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Farmer sees first hand that conservation holds soil in place

By Jean Caspers-Simmet
simmet@agrinews.com

Date Modified: 07/16/2013 3:24 PM

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OSAGE, Iowa — Dale Hemann doesn't consider himself to be an over the top conservation nut, but he hates to see soil wash away.

A mid-May storm brought up to 10 inches of rain and caused extensive erosion. Water flooded roads, and when it receded, gravel and rock were deposited in ditches and farm fields. Hemann took pictures of soil erosion and washed out roads near where he farms northeast of Osage.

Six months into his first term as Mitchell Soil and Water Conservation District commissioner, Hemann said while that much rain is going to cause erosion no matter what a farmer does, land with conservation practices did a far better job of holding the soil. Ongoing rains since May have added to the problem.

"Even small rains look significant right now because the ground is so saturated," said Hemann. "The ground is a big sponge, and our sponge is full."

Hemann, who uses mostly strip-till and no-till, is pleased with the results.

"There was some washing but not a lot," he said. "I'm not saying that I do everything right by any means. Strip-till and no-till aren't for everyone, but if you want the system to work you can make it work."

Properly maintained waterways and buffers strips helped prevent erosion, and wetlands like those on the Mitchell County farm near where he lives also helped slow down and catch water.

"A lot of farmers do a good job of watching erosion and are very careful how and where they till, but when you have rains like we had, even with best practices there is erosion," Hemann said. "There is no single answer."

Hemann and his wife, Cindy, grow 850 acres of row crops. They are putting up a monoslope bedded pack barn to finish Holstein steers, and they are Latham and Golden Harvest seed dealers with Hemann's father, Lawrence.

Hemann has transitioned to strip-till and no-till for its conservation benefits as well as its labor and fuel savings. He sidedresses all his nitrogen and uses Instinct, a nitrogen stabilizer, to reduce nitrogen leaching and denitrification.

He said no-till and strip-till farmers are blamed for stalks that get deposited in ditches and fields after heavy rains, but if fields haven't been planted, stalks are still anchored and don't wash off no-till and strip-till fields.

It's evident where waterways, waterway maintenance and buffer strips are needed, Hemann said.

"I don't like to tell people what to do, but the erosion just floors me," he said.

He was able to plant 60 percent of his corn and 80 percent of his soybeans. He and his neighbors made multiple trips, planting spots that were dry and returning to do more later. He will do some tiling on his prevented planted ground, work it and then plant oats, rye and turnips.

"We put hog manure on that ground last fall and if there is nitrogen there, we'd like to capture it," he said. "The turnips will loosen the soil. This winter, my neighbor will graze his cattle on the ground."

Hemann grew up where he now lives and wanted to farm after high school, but his father told him to do something else first. He received a bachelor's degree in aviation science from the College of the Ozark's in Branson, Mo. He and Cindy met there. He also earned a master's degree in aviation safety. A commercial pilot, he is just a few courses away from qualifying as a flight instructor, something he hopes to accomplish in the next few years.

His father retired, sold his equipment and rented out the farm in 1997 not realizing that Hemann wanted to farm. When Hemann began farming nine years ago, he started from scratch working for FedEx in Ames and then Rochester, Minn., for the first six years.

Cindy does book work for several farmers and helps Hemann on the farm. They have four children, Lindsay, 14, Emily, 13, Whitney, 11, and Alex, 9.

For farmers interested in strip-tilling or no-tilling, Hemann recommends experimenting on a small scale first. He said he learned from farmers Steve, Randy and Dana Norby, all of Osage, and John Gisleson, of Floyd, and from Johnson Chemical in Osage.