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Diversifying the Farm

Posted on December 16, 2015 at 11:21 AM by Iowa Corn

Mark Heckman knows how to hedge his bets. The West Liberty farmer and Vice President of the Iowa Corn Promotion Board (ICPB) is painstakingly meticulous in his planning in order to minimize risk and give his farming operation the best chance for success.

For instance, his 1,100 acres of corn and soybeans are planted with a perfectly sound 66/33 split. He uses a trustworthy CORN-CORN-BEANS crop rotation. The first year is Non-GMO corn, which goes to a grain processor in Muscatine, while year two is GMO corn that’s marketed to maximize profit per acre. Then after a year of soybeans, it’s rinse and repeat.

Heckman experiments with different hybrids, looking for eco-friendly varieties with high yield potential. At the same time, he is continually trying new conservation practices in order to make his farm more sustainable.
Perhaps it’s this quest for perfection that led him to enroll in the Soil Health Partnership, a National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) initiative that aims to measure and communicate the economic and environmental benefits of different soil management strategies.

“Our operation is proud to be involved with the Soil Health Partnership. It’s a good program that provides actual data points that enable us to verify what we think is happening as a result of our conservation practices,” said Heckman, who farms with his mother, siblings and son, Joe. “After a five year period, we’ll be able to look at the data collected and determine the actual impact of our methods. Then we’ll be able to refine our approach.”

Heckman said it was his son, Joe, who joined the operation full-time two and a half years ago after graduating from The University of Iowa, who introduced some of their newest conservation practices, such as cover crops.
It was also Joe who convinced Heckman to bring a cow-calf operation to the 300 acres of pastureland they own, despite the fact neither had any previous experience raising cattle. Of course, first Heckman had to crunch the numbers to make sure it was a safe bet.

“Joe said he was interested in raising cow-calves and growing the herd, so we sought advice from friends who know the industry. Then we ran projections three different ways, using calculators and spreadsheets from Iowa State University. The numbers matched the ones on the back of our napkin, so that was good enough for us,” said Heckman. “It’s nothing to get rich over, but it adds diversity and value to the farm. Plus, it gets us our own good beef that we can eat. That’s a good reward.”

Joe, who studied marketing and sustainable farming practices in college, said he chose farming over a potentially higher-paying career in a big city because there’s only one sure thing in life.

“Family. It was the opportunity to farm with my dad and grandpa and uncles that brought me back to the farm,” said Joe. “Moving forward, I’m excited about the challenges and opportunities we have, not just with the livestock operation, but bringing new conservation practices to the row crop side of things as well.”
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