May 3, 2018
The 2018 Iowa Cattlemen’s Association Environmental Stewardship Award winner has always valued the land and the animals — livestock and wildlife — that depend on it. Son of a longtime soil and water district commissioner, Randy Eddy has been a lifelong conservation farmer.
From a large-scale biomass energy venture to smaller, independent projects to improve his farm, Eddy never shied away from innovation or initiative in the name of conservation and his cattle operation.
As president of Chariton Valley Beef, his eye toward the future led to an information-sharing initiative between sectors of the industry that was ahead of its time. And when other Iowa farmers converted their pasture to row crop ground because of high corn prices, Eddy did the opposite. Forgoing the increased profit potential of continuing to raise row crops on his land, he converted it to pasture for the sake of soil heath and water quality.
A respected leader in Iowa’s cattle industry, Eddy’s decades of improvements will have a lasting impact on the land he manages and the Iowa cattle industry for years to come.
Randy and Denise Eddy operate the Appanoose County farm established by Randy’s parents 60 years ago in 1958. Most of the farm is used as hay or pasture ground for Eddy’s cow-calf operation. Approximately 150 acres of flat ground are leased to a row crop farmer, and 250 acres of former row crop ground have been converted to pasture. About 65 acres are standing timber.
DEEP ROOTS: Randy and Denise Eddy have a long-standing history of caring for the land and the animals that depend on it.
Below are some of the improvements made to the land by Eddy:
• Converting row-crop land. Row crop production is the principal use of land in Appanoose County (and much of Iowa) and about 21% of Iowa’s pastureland was converted to cropland from 2007 to 2012. Rising corn prices during that time made row-cropping a more profitable endeavor than raising cattle. During that period, Eddy converted between 250 and 300 acres of former row crop land into pasture, forgoing the profit opportunities in favor of increased conservation and sustainability.
Fields susceptible to erosion were seeded down with alfalfa initially, and slowly transitioned to pasture when the alfalfa stand thinned, and Eddy added other varieties of grasses and legumes. Changes in land use, especially in the rolling hills of southern Iowa, have an enormous effect on environmental sustainability. As row crop land is converted to pasture or grass, nitrogen losses are cut by approximately 85% and phosphorus losses cut by 59%.
• Renovating former mines. The Cooper Creek valley once had sand strip mines, leaving a wasteland in their wake. Eddy and his father rehabilitated the former mines in the 2000s, using their own heavy equipment to fill in the pits and convert the landscape to pasture. With the hillsides stabilized, the Eddys seeded them down, then used their cows to help improve the soil over the years. Rolling out hay bales strategically on the fragile land helped deposit cattle manure where needed, improving soil health while minimizing outside inputs.
• Switchgrass. Eddy and his dad began planting switchgrass to diversify their pasture, provide wildlife habitat and improve soil health. In addition to haying and grazing switchgrass, they also harvested seed and sold stover to the state of Iowa to use in mulching roadside plantings.
In the mid-1990s, Eddy took part in an innovative research project to lay the groundwork for commercial biomass energy production. Working with local ag groups and federal cost-share programs, more than 40 farmers planted switchgrass to be used as a replacement for coal in a local electricity plant.
After several years of research and shorter test burns, a three-month test burn of switchgrass was completed at the Ottumwa Generating Station in 2006. During that time, the test burn generated nearly 20 million kilowatt-hours of electricity from the renewable switchgrass fuel. The electricity generated would power nearly 2,000 average Iowa homes for an entire year.
The experiment also reduced emissions of the primary greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, by more than 50,000 tons. A combination of reductions from the power plant and absorption of carbon dioxide from the air during the switchgrass growth cycle contributed to this reduction. Switchgrass stores a portion of the carbon it absorbs in its root system, which also improves soil health.
Although switchgrass-powered electricity was not able to gain traction, the biomass project helped producers like the Eddys improve conservation practices over a 10-year period, and many of those benefits are still in place today. The Eddys have 60 acres of solid switchgrass, as well as thinner stands throughout other pastures. The switchgrass provides habitat for wildlife, revitalizing hunting in the area.
• Wildlife. An active bow hunter, Eddy has maximized habitat and food available to native wildlife. Standing switchgrass provides habitat for pheasant and other birds. Rabbits and deer also seek refuge in the switchgrass. Eddy has also planted food plots for wildlife throughout the farm. The food plots are primarily alfalfa based and provide forage for deer and other wildlife. The plots are scattered throughout Eddy’s land, encouraging deer to move from location to location, allowing for better hunting.
