than 150 farmers have evaluated alternative nitrogen (N) management practices. The program was expanded in 2003 to evaluate phosphorus management practices.

  • On the farm scale, the Certified Environmental Management Systems for Agriculture (CEMSA) provides a management system framework that allows farmers to document and demonstrate measurable environmental quality improvements. This is a three-year program that will help 150 Iowa farmers develop plans based on the ISO 14001 Environmental Management System framework.

  • On the watershed scale, the “Watershed Management and Demonstration Project” demonstrates how agriculture achieves state and federal water quality objectives in an Iowa sub-watershed, the West Buttrick Creek Watershed. The program helps implement studies on their farms to gauge the impact of various practices on the environment. Sixty percent of the landowners in the watershed, covering 73% of the land area, are participating in the 3- to 5-year project, which includes enrollment in the USDA Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). N evaluation is ongoing; 320 composite fall corn stalk samples were taken on more than 80 cornfields in the watershed.

While there are currently no other environmental programs of this type in other states, Wolf says the programs' benefits would easily transfer to other areas of the country.