by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

While most farmers seek to keep animals away from their crops, Nathan and Sarah Anderson work at ways to integrate wildlife into natural habitats on Bobolink Prairie Farms, their Aurelia, Iowa, farm, to increase overall profitability. Practical Farmers of Iowa offered “Using Conservation to Improve Farm Profitability” as a recent webinar in which Nathan Anderson spoke about their edge-of-field conservation on marginal lands to provide water quality and wildlife benefits while improving return on investment on farmed acres.

As a father, Nathan offered an analogy for soil care: “I jokingly say that the in-field practices are like the bib that keep things in and the edge of the field is like a diaper that keeps the mess from going downstream.”

Their land was a swamp before tile drainage. This knowledge makes him more aware of how sensitive his acres are to major rainfall events, such as in 2013.

“In mid-summer 2013, you could see the scour it put on the landscape,” Nathan said.

The following year was also wet. That spurred him to consider more field conservation practices to help stabilize the land though the use of measures such as planting perennials and providing buffers. In 2015, he planted wetland-appropriate plants that could help prevent the erosion issues he faced in the past.

“2019 was a wet year, but we didn’t see significant flooding,” he said. “We were able to protect that stream corridor much better than we have in the past.”

In the fields, cover crops have helped prevent soil erosion too. Using varieties that are both native and that can be used as forage help restore the balance of the land and provide benefit to the farm’s bottom line.

Nathan and Sarah combine those two things together with perennial landscapes and systems on the landscape with row crops on the landscape.

Nathan said some farms implement grazing systems that impact the forage balance and resiliency of their pastures. On his own farm, he said the encroachment of cedar trees has limited grazing. He’s cleared 17 acres of cedar in a 60-acre pasture to allow more grazing and more varied forage. “Removing those trees has allowed us to see species that are indicators that help us learn, grow and understand our impact on the landscape,” he explained.

The return of seldom-seen native animals shows him that he’s helping the land revert to a more natural state. These measures can also directly benefit farmers, as it offers his animals more grazing, for example.

“This year has been very challenging, to say the least, for many of us in whatever role we’re in,” Nathan said. “We talk about things that give us joy and grow and give us a positive feedback loop to reaffirm what we’re doing. It’s unique to work with landscapes that have been around a long time. Some trees were 120 to 150 years old.”

He feels that although a farmer’s name may appear on the deeds and tax rolls, “the land belongs to the species that call it home.”