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Profiles in Soil Health - Meet Darrin Thies

NRCS helps this producer restore some out-of-repair grassed waterways and more!

Darrin Thies farms 900 acres in Jackson County, right in the heart of the Kinkaid Lake watershed. The lake serves as the local water supply for the Ava and Murphysboro area in Illinois. Thies grows corn, soybeans, wheat, and he grazes 70 Black Angus cows. Darrin is farming the same ground his father worked for 30 years. He does most things the same but some things he is doing are a lot different. With a local effort by landowners and some extra support from USDA, Darrin says his farm will contribute less sediment and fewer nutrients into Kinkaid Lake.

“We’ve got a lot of rolling ground here. Erosion can be a problem. When we get a lot of rain in a short time, that water does a lot of damage,” Thies explains. Conservation practices are not new to the Thies farm. Darrin’s Father, Mike, found several grassed waterways on the land they acquired back in the 1990’s. After 25 years and many heavy downpours, the waterways needed a facelift.

Scott Martin, Soil Conservationist for Murphysboro’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), approached Thies and suggested he reshape and reseed the waterways. “Let’s freshen these up so they can do what they were designed to do—slow water down and capture sediment and nutrients before it hits the stream,” Martin proposed.

Conservation plan

“I couldn’t have asked for anything better,” Darrin said. Some spots had become big ditches he could not cross with equipment. “The new waterways turned out beautiful. I have a lot of water that goes through here, but now it’s under control,” Thies adds.

Thies’ father installed water and sediment basins on the farm decades ago as well. Those three basins were in good shape and working well. “But Scott and I looked at the land and decided it was time to put a few more in. So we’ve got five new basins planned for one 14-acre field.” Darrin explains.

The basins are earthen structures designed to hold water back and allow it to infiltrate into the soil. Basins stop runoff and erosion and keep sediment in the field and out of the creeks. These five basin designs are ready and Thies plans to begin installing them the summer of 2017.

With all the rainwater and damage Darrin has seen, the creek that runs through the farm has seen serious streambank erosion. “The erosion along the creek was eating into one of my pastures. I put a fence up in 2012, which literally showed me we had lost three feet of ground. That was my good pasture and my good soil sent straight into Kinkaid Lake. I had to stop that,” Thies explains.

Darrin and NRCS also began planning for some needed streambank repairs. In 2017 they will install 175 feet of rock structures along the edge of the creek that runs through the farm. The rock will stop a section of streambank from collapsing into the creek and ending up as sediment in Kinkaid Lake. Thies conservation improvements do not stop there.

Darrin also uses cover crops on half of his cropped acres. He has been doing this for five years, has excellent yields, and improved soil health as a result.

“We had one corn field that always had a yellow, wet spot in it. Always. After using cover crops, I never saw that spot again,” Darrin said. “Plus, it’s a whole lot nicer to see the fields covered in green all winter!”

Darrin has had good luck finding time to get cover crops planted in the fall. Some years, the window for success is a small one. When asked what his neighbors think of all the changes on his farm, Darrin laughs it off and says he hopes they consider him a little bit crazy.

The last improvement on the Thies Farm has less to do with water quality and more to do with water availability. According to Martin, Darrin grazes his cows using four paddocks for rotations. However, getting water to all four was not feasible.

“He has a deep well but we will run new water lines and place two new watering stations so the herd will have easy and close water for all six grazing paddocks,” Martin explains. The plan also includes construction of a Winter-Feeding Station, which will improve how the livestock operation functions and how it impacts the environment as well.

In 2015, special federal funds were offered to landowners in the Kinkaid Lake watershed. A joint effort of the Forest Service and NRCS was created since the land is owned and managed by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Forest Service and private landowners. NRCS offered both technical and financial assistance using the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP.

All the conservation solutions Thies will use on his land are available with both technical and financial assistance through NRCS’ Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).

“It’s been great working with Scott and with EQIP,” Darrin said. “We’ve made improvements on our farm that will directly improve conditions in Kinkaid Lake. EQIP helped me do good things for my ground and for everything in the watershed here.”

For information on resource problems EQIP can solve on your farm, contact NRCS today or visit the NRCS IL webpage.

Producer posing

“We’ve made improvements on our farm that will directly improve conditions in Kinkaid Lake.”

Darrin Thies, producer