An Iowa farmer has taken home the American Soybean Association’s 2018 National Conservation Legacy Award. The ASA presented Mark Schleisman, from Lake City, Iowa, with the award during the annual ASA Awards Banquet on Wednesday, Feb. 28, at Commodity Classic in Anaheim, California.
Prior to Schleisman’s recognition as the program’s national winner, he was named the Midwest Regional winner of the Conservation Legacy Award. The national award winner is chosen from three regional winners. The other 2018 regional winners were Dave and Linda Burrier, Union Bridge, Maryland (Northeast Region) and Grant Norwood, Mansfield, Tennessee (South Region).
The Conservation Legacy Awards program is a national program designed to recognize the outstanding environmental and conservation achievements of soybean farmers, which help to produce more sustainable U.S. soybeans. Along with ASA, the program is co-sponsored by BASF, Monsanto, Corn & Soybean Digest magazine, the United Soybean Board/Soybean Checkoff, and Valent.
Schleisman heads up M&M Farms, a diverse family operation in Calhoun County, Iowa. M&M Farms grows 4,500 acres of crops, including 2,000 acres of popcorn; manages 360 cow-calf pairs; and finish approximately 30,000 head of pigs.
With livestock being such an important part of the M&M Farms operation, Schleisman was approached by Practical Farmers of Iowa to do a three-year research project documenting the economic benefits of cover crops and grazing. He and three other farmers documented the feed value of the biomass produced by cover crops.
“The amount of cover crop growth we get is very weather dependent, but we have seen a value of $70 an acre or more, with our top year coming in at $76 an acre,” Schleisman said. “The benefit to the cows is tremendous.”
The family started with cereal rye as its choice for a cover crop and now is adding other species such as oilseed radishes and rape. “The cows seem more satisfied on the cover crops, because they are not just eating dried up corn stalks, but getting some green material in there,” Schleisman said.
The economic benefits became obvious quickly. “By our numbers, we are getting at least a three times return in the short term by grazing those cover crops, in addition to the long-term benefits we are seeing in soil health,” Schleisman added. The soil health benefits realized on M&M Farms led them to also plant cover crops on fields where they don’t have cows graze.
M&M Farms is also very engaged in protecting water quality. It is located in the Elk Run watershed, a tributary to the Raccoon River and a source of concern about nitrate. As part of a demonstration project directed by the Iowa Soybean Association in cooperation with a number of partner organizations, Schleisman installed a couple of edge-of-field practices designed to significantly cut nitrate contribution to the Raccoon River.
One of these practices is a saturated buffer. It stores water under field buffers by diverting tile water into shallow laterals that raise the water table within the buffer, thus slowing outflow. The other edge-of-field treatment process is a bioreactor. It consists of a buried pit filled with a carbon source (wood chips) through which tile water is diverted. The carbon provides a food source for microorganisms; they use nitrate to metabolize the carbon, converting the nitrate to harmless atmospheric nitrogen gas.
“I have seen nitrate levels entering the bioreactor running 15 to 22 parts per million,” Schleisman said. “It is exiting the bioreactor at less than one part per million.”
He has shared that story with many farm audiences, and has been featured in many interviews conducted for urban audiences as well.