Wallaces Farmer

Stepping up conservation to the next level

Rooney Farms has used conservation programs to change the way it farms. Just one change — shifting from conventional tillage to no-till — has boosted returns by $50 to $100 per acre.

June 13, 2024

6 Min Read
2 men, 1 woman stand in field
CONSERVATION TALK: Justin (left) and Jeff Rooney visit with Lissa Tschirgi, Natural Resources Conservation Service district conservationist, about their Conservation Stewardship Program in one of their no-till fields. Photos by Jason Johnson

by Jason Johnson

Rooney Farms has used conservation programs to change the way they farm. Just one change — shifting from conventional tillage to no-till — has boosted returns by $50 to $100 per acre.

Enhancements through the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and other programs and resources are pushing Rooney Farms LLC to the next level of conservation. They’re enabling this family farm to experience the soil health, water quality and economic benefits of no-till farming, nutrient management and cover crops.

A self-proclaimed “electrician by trade and farmer by heart,” Jeff Rooney grew up on the family’s Century Farm near Dougherty, in Cerro Gordo County in north-central Iowa. He helped his father on the farm for several years as he continued his full-time career as an electrician.

Conservation journey begins

Prior to signing his first CSP contract in 2017, Rooney says his conservation journey began in 2012, when he and his wife, Karla, began farming with friends Ken and Carol Boehlje of Rockwell. Rooney says Ken advocated for no-tilling soybeans into cornstalks to save on high fuel costs on a low-producing, rock-filled crop field.

Justin, Jeff, and Karla Rooney

“When we tilled that ground, we kept bringing up more rocks to the surface,” Rooney says. “But when we no-tilled, we hardly hit any rocks when we planted. That turned out great. It was sort of an ‘aha’ moment that made us think we might not need to be doing so much tillage.”

The field was also easier to combine and had less weed pressure, so the Rooneys and Boehljes decided to try no-till on other fields. They made equipment adjustments, such as adding pneumatic trash whippers and downforce to tackle no-till corn more easily into soybean stubble.

A change in plans

In 2016, Ken Boehlje passed away after a terminal illness. Not only was this heartbreaking, but it also occurred in the first year of a five-year deal the families agreed upon, where the Rooneys incrementally purchased the Boehljes’ equipment and rented their acres.

Rooney decided to sell his electrical business that was located on his acreage near Sheffield and work with his son, Justin, to expand his farming footprint.

Cover crop trial and error

By 2018, Jeff’s son, Justin, was out of college and getting into farming. He started a cow-calf operation at the Dougherty family farm, and they hoped they could supplement feed with cover crops. Father and son attended a field day in nearby Sheffield, where speakers encouraged first-time cover croppers to “experiment” on poor-performing cropland. “We felt like we had the perfect field for what they were talking about, so we tried it,” Rooney said.

No till machine

They planted cereal rye with a mix of triticale, but time and weather did not cooperate that year. “It was a bit of a disaster,” Rooney said. “We tried to chop it and feed it to the cows, and then Mother Nature didn’t cooperate, and it was like straw. Mostly, we learned what not to do.”

The Rooneys didn’t give up on cover crops. In fact, they worked with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service office in Mason City to plant several more acres of cover crops through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. They signed a three-year contract to incorporate a cover crop and livestock feed mix.

“We were one of the few trying cover crops in the county,” Rooney said. “We found the cows like triticale better than cereal rye, so we changed the mix to heavier triticale. We harvested a lot of tonnage off that field. We no-tilled into it and got great results.”

The father-son duo is now increasing acres across Cerro Gordo and Franklin counties.

“No-till is allowing us to save time, fuel, and money on labor,” Rooney said. “Farmers who till around here need to yield at least 10 bushels an acre more [on beans] than us to match the profit.”

The next level

With their first CSP contract in 2017, the Rooneys used soil health, nutrient and pest management conservation enhancements to add innovation and improve their cropping system.

Through CSP, NRCS works one on one with producers to develop a conservation plan that outlines and enhances existing efforts and uses new conservation practices or activities, based on a farm’s management objectives. Producers implement practices and activities in their conservation plan that expands on the benefits of cleaner water and air, healthier soil and better wildlife habitat, all while improving their agricultural operations.

In one enhancement, Rooney says he conducted a field-to-field, five-year comparison between no-till and conventional tillage. With equal inputs and crop varieties, he documented yield and net profit between the two fields. He says the results were eye-opening.

“Every year, no-till was more profitable by at least $50 an acre,” he says. “Some years it was $100 per acre more profitable.”

So pleased with CSP, Rooney signed another five-year CSP contract in 2022. This time, the Rooneys included seven new conservation enhancements, including a crop rotation with alfalfa, converting some cropland acres to waterways and grass strips, improving nutrient uptake efficiency and reducing the risk of nutrient losses on all his acres.

No till field

“CSP has pushed us to be better at nitrogen management, to keep it in the same wheel tracks for compaction, precision and scouting,” Rooney said. “CSP makes you try new things and document it.”

Midway through his current CSP contract, Rooney says he’s already prepared to extend it for another five years. “I have a list of enhancements I want to do,” he says, including forestry and wildlife habitat-improving projects.

A lot of producers don’t think like the Rooneys, says Lissa Tschirgi, NRCS district conservationist.  “A lot of producers are looking at yields or they are resistant to change,” she says.

A different outlook

Rooney admits he has a different outlook than many other farmers. “Are you doing everything in your life the same as you were 20 years ago? Probably not — then why farm the same as you were 20 years ago?” he said. “Think outside the box.”

The Rooneys are now custom-farming on several neighboring farms, where landowners are asking them to use no-till and other regenerative practices. They are also participating in the Truterra Carbon Program, as well as a nitrogen management program.

“We hope others will start to see the benefits of conservation farming,” Rooney said. “With the giant loss of topsoil over the past 150 years, our most valuable resource is blowing and washing away. If we aren’t stewards of the land, who will be?”

For more information about conservation practices and programs to protect the natural resources on your land, visit your local NRCS office or go to nrcs.usda.gov/ia.

Johnson is state public affairs specialist, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Des Moines, Iowa.

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