Guest Post with Iowa Cattlemen's Association: Thom Miller's conservation story

By Justine Stevenson, Iowa Cattlemen's Association

Howdy! I’m Justine Stevenson and I am the Director of Government Relations for the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association. With May Beef Month behind us, I think it is a great time to highlight the story of an Iowa cattleman and what he is doing on his southeast Iowa farm to improve water quality.

Thom Miller got started in the cattle business at the age of 17 after buying five cows from a farmer he worked for. “I worked in his turkey barn mainly, but I seemed to enjoy the cattle chores more,” he recalls. After graduating high school, Thom attended junior college and returned home to purchase his first farm at the age of 21.

Since that time, Miller has continued to expand his cowherd and today has 200 cow/calf pairs. To add value to his calves, he finishes them out in a deep-bedded monoslope building. By putting livestock under roof, the cattle and their manure are no longer exposed to Iowa weather patterns. This increases the value of the manure and improves the comfort of the cattle. To grow and diversify his operation, two small hog confinement buildings have been constructed. The manure from both the hog facility and cattle feedlot provide nutrients to the various crops Thom and his family grow.

Over the years, Miller has learned to utilize cover crops while raising livestock. “When I use cover crops, there is something growing on my land year-round, as opposed to fallow acres during the winter months. I have a living crop that is absorbing nutrients and consuming rainfall,” says Miller.

He has had experience with growing one species of cover crop at a time, such as rye, to a variety of cover crops in one field, or as he prefers to call it a “cover crop cocktail.” This atypical cover crop practice yields many positive benefits to his farm. Currently, the “cover crop cocktail” consists of sorghum, millet, sunflowers, rape, turnips, oats, corn, soybeans, buckwheat and ryegrass. This mixture offers a feed source for his cattle during the summer months when the cool season grasses are exhausted in the pasture. “Cover crops not only provide feed to my livestock, but they also aid in nutrient management on my crop acres, ultimately improving the water quality that leaves our farm,” says Miller. Thom tends to use his cocktail on hilly land that is depleted of topsoil to enhance tilth and productivity of the soil.

Why so many plants you ask? “This mix was precisely developed because each plant offers a unique component to managing soil and water quality. For example, buckwheat unties phosphorus making it more readily available for corn and soybeans; sunflowers release micronutrients for crop utilization; and turnips offer deep tillage and increase water infiltration into the soil.” It has also become a hot spot for local photographers and has become a feed source for a friend’s beehive. These cover crop acres do so much more than improve water quality.

With an intensified livestock farm and the implementation of cover crops, Miller rarely buys fertilizer for his crops. Although contrary to thought, livestock manure has many useful recyclable components including nutrients, organic matter, solids, energy and fiber. Additionally, manure increases soil organic matter by improving soil structure and water holding capacity. This improvement in the soil enhances crop yields and helps reduce soil loss from wind and water erosion. Raising livestock and crops together is one of the most sustainable practices in agriculture.

Just like other Iowa cattlemen, he is always considering ways in which he can improve the water that leaves his operation. “This next spring we are pushing our February/March calving season back to April/May. This will allow calves to be born in the pasture and will reprieve our family from hauling manure off the concrete lots,” says Miller.

When he is not tending to his livestock, he is attending his children’s events. “They are at the age now where they spend every day after school at some sort of practice or game. It keeps my wife and I on our toes,” Miller says.

Hopefully by sharing this story you recognize some similarities with your own family. Thom has a desire to improve the environment where his family works and plays. He juggles many roles and responsibilities while he strives to accomplish his goals every day. The story of Thom Miller and his family’s farm is just one of many. Iowa cattlemen and women are the original stewards of the land, and cattle producers, just like Thom, are implementing water quality improvement practices daily on their farms.