West Buttrick Creek was a playground for David Ausberger as he grew up in Greene County, Iowa, along the banks of this silvery skein of water. It was more than just a place to swim and explore—West Buttrick also was a place a boy could hide away.

“Our farm was landlocked, so you didn’t hear any car noise, and couldn’t see any other houses,” Ausberger recalls. “It was easy to imagine that you were living in the 1850s.”

But as Ausberger grew up and began farming the land in the early 1990s, he soon learned that this stream was a thread that connected central Iowa farmers to a lot of folks downstream. The creek flows into the Raccoon River, the source of drinking water for the city of Des Moines, located about 60 miles south.

“In the late 1990s, the Iowa Soybean Association approached growers in the West Buttrick Creek watershed with concerns about high nitrate levels,” Ausberger says. “We farmers needed to take the reins and do something about it.”

 ISA helped him develop a written Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plan to reduce nutrient losses. “Soon after, I began doing replicated strip trials, guided stalk testing, manure trials, nutrient benchmarking, and using satellite imagery and other methods to quantify the effectiveness of various practices that I use on my operation,” he says.

The Ausberger farm also features a number of acres in the Wetland Reserve Program, along with generous buffers in sensitive areas along the creek. “We have planted around 30,000 trees in the riparian buffer on one 200-acre tract,” he points out.

And within the banks of the creek, one of the smallest species—the 3-inch-long Topeka shiner, an endangered minnow species—has been given a boost. “Dad has excavated a silted-in oxbow adjacent to West Buttrick Creek as Topeka shiner habitat,” Ausberger says. “We’re doing all we can to reduce our impact on West Buttrick Creek.”

Never-till

Ausberger credits his father, Bob, with directing the family farm toward environmental stewardship. “We have been no-till since 1981, when Dad and my cousin started the idea,” he says. “I recall coming home from a high school vo-ag class and saying, ‘I think we need to look into this.’”

His father was already planning to use the technique in the upcoming growing season. “He was a step ahead of me, but it was nice that we were both thinking along the same lines,” Ausberger says. “We are now a strict no-till operation. In fact, it might be better described as ‘never-till.’  The only tillage we do is to smooth out the trenches from when we install tile lines or make tile repairs.”

The family takes seriously its commitment to stewardship of the land. Ausberger grows around 1,700 acres of corn and soybeans near Jefferson, Iowa, and he points out that there is only one stipulation in the contract for the land he rents from his father.

“Dad insists that I continue to be no-till,” Ausberger says. “The commitment to soil and water conservation is more than just lip service. We’re trying to protect the resources for future generations.”

Ausberger is officially recognized as a Certified Conservation Farmer, a title awarded through a new initiative from Iowa Conservation Connect, a consortium of conservation agencies. “I straddle the line between being an economist, a businessman and a conservationist,” he observes. “I have noticed—and my banker has noticed—that using conservation methods has resulted in a pretty good return on investment. That fits in perfectly with my family’s philosophy, a multigenerational philosophy, of conserving the soil and being good stewards of the land.”

His efforts now extend beyond simply conserving the soil—Ausberger now is looking for ways to restore the soil. “Agriculture’s so-called Brown Revolution is exciting to me,” he says. “I am still on a corn-soybean rotation, but in recent years I have added cover crops to help with soil and water quality as well as disease, weed and insect management. I believe that having healthy soil will result in better returns with less loss. And it will make modern agriculture more appealing to others who consider themselves stakeholders in the environment that we impact.”

Research and development

Cover crops are relatively new to the area, so Ausberger now is focused on trying to learn what species work best, and how to manage them. “We would like to coordinate manure and compost applications over the top of cover crops to reduce nutrient loss from the manure, and to keep the soil microbes and earthworms happy and working year-round in the soil,” he says.

He has strip trials underway in cooperation with the Iowa Soybean Association’s On-Farm Network to find some of those answers. He seeded cereal rye by airplane over soybeans the first week of September. Now, in a set of side-by-side strip trials, Ausberger is comparing turkey compost to poultry litter and a control strip.

“We have been using poultry litter for about 20 years, so it will be interesting to see how crops respond to the different nutrients,” he says. “The cover crops provide additional organic matter, and the root mat helps to prevent wind and water erosion while building soil structure. Once the cover crops are terminated, they should feed the subsequent crop as the nutrients from the cover crops are mineralized.”

Ausberger likes the idea of investing in on-farm research. “My philosophy is that quantifying practices that I do with my own equipment on my own land will produce more valuable results for me than those produced by outside groups.”

He found that cover crops allowed him to get back into the fields more quickly during 2013’s wet spring. “The planter actually rode on top of the ground better, and didn’t mud up as much as the fields that did not have cover crops,” he observes. “That was a nice, and unexpected, side benefit to cover crops.”

Ausberger is not surprised at the interaction between managing soil and managing water. “We learned a long time ago that good soil management complements good water management,” he says. “We own tiling equipment and do a lot of our own drainage work. We have noticed, with the advent of yield monitors, the yield boost that we get from employing internal drainage in the fields. That fits in well with our no-till philosophy.”

Good drainage systems and water control structures allow rainfall to infiltrate on his rolling fields, Ausberger says, thus reducing the potential for erosion. “We continue to install tile where it is needed,” he adds. “We’re also working with neighbors on a larger scale drainage project. It would eliminate an open drainage ditch that delivers water directly to the creek. A large water-retention structure would not only reduce soil erosion, but allow for denitrification to improve water quality before it enters the creek.”

Tell the story

“I think one of the most important things that modern farmers need to do is to reach out and discuss with people in town what we are doing for the environment,” Ausberger says. “The prevailing attitude is that farmers don’t understand or care about the environment. That’s not true.”

He promotes ag advocacy by offering to share his story, working with the Iowa Soybean Association’s Farm and Food Ambassador Team or simply talking with people he meets at a local grocery store. In August 2013, he hosted a white tablecloth dinner overlooking West Buttrick Creek. “We had a tent, and white tablecloths, and we had a chef prepare a beautiful dinner,” Ausberger says.

Nearly 40 guests, ranging from neighbors to city council members to state legislators, saw first-hand how a farmer can grow food while protecting the environment. They saw Ausberger’s 2.1-megawatt wind turbine, part of a locally developed wind farm that produces enough electricity to serve the town of Jefferson. And they learned that this farm, recognized as Tier III in the USDA-NRCS Conservation Stewardship Program, has a wildlife component on every tract.

“I think we farmers have a good story to tell, and we can do it,” Ausberger says. “We need to let people know that we are out here working for them, and working for the environment.”

Unlike West Buttrick Creek, conservation is a legacy that flows both forward and backward for the Ausberger family. “It is a way to preserve the land for my kids—or someone else’s kids—who may be farming it in the future,” he says. “The conservation legacy also is a way to honor Dad’s ideals and commitments. Whether my kids are walking this ground when they grow up, or they live a thousand miles away, I hope they do not have to worry about the air they breathe or the water they drink.”