Core 4 Conservation Systems

Nov/Dec 2001 Vol.19 No.5 page 4

Success with Core 4 Conservation

A system that works for many farmers, many regions By Angie Fletcher

Every Partners issue in 2001 featured a Core 4 Conservation success story. From Arizona to Pennsylvania and from the Midwest to the Pacific Northwest, farmers and ranchers have shared their stories of success with a comprehensive systems approach to agricultural conservation. These producers, and many like them, prove that for every operation there is a system that will work, both economically and environmentally. While increased production is one way of measuring success, so too is conservation of land, water, and air. When the Core 4 Conservation approach to agricultural conservation is used, both can be obtained.


In the March/April issue of Partners, free-lance writer Steve Werblow introduced Jim Crosswhite, owner and operator of the 275 acre EC Bar Ranch.

Picture by Jim Crosswhite

Arizona rancher Jim Crosswhite installed riparian fence to protect habitat for a threatened minnow species and keep cattle and elk away from eroding streambanks.

Crosswhite built his Arizona ranch on the principles that define Core 4 Conservation - better soil, cleaner water, greater profits and a brighter future. He restored riparian areas, stabilized and efficiently irrigated streambanks along the Nutrioso Creek, and reclaimed pastures from rabbitbrush in order to seed with native grasses.

"By improving water quality through best management practices, I am enhancing habitat for the spinedace (a threatened species) and other wildlife, while improving ranch economics. Everyone wins."

In nearby New Mexico, NRCS soil conservationist and water quality specialist, Rudy Garcia has been working on three conservation projects over the past 12 years in the Mesilla Valley, near Las Cruces, Mexico. The valley includes about 100,000 acres of intensively farmed crops such as chiles, pecans, lettuce, onions, alfalfa, cotton, and corn.

Garcia's ultimate goal was to demonstrate to the valley farmers a comprehensive approach to improving farming systems that would result in improved soil and water quality. With best management practices and precision technology, such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS), and Global Positioning Systems (GPS), Garcia launched in 1998 the Mesilla Valley Precision Farming Pilot Project.

The results show outstanding gains in conservation benefits for the Mesilla Valley. For an in-depth look at these results, visit

From this project, Garcia learned to view farming as an ecosystem where patterns and trends in both inputs and re sources are analyzed. A farmer must consider soil type, crop rotation and the market for his crops. For example, Garcia says, "We have to develop nutrient budgets that take into consideration water quality issues and look at irrigation systems efficiencies."

"Farmers cannot rely on one practice to bring success," he continues. "In order for a farmer to succeed, you have to look at the complete system."


In Indiana, Chris Mann makes the Core 4 Conservation system work because he believes it is the most profitable to farm. "Not only does it protect our environment, but it makes our land yield better, too," says Mann in the May/June issue of Partners (pages 6-7). The Mann farming system includes 15 years of notill, grass buffer strips, grassed waterways, buried drains instead of above-ground and tile mains - each practice helping to manipulate the effects Mother Nature has on farming.

"It is a sound investment in central Indiana. For long-term environmental sustainability, you protect the productive capacity of the field - and you leave it for future generations as well," says Mann.

Elsewhere in the Midwest, Paul Reed, of Washington, Iowa, had been no-tilling corn since 1982 and beans since 1989. He and his family knew the benefits of no-till. "We saw a lot of good things happening with the soil - worms, water infiltration, less erosion," says Reed, "but yields were not going up mainly because of planting problems. We were getting increasingly tough results. Our calendar window for planting was being shrunk by notill." In 1990, Reed admits that they were ready to give up. Instead, they tried a systems approach. "The systems approach eliminates the pitfalls all the way around. This is basically a system that gives you the most consistent success. You cannot cherry pick it and farmers are tempted to."

More farmers in his area of Iowa are trying the systems approach, Reed says, and achiev ing positive results. "They see true peers, true professionals, really good sharp intelligent farmers grab the system and take it immediately to their farm and have phenomenal success," says Reed.


Glenn Moyer, a Pennsylvania dairy farmer, shared his success story in the July/August issue of Partners (pages 6-7). Moyer runs Cove Mt. Farm, a 300 acre grassbased farm owned by the American Farmland Trust (AFT). Grassbased dairies do not require annual tillage, they demand fewer inputs and they protect soil and water. Because cattle roamed free on Little Cove Creek, however, Moyer installed electric fences to protect riparian areas, stabilized a stream crossing with Geotextile and gravel and erected a 40-foot timber bridge at another crossing point.

