Conservation Pioneers

A family carries on their father’s legacy of stewardship, saving everything from water and soil to fuel and time, all the while producing significantly high yields.

By Tharran E. Gaines | Photos By Tharran E. Gaines and Charlie Neibergall

The Roberts brothers: Jeff, Burt and Bernie.

The Roberts brothers: Jeff, Burt and Bernie.

“These hills contain some of the best soils on the farm,” says Jeff Roberts, pointing to fields with slopes of 4 to 8%. In fact, most of the 1,000 acres that make up Blue Horizon Stock Farm near Corning, Iowa, are in rolling hills.

“It’s not unusual at all to raise 200-bushel corn on the hilltops in a good year.” The key, he insists, is keeping that soil where it belongs. In just the last 150 years, it’s estimated that Iowa farms have already lost half their topsoil.

Fortunately, safeguarding the rich loess soil formed over centuries under tall prairiegrasses has been a way of life since Jeff’s father, Hylton Roberts, took over the farm following his service in the Army Air Corps during World War II. Today, Jeff and his brothers, Burt and Bernie, run the operation, having lost their father just two years ago. Yet all the while, stewardship, in both their row crop and hog operations, has been top of mind.

Terraces and Tiling

“Dad first got the idea to try contour farming after reading up on it in school,” explains Bernie, noting that his dad graduated high school back in 1937. “So he asked my grandpa if he could try out the idea. Well, Dad often told the story about how his dad had finally given him a field to experiment on, and as he was planting in contours around the field, a neighbor kept watching him.

“The neighbor finally met him at the fenceline,” continues Bernie, “and asked, ‘Son, does your dad know what you’re doing?’”

That was just the start of conservation efforts that have garnered the family recognition. For instance, the Iowa chapter of the Land Improvement Contractors of America (LICA) award was presented to the Roberts family for their outstanding contribution to soil and water conservation. The family has also been covered by various agricultural publications over the years, including precursors to this magazine.

Soon after those first contours, Hylton added terraces. “Everything we own has been terraced,” says Bernie, noting the family has replaced many of the original wider terraces that were cultivated on both sides. These days the family uses backslope terraces that are permanently seeded to grass on the downhill side, and they’ve installed nearly 8 miles of drainage tile to eliminate wet spots in the fields.

Natural Fertilizer

The rolling hills of the Robertses’ southwestern Iowa farm.

The rolling hills of the Robertses’ southwestern Iowa farm.

Since the late 1940s, when their father bought 20 gilts and started raising pigs, hogs have also been an important commodity on Blue Horizon Stock Farm. The swine operation is even more important now as three families strive to make a living from what is arguably a small operation relative to the number of people it helps support.

“Currently, we have around 250 sows as part of a farrow-to-finish operation that markets about 3,500 hogs annually,” says Burt, who oversees manure management and application. “Because of all the animal waste, Dad was one of the first in the state to install an automatic cleaning system and a 186,000-gallon slurry storage tank.”

The Robertses were also among the first in the state to inject manure into the soil to limit runoff. Using a 4,200-gallon tank equipped with five shanks, they put on approximately 3,000 gallons per acre.

“One tank load only covers a little over an acre,” Burt continues. “But we have to go somewhere with it, and it does cover most of our fertilizer needs.”

“We don’t buy any potash or phosphate,” Bernie adds. “Our normal rotation is two years of corn followed by a year of soybeans. So we use manure only on most fields for the first year of corn, adding 50 to 60 pounds of anhydrous ammonia where necessary. In the second year, we add nitrogen only in the form of 150 to 175 pounds of anhydrous.”

The Robertses say one of the benefits of knifing in the manure is odor control; however, they also lose fewer nutrients by injecting manure directly into the root zone than they did when they were simply spraying it on top and plowing it in.

“The state also has a lot more regulations now than they did back then,” Burt comments. “But that hasn’t changed anything we were doing. The program we were using already had us within compliance.”

Conservation Tillage

Burt feeds a few of the hogs that are part of the family’s farrow-to-finish operation.

Burt feeds a few of the hogs that are part of the family’s farrow-to-finish operation.

Although some fieldwork is still needed to level fields where the family has injected manure, the Robertses have long since abandoned the moldboard plow. Ironically, that change has come at a time when corn residue has only gotten thicker and tougher due to higher plant populations—around 34,000 seeds per acre—and improved genetics, which makes no-till more challenging.

“We used to disk/chisel in the fall and use a soil finisher in the spring,” Jeff relates. “However, a couple years ago, we switched over to vertical tillage and replaced two machines with just one.

“The thing we like about vertical tillage is it still loosens the soil and breaks up compaction, yet leaves all the residue on the surface to slow down any moisture runoff,” he adds. “We can also drive a lot faster with vertical tillage and get over the fields quicker.

“Between the manure and the residue, I think we’re actually building the soil,” says Jeff. “I know we see a lot more earthworms than we ever did in the past.

“It may just be my opinion, but I also think the soil warms up earlier in the spring when you have those cornstalks knocked down but laying on the surface where they can absorb sunlight and transfer it into the soil.”

Conserving for the Future

Burt’s daughter, Kiara, shows off one of the pheasants soon to be released on the farm.

Burt’s daughter, Kiara, shows off one of the pheasants soon to be released on the farm.

Soil and water haven’t been the only focus of the Robertses’ conservation efforts. They’ve also been looking to the future, just as their dad looked ahead to when his sons would take over the farm.

While it’s still unknown who might take over the farm when they step back, Burt, Bernie and Jeff have five sons and four daughters between them who have all been active in the operation. Jeff’s son Trent has even raised and released a few pheasants to help establish more wildlife on the farm.

“Back when I was attending Iowa State University, I had a professor tell us that 10% of the best land in the world is in Iowa,” Jeff concludes. “A lot of the world depends on agriculture, and despite all the improvements we’ve seen in technology, it’s going to be a big task to keep the world fed. So we need to do everything we can do to preserve the land and its potential—hopefully keeping it in the family for even more generations.”