Iowa farmers talk cattle, other innovative approaches for farm country’s future

June 8, 2023

When Kellie and AJ Blair started their Iowa farm 15 years ago, they went with the norm: A full-tillage, corn-corn system with custom-finished hogs. A partnership with neighbors enabled them to share equipment, operate more acres and learn from more experienced farmers.

But change was on the horizon. When their farm partners transitioned out of farming, the Blairs were able to increase their farm acreage and Kellie moved to full-time farming.

Today, the Blairs no-till soybeans and have minimized tillage on corn while adding cover crops, oats and alfalfa hay. They still have hogs, but they are also incorporating cattle—a grazing animal increasingly recognized as a tool to help farmers build soil health.

“My husband and I continually reaffirm and remind each other, everything we do on our farm is subject to change,” Kellie Blair says. “Plowing up black dirt was the recommended thing years ago; now it’s no-till and cover crops. Who knows what the next solutions to current challenges will be?”

For the Blairs, cattle have helped create a “circle of life” on the farm, with economic, environmental and social benefits. A circular economy is one in which waste is reduced and turned into value.

The soil benefits from increased biodiversity gained through crop rotations and cover crops. Cattle graze the cover crops, naturally fertilizing the cropland and utilizing grain crops as feed and bedding. The beef adds an economic enterprise to the farm, creates local jobs and provides nutrient-dense protein.

In the process, the soil is now able to hold more water. Less commercial fertilizer is needed. Water quality has improved. Wildlife, including pollinators, have returned. And disease cycles have been broken.

“Change is good, and you have to consistently ask yourself questions, what happened when we changed our practices or tried new technologies, and what do I need to do next to be prepared for the next unexpected?” Blair says.

Blair, co-chair of Iowa Smart Agriculture, along with fellow Iowa farmer co-chair Ray Gaesser, shared their journeys of change and improvement as well as their vision for the future during the Iowa Smart Agriculture Forum: Circles of Life field day and forum this week, June 6-7, in Des Moines, Iowa. Bryan Sievers, also a co-chair, was unable to participate due to an invitation to take his story to a U.S. Senate Budget Committee hearing on “Cultivating Stewardship: Examining the Changing Agricultural Landscape.”

During the event, attendees visited the Des Moines Area Religious Council Food Warehouse to learn about opportunities for farmers to more directly address food security in their communities. They also saw circular systems in action first-hand at Clayton Farms in Ames, Iowa, and the VERBIO Biorefinery and Couser’s Feedlot and Pasture in Nevada, Iowa.

“Iowa farmers are seeking direct paths forward and are challenging each other with, ‘How is the “new” technology or approach better than what we are doing right now? Is the “pain” of not changing greater than the “pain” of change?’” Bryan Sievers says.

The value of innovative circular systems and how they increase resilience, yield and profitability, income stability, water quality, soil carbon and other ecosystem services was a major theme of the day. Other topics included risk management, innovation, diversification and payment for ecosystem services.

Takeaways from farmer and agriculture partner conversations included:

  • Lenders need concrete numbers to encourage them to invest in the innovative approaches farmers want to use on the land.
  • Crop insurance needs adjustments to incentivize, reward and better equip farmers to manage risk in climate-smart farming systems.
  • Government needs to standardize how carbon and other ecosystem services are measured to level the playing field.
  • Education is crucial for all in and outside of agriculture.
  • Landlords play important roles in how farmers can innovate on the land, so it is important to communicate with, educate and encourage them to work with farmers on conservation and climate-smart efforts.
  • Diversity on the farm can increase cash flows and community interaction.
  • Iowa has a lot of opportunity to increase diversity of crops and livestock, but first markets must be developed.
  • Carbon markets are the most-developed ecosystem services markets currently, but we cannot be carbon-centric. Farmers need to be compensated for all the ecosystem services they provide to society.
  • The way ecosystem services are monitored, verified and reported needs work.
  • Farmers need incentives to keep producing ecosystem services. They need fair prices, greater transparency and confidence in the system.
  • Ecosystem services markets should be simple yet flexible while giving the buyer confidence. Farmers need flexibility in how they can participate in ecosystem services markets because things change on the farm year-to-year. As one young participant, an FFA member, said about ecosystem services markets: “Let’s be patient. We need to do this right, not right now.”

As the forum came to a close, Ernie Shea, president of Solutions from the Land, reminded participants that Iowa farmers have much to celebrate about all the good they are doing on Iowa farmland. They are leaders in progress and innovation, and they continue to set their sights on doing even better.

Join the Conversation

This forum is the first of several opportunities for Iowa farmers to engage with Iowa Smart Agriculture. Listening sessions will be hosted on a local level throughout the state later this summer and fall. These sessions aim to learn from farmers’ experiences—their challenges, ideas, and needs—which will be used to develop roadmaps that will guide Iowa agriculture into the future.

“We’re not here to tell anyone how to farm or what to do. We’re here to listen, to gain information and to move forward together,” Blair says.

To learn more about Iowa Smart Agriculture’s vision for the future, view the Circles of Life Report.

Special thanks to sponsors of the IASA Circles of Life Field Day and Forum. For a full list of sponsors and speakers, see the program agenda.

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