Soil Matters

Seth Watkins: Farming for Healthy Soil and Clean Water

Raylene Nickel
Seth Watkins farm tour

Seth Watkins’ Pinhook Farm in southern Iowa’s Page County sprawls across gently rolling hills cut through here and there by streams and ravines. The 3,200 acres he farms and grazes cattle on are, he says, made up of “fragile” soil, typical of his area. When left unprotected and open to the elements, such soil is easily carried away by wind and water from rain and snow melt flowing across the surface.

The importance of holding the soil in place was always important to Watkins, but that awareness took on a force of its own some 15 years ago. “I saw bare ground in one field after we had chopped corn for silage, and I didn’t like seeing that ground being bare,” he says. “That inspired me to plant a cover crop on that land after harvesting the corn. I grazed cattle on the cover crop that fall. But the cattle left plant residue on the surface to protect the soil, and in the spring I didn’t see any evidence of wind erosion or gullies from water erosion.”

Since then, Watkins, who farms in partnership with his wife, Christy, has adopted a whole-system style of farming comprising a suite of management practices that are, coincidentally, at the heart of soil-building practices endorsed by the Izaak Walton League. Watkins uses plant diversity to increase the diversity of soil life; he minimizes tillage to disturb soil as little as possible; he keeps soil covered as much as possible with surface residue and live plants that feed the soil microorganisms; and he integrates livestock into his production system.

I have found that I can really heal a piece of ground by grazing the cover crops. The cattle and the crops all work together.-Seth Watkins

Using mostly no-till practices, Watkins grows diverse crops including corn, soybeans, winter wheat, oats and alfalfa. As a perennial legume, the alfalfa provides winter feed for his herd of 600 cows. It also gives the land a three- to five-year break from growing corn and soybeans. Because it’s a legume, the alfalfa fixes nitrogen in the soil to provide fertility for subsequent cash crops. Its deep tap roots also aerate the soil beneath the surface and feed soil microorganisms.

The diversity of soil life is further enhanced by diverse cover crops. After harvesting winter wheat in July, Watkins no-till-plants a multi-species cover crop mix including forage barley, rye, cow peas, turnips and sometimes sunflower. After harvesting corn for silage in late summer, he may plant a cover crop including winter wheat, rye, turnips and radishes. The live roots of the cover crops feed Watkins’ underground livestock – the microorganisms in the soil – as well as the cattle, which graze the cover crops in late fall and early spring. “The cattle gain weight grazing the cover crops, and I have found that I can really heal a piece of ground by grazing the cover crops,” he says. “The cattle and the crops all work together.”

After 15 years of using management practices that build soil health, Watkins sees improvements in soil structure and no evidence of soil erosion. “Because our soils are more porous now, water infiltrates the ground more efficiently,” he says. “I’m not seeing sheet and rill erosion caused by water running off.”

Watkins’ soil-building practices are also causing remarkable increases in soil organic matter. Tests show that some fields, where previous farming methods had degraded organic matter to levels as low as one and two percent, now test as high as five to 5.7 percent in organic matter.

Watkins is a firm believer in giving Mother Nature everything she needs to do her best work. “Mother Nature is incredibly benevolent if you just give her a chance,” he says. “I haven’t had to do very much in order to get a lot back from her.”

Providing healthful conditions for grasslands is part of his creative partnership with nature. Some grasslands, comprising potentially erosive slopes and fragile soil, he leaves in as natural a state as possible. In one pasture he has fenced cattle away from the stream bank and installed an underground line for watering the livestock. He grazes the pasture only lightly, letting the cattle take out the dead understory of grass, thus opening up the canopy of surface residue to allow new grass growth.

“We’ve been letting nature have its way in that pasture, and it has been neat to see what has happened,” he says. “The water in the stream became more clear, the plants greened up, and wildlife has become more abundant. But we couldn’t have done it without the grazing of the cows. It’s a lot easier for us to make natural processes work because we have the cattle.”

On some sloped land growing cash crops, he has in the past alternated strips of cropland with strips of perennial prairie grasses. Like grassed waterways and field buffers, the prairie-grass strips reduce runoff from the field. Watkins established the strips in 2003 in cooperation with Iowa State University researchers who were evaluating the soil-conserving effectiveness of the strips.

Natural Resources Conservation Service: An agency of the United States Department of Agriculture that provides technical assistance to farmers and other private landowners and managers.

The planting of prairie-grass strips is just one example of the new generation of conservation practices Watkins hopes will be the future of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). “It would be ideal if NRCS and other farm programs would focus on regeneration of resources rather than on production,” he says.

Another example of a new-generation regenerative practice is the planting of trees simply for the sake of creating carbon sinks. “I’m fascinated with the idea of farmers creating carbon sinks,” he says. “Farming and ranching are industries that can get a lot of carbon back into the soil.”

Beyond benefitting soil, Watkins’ farming practices have nurtured wildlife and native plants as well. “We’ve really seen an increase in wildlife,” he says. “We have a lot of little forbs and clovers – including the red clover I broadcast every spring. We have a lot of songbirds, gamebirds and woodland creatures.”

So abundant is the wildlife that Watkins started a side business of outfitting for hunters. “Bowhunters can come here to hunt white-tailed deer and wild turkeys,” he says. “The outfitting diversifies our revenue stream. I’m a fan of diversity. The more options we have, the better we are able to weather the ups and downs in agriculture.

“But our primary focus is stewardship,” he adds. “We did not become profitable until we shifted our focus from production to stewardship. Once we did that, other things just fell into place.”

Raylene Nickel is an author, freelance journalist and farmer who raises cattle near Kief, North Dakota.

Cover photo: Tour of Seth Watkins’ farm.