Learning and Sharing in the West Branch of the Floyd River Watershed - Sioux County, Iowa

Jon Kiel farms 320 acres with his dad, David, a few miles west of Orange City, Iowa. Even though Jon’s attention is spread over his family, serving in the Iowa National Guard, and his business Sport Turf Supply INC, he always makes time to reflect on his farming operation. “Am I getting the return I want in my fertilizer investment? Will incorporating a small grain in my rotation help suppress weeds and hold nitrogen? Is changing to no-till going to improve my soils water holding capacity or will it decrease my yield?” These are just some of the questions Jon asks himself while trying to come to an informed decision on how to manage his farmland. This critical thinking has led to some changes in his operation over the years.

When Jon started farming 10 years ago, they strictly planted corn and soybeans in a rotation. They conventionally tilled in the spring and fall, and relied on commercial fertilizer as the crops source of nutrients. However, high input costs were cutting into his profit and he started researching ways he could cut down on some of those expenses. One of Jon’s neighbors had experience with cereal rye helping to suppress weeds, therefor allowing him to reduce his herbicide costs. Not only that, but the cover crop was also holding nitrogen and making it available to the cash crop the following spring. This prompted Jon to give cover crops a try. Now, he has been planting them on every acre for 5 years using a wide variety including radishes, clover, wheat, cereal rye, and winter triticale.

Even though Jon was pleased with the results he got from the cover crops, he still thought he wasn’t doing everything he could to improve his operation. So, this year he tried no-till for the first time. He knew it would save him time and money, and he had seen evidence from spring rains just how much more resistant no-till fields are to erosion than a conventionally tilled field. By combining no-till with cover crops, Jon hopes to improve his soil health, improve nutrient cycling, and reduce erosion on his farm. Jon has already seen additional benefits from this system as he harvested a field of oats this summer and it ended up netting him more profit than his corn or beans will likely provide. He is also looking to graze his cover crops in the near future as Jon also has calves and pasture cows.

During this whole process Jon has learned a great deal. He thinks trying new things and thinking outside of the box is one of the most important aspects of farming. Improving our peer to peer relationships in the farming community is also important so that we can take the new information we have learned and share it. Jon shares the information he has learned in a variety of ways. One way is through his business Sport Turf Supply INC, where he educates clients on a larger system approach with synergistic biology and timely nutrition applications to improve soil and plant health. His products now come with a “watershed friendly” sticker on the container. Another way he shares information is through local outreach. Recently, Jon partnered with the West Branch of the Floyd River Watershed Project and Iowa Learning Farms to host a field day on his farm. He and the guest speakers talked about cover crops and soil health to a crowd of 58 locals consisting of farmers, area conservationists and students from Dordt College. Jon believes events like this are important to let other farmers know it is okay to try new things and experiment.

Jon and David are a great example of stepping outside of the box when it comes to farming. With their continued innovation and success, more local farmers are bound to see the benefits and try these conservation practices. Jon also reminds us it’s not just about the annual bottom line, but the sustainability of the farm in the long haul.

Will Myers