Regenerative Practices Restore Soil Health and Profits

Heal the Land

Seth Watkins wants to return intensively farmed ground back to a prairie system. (Joseph L. Murphy)

Pinhook Farm is an operation in transition -- as it has been since 1848, when Seth Watkins' ancestors started farming its deep, rich, Drift Plain soils near Clarinda, in southwest Iowa. The farm, originally broken out of virgin prairie before the Civil War and immediately put into grain production, was said to be named for an oxbow lake in the area.

Watkins, who bought and inherited parts of what is now a 2,400-acre grazing operation of owned, rented and managed land, traces the history of the farm through several cycles of full production and rest periods caused by economic conditions and farming methods that depleted the soil.

"As a young man, I watched the dissolution of many neighboring farms in our area during the 1980s and as unprecedented high interest rates forced many good producers out of business," he recalls. "By the time I became involved in managing the farm in the 1990s, I was already convinced agriculture, as we know it, cannot survive without subsidies."

RETURN TO GRASS

That realization led Watkins to begin returning the farm's soils to what they had done best for thousands of years: growing grass with significantly fewer inputs than modern cash-grain business models require. Watkins, whose childhood was closely tied to family livestock, wanted to emulate the era of bison and use cattle to heal the land.

He reseeded pastures on his own land -- which now includes 320 acres he and his wife, Christy, have purchased -- and early in his career arranged a long-standing relationship (which still exists) with a Nebraska family to manage their cattle on land they owned in Iowa. The cattle would use the partnership family's corn by-products available in nearby eastern Nebraska. At that time, Watkins also began managing neighboring beef cattle-grazing operations on shares.

Throughout, Watkins continued seeding his own land to grass and began using cover crops for rotational grazing. The regenerative practices also helped improve the soil's water-holding and infiltration capacity, which in turn improves the land's resiliency in times of drought.

He relies on a mix of fescue, orchardgrass, smooth brome and a mix of clover interseeded, along with native switchgrass to support 80 cows on the home farm. Watkins adds his goal is to replace some of those cow numbers with yearling stockers to improve cash-flow and ultimately maintain the same number of animals per acre.

A SMALLER FOOTPRINT

Today, he manages 600 beef-cow pairs on 2,400 acres, but he says that's going to change.

"I actually want my farm to get smaller," he explains, noting his goal is to someday drop the rented acres and focus on the 320 acres of his homeplace to see how diversified he can make it.

"I've bought a herd of Katahdin hair sheep to diversify because they provide a fairly stable market while also eating weeds and forbs the cattle won't eat. Potentially, they showcase an enterprise for young people to get started in agriculture with more affordable up-front costs than cattle," he says. The Katahdins produce 1.8 lambs per birth and remain productive for eight to 10 years, are parasite- and heat-resistant, and have excellent mothering ability.

He's convinced to save rural communities across the nation, it's necessary to create more -- albeit smaller -- farming operations rather than fewer, which he says is the result of today's ever-expanding "more-acres, bigger machinery" model.

Over the years, the 2022 Iowa Leopold Conservation Award winner has been preparing for the downsizing by eliminating gullies and ditches on the farm. On the most highly erodible soils and around a dozen ponds he's built and fenced off from cattle, Watkins has planted hundreds of trees as a potential future income stream from fruit and nuts, as well as timber -- and a way to sequester carbon, reduce erosion and improve wildlife habitat.

"I'm trying to learn more about perennial tree crops like chestnuts, pecans and hazelnuts as potential cash and edible crops. As we continue this transition to a smaller operation, we're looking for a place for grapes and fruit trees. This isn't for me, it's for those who may be here 20 or 30 years from now," he explains.

In addition to reducing chemical use on their pastures -- mainly to control ragweed which the sheep flock can handle -- the Watkinses seek to increase the diversity of their pastures and the overall operation. They have plans to build a rental cabin on the farm to encourage agritourism and support lease hunting for wild turkey, pheasant and deer, which are thriving with natural habitat improvements.

Watkins says his methods have traditionally been viewed with curiosity by the more traditional farmers in the area, but he sees increasing numbers of his neighbors putting land back in USDA's Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), particularly on rough, less-productive acres.

Others are also taking notice of Watkins' pastures and alternatives to corn and soybean fields.

"We're getting lots of visits from neighbors and others interested in what we're doing as they try to understand why we farm the way we farm," he explains. "Even if they are getting bigger because of their current business model, we have farmers interested in trying to keep the wildness of the land intact where they can and realize a return on investment from that."

FINANCIAL MINDSET

Watkins acts as a consultant to many landowners. He says a fundamental change is needed in the way many growers view revenue and return on investment (ROI), and the difference between net and gross income.

"I'm amazed at how many people don't think that way," he says, recalling consulting with various landowners on boosting overall productivity of their farms -- sometimes by reducing the number of acres they plant.

As an example, he speaks of a neighbor who was planting an unproductive part of his farm to corn each year. Regardless of how many inputs, the top yield remained about 25 bushels per acre.

"Crop inputs are $500 to $600 per acre, and with 25-bushel-per-acre corn and $5 market prices, that amounts up to a $475 loss on each acre," he explains. "Now, in CRP, that land would command nearly $300 an acre; so instead of losing $475, the grower would have a positive $300 -- or a total financial improvement on poor-producing acres of $775. The overall productivity of that farm would improve significantly by taking less-productive acres out of production."

He says such examples come from applying geospatial examination to a landowner's field maps. "If we see a bright red area on a yield map, and we know those are perennially low-producing, we have to ask, 'Why are we farming this part of the field?'"

Watkins says he's also taking that approach to Pinhook Farm by becoming much smaller and highly diversified and efficient. By doing this, he hopes to show the drive for maximum production isn't always the guaranteed success formula many believe it to be.

"When we were first starting out, I realized I needed more forage for my cattle, but I didn't want to put more land in production to do that. I liked to walk along the streams, near the trees, and felt much more at home there than standing in the middle of a cash-grain field. That's when we began trying to restore the prairie system. I just had to figure out how to make it economically viable."

The transition for the Watkins operation continues as they seek to whittle production costs and replace them with ecological solutions that show a positive ROI in each of the endeavors that will be Pinhook Farm in the future.

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