With this approach, Moyer operates a small, profitable dairy with minimal impacts to the environment.

Joel Myers, state agronomist with NRCS in Pennsylvania, also believes in the systems approach to agriculture conservation. "Bits and pieces of Core 4 Conservation are coming together as a result of a lot of sources of information that farmers are picking up from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Extension, Agricultural Research Service and Conservation Technology Information Center."

For example, conservation tillage is a prominent practice in his state. "It is almost 100 percent no-till, primarily because farmers recognize the benefit to the environment and time savings."

According to Myers, success with Core 4 Conservation is economical and environmental. But success doesn't always come easily, he says. Farmers  adopting a system of conservation practices must dedicate both time and resources to the new approach. "It is a matter of time and economics."

Photo by Pacific Northwest Direct Seed Association

Russ Zenner's wheat growing operation in Idaho is a Core 4 Conservation success story.

Producers often benefit from the advice of crop consultants and devote more time and resources to production and conservation. They are able to allocate more time to record keeping, scouting, nutrient management and other management practices.

Pacific Northwest

The September/ October issue of Partners (pages 6-7) highlights Russ Zenner, a wheat grower in Genesee, Idaho. Zenner attributes the success of his 3,300 acre farm to a Core 4 Conservation system that includes no-till and conservation tillage (scratch and seed), and a three-year rotation, which has helped minimize disease pressure and weed buildup. This system, Zenner notes, has all the elements for a brighter future, including an expanded operation and enhanced marketing opportunities. "The last few years have been the most profitable we've ever had, and that has me excited. I feel good about the direction we're going," says Zenner. "I wanted to ensure the profitability of this farm so future generations could have the opportunity to continue with it, and to address the soil quality and environmental issues that all farmers have responsibility for."

David Brewer, a producer in north central Idaho, also has seen success with the systems approach to agricultural conservation. He began notilling in 1997, with the last field being tilled that fall. "Since then, we have seen a greater number of total bushels produced on the ranch. We are burning less fuel than we burned before switching to no-till," says Brewer. "With the conventional system, my father was accumulating about 1,000 hours between two tractors per year. Since the transition, we are under 400 hours a year with one tractor." Brewer emphasizes the fact that they have cut repair and maintenance costs and fuel and labor expenses.

Conservation runs in the Brewer family. David's great grandfather was an early adopter of conservation practices and the inspiration for the family's stewardship ethic today. Joanne Brewer, David's mother, says, "I'm really proud of what we are doing. We're making better use of our resources and doing the right thing for the environment."

Brewer emphasizes, "We made the change for the environmental benefits." In the early 1990s, the family believed they had the top of the line practices in place. However, in the mid 1990s, tremendous weather events, including a dramatic summer flash flood occurred. In July 1995, two floods came within a 24-hour period of time. Water ran through buildings, through barns and all across the flats. The area had not seen this since the benchmark Northwest-wide flood of 1964. According to Brewer, those same fields got wet again the next February and then again the following January 1997- four times in 18 months. In addition, a number of other catalysts proved that what the Brewer's thought were best management practices were not doing the job. "The grassy weeds just kept getting worse. The dockage level (and the resultant discounts) in our grains went up, all at the same time we had the bad erosion events," Brewer says.

Photo by David Brewer

David Brewer seeds winter wheat into this yellow mustard stubble after two years of direct-seeded spring wheat in the same field. Mount Hood is in the background.

"We began looking around for another way of doing things," says Brewer. That is when they discovered spring cropping. "We switched from a winter wheat-fallow system with tillage to an annual cropping system using a diversity of mostly spring crops utilizing the direct seed technology to plant those crops," says Brewer. This would take care of specific weed problems as well as reduce erosion risk. "It's more a peace of mind and lessened stress," Brewer notes. "We had ourselves so committed to soil conservation and to find out that what we were doing wasn't adequate was really hard on us. Since then we are excited about what we are doing for our soil. We are committed to the longterm benefits of a direct seeding program and maintaining the residue on top of the soil."