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Conservation good for water quality and can improve bottom lineConservation good for water quality and can improve bottom line

Good conservation practices can help improve land, water quality and profitability.

November 13, 2023

6 Min Read
Cows grazing end of cover crop
HEAVY GRAZING: Cows graze on cover crops in Taylor County, Iowa. Courtesy of Taylor County Soil and Water Conservation District

by Catherine DeLong

When considering adding a conservation practice, landowners and farmers may worry: It costs more to do than it directly benefits the financial performance of the farming enterprise. Of course, there are also more altruistic rationales — such as being good stewards of the land and leaving the world better than we found it — but in the end, it’s the bottom-line financial argument that often motivates decisions and can deter conservation progress.

However, what we are learning together in Iowa is that with insightful planning and deployment, many conservation practices do offer a positive return on investment. Sometimes it takes a shift in thinking and viewpoint from a micro or localized perspective to one that takes a broader ecosystem or macro perspective, but the dollars are real.

Realized input and operational savings can offset conservation costs, delivering financial performance improvements for the whole farm. In addition, there are less tangible benefits such as increased biodiversity through habitat development or the aesthetic and expanded recreational opportunities with prairie and wetland restoration, practices which also benefit downstream water quality.

Graphic of field

Finding ways to move the conversation and industry away from a laser-sharp focus on yield to a focus on profitability should provide opportunities for innovation and adoption of practices that can be highly beneficial.

“The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy provides a framework of strategic goals and practices aimed at improving water quality across Iowa, and through projects such as the INRS Interactive Data Dashboard, it has become much easier to track progress; but the real work has to be done at the local level,” says Jamie Benning, assistant director for Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension at Iowa State University. “It is exciting to see innovative approaches and unique collaborations that are helping farmers and landowners adopt conservation practices across different watersheds, soil types and farming operation types in Iowa. And, as more practices are deployed, we are learning more about short- and long-term benefits to the bottom line that can offset costs — and even increase whole-farm profitability.”

Benning cited three different projects as examples of diverse yet impactful projects that are delivering water quality improvements and the economic benefits needed to help move some stakeholders off the fence.

Livestock and grazing

Erin Ogle, project coordinator with the Taylor County Soil and Water Conservation District, has been working on the Southern Iowa Land Use Conservation Project since it began in 2016 and was instrumental in helping expand the program to Page County participants in 2021. She noted that the program is primarily aligned with the needs of livestock producers and the maximization of profitability in grazing and forage production. The fundamental tenet of the program is to encourage the repurposing of unprofitable land in ways that can reduce input and management costs, and potentially provide alternative income or grazing options that can improve the whole farm’s financial picture.

“There are not a lot of conservation practices and programs targeting livestock producers, and once we started working with the early adopters, word spread like wildfire across the prairie,” Ogle says. “Our approach is not exceedingly complex. We talk with the producers and help them find solutions that fit. We do it in a private and personal way, and we help them find practices that will deliver a bottom-line boost.”

Successful program elements have included putting unprofitable land into perennial alfalfa, hay or prairie for grazing; and the rehabilitation of sacrificial pasture, such as calving lots, through planting cover crops after the cows are kicked out to pasture, which provides late-season forage while also using up manure nutrients and reducing runoff.

Redefining the field edge

Researchers at ISU have been promoting a similar approach to changing the conversation from yield to profit. The Redefining the Field Edge program encourages farmers to take a closer look at the long-term profitability of field areas such as wet depressional areas and prairie potholes that have been farmed with marginal results for years.

“When accounting for inputs and effort, it seldom makes sense to continue farming these areas with traditional row crop; however, perennial alternatives may change the financial picture,” says Mark Licht, cropping systems specialist with ISU Extension and Outreach. “In addition, anticipated changing precipitation and weather patterns, such as the increases of spring rains with less precipitation and higher temperatures during the summer months, will certainly exacerbate losses associated with these less profitable areas.”

While taking land out of row crop production may seem to be an unusual or extreme measure, data from multiple years of field study continue to reinforce that doing so can improve overall financial performance.

Habitat and wildlife

Approaching conservation planning from a similar angle, Pheasants Forever and Practical Farmers of Iowa have teamed up to encourage conversion of “red,” or non-profitable, lands to practices which promote biodiversity and create habitat for wildlife in Iowa and Minnesota. The program is funded by a USDA Conservation Innovation Grant and applies a financial assistance model that promotes precision agriculture and implementation of conservation practice at the farm scale.

Program availability

“While every farm, town, county, or soil and water conservation district in the state has different priorities and internal drivers that will influence conservation efforts, we are seeing progress and growing interest in water quality improvement statewide,” Benning says. “We encourage all landowners, farmers and other stakeholders looking to learn more and do more about water quality and conservation to contact their local NRCS [Natural Resources Conservation Service] Service Center, Iowa Department of Agriculture representative, or Pheasants Forever farm bill biologist to learn about funding and program opportunities that may be available. Awareness and education are key factors in building the momentum required for the state to reach its INRS goals.”

Conservation is seldom driven by altruism alone. Outreach and education regarding the economic incentives and productivity improvements that lessen or eliminate the financial argument against adoption is crucial. And adopting a long-term view of success in terms of bottom-line profitability rather than yields will help to change the conversations and move water quality and conservation efforts forward.

Many resources available for improved conservation

Learn more through these resources:

DeLong is the water quality program manager with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach

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