Petty Operations Reaps Benefits of Environmental Stewardship and Sustainability

Published on Mon, 02/16/2009 - 9:18am

Ever since David Petty began farming in the 1970s and building his herd of commercial Black Angus cattle, one of his prime objectives has been to be environmentally conscious to leave the land in better shape than it was when he began working the land. From leased pasture land to starting his own ranch in 1987, Petty has continually worked to make improvements on the fragile, hilly land that had previously been turned black and planted to row crops. Petty’s Iowa River Ranch, which is located along the east side of the Iowa River near Eldora, IA, has been shaped and molded on that premise. "Our goal has always been to continue to improve the environment while at the same time enhancing productivity and profitability," says Petty.

Over the years, Iowa River Ranch has become a showcase to others as a crop/livestock operation that reaps the benefits of both environmental stewardship and sustainability. This has meant making wise decisions as to which land should be row cropped and which should be turned into pastureland that both protects the land and provides valuable nutrients for his cattle herd.
As a result of Petty’s ongoing efforts, Iowa River Ranch has earned several awards over the past eight years. First came the NCBA's National Award for Environmental Stewardship in 2000, followed by the Environmental Protection Agency's Administrators Environmental Excellence Award in 2002. Then came the 2003 Spencer Award for Sustainable Agriculture, an award that honors landowners for their contributions that affect, influence and/or advance the ecological and economic stability of the mainstream farms in Iowa and finally in 2005, the Master Farmer Award from Wallace's Farmer.
These awards, Petty notes, are the result of a willingness to learn from other producer's successes and the advice of successful producer leaders. "You know, my wife, Diane and I are first generation producers. We don't have enough time to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes. Some people wonder why I go to so many conferences and conventions, but I learn so much from those who have been successful."
With that in mind, Petty has stayed true to his conviction of establishing a goal and commitment and sticking with it. Even when prices change and the temptation is there to plow up some of the pastures in order to capitalize on the spike in grain prices, Petty says, "We always go back to our philosophy of staying the course. We are in it for the long term. Over all of these years, cows have paid for this operation. It's very difficult to react to price fluctuations and not end up on the backside. For us, it always comes back to the cattle."
Petty's formula for success brings two things together: environmental stewardship and sustainability. They go hand in hand. "With every decision I make, at the end of the day it has to show me that it is sustainable."
Petty's environmental stewardship philosophy is simple but highly effective: manage the resources available. With steep hillsides and draws on lands adjacent to the Iowa River, Petty quickly saw the effects of erosion and the need to turn the most sensitive land into productive pasture and hay land that would sustain his cattle operation. The rest remained as cropland, rotating between corn and beans. Petty protects this cropland with contour farming and minimum till practices, along with grassy headlands, grass waterways and seeded buffer strips. The ranch totals over 12 miles of terraces and more than 11 miles of waterways. Along the way, Petty, Diane and their daughter, Dresden have picked rock, cleaned out unwanted brushy areas and filled in eroded areas so that their environmental practices could be implemented. Petty has also worked to protect the river and its banks by fencing his cattle off from the river.
It is what Petty has done with the management practices of his pastures, however, that has most impacted the cattle operation. "When you start a pasture, you can't just do it in one year. It takes at least three years for the pasture to reach its optimum potential. If you start grazing too early, the pasture never has a chance to mature and reach maximum productivity."
Petty believes that his decision to interseed birds foot tree foil and red clover into the brome grass has made a huge difference in the quality of his pastures by providing nitrogen to help strengthen the pasture. The grassland is divided into 25-26 different-sized pastures with cattle rotated through the different pastures.
"Every year is a little different when it comes to pasture rotation. We rotate pastures to give the grass a rest and to help build the root system."
The real key to the rotation comes down to timing and realizing that every year can be different. However, Petty finds the 10th of May to mid-June to be crucial weeks for pasture sustainability. "It's at this point that the grass just seems to explode and grow like crazy." The goal, according to Petty, is to try to keep the pastures in that 4" to 14" height. "You don't want it shorter than that or the pasture just can't grow enough to make a good pasture. If it gets taller than 14 “, then the quality diminishes. So, we try to pasture the cattle and after they take the height down a few inches, they are moved to the next pasture."
Using this philosophy, the pasture has the base to regrow so that it will be ready for further grazing later in the fall. By keeping the cattle on quality grass, Petty is able to shorten the feeding period and his feeding costs during the winter while at the same time keeping his cattle on good quality grass. "It's a fine line, and each year is different. The goal is to come out of that period of time with optimum grazing potential."
When late fall comes, if the pasture has been handled correctly, Petty is able to open fields of corn stubble adjacent to a pasture, thus shortening the days of feeding. The headlands at the end of the fields are mowed for hay in the summer (with two mowings because of the rainfall this year). Petty is always monitoring the pastureland so that a pasture doesn't get in trouble because the cattle have grazed the grass down too close.
Petty does feed out his own calves to a target weight of 1200 pounds, using a combination of hay, silage and corn. He also collects individual carcass information. “This allows me to evaluate what kind of product I am producing for the consumer.”
As April arrives and if the pasture is of sufficient height, the cattle are able to utilize the extra growth as a food source. “I really like to have at least 6-8 inches of length if I am going to utilize the pasture in early spring.”
Years ago, Petty saw that with this many pastures, he needed to maximize the water opportunities for the cattle. Petty realized that having just a couple of main watering areas was not conducive to keeping the pastures in good shape. "We found that water in a couple of places meant that is where the cattle spent their time. We have since added four ponds, seven wells and several miles of underground pipe so that we can spread the cattle out more."
Throughout the years, Petty has worked with several agencies to help him get a better grip on how erosion affects not only the land but also the adjacent river. "Iowa State University is completing a study on water quality and stream banks, along with data on the effectiveness of the use of the legumes as a nitrogen source for the grass." The spring and summer of 2008 was a true test of Petty’s environmental plan, when Mother Nature dumped nearly 20 inches of rain over a five-week stretch. This soil can handle two inches or so at one time. With nearly 10 times that amount, had the land all been in row crop production, it could have totally devastated the land. However, with environmentally sound practices in place, losses were kept to a minimum. “The impact was far less than it would have been if we had not put in these practices.” Once again, it was all about sustainability for the long run.
Over the years, the Petty family has hosted several tours and pasture walks of their operation. Visitors have come from as far away as Russia.
This past January, Petty attended the NCBA convention in Arizona. Petty is chairman of the Environmental Stewardship Award and on the Ag policy-making committee. Petty says, "I certainly believe that policies are made by people that attend and are active. If you just stay at home, your voice is not heard. I always ask myself at the beginning and at the end of a day at the convention: "What can I learn today and what did I learn today?”
At age 56, Petty continues to look to the future and to search for better ways to increase environmental stewardship and maximize the sustainability of Iowa River Ranch.