How Corn Growers Protect Iowa’s Water

This article was written by Roger Zylstra and published in The Des Moines Register opinion section.  

 

It goes without saying, water, like food, represents a deeply complex topic for us. The safety of our water goes beyond being a mere expectation, it remains essential for human life. We all deserve the right to safe water. It should then come as no surprise that politicians, public officials, pundits, environmental groups, the media, nearly everyone has an opinion about Iowa’s water quality issues. One voice however repeatedly gets left out of these discussions, that of Iowa’s farmers. Certain groups continue to make a concerted effort to characterize farmers as irresponsible polluters, more concerned with bottom-line profitability than taking care of our environment.

As a farmer who lives not far from Des Moines, I would like to dispel this blatant misconception by sharing with you the commitment that I, as well as many other corn farmers across the state, have made in preserving the water, soil, air and habitat on our farms.

As farmers, we want the best quality water for our communities. The water my family, including my grandchildren, drinks flows from our farmland and is vital to growing our crops. We must ensure the safety of our water now and in the future.

You may have heard about the recent high nitrate levels in our rivers. Many sources contribute to these increased levels including:
 – High levels of nitrogen occur naturally in Iowa’s rich topsoil, on average it contains 10,000 pounds of nitrogen per acre of organic matter.
 – After soil testing, farmers will typically apply nitrogen in the spring when planting corn to manage soil fertility. This replenishes the nitrogen removed from soil by harvesting corn and soybeans. If not managed, sediment along with nitrates sweep into nearby water sources.
 – Almost all residential and commercial buildings have gutters that channel water into underground drains and storm sewers which empty into nearby streams or rivers. Fertilizer and pesticide from lawns can also wash into surface water.
 – Plants typically use available nitrates in the soil. However, excess nitrates can leach into groundwater below the earth’s surface. Seventy percent of Iowans get their drinking water from groundwater wells. Drainage, soil types and weather all play a role in managing these levels. We must all work together to improve Iowa’s water.

I farm with my neighbor Bryce Engbers and my son Wes. This partnership allows us to make investments in precision equipment and experiment with new conservation practices. With improvements to our precision farming practices, nitrogen application rates on my farm have decreased by greater than 10 percent in the last 10 years while my yields have increased by more than 15 percent.

Two-thirds of my farmland classifies as highly susceptible to erosion. I must take extra measures to make certain my soil and nutrients stay put. Planting on highly erodible ground can be challenging, but cover crops have definitely help me manage erosion and better my overall soil health. A cover crop of rye can reduce nitrate loss by 31 percent.

I also recycle the manure from my hog operation as a primary source of nutrients for my corn and soybeans. I use the latest technology to insert the manure below the soil surface, enabling less runoff. Coupling manure, no-till, and cover crops serve as a great combination in protecting the soil, decreasing environmental effects and improving the soil’s nutrient levels.

I am part of a farmer-led, National Corn Growers Association initiative working to identify, test and measure management practices that improve soil health. Through another initiative with the Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance farmers continue to work within Iowa’s watersheds to come up with joint urban and rural solutions to water quality. These represent just a few of many public and private partnerships Iowa Corn invests in and supports to help farmers adopt conservation practices.

Implementing these measures takes a long-term investment. Typically, planting a cover crop costs around $30 an acre. Recently, we enrolled in a program through our local elevator that provides farmers $10 an acre for planting cover crops. We recently invested in a no-till drill to plant cover crops. We also used the drill to plant some of our soybeans, allowing us to get our crop in faster and lessening the amount of time our fields stood barren and susceptible to erosion.

Farmers need the latitude to decide which conservation practices work best on their farm. We support Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy because it provides a science and technology-based approach to reducing nitrogen and phosphorous impacts on our water. This serves as a practice-based strategy including cities, industry and agriculture working together to show meaningful and measurable progress. It sets the goal of a 45 percent drop in nitrogen and phosphorous levels and offers more than 20 practices farmers can use to meet these goals.

We know we must accelerate the pace of our efforts not only to maintain the public’s trust, but also for our families’ future in farming. Through partnerships we will continue to find new and practical solutions to preserving our water resources.

Roger Zylstra is a corn, soybean and hog farmer from Kellogg and director of the Iowa Corn Promotion Board. Contact: www.iowacorn.org

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