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Father-to-son conservation

Everywhere you look their land is protected with terraces and no-till farming. Robert and Roger Cerven’s corn and soybean land in Montgomery County oozes conservation.

It hasn’t always been the case for this southwest Iowa farm. Robert, 82, recalls he was the third farmer in the county to build bench terraces years ago. “I started building them to stop erosion. When my Dad raised soybeans on these hills, they really washed. So I started building terraces back when the state gave you 50% cost share, and you planned ahead to build them in the summer.”

Robert was also one of the first to no-till in the county. “Deane McCunn was the first. He was a good man for me to follow along with. He was first to use the bench terraces, too,” says Robert.

Key Points

• With good maintenance, terraces will continue to save soil for generations.

• Both terraces and no-till farming are needed to control erosion on steeper hills.

• Watching his father practice conservation influences a son’s conservation ethic.


While Robert was being influenced by McCunn, he was also setting an example and instilling conservation in his son, Roger. “I can remember when Dad switched to no-till,” Roger recalls. “I did a lot of the no-till planting for him when I was in the seventh and eighth grade with a four-row planter. One of the things he always said was he could save oil, toil and soil with no-till.”

Roger and Robert use terraces and no-till, along with some alfalfa in a rotation, as their conservation system. “Even with no-till and terraces, you can get some dirt movement between the terraces,” Roger says. “But you still have it in the field. Dad’s shown me over the years that if the topsoil stays in the field, when a good year comes along, your crops can be better than you ever imagined.”

Gaining soil productivity

Robert, whose motto is to leave the land better than when he started farming it, has built about 10 miles of terraces but can’t get enough of them on the farm. “We’ve asked the soil conservation office where we can build more terraces, but they say we’ve pretty much got it done,” says Robert. He admits that the terraces are unhandy in places, but what he gains with the terraces is much more than what he loses from inconvenience.

Roger is used to farming across the slope in terraced land. The 440 acres he cash-rents from his father is part of about 1,200 acres he plants to corn and soybeans. “Practically everything we farm is terraced,” he says. “I’ve only got 21 acres that lays in a straight line out of that 1,200 acres.” Roger says he wants his landlords to know he treats the land he farms for them as if it were his own.

“These heavy rains last year and this year have been hard on us,” Roger notes. “We’ve had to scrape the dirt from the channels of the terraces and put it back out on the field.”

“But how much dirt have the people lost who didn’t terrace?” asks Robert. “I see some people disking their ditches back in, but they’re going to wash out again, and they’ll be bouncing over them at harvest. And where did their soil go?”

Pays to maintain terraces

The Cervens plow their terrace channels every four years to clean the channel out and build the ridge of the terrace. “If you maintain terraces like you should –– plow up the front slope and keep a foot of grass on top of the ridge –– they should last forever,” Robert says.

Robert was a commissioner with the Montgomery County Soil and Water Conservation District for 27 years before stepping down three years ago. At that point, Roger agreed to fill the vacancy.

“I’d educated Dad on fertilizer and seed management, and things like that over the years, and he’s shown me the value of conservation,” says Roger. “His generation has done so much, so carrying some of that on into the future is what I’m trying to do.”

While Roger hasn’t made it a point to push conservation hard to his two sons and daughter, he says both sons want to farm, and there are signs they will have the same conservation ethic of their father and grandfather.

“Jonathan, our oldest, wants to go to Iowa State University in agronomy next year and would like to come back and farm. When he was in the Envirothon in school this year, he said it was obvious to him that he had been living conservation because he scored 100% on the pretest,” says Roger with a smile.

Helping neighbors

Cervens’ neighbors have terraces, too. Many are the result of the Hacklebarney Watershed Project. Robert helped organize the original Public Law 566 Watershed Project in 1984, and helped the Montgomery Soil and Water Con-servation District guide a 2001 effort.

That project, funded with additional state watershed funds from the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, was aimed at reducing sheet and rill erosion, improving water quality in Viking Lake, reducing flooding, and improving water quality in the Nodaway River Basin.

Nearly $2 million has been spent on both projects to apply more than 24 miles of terraces, 33 grade stabilization structures, 27 water and sediment control basins, 58 acres of riparian forest buffers, and almost 500 acres of filter strips and buffer strips. Roger is helping guide the continuing project as a commissioner, as well as a new project from NRCS through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that will offer $161,000 in cost sharing to Hacklebarney Watershed farmers for adding conservation practices to the land.

Betts writes from Johnston.

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QUITE A COMBO: Robert Cerven has terraced all his land, and son Roger adds no-till to also provide conservation protection for the land.

This article published in the February, 2010 edition of WALLACES FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.