Many farmers claim to live and breathe the conservation ethic, but Mark and Phyllis Legan literally do just that. Their home in west central Indiana, near the town of Coatesville, sits in an oasis featuring a pond, a constructed wetland area, thousands of trees and abundant wildlife.

It wasn’t always this way. “The 10 acres that our home sits on was in sow lots for 50 or 60 years before we moved here, and the hogs had rooted up most of the vegetation,” Phyllis explains. “It was a goal of ours to change that and make it into a home site, as well as a place where wildlife would feel comfortable.”

The Legans started by building the pond, and soon added a constructed wetland above the pond to allow native grasses and plants to filter the water and allow any sediment to settle into this shallow structure. “It also provides a great place for wildlife,” Phyllis adds. “We have some duck boxes out there, and we have planted thousands of trees, including plum, walnut and hickory, that help provide habitat.”

As the sun sets over this wetland wonder, the fading light sets off a magnificent range of hues that are reflected from the water’s surface. It’s easy to forget that this oasis is just a stone’s throw from their modern, 3,000-sow hog operation, and is surrounded by nearly 1,000 acres of cropland that the Legans operate—and it’s proof that a conservation mindset and commercial agriculture can co-exist.

Barry Fisher, the Indiana state soil health specialist for USDA/NRCS, says Legan Livestock & Grain demonstrates the integration of livestock and conservation cropping systems for environmental stewardship and water quality. “The Legan family farm is a showcase of conservation practices,” he says. “They use no-till, cover crops, grassed waterways, filter strips and have a comprehensive nutrient management plan for their livestock operation.”

First generation

Another remarkable aspect of the Legan family farm is the fact that it was built from scratch. “We are first-generation farmers,” Mark points out. “Neither of us grew up on a farm. I ended up studying animal science at Purdue University and then spent seven years with the Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service.”

In 1989, the couple took the plunge into full-time farming, entering into a rental agreement on 180 sows and 100 crop acres. “Over the years, through partnerships with other people and opportunities we have had, we have been able to grow to where we are today,” Mark says.

The cropping operation is mostly in a corn/soybean rotation, but the Legans do grow some continuous corn, and they incorporate cover crops on every acre. The 3,000 sows produce about 80,000 pigs a year to weaning age.

Those hogs produce a source of natural nutrients for the crop farming side of the operation. “As a pig farm, one thing we have always been concerned about is utilizing the manure nutrients we produce,” Mark says. “Cover crops allow us to do that. They help tie up those nutrients when we need to do a fall application of manure, and cover crops bring a lot of long-term benefits to the soil.”

The Legans prefer to apply manure to a cover crop that is established and growing. A commercial applicator uses a low-disturbance injector to apply the manure to the field. “Once the cover crop is established and the roots are actively growing, it is ready to soak up the nutrients,” Mark says.

The Legans continue to experiment with various combinations of species for their cover crop mix. “Annual rye has been a staple of our cover crop program,” Mark says. “We like it from the rooting standpoint. We also use tillage radish. We’ve also tried other species, such as crimson clover and winter wheat.”

After the 2012 drought, the Legans used barley as a cover crop to help reclaim some of the nitrogen left behind by the short corn crop. “We were so short of corn for the sow diets that we planted 110 acres of barley, and took it through to harvest,” Mark adds. “Barley is ready for harvest two to three weeks earlier than wheat, so we were able to double-crop soybeans into those acres, and they turned out pretty well.”

The Legans are considering barley in their long-term plans. “We hope to continue to include barley in the sow diets,” Mark says. “The idea of having a different crop in the rotation really appeals to me. And barley allows us to tie up nutrients from fall application of manure, while pulling out some additional phosphorus from the soil where we are putting on nutrients.”

Spreading those manure nutrients over more acres is a goal for the Legans. “Our farm has always been about trying to optimize inputs,” Mark says. “We’ve seen in recent years that some of our best yields are in continuous corn where manure has been applied. We are always looking for ways to get manure applied to more acres, because we definitely see a yield boost.”

Reaching out

The Legans have opened their farm to visitors by hosting field days, tours and workshops, including the Putnam County Conservation Expo. Both Mark and Phyllis take on active leadership roles in their community, at the state level and in national organizations.

Phyllis takes agriculture’s message to local students through Indiana Farm Bureau’s Agriculture in the Classroom program. “I talk with students, ranging from preschool through high school, about agriculture,” she says. “The speeches I give usually have a natural resources bent, telling how we use manure nutrients to better the land. People mostly think of manure as a waste, but to us, it is a valuable product.”

Phyllis also works with Operation Main Street, a program from the National Pork Board. “I talk to a lot of classes about nutrition, and make presentations to some agriculture science classes,” she says. “I speak mostly on the nutrition of pork products, but this also gives me the opportunity to showcase our farm and tell how we take care of our nutrient management.”

In addition, she has chaired the Putnam County Soil and Water Conservation District Board. “It was a big learning curve for me when I first started,” Phyllis admits. “But I learned so much, and was able to understand how we can influence our natural resources and take better care of them. It has always been really important to me to be a part of making things better.”

Mark also has served agriculture in a number of ways. For 12 years, he represented agriculture on the Indiana Department of Environmental Management’s water pollution control board. “That experience convinced me that, as farmers, we need to get serious about our nitrogen utilization, from an environmental standpoint,” he says. “Of course, it’s also important from an economic standpoint, since we write checks to purchase the nitrogen to grow corn.”

The Legans have been working to fine-tune their own nitrogen applications, experimenting with nitrogen stabilizers and using pre-sidedress and end-of-season stalk testing to help establish their N rates.

“Managing nitrogen is difficult, since weather plays such a key role,” Mark points out. “But we have to continue to learn. Conservation is not only important to the future of our farm, but also to the future of our food supply—and not only here in the United States, but on a worldwide basis.

“When we look at the amount of food that we need to grow in the next 50 years to satisfy population growth, we must have sustainable systems,” he continues. “That means not only keeping topsoil in place, but also soil health. We need to be improving the assets that we have on top of the ground as well as underneath the ground.”

Future focus

Continuing to protect and improve natural resources is a priority for the Legans. One of those resources is wildlife.

“Phyllis and I have taken it on as a challenge to get some quail re-established here,” Mark says. “We plant a food plot on the west side of the pond. Last winter we kept a covey that resided here and when the snow got heavy, I was actually carrying pig feed out to the quail and feeding them on top of snow drifts.”

The Legans are now embarking on their own multi-generational conservation legacy. Their daughter, Beth, and husband Nick Tharp, have joined the operation. With the birth of their granddaughter, Kate, three generations of Legans now call Putnam County their home.

“As a new grandmother, I have started thinking more about the future, and how important it is to take care of things we have here on earth,” Phyllis says.  “It is important for us to leave things a little bit better for our granddaughter.”