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Success Stories Schwenke Climbs CSP Tiers Using Less Nitrogen | Iowa

Schwenke Climbs CSP Tiers Using Less Nitrogen

By Jason Johnson, Public Affairs Specialist, USDA-NRCS

Donna Schwenke."The most important issue is your nitrogen rate. Point blank!"

That's Atlantic farmer Donna Schwenke's advice for any row-cropping farmer seeking eligibility for the USDA's Conservation Security Program (CSP).

Schwenke was a CSP "guinea pig" in 2004, as she likes to say. And, not knowing what her nitrogen levels needed to be, she fell from a potential Tier III to a Tier I contract, costing her thousands of dollars, in the program's first year after she applied more than the allowable nitrogen on her two biggest fields.

Schwenke began share cropping in 1991, and took over complete operations in 1998 after the death of her farming partner, Morris Brewer.

She inherited rolling hills of unprotected cropland and pastureland. Schwenke sold the cattle in the late 1990's and farmed about 1,000 acres of corn and soybeans.

"After farming for a few years, and enduring a few floods, I could just see this wasn't going to work," she said. "I had bottom ground where I couldn't even plant. I decided that if I was going to farm, I was going to do it right."

Schwenke's conservation efforts started with contour farming. Later she added 54 acres of contour buffer strips, or grass bands, along the slopes.

Schwenke has installed 54 acres of contour buffer strips, 104 acres of filter strips and several grassed waterways since 1998 to control soil erosion." took my biggest, most productive fields and got them under control first by installing grass bands," she said.

Schwenke then retired 200 acres of poor quality cropland into the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), installed terraces on the biggest slopes, strategically placed grassed waterways to prevent gullies, went complete no-till, and took out more than 100 acres of cropland in favor of filter strips on the bottom land.

Schwenke decided to plant corn on corn to balance out her operation, after losing cropland to filter strips. She applied too much nitrogen on that area, which eventually cost her. "The first year of CSP was not fun because of this,"she said.

By 2005 Schwenke had lowered her nitrogen rates enough to qualify at Tier II, and then Tier III by 2006.

Schwenke advises farmers in watersheds not yet selected for CSP to get nitrogen levels down.

"Nitrogen does not give you 200 bushel corn," she said. "I've had 200 bushel corn three years in a row, and I've put the least amount of nitrogen on the land the last three years than ever before."

"SP was like a pop quiz out of nowhere (in 2004), and a lot of us failed," added Schwenke. "Five extra pounds of nitrogen kicked my butt."