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Conservation practiced for future generations

By Jennifer Bremer

Caring for the land through the use of ridge tillage and watershed programs as well as other conservation programs has helped Humboldt County, Iowa farmer Jay Lynch make his farm more sustainable for future generations.

Lynch farms about 600 acres in north central Iowa near Humboldt and believes in preserving the land through the use of practices such as ridge tillage.

"My dad has been using ridge tillage successfully for many years, so I have continued the practice," he said.

Ridge tillage

Ridge tillage is a conservation tillage option that nearly any farmer can use, according to Iowa State University Extension agricultural engineer Mark Hanna.

"Crop residue from the previous year's harvest remains on the soil's surface after harvest until planting. The crop residue protects and stubble limits the impact of wind and water erosion over the fall, winter and early spring," he explained.

Hanna said ridge tillage can be an excellent system for enhancing soil moisture storage and harvesting water from snow during the winter.

"In the spring, crops are planted on ridges that stand 4 to 6 inches above the surface of the surrounding field," he said. "The ridges are exposed and the dark soil helps them warm more quickly than the surrounding soil. Warmer soil accelerates germination and crop growth, improving yields and providing other benefits such as a quickly established crop canopy."

Lynch said this conservation tillage practice has worked for his dad and grandfather for many years. "We like to do what we can to save money and conserve the soil," he added.

Management of the land is a bit different because of this practice, according to Lynch.

"We have to use burn down of weeds by using chemicals and the weed management is very important because if the weeds take over, then we have reduced yields," he said.

A chemical mixture is applied prior to planting and side dressing is used where needed.

Another management technique used includes cultivation of corn to build the ridges to protect the corn plants. He said the benefit of the ridge is to get the seed up into a seedbed that dries out faster. With the cool, wet soils he has, the ridge helps dry the soil out to get better performance in the end--a practice that was very beneficial during the excessiverains of the 2008 growing season.

"Nearly one-third of my farm was under water last spring, yet we still were able to get a good crop off it once we got the seed planted," he said.

Fertilizer application

Fertilizer is knifed into the ground with a special fertilizing machine, which Lynch owns. The practice is similar to what is used with strip tillage.

By using ridge tillage, he said, he saves money in the end. While many think a specialty planter is needed for this practice, he uses a conventional planter, but does use a guidance attachment in order to keep the planter in the proper spot so seeds are dropped into the ridge.

Overall, he gets rid of compaction problems because he is not going over the land as much and fertilizer placement is better, also.

A heavier cultivator is used to build up the ridges but, for the most part, Lynch said he can get by with smaller tractors since he doesn't pull big implements. The smaller equipment costs less and is cheaper to run, as well.

He currently shares a strip-till unit with other nearby farmers, which allows all of them to benefit from the equipment as well as the benefit they give the land.

Currently, Lynch has a 50-50 corn-soybean rotation to utilize fertilizer and nitrogen properly. He has done some corn on corn acres, but generally puts those acres back into the corn-soybean rotation after a couple of years. Acres that are poor for soybean production sometimes are better for corn production, so he manages that ground accordingly to get the best yields.

Other conservation practices

Lynch has added waterways, buffer strips, and wetlands to farms that have had problems with erosion due to washing away of soil during heavy rains.

On one specific farm, wetlands were added through a USDA conservation program. Half of the farm always performed well, but the other half had continual drainage problems and water would form potholes. Since there were no tile outlets, he opted to make the problem area a wetland instead of having more losses.

Now he gets a government payment for the land, he is conserving soil and water, and the rest of that farm is more productive than it was before.

"I have benefited greatly by adding the wetland to that farm. Fortunately, I was able to do all that needed done on my land," he said. "So many times I see farms that need to add a wetland or other conservation practice, but because a neighboring farmer doesn't think there will be a benefit and doesn't want to put his ground into it, both farmers continue to see losses."

While he is a huge proponent of conservation practices, he does also realize that they don't always work; and farmers should do a good assessment of the ground prior to making their decisions.

All of his conservation practices not only help conserve the soil, but also help prevent nitrogen run off-the nutrients are utilized properly at a localized level.

Lynch has participated in programs to decipher where nitrates are a problem. Cornstalk sampling is one way to determine nitrogen utilization. Through the Iowa Soybean Association's On-Farm Network, he has collected samples from about 20 different fields to evaluate nitrogen application rates. Results show the farmers how much anhydrous or nitrogen will be needed and why.

"These results obviously are going to vary according to rainfall, especially in a corn on corn field, but at least we can see what is happening to the nitrogen this way," he added.

He has also participated in fungicide trials for research purposes. He said the nice part about participating in this research is that the association will make up for any yield loss that is experienced due to practices used for the research purpose, thus making the program a win-win situation for everyone.

Other activities

Part-time jobs with Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and being a Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) wetland specialist have allowed Lynch to help other farmers understand the importance of improving water and soil quality.

He also is serving his second year on the Iowa Corn Growers Association's board of directors. Participation on the ICGA board as well as county Farm Bureau board has allowed him and his wife, Emily, to travel and to have opportunities to see how other farmers grow crops.

"Time management has become very important since we are involved in so many different things," he said. "However, it is also important to take advantage of learning how other people grow crops or how people live in other countries and how they benefit from our commodities."

Time management is also important when it comes to his family. He grew up on a Century Farm in a neighboring community. With two younger brothers who were not interested in returning to the farm, Lynch knew that is what he wanted to do.

Now he hopes to be able to pass the farm on to his children--Allison, 3, and Nathan, 6 months.

This past fall, his son got his first experience in the combine and, according to Lynch, was very content just riding along during harvest.

Marketing issues

Lynch feels fortunate to have enough on-farm storage for nearly 90 percent of his crop. This has especially been important with the marketing issues he has been challenged with recently with a Vera Sun contract.

"Pre-ethanol days, we just sold our crop at the local elevator and we were limited as to what we could deliver and when, according to their storage availability. But when the ethanol plants started popping up, that all changed," he said.

VeraSun (who filed for bankruptcy in Oct. 2008) built a plant in nearby Fort Dodge. The first year they bought corn, Lynch said, they would either pick up the corn or give farmers a discounted trucking rate. Local elevators then also started giving farmers better prices to handle their grain.

"That first year I sold most of my corn to VeraSun; but, now, after all the problems we've seen with VeraSun, I'm having to go back to selling through the local elevator," he explained.

Lynch holds a contract for March delivery to the ethanol plant and, while VeraSun is doing their best to honor the delivery, they are telling farmers they will only pay market price for their corn as opposed to the $6.50 per bushel price that was originally promised.

He said that some farmers, such as himself, are taking the wait-and-see approach to the issue in hopes to get close to the promised price, but others are selling their grain through different markets.

"It certainly has made things difficult for farmers who were expecting the elevated price and have made other purchasing decisions because of it," he added.

Lynch continues to feel fortunate to be able to store his grains on-farm and haul it to town for cash flow needs.

Future plans

Lynch hopes to expand his farming operation in the future and be able to farm full-time and not have to carry the part-time employment.

"It seems that bigger always seems to be better--you get better discounts and have more opportunities since more grain is available in the end," he said.

He's not sure how much more ground he needs in order to get to the point of being a full-time farmer, but he does plan to expand slowly and pencil out the expansion economically.

What he does know, for sure, is that he will continue to raise his crops to conserve water and soil for future generations.

Jennifer Bremer can be reached by phone at 515-833-2120 or by e-mail at


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