Conservation in agriculture is a constant state of learning


“When the land does well for its owner, and the owner does well by the land–when both end up better by the reason of their partnership–then we have conservation. When one or the other grows poorer, either in substance, or in character, or in responsiveness to sun, wind and rain, then we have something else, and it is something we do not like.” — Aldo Leopold, 1939

I recently read this in a book by the Soil and Water Conservation Society about Aldo Leopold. I want to share with you how this resonates with me and probably many other farmers.

In the first paragraph, Leopold clearly identifies the value that all farmers place on good conservation. Farmers understand that as we continue to improve our conservation efforts the health of our soils also improve. Improving our soil improves our bottom line and water quality, so it’s a win-win situation.

It’s important to note that as the farm economy suffers so does the ability for a farmer to invest dollars to go above and beyond in conservation efforts. The relationship between good conservation and farm profitability works from both sides of the coin. However, farmers continue to improve conservation on their farms to the best of their ability as new information and technology becomes available. I can relate to the journey our own farm underwent.

While growing up, our heifers were raised in a lot where two of our streams converged. The area was completely devoid of vegetation and covered with mud and manure. The area was certainly chosen by the previous generations because of the access to a readily available water source. We learned this was not a good idea. What was once an accepted practice was shown to be completely detrimental to the water quality and fish habitat of the stream. But at the time, who knew? Once we did know this information, the area was converted to a grassy lawn and the cattle were given a new barn, away from the stream to prevent contamination.

Learning is a constant for many people, but especially for farmers. We use the best information we have available at the time and continue to adapt as new information arrives. We rely on science and research to show us how we can make the biggest and best impacts on the natural resources around us. I guess what I’m saying is that the art of conservation is something that all farmers are continually refining and improving.

The learning on our farm didn’t stop with moving the cattle away from the stream. We also learned of the benefits of no-till planting about 20 years ago. In addition, we started using cover crops nearly 10 years ago. We now have a nutrient management plan and are constantly evolving our conservation practices.

Having recently celebrated Earth Day, I encourage you share your story of how you protect and preserve water quality on and around your farm. It is important for us to have an open mind to try new things and talk openly about what we are doing. After all, if we don’t tell our story someone else might and there’s a chance we won’t like what they have to say.

I’m not Aldo Leopold, but with continued research and learning, I can strive to be a better farmer through conservation efforts.


This column was written by Joe Bragger, who was elected president of Wisconsin Farm Bureau in 2019. Bragger is a dairy and poultry farmer from Independence.

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