Here to help – farmers support farmers in adding regenerative practices

Iowa farmer, Dean Sponheim, nears 100,000 acres of cover crops with his entrepreneurial endeavors, after seeing successful cover crops on his own farm in 2012.

By Dan Looker

OSAGE, Iowa (IAWA) It’s a warm, sunny February day in Osage, Iowa, where about 100 farmers are gathered inside a meeting hall at the Mitchell County Fairgrounds. Dean Sponheim, a farmer who organized the day-long session on cover crops and small grains, looks at the crowd. 

Sponheim marvels at the changes since 2014 when he, his son, Josh, and a nearby farmer, Rachel Amundson, started a cover crop business, Sponheim Sales and Service, with little more than a handful of customers.

The February meeting reflects growth and changing attitudes. Newbies hear about government cost share programs. Experienced growers learn about advanced mixes of seed. (One tip: don’t put dairy cows on radishes. It ruins the milk.) The day’s overriding theme is managing covers like cereal rye during water scarcity. 

With Osage being in one of the nation’s worst pockets of extreme drought, one farmer shouts agreement with Sponheim’s conclusion that this spring, the rye must be terminated “as early as possible,” otherwise corn or soybeans could have even less precious soil moisture.  

That’s an atypical suggestion because, as Sponheim points out, rye normally helps draw subsoil moisture for those crops “if there’s moisture down below.” 

Back in 2012, Sponheim knew little of this. Despite some skepticism, he and a half-dozen neighbors had agreed to try cover crops. That fall, they went to a nearby airport and hand loaded 50-pound bags of rye seed into an airplane to have it flown onto their fields. They figured that Sponheim, a Pioneer sales rep, had expertise on seed, so he led the project. 

“At that point in time, I didn’t say ‘no’ very often,” Sponheim joked after the meeting at the county fairgrounds.  

Yet, by 2014, he had formally organized Sponheim Sales and Service.  

“I suppose that first year (2012), between six or seven of us, we probably put on 500 acres,” he recalled. Last fall, Sponheim Sales had 23,000 acres of cover crops flown onto fields and another 7,000 acres drilled. “We’re up to almost 30,000 acres in this area.”  

The indirect impact is even greater. 

“With our retail business and our dealer network, I figure we touch about 90,000 acres,” Sponheim said, adding that he contracts with other farmers to grow 1,500 acres of seed. 

Sponheim is an Iowa pioneer in conservation. He’s on the Rock Creek Watershed Advisory Board which, in partnership with the Iowa Soybean Association, put together the state’s first watershed project plan in 2014 to meet the goals of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. 

Beginning in 1999, Sponheim had already tackled soil erosion with strip tillage on his family’s farm. He added a custom strip till business in 2004. 

He wasn’t motivated by conservation, however.  

“It was an economic decision. I had a farm that was very high in clay content,” he recalled. Soil crusting hampered seed emergence. “We probably replanted 8 years out of 10, on 25-30 percent of that farm.” 

After hearing a speaker at Iowa State University talk about strip tillage, Sponheim tried it the next fall, using an anhydrous tool bar he adapted for that purpose.  

He was impressed with the seed bed and the savings from having less tillage. A few other farmers wanted to try it. So, after buying better strip till equipment, he started the custom business. 

“We would work with whatever retailer the farmer was using,” Sponheim said. “We wanted nothing but good experiences for these guys right out of the gate.” 

Sponheim and his family learn from their own mistakes. He believes that’s why customers feel more comfortable making changes on their farms. In 2021, they sold the strip tillage business to concentrate on cover crops. 

After his initial skepticism about cover crops, Sponheim has seen clear benefits. The carbon that they add to soil feeds microbes that fix atmospheric nitrogen.  

“We’re actually producing more corn on less nitrogen than before,” he said. His farm now averages about 0.8 pound of nitrogen per bushel of corn. 

Cover crops allow Sponheim to bank his other fertilizers as well, and he contends that they pay for themselves even without cost share. But that bit of financial help can ease reluctance to try them. 

“A lot of times we find out that farmers are a little scared. They’ve been told over a lifetime that these practices won’t work,” Sponheim said.  

There’s also peer pressure against making those changes–from neighbors, some ag suppliers and others. “The psychological barrier is maintaining the traditions, what we’ve been doing for 150 years,” he said. 

That is slowly changing in his area.  

“Once you get more people involved, it’s almost peer pressure the other way,” he said. 

Sponheim considers education a big part of his business. Neighbors can see his family trying new practices on the Sponheim farm and he can share advice on what works and what doesn’t. 

“I spend most of my time on the phone nowadays,” he said. 

Since 2014, a few other Iowa farmers have started similar custom businesses to drill cover crops for neighbors and offer advice. And cooperatives and ag suppliers are hiring conservation agronomists.  

Practical Farmers of Iowa has created a “Find Cover Crops“ app that lists more than 160 such businesses, mostly based in Iowa and adjoining states. 

Sponheim doesn’t worry about competition.  

“Not everybody’s going to get into this. We never took a dime out of the business for 7 years,” Sponheim said.  

There’s still plenty of room to grow. The recently released 2022 USDA Census of Agriculture showed Iowa’s planting of cover crops has tripled in the past ten years, to 1.2 million acres. The 2022 INREC Crop Year Survey recorded more acres – about 3.8 million. But both metrics fall far below the Nutrient Reduction Strategy’s call for cover crops on about 12 million acres.  

Long before cereal rye and other fall-seed plants green up half of Iowa’s agricultural landscape, more farmers will have to experience the benefits Sponheim extols. 

“We have found out that no one will change for somebody else’s reason,” he said.

Published on Feb. 29, 2024