Improving Iowa's water quality

Lake City farmer taking steps to improve water quality

Mark Schleisman of Lake City has only been farming full-time since 2011 in Calhoun and Carroll counties, but he’s all in when it comes to doing his part to improve water quality in the Elk Run Watershed. The best part? His practices are producing positive results!

The former crop consultant and ConAgra popcorn division manager is now farming 4,500 to 5,000 acres a year in the Raccoon River Valley and marketing approximately 15,000-head of their own hogs while also finishing another 15,000 head of hogs annually in a custom finishing business. A herd of 320 cow-calf pairs round out the enterprise. Some of the land and facilities he operates are his father’s, Larry Schleisman; and uncles Kenny and Jerry Schleisman. Mark’s son, Matthew; daughter, Brandy; and son-in-law, Colby Winter; also are involved in the Schleisman’s diversified family farm.

Calhoun County is one of three in the Raccoon River Valley being targeted by the Des Moines Water Works in a lawsuit against the county drainage districts for discharging high levels of nitrates into the Raccoon without a federal permit. The city of Des Moines uses the Raccoon as a primary water source.

Schleisman was approached earlier this year by the Agriculture’s Clean Water Alliance about participating in the Elk Run Water Quality Initiative to implement either in-field or edge-of-field practices in one of the family’s Carroll County fields that Mark farms for his father and uncles. Elk Run Creek runs through the field, which was deemed suitable for both a saturated buffer and a bioreactor.

Initial test results
As a partner in the Elk Run WQI, the Iowa Soybean Association tested the nitrate levels in the tile line and creek at the site earlier this spring when rains were persistent and both were found to be running at 29 parts per million (ppm).

The saturated buffer and bioreactor were installed in the field next to the creek in early June and the results have been encouraging. Nitrate levels were tested at the bioreactor the day after installation and it was running at 18 ppm into the bioreactor and .7 ppm going out.

Schleisman talks about the saturated buffer in this clip:

“While we saw improvement, we’d gone a month with little or no rain,” said Mark. “But, the bioreactor was still removing 17.3 ppm, which was really good. It should be sustainable and only get better as the biology in the reactor starts populating.”

Schleisman explains how the bioreactor works:

“A bioreactor has the potential to reduce nitrate levels by 60 percent annually and a new bioreactor typically performs even better at first, but then levels off,” said Diane Ercse, ISA watershed coordinator. “Still, this is an excellent placement and it’s a great example of what should be happening.”

It was harder to test the effectiveness of the saturated buffer because it was actually going through the soil into the creek, but the buffer was absorbing 100 percent of the tile flow, said Schleisman.

“If the soil does what it’s supposed to do, we should see a 50 percent-plus reduction in nitrates before it reaches the creek,” he said.

Other practices
The Schleismans are using cover crops, increasing no-till practices on soybean fields and doing testing on other field tiles in their personal efforts to improve water quality. Twenty-five acres of the field that the bioreactor and the saturated buffer are in has been placed in the federal Conservation Reserve Program and seeded to provide pollinator habitat.

“It’s been a little easier for me to justify getting into cover crops with our fields,” Schleisman said. “On our own ground, we plant more than 1,000 acres of cover crops a year and we graze most of them. We also seed cover crops for other people and that’s doubled each year.

“Historically, you bale the stocks off of the field and we replace the residue with cover crops. Our custom manure applicator recently went to all no-till manure injection, which works great for us on the cover crops. I really want to see if our cover crops are helping and if we’re seeing nitrogen spikes in our tile flows after we inject manure. We’re splitting our nitrogen applications more than we used to as well,” Schleisman said.

Farmers all around Iowa are being encouraged to implement Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy practices, especially in watershed projects like the Elk Run WQI, and Schleisman is just one of many farmers who are now adopting water quality practices. Another farmer in the watershed has just installed a bioreactor as well, Schleisman said.

“It’s vital to protect our natural resources if we’re going to maintain our production,” Mark said.