Guardians of the soil

Guardians of the soil

Farm family's experience shows others that it's time to embrace climate-smart agriculture

Sometimes all you need is a story to make a point.

“It started as just another rainy day,” recalls Ray Gaesser, a Corning, Iowa, farmer, who grows corn and soybeans with his son Chris. "All of a sudden the skies just opened up and it started dumping. It just kept getting worse and worse."

The Gaessers are no-till farmers, proud of the terraces and waterways they installed over the years.  But back in 2010 that pride turned to anguish within minutes.

"It started in our barnyard, and it just washed over that first terrace," Ray says. "It was devastating. All the work we’d done for 30 years to keep soil in place was being destroyed."

Iowa corn and soybean farmers Ray Gaesser (pictured) and son Chris have added cover crops to 2,650 acres in the past four years.

“It was heart-wrenching. I can’t get that picture of that water running over those terraces out of my mind.”

Like so many farmers, Ray and Chris realized that, despite their best conservation efforts, Mother Nature could still throw a wicked curveball. And that 4-inch rain in one hour was no fluke.

“We’ve had at least one gully washer like that each year since 2010,” says Ray. “It lifts the crop residue and floats it all away. Last summer we had three 4-inch rains in an hour.”

Debate all you want about climate change. For the Gaessers, the discussion was over; they needed answers. They began testing cover crops — a couple hundred acres at first, to 2,650 acres last fall.

“Our goal is to make cover crops work on every acre, and we think we can get there within the next five years,” Ray says.

Ray joins many others in successfully adding covers to his farm operation. A national survey of nearly 2,000 farms found cover crop acreage has more than doubled in the last five years.

"All the work we'd done for 30 years to keep soil in place was being destroyed," says Ray Gaesser, of this gullywasher that hit the farm in 2010.

This is what people call “climate smart” agriculture. There’s growing acceptance that the climate is, indeed, changing. And those changes — heavier and faster rainfall, hotter and dryer conditions — will result in winners and losers around the world.

You can mitigate the risks of those extremes if you decide to become a better guardian of your soil. Our farming is the envy of the world, but it has come at immense cost. By some estimates the U.S. has lost half of its organic matter in the last 150 years.

Most of this loss could be avoided; yet, we allow it to happen. Let that sink in.

Soil Erosion: A silent robber >>


Soil erosion is a silent robber with no public accountability. What if every farm had an electronic display showing the pounds of soil washing away daily? Would you be proud or embarrassed? And with the soil goes chemicals or nutrients you paid good money for.

Extreme storms in the midwest have become more frequent the past 50 years. Source: Rocky Mountain Climate Organization

For years people have said “I can’t” to no-till and cover crops. Yes, challenges exist. Absentee landlords and high cash rents don’t encourage stewardship. Low grain prices don’t spur new practices. Short growing seasons and cold soils make seeding and cover termination difficult.

Related: Get to know the 'Cover Crop Guy'

Even so, you’d be surprised at how many of those issues now have solutions, based mainly on farmer trial and error that others can learn from. There are better cover crop choices to match growing conditions; there’s interseeding equipment and minimum-till systems like strip till for cooler soils.

Most of all, there’s a growing body of knowledge making covers work on countless farms.

You’ll discover that cover crops have more benefits than just erosion control and moisture retention. They capture nutrients, keep them over winter and release them in spring so there’s less nitrate loss. That means lower fertilizer bills and fewer regulations. They suppress weeds, grow organic matter, build soil tilth and aid water infiltration — all of which lead to better yields.

Thinking about a cover crop? Start with developing a plan. Download the FREE Cover Crops: Best Management Practices report today, and get the information you need to tailor a cover crop program to your needs.

Adopting cover crops is an individual journey of discovery. There is no one-size-fits-all cover crop strategy. It’s about what works on your farm. When I asked a friend for advice on this topic, his answer was simple: “Make it personal. It’s about making great decisions on the ground that has been entrusted to them.”

Well said.

Adding cover crops to guard and build the soil won’t make your job as a manager easier. But you can bet it will make you feel more satisfied as a farmer-environmentalist. And it certainly helped Ray Gaesser shed the nightmarish memory of that water running over his fields.

There’s a business case to be made around conservation practices. But what this is really about is Ray’s son, and his children — and their children’s children.

It’s really about the future.

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