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Renewing The Land | Spring 2005 Out Here Magazine

When Dave Petty started farming some 30 years ago, he took unproductive land that nobody else wanted and improved it. He's now winning accolades with his good stewardship of the land.

Farmer takes fields from marginal to fertile

By Renee Elder

Photography by Matthew Putney

A streak of stubbornness mixed with ingenuity helped Dave Petty develop a farming strategy that increases the efficiency of the land and wins awards for good farming practices.

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 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 land and the production capacity of that land."

Petty accepted the challenge 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 and crops of soybeans and corn, with techniques that allow the two to complement each other. For example, the corn stock residue provides feed for cattle that are moved in to graze after the harvest.

"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 terraces, with tile and grass waterways installed 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.

Petty keeps meticulous crop as well as cow and calf records, adapting his land management decisions yearly in response to those findings and, of course, variations in the weather.

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

"I try to learn from other people," he says. "I'm not afraid to drive to another state and look at another operation. Each time, I try to pick up one idea I can take home with me."

He stresses, though, that efficiency does not always equal maximum production.

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

Renee Elder is a freelance writer in Raleigh, N.C.