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The Best of Agricultural Sustainability

By Renee Elder

Photography by Matthew Putney

A streak of stubbornness mixed with ingenuity helped Dave Petty develop a sustainability plan for his farm that increases the efficiency of the land and wins awards for the best of farming practices in the agricultural industry.

But recognition was not something he set out to achieve on his Hardin County, Iowa, farm.

"When I started out, my only option was to take over some marginal farm ground that nobody else wanted," says Petty, who grew up on a farm that his family sold when he was still a teenager. "I had to find ways to improve the soil and the production capacity of that land."

Petty accepted the challenge of how to improve his farm, and now, some 30 years later, his Iowa River Ranch is winning awards such as the Cattlemen's Beef Association's 2001 National Stewardship Award and the 2002 Environmental Excellence Award from the Environmental Protection Agency's Kansas City region.

Petty splits his farming efforts between cattle farming and growing soybeans and corn and uses techniques that allow the two to compliment each other. For example, the corn stock residue provides feed for cattle that are moved in to graze after the harvest. It is true agriculture at its best.

"Not only does that mean I get some economic value off the corn stalks by letting the cows graze there through the winter, but the cattle provide fertilizer for the field," he points out. To avoid overgrazing, Petty moves his herd through a series of paddocks that run across nearly 3,000 acres, some of which he and his wife, Diane, own and some they rent.

To tame the hilly, rough acreage along the Iowa River, they developed a system of waterways and terraces with tile and grass to manage water runoff and avoid erosion. Strategically placed wells help ensure the cattle graze evenly instead of overgrazing in a few spots where drinking water is available.

When it comes to record keeping, Petty is meticulous as he tracks crop records, as well as records on his cattle and calfs, adapting his land management decisions yearly in response to those findings and, of course, variations in the weather.

Through these land management practices, Iowa River Ranch has reached an efficiency level that other farmers are eager to study. He is happy to share his knowledge of sustainable land management and often gives tours of his farm. After all, that's how he gets his ideas for improvement.

"I try to learn from other people," he says. "I'm not afraid to drive to another state and look at another farm operation. Each time, I try to pick up one idea I can take home with me back to my own farm."
He stresses, though, that agricultural efficiency does not always equal maximum production on a farrm.

"You have to take the time to look at what's best in the long run for your sustainability plan," he says, "and sometimes be willing to accept what happens in the short-term in exchange for sustainability."