Mike and Michelle Ehlers own and operate a wean-to-finish site, including two naturally vented barns constructed in 2000. They are contract growers for The Maschhoffs, and grow 1,400 acres of corn and 750 acres of soybeans.

The full family operation involves Mike’s dad and brother. They work with each other on repairs and maintenance and sharing equipment. While Mike’s dad has begun to step back, Mike’s teenage son is helping more with the pigs, runs his own 10-acre test plot of crops, and owns and manages a poultry flock selling eggs and broilers, or meat birds. Their daughter also does chores around the farm, plus tends to a garden plot where she grows flowers to sell at farmers markets.

The Ehlers live just down the road from where Mike grew up. Michelle was raised on a farm in central Missouri. From a young age, Mike, 45, has been “all about farming,” actively helping on the family’s then-roughly 45-sow farrow-to-finish operation. At that time, they had nearly 600 acres of row crops. Mike learned to appreciate conservation practices early on, as they utilized ridge-till, a planting process on elevated rows. Today, the Ehlers use no-till and strip-till on all of their fields, while cover crops blanket just about 100 percent of them.

The Ehlers test manure in the barn, so they can plan for where it will be applied. In the fall, they use low-disturbance manure application. Then, in the spring, they go in with a strip-till machine and freshen up the manure strips and plant right into that same zone to give the seed the best nutrients for the best yields, Mike says.

Mike and Michelle Ehlers of Marathon, Iowa, pictured here with their children, received the Iowa Environmental Steward Award during Iowa Pork Congress on Jan. 26, 2021.

To improve water quality, they have seen “phenomenal” results with a bioreactor added on the edge of the field around their acreage. The cost-effective tool is a way to remove nitrates from water before it flows into the North Raccoon River. That project received cost-share dollars from the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship through funding provided by the Iowa Pork Producers Association. They also use buffer strips.

With roots in conservation, adopting fresh practices has come naturally, Mike says. They learn a lot from reading magazines and attending workshops offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Through years of building relationships, NRCS officials often will approach the Ehlers about trying new ideas and programs. Most recently, the Ehlers installed a pollinator habitat in “wet holes,” low areas of farm ground that often have to be replanted. Instead of tiling, they took 5 acres out of production and seeded it down with plants that provide nectar or pollen for species like butterflies and bees.

To further keep up with the latest and greatest in conservation innovation, the Ehlers are known for hosting “field days.” In fall 2015, a public event themed around low-disturbance manure application attracted nearly 100 participants to their site. Because their farm is located near the North Raccoon River, they wanted to share actions being taken that directly impact downstream drinking water. Equipment manufacturers, livestock producers—including Mike—and custom applicators demonstrated and discussed how new technologies can help meet water quality goals of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, as well as improve soil health.

“People just want to ask questions,” Michelle, 42, says. “They just need somebody who’s done it. Sitting up on a panel is great, but the real discussion comes around a plate of cookies afterward.”

The west side of the Ehlers’ hog site includes evergreens to improve aesthetics and provide odor control, as well as offer nesting spots and other benefits for wildlife.

The Ehlers recognize the value of aesthetics and odor mitigation on their farm. The west side of the site originally included austrees and evergreens. The row of austrees has since reached maturity and been removed, and has been replaced with more evergreens and bald cypress trees. The landscaping also provides nesting spots for birds, and offers food sources and protection from predators. In addition, trees assist with snow control during the winter months, and produce shade in the summer, helping to conserve energy.

At the 2016 Iowa State Fair, the Ehlers received the Iowa Farm Environmental Leader Award that recognizes those who are committed to healthy soils and improved water quality. Mike and Michelle live by the motto: “Best practices continue to evolve, but putting it all in our head and not using the heart to share that knowledge means it dies with us.”

Community involvement is important to the Ehlers. They serve as co-presidents of the Buena Vista County Pork Producers. Michelle is a 4-H leader, and both she and Mike assist with the Special Swine Program that allows 4-H’ers—particularly those with no access to livestock or facilities—to receive hogs from The Maschhoffs to care for and show during the Buena Vista County Fair. The Ehlers are active, too, in numerous organizations, events, and their church.

Meet other Environmental Steward award winners.