Milkweed flourishes in Eddy’s switchgrass stands, providing valuable pollinator habitat for monarch butterflies. He also has three large, natural beehives on his property. Plant diversity in his pasture helps support the bee colonies.
Honored for environmental stewardship
All these initiatives and more led the ICA Environmental Stewardship Award committee to select Eddy as the 2018 winner. His niece, Lyndsay Harshman, an assistant professor and doctor at University of Iowa hospitals, sums up the impact Eddy and others like him have on not just Iowa’s cattle industry, but the well-being of the entire state.
“My generation is indebted to the ‘Uncle Randy’s’ of America,” she says. “Men and women who not only farm this country, but in doing so have sought ways to make their land better for future generations and improve the yield of their animal product in the short term as well. Randy has shown our community that when we put our land as a priority, the quality of one’s cattle also rise to the top.”
Pasture management pays off
Although the Eddy family of Centerville has been active in the seedstock industry in the past, they’ve moved to a more commercial, Angus-based cow-calf operation over the years. Pasture management is one of their keys to achieving profitability.
The hay ground is alfalfa-based, while the pasture incorporates bluegrass, bromegrass, switchgrass, white clover, fescue, foxtail and other species. Randy Eddy manages his pastures much like a row crop operation, soil testing and fertilizing as needed to make the most of his land. In early spring, he frost-seeds pastures, and in areas where cattle were overwintered, he uses a harrow to break up hard manure, allowing it to work into the soil more evenly and efficiently.
Throughout the season, Eddy uses rotational grazing, moving cattle when grass is 6 to 8 inches high, helping maintain pasture productivity without depleting resources. To also preserve soil health and reduce erosion, he has built terraces in hilly pastures.
Eddy has built 11 ponds in his pastures. Ponds are fenced off so cattle don’t have access, preserving the ponds and surrounding grassland for pollinator and wildlife habitat. A gravity system carries water from the ponds, providing water for the cows without allowing them access to the waterway. In other pastures, Rathbun Rural Water Alliance water lines run to waterers in the pastures. Energy-free systems rely on ground heat to keep waterers from freezing in winter.
Maximizing their cattle herd
Eddy manages his cattle herd to maximize efficiency and minimize labor needs. He calves in late March and early April, and weans around Sept. 1, backgrounding calves for the next few months.
Checking his herd daily, he keeps notes year-round on cattle performance, and makes culling and heifer retention decisions based on the notes. Disposition ranks high on the list of priorities. Eddy also takes into consideration weaning weight on calves and udder quality. He culls aggressively to continue herd improvement and retains heifers based on the same priorities.
Herd sires are chosen for disposition, then calving ease, performance and carcass traits. His genetics include calving ease bulls that have the desired growth traits, a perfect combination for a low-maintenance herd. Eddy uses EPDs but prefers to buy bulls from proven sires because of the accuracy they provide. He also tries to get data back from feedlot operators who purchase his feeder cattle, allowing him to analyze rate of gain, carcass yield and quality to make further herd improvements.
Managing in drought
Southern Iowa suffered from drought conditions in 2017, and Eddy began offering his cows hay relatively early in the summer, before pasture conditions had deteriorated dramatically. This supplementation prevented the grasses from being overgrazed and stunting later plant growth. By feeding hay, Eddy maintained several inches of forage in his pastures, protecting root development and leading to more rapid recovery in the spring following drought.
Managing pastures carefully during drought also minimizes future pressure from weeds and invasive species, further helping to control musk thistle population.
Eddy is past president of Chariton Valley Beef Initiative, which was started in 1997 by producers seeking to improve their herd management skills while looking into value-added markets. Individualized computer analysis of past carcass data was a key product supplied to CVB members.
At one point, more than 350 producers from 23 counties in Iowa took part in the initiative. Participating cow-calf producers used individual animal IDs and calves were source-verified. Calves were sold to feeders who marketed the cattle on a grid. Carcass data was then returned to the feeder and the cow-calf producer.
This data helped producers in all sectors of the industry make improvements in cattle management that also led to improvements in sustainability. Carcass and performance data helped Eddy improve his seedstock and cow-calf operation to produce a higher-quality carcass with better feed efficiency.
Source: Iowa Cattlemen’s Association
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