The Rice Soil and Water Conservation District selected John and Debbie Becker of rural Dundas as the 2019 Outstanding Conservationists for Rice County.
The Beckers accepted the award at the Rice County Best of the Best Awards at the Rice County Fair in July. They will also be honored at the Minnesota Association of Soil and Water Conservation District Annual Convention in December, along with other Outstanding Conservationist award winners from across the state.
John and Debbie began dairy farming together on the farm where John grew up after they were married in 1988. They have been using conservation on their farm just west of Dundas in north-central Rice County for many decades. The Beckers began by installing grassed waterways to combat gully erosion. Today, grassed waterways have been installed to protect the soil on all the ground they farm.
Almost 20 years before Minnesota’s buffer law took effect, the Beckers planted a buffer strip in 1999 along County Ditch #22, also known as Rice Creek, Rice County’s only self-sustaining trout stream.
“There was a lot of pressure on dairy farmers at that time to prevent animal waste from polluting lakes, rivers and streams. Since we are located right next to the county ditch, we decided to be proactive and planted the buffer strips as well as monitored our manure spreading on the farm” said Debbie.
Early on the Beckers utilized the Buffer Strip Program through the Cannon River Watershed Partnership and then enrolled the land into the Conservation Reserve Program.
In 2002, the Beckers restored a wetland that was drained back in the 1960s by John’s father and a neighbor. While drainage tile and a pump worked to dry up the field and allowed for the rich soil to be farmed, over time the tile began to sink. Crops started to flood out year after year.
“Rather than work against Mother Nature, we decided to return it back to a wetland. Through the Wetland Banking Program, the drainage tile was replaced by a solid pipe and the pump was set to a level that maintains the wetland and prevents water from flooding our buildings,” said John.
Around the wetland, the Beckers planted trees and native prairie wildflowers.
While the cows were sold 15 years ago, the buffer strips, grassed waterways and wetland remain. The Beckers now grow corn and beans as well as run a crop adjustment service to farmers in southeastern Minnesota.
In 2012, the Beckers began experimenting with cover crops. They planted canning crops on one of their rented farms. After the canning company took the crop off, the Beckers planted 75 acres of tillage radish after hearing about the cover crop at Farm Fest. The odd-looking crop attracted a lot of attention in the neighborhood, but the Beckers were glad that the soil was covered and weeds were suppressed.
In 2013, despite a very wet spring and no drainage tile, the Beckers were able to no-till plant that farm field first, which was a big surprise because normally this rented farm was the wettest ground they farmed. The tillage radish had naturally tilled his ground and the spring rains infiltrated into the deep tunnels created by the radish. Back on their home farm, the fields were so wet that they had to take prevent plant acres. The Beckers decided to plant cover crops again, this time a three-way mix of tillage radish, crimson clover and annual ryegrass on 208 acres of ground.
While they had early successes with cover crops, the Beckers skipped planting cover crops in 2014, but did not forget about what they saw in the field.
“The fields where I had planted covers just looked so healthy compared to my other fields. 2014 was the year that I had my ‘ah-ha moment’ and decided to plant more cover crops on my fields,” said John.
The Beckers partnered with other area farmers who were also experimenting with cover crops and aerial seeded 150 acres of cover crops on ground going into corn in 2015 and 350 acres in 2016. In 2017 and 2018, the Beckers aerial seeded cover crops on all the acres on their farms. They utilized the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and Cannon River Watershed Partnership’s Farmers Protecting Rice Creek Cover Crop Program to pay for the cover crops.
Over the years, the Beckers also experimented with conservation tillage. The past couple of years they have no-tilled their beans and strip-tilled their corn.
This year, the Beckers purchased a 24-row air seeder. In June, John planted a cover crop mix of annual ryegrass, kale and purple top turnip at the V5 to V7 leaf stage in his corn. This fall, he is interseeding a six-way mix of oats, winter triticale, crimson clover, red clover, radish, and common vetch into his standing soybeans.
The use of cover crops and conservation tillage has created a thick mat of vegetation to armor their soil and aid in weed suppression. The Beckers have been able to cut back on herbicides and hope to reduce their overall use of fertilizer in the years ahead.
For the Beckers, it has been rewarding to see the change and improvement of the soil health on their farms.
“We believe in soil and water conservation because we want to be good stewards of the land so it can be used by future generations,” said Debbie.
Added John: “It feels good to know that we are doing the right thing to the soil and it’s fun to watch the soil change for the better. We can’t keep shipping the dirt down to the Gulf of Mexico. We have to start taking care of it here. I think that if we don’t make changes and show that we’ve been making changes, someone will make it for us. Like the buffer law, we’ll be forced to do it. I want to be proactive in putting conservation on the land.”