Soil, Grass, Cows - they go together

Southern Iowa leads the state in the number of cattle raised on pasture.  The pastured cattle industry is strong here due to the poorer, erosive soils in this region which historically made the rolling hills less suitable for row crop production and more suitable for pasture. This could be good news for soil health and grass-fed beef eaters.

Except, that while much of southern Iowa is best-suited for pasture, over the past 20 years we have seen a steady increase in conversion of pasture to row crops.  We saw this conversion accelerate quickly in 2012 and 2013 when corn prices climbed to more than $7 a bushel. 

While farmers are tempted to capitalize on high crop prices, there are increasing concerns about the effects of losing pasture to row crop.  These resource concerns are primarily related to soil erosion and nutrient delivery. 

The Iowa Water Quality Initiative, launched in 2013, is focused on helping Iowa farmers voluntarily reduce the amount of nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) leaving their farms and entering streams and rivers.  This tug of war between recent high crop prices and the desire for reduced nutrient delivery creates a paradox for those concerned about water quality, especially in southern Iowa with its rolling hills and erosive soils.

A survey of Iowa farmland titled “Washout,” was completed in 2013 by EWG. The analysis mapped and documented the devastating effects of a five-day rainstorm on Iowa farm fields. On average, cropland suffered erosion of more than five tons per acre over that five-day period, largely because of the lack of conservation measures.

What happens is that ephemeral gullies create a direct pipeline carrying pollutants into rivers or drains. Farmers can mitigate the severity of the gullies by installing conservation practices on their land. The report shows that on land where conservation practices were in place and properly maintained, they clearly worked – “No-till, grassed waterways, terraces, contour grass strips and other buffer practices – especially in combination – were very effective in stemming the gully erosion and runoff that was prevalent on unprotected fields.”

If this type of erosion is being seen on average statewide, imagine what is going on in fields that have highly erosive soils to begin with! Actually, the 2014 farm bill included an important “conservation compliance” provision to require farmers to carry out basic conservation steps on their highly erodible fields as a condition for receiving federal subsidies. This long-standing quid pro quo between farmers and taxpayers can drastically cut erosion on the most vulnerable cropland.

“Five of the eight fields that still need work are required to have conservation practices in place because they are considered highly erodible,” said Craig Cox, EWG’s senior vice president of agriculture and natural resources and co-author of the report. “Better enforcement of the farm bill conservation compliance provisions would go a long way toward protecting Iowa’s priceless soil and water.”

Another form of soil conservation is soil health – creating and maintaining it. Let’s get more cows on grass and support producers who are working to improve soil health.