Farming in the Loess Hills

When people think of farming, many picture endless flat lands of corn, beans, or wheat waving in the wind. In the Loess Hills of western Iowa, farmers deal with steep ridges and rolling hills. The soil is different too. Loess soil has a fine gritty consistency and is extremely sensitive to erosion. Combining the rolling and sometimes steep hills with this fragile soil makes the Loess Hills farming community traditional in its products but somewhat non-traditional in its methods.

Types

There are many types of agriculture in the Loess Hills:
beans
pigs
cattle
oats
corn
trees
grapes (for wineries)
wheat

Practices

Due to the sensitive loess soil, a farmer in the Loess Hills must employ conservation practices to control soil erosion. Terracing and contour crop farming help to limit erosion. Crop rotation helps to conserve the nutrients of the soil and "no till" farming can reduce the amount of soil that washes away.

Planting in the Flat Spots

Some ridges in the area are too steep to farm. In the old days, many farmers tried to plant crops on these hills and found themselves sitting sideways in the tractor and holding onto the steering wheel to prevent slipping off the seat. It took a little while for them to realize that farming these steep slopes was not only difficult, but the loess soil would wash down the hill. It would then get deposited in farm streams and creeks. This caused even more problems. Today, most Loess Hills farmers know that crops should be planted on the flat areas and that cattle can be allowed to graze on the hill slopes.

Maintaining Prairie Plants

Grazing can be a problem too. If cattle are allowed to overgraze and eliminate the plants and grasses, the soil is left exposed to the elements and, once again, erosion occurs. The prairie plants and grasses that grow in the Loess Hills serve a very important purpose. They protect the soil by holding it in place. There long roots go deep into the soil and hold it in place.

Grazing Cattle

One cattle rancher in the Loess Hills played it smart and received a big payoff. He reduced his cattle herd by 50% and actually made more money. Here's how he did it. By reducing his herd, the cattle weren't overgrazing the hills in his backyard. They received more nutrients because there was more grass to eat. As a result, the cattle weighed in heavier than they did when there were 50% more of them. The farmer went to market with 50 cattle instead of 100 and made more money. The heavier the cattle, the more money earned. Amazing, huh?

Knowing the Land

Most farmers and ranchers in the Loess Hills know how sensitive the land is. They know how to work the land to reap the most benefits. Some might admit they need to work a little harder at sustaining the land while benefiting from it, but many farmers have figured out the secrets of the loess soil. The hills are rolling and the soil is fragile but the Loess Hills agriculture business is alive and well due to some non-traditional farming methods.

Sources

1. Buettner, Vickie. "Anthon, Iowa USA: General Information." (online) http://www.anthoniowa.com/geninfo.html. January 2002.
2. Bruning, Tim. Loess Hills Landowners Association. Interview. Fall 2001.
3. Loess Hills Hospitality Association. "Welcome." (online) http://showcase.netins.net/web/loesshills/welcome.html. January 2001.
4. Prior, Jean. Iowa Geological Survey. Interview. Fall 2001.
5. Sproul, Tim. Director, Harrison County Conservation Board. Fall 2001.

 

 


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