Throughout my career I have vacillated in my support of structural practices versus management practices. You could say that I was fickle, or that I didn’t have a good grasp of the material. But in hindsight, I see my support, or non-support, depended on where I was working at the time. Early in my career, I worked in Eastern Iowa, where shallow to bedrock soils prompted us to focus more on management practices such as no-till and contour strip-cropping. From Eastern Iowa, I moved across the state to a western Iowa county where terraces and flood control structures (ponds) were, and still are, the 600 pound gorilla. In my first year in Woodbury County, we built 600,000 feet of terraces and were rewarded for our work. Wanting to duplicate this success, I carried this structural bias to my last assignment in west central Iowa, again focusing on growing the county’s terrace program.
Then Conservation Compliance came along. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, it became obvious to me that if farmers were going to achieve Conservation Compliance goals, they had to up their game and start implementing more management practices. Using data from our county’s most prolific terrace-building year, I calculated it would take over 50 years to reach Conservation Compliance using terraces alone. To me, and likely to most, that 50-year time estimate was unacceptable. Furthermore, the associated cost to install that many feet of terraces was staggering.
In the summer of 1993, a 500-year flood slammed us. If you didn’t witness it, it is hard to describe the destruction leveled across Iowa from this historic rainfall; cities without water, interstates closed, bridges wiped out, homes inundated, crops stripped from fields, and terraces sliding down hillsides. Yet to me, it was visibly apparent that those watersheds with significant structural practices sustained considerably less flood damage. And my regard for structural practices was renewed – again.
My experience has taught me that bias for structural versus management practices is often rooted in conservation tradition and directly related to a geographic area. But we need to change that way of operating. Imagine if we placed all our financial eggs in management practices and due to weed resistance we lost the ability to use cover crops and/or no-till. That is a scary, but realistic thought. Conversely, if we promote only structural practices, it will take forever for us to achieve soil and water conservation.
Today, I no longer believe management or structural practices are more or less beneficial. We should consider both systems and focus on which practices meet the needs of the resource while meeting the needs of the customer. Yes, we need more Precision Conservation.