By Dean Houghton
The economic value of cover crops can be hard to pin down, but Iowa farmer Mark Schleisman has a specific figure in mind: $76 an acre.
That’s because he’s been involved in a three-year study of the value of cover crops when grazed by livestock.
“I was approached by Practical Farmers of Iowa to do a research project documenting the economic benefits of cover crops and grazing,” recalls Mark, who heads up M&M Farms, a diverse family operation based in Calhoun County, Iowa. He and three other area farmers documented the feed value of the biomass produced by cover crops.
“The amount of cover crop growth that we get is very weather dependent, but we have seen a value of $70 an acre or more, with our top year coming in at $76 an acre,” he says. “The benefit to the cows is tremendous.” The family started with cereal rye as its choice for a cover crop and now are adding other species such as oilseed radishes and rape.
“Those species allow us to graze cows longer,” Mark says. “The cows seem more satisfied on the cover crops, because they are not just eating dried up corn stalks, but getting some green material in there.” And the economics quickly became obvious. “By our numbers, we are getting at least a 3X return in the short term by grazing those cover crops, in addition to the long-term benefits we are seeing in soil health. We expanded quickly, putting cover crops everywhere we could graze. We have seen soil health benefits on those fields we grazed, so now we are using cover crops even on fields we don’t even graze.”
Mark took a mid-course career change in 2011, leaving his career in agribusiness to come back to take over the family farm when his father, Larry, and uncles, Kenny and Jerry Schleisman, decided to slow down. Mark’s son, Matthew, and son-in-law, Colby Winter, were finishing their college educations and wanted to become full-time farmers as well.
M&M Farms depends on family labor to grow 4,500 acres of crops, including 2,000 acres of popcorn; managing 360 cow-calf pairs; and finishing approximately 30,000 head of pigs. Mark’s daughter, Brandy, takes charge of finances; his wife, Melissa, and daughter, Cassie, help Brandy scout and document seed popcorn production through summer months. Mark and Melissa’s younger children, Landon, Kylee, and Blair, also help with chores. Mark’s father continues to be involved on the farm, and his uncles pitch in during planting and harvest.
While this is an area where big agriculture can flourish, it also is under scrutiny from an environmental standpoint. Calhoun County was one of three counties in the Raccoon River Valley targeted by the Des Moines Water Works in a lawsuit (later dismissed) against county drainage districts for discharging high levels of nitrates. Des Moines uses the Raccoon River as a primary water source.
“We live less than a quarter mile from the Raccoon River, and we have about a mile of the river that runs right through our farm,” Mark says. “We are on a main highway, so a lot of people see what we are doing. We would like to improve upon what’s been done to protect water quality, and try to figure out what to do better in the future.”
Edge of field
M&M Farms has wasted no time in seeking those new and better practices. The Schleismans farm in the Elk Run watershed, a tributary to the Raccoon River and a source of concern about nitrate. As part of a demonstration project directed by the Iowa Soybean Association in cooperation with a number of partner organizations, Mark installed a couple of edge-of-field practices designed to significantly cut nitrate contribution to the Raccoon River.
One of these practices is called a saturated buffer. It stores water under field buffers by diverting tile water into shallow laterals that raise the water table within the buffer, thus slowing outflow. The other edge-of-field treatment process is a bioreactor. It consists of a buried pit filled with a carbon source (wood chips) through which tile water is diverted. The carbon provides a food source for microorganisms; they use nitrate to metabolize the carbon, converting the nitrate to harmless atmospheric nitrogen gas.
“I have seen nitrate levels entering the bioreactor running 15 to 22 parts per million,” Mark says. “It is exiting the bioreactor at less than 1 part per million.” He has shared that story with many farm audiences, and has been featured in many interviews conducted for urban audiences as well.
The farm also has taken advantage of opportunities to boost pollinator and wildlife habitat. “One thing we have focused on the past few years is identifying areas where we can implement conservation practices,” Mark says. “If you look at your yield maps, some areas are not producing economically as well as other areas. Through conservation practices and incentives, you can get an economic return on those acres as well as see a major benefit for the environment.”
Those conservation practices that have found their way onto family land include filter strips, grassed waterways, bird buffers, and pollinator habitat. “We are seeing our yields go up on the land we are farming while we are increasing wildlife habitat,” Mark says. “We have devoted one area of more than 20 acres to pheasant habitat, which has a winter nesting ground and a summer nesting area as well as a food plot; it is just loaded with pheasants, as well as coyotes and rabbits. We are always trying to identify new areas where we can put applications like this.”
The farm also is giving a boost to the Topeka shiner, an endangered prairie minnow. The Schleismans have worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to install swales, small areas cut out adjacent to the river or its tributaries, where water accumulates. The shiner uses this area for habitat, entering the river during flood events. Each year researchers measure the number of shiners that have developed in those pools, documenting the effect on rebuilding Topeka shiner populations.
With such a large livestock component, manure nutrients play a big role on the farm. “We try our best to use it responsibly,” Mark says. A custom applicator uses a low-disturbance shank to knife the hog manure into crop residue or emerging cover crops. “There is some disturbance of the cover crop, but not enough to inhibit it from recovering,” Mark says.
The farm uses hog manure as a primary nitrogen source for corn on many acres, adding nitrification inhibitors to hold the N in place.
“We actually under-apply nitrogen as compared to what we would be allowed to do in our nutrient management plan,” Mark points out. “We then sidedress N as a supplement to the manure. We realize very economical use of our hog manure.”
Such decisions drive Mark’s desire to meet both economic and environmental goals. “We need to conserve the soil and wildlife, but also make money,” he says. “We can be profitable and be a conservationist at the same time.”