Fifty years! Yes, that’s right. At the current rate it will take 50 years to design and install all the grassed waterways needed in Iowa. And this timetable is being generous. The 50 years doesn’t even account for maintenance, repair, and replacement of these grassed waterways after their normal 10-15 year lifespan.
This is not acceptable, especially when you consider all conservation practices like ponds, wetlands, water & sediment control basins, terraces, no-till, and cover crops are on this same timetable. Please note, this is not a criticism of the conservation agencies. Between the county, state, and federal conservation agencies there is not enough technical staff to handle the workload and ”surprise” there is little hope this staffing shortage will significantly improve any time soon, if ever.
A planning meeting to develop the Iowa Raccoon River Watershed Water Quality Master Plan was held in 2010. A key finding of the meeting was the recognition that perhaps the most limiting factor to getting adequate application of conservation practices in the watershed is a lack of sufficient conservation planning services. So, if we can’t count on additional government services, what is the answer?
Since the beginning of time, or at least since I started my conservation career in 1982, the talk has always been, “let’s get the private sector involved in conservation planning”. It is hard to argue with this logic. Certainly farmers could use the help.
So why not get ag retailers involved in conservation planning? Conservation planning by the ag retailers could capitalize on the trust and long-standing relationships farmers already have with them, both as suppliers and as consultants. In many cases, retail agronomists know nearly as much about the landscape, soils, and productivity of a customer’s individual fields as the farmer himself knows. Often, retail agronomists have tremendous influence over a farmer’s decisions. Retail agronomists develop these relationships and knowledge as a means to secure product sales. Many already provide tremendous value to farmers through their consulting services. It is plausible to consider that conservation planning could be facilitated by retail agronomists as they conduct their regular business with farmers.
The same applies to independent crop consultants. Independent crop consultants are another group of agronomists who rely on farmer relationships and knowledge of their customer’s fields to support their businesses.
However before the private sector can be successful with conservation, appropriate conservation planning tools and precision conservation technologies must be accessible to private technical service providers. These tools must be easy to use and understand. Alternately, new conservation planning tools and technologies need to have outputs appropriate for use by third-party service providers as they work with farmers. The concept of using emerging technologies to efficiently site and plan conservation practices is critical to expanding the network of conservation planners into the private sector.
Of course that might be why in 2011 the Iowa Soybean Association adopted the resolution of “expanding Iowa’s conservation and environmental planning workforce by providing private-sector conservation planners access to the same tools and resources the public sector uses and accelerating development and evaluation of new planning tools and technologies through private sector engagement efforts.”
The bottom line is we just can’t wait fifty years. We must find a way to increase conservation planning assistance now. Enabling the private sector with precision conservation tools is one way we can do it.
Show Me the Math
Last spring I did a lot of driving, and was able to observe the current state of conservation. Based on my windshield estimates it appears that the average ¼ section of row crop land in Iowa should have an additional 1,000 feet of grassed waterways. This is in addition to what currently exists. I do believe this is very conservative. It appears there is a lot of cropland where this estimate is low. But, I started with this assumption for my math below.
In 2012, Iowa farmers harvested 13,700,000 acres of corn and 9,310,000 acres of soybeans for a grand total of 23,010,000 acres of row crop.
If 1000 feet is required for every ¼ section, then there are an additional 143,813,000 feet of waterways required in Iowa.
Since NRCS reports waterways in acres and not numbers, we need to convert from feet to acres to continue this exercise. Let’s say the average waterway is 35 feet wide.
Tom….great post (as usual!) I guess I need to let my ignorance hang out here for a minute…………I see you refer to tillage erosion and I’m not familiar with that term………….enlighten me please!! SAM
Tillage erosion is the gradual movement of soil dowhill caused by tillage. As soil is distributed with tillage, it moves both uphill and downhill. However gravity causes the soil to move downhill more easily than uphill. Over the years, soil is moved or eroded downhill. Traditionally, conservationists have focused on water and wind erosion while tillage erosion garnered less attention. Whether you care about tillage erosion probably depends upon your perspective. If you goal is to improve water quality, tillage erosion is probably inconsequential. But if your goal is to protect soil quality and cropland productivity, then tillage erosion should be of great concern. Dr. Seth Dabney, USDA/ARS in Oxford, MS, recently offered me some insight into tillage erosion using RUSLE2 – that tillage erosion can be as significant and water erosion. So if you are concerned about soil health, you should be concerned about tillage erosion, as the total erosion rate could be double the calculated erosion rate. Interestingly, Seth told me that RUSLE2 is capable of calculating tillage erosion, but very few people realize it is an available function.
If our goal is to improve water quality then tillage erosion is of little concern, but if we are interested in improving soil health/productivity then we need to pay attention to Tillage Erosion.
Good insights, Tom. It is a challenge to seek new solutions without causing waves in the existing systems. And I agree, the 80-year old conservation delivery system has and can continue to do excellent work, but within a new context with new players. Conservation desperately needs and infusion of people and we all can’t work for the government, but we can work toward its goals.