By Lynn Betts
Steve Berger is well-known in Washington County, across Iowa and nationally for his no-till, cover crops and soil health expertise. He’s earned that recognition by no-tilling for 40 years and growing cover crops on all 2,200 acres of his cropland for more than 10 years.
Few farmers in Iowa can match Steve’s track record for going beyond conservation — to building healthier soils.
Steve watched, helped and learned as his dad, Dennis, who was named a Master Farmer in 1996, pioneered the use of no-till in the 1970s and helped Washington County become a state leader in that practice.
Now Steve, named one of four Iowa Master Farmers this year, has helped Washington County farmers to lead in cover crop use.
Share and share alike
“Steve is a community leader, whom other farmers watch and emulate,” says fellow farmer Darrell Steele. “Something that really sets him apart from many other good farmers is his constant and continued willingness to share what’s working for him with his neighbors, or really anyone who asks.”
Generous with his information
Steve is a corn and soybean farmer who makes cover crops work in a no-till system. No sermons, just detailed data about rainfall amounts, yields, fertilizer application, soil test results and more.
A 1986 Iowa State University graduate, Steve worked two years in the Iowa governor’s office before returning to the farm in 1988 to work full time with his dad.
In 1997, he married Julie Doyle. The couple later entered into a partnership on the farm with Dennis and Steve’s mother, Janice. “Julie keeps the farm going while I’m away at meetings and speaking projects,” Steve says. “She’s the CEO, CFO, secretary and treasurer, who helps with daily errands and chores, especially information technology work.”
Steve and Julie have one full-time employee and hire other seasonal help as needed.
Steve’s corn yields are consistently 25% above the county average; soybean yields are 15% above average on soils rated 10% below average. Corn yield, which has hit 350 bushels per acre in spots, now averages above 250 over the whole farm.
Steve annually raises 15,000 head of hogs farrow-to-finish that he receives from a local sow unit, Wellman Feeder Pig Inc., which a group of area farmers started in 1993.
Building better soil
“I’ve never worked with anyone more concerned about controlling soil erosion and improving water quality,” says Greg Brenneman, ISU Extension ag engineering field specialist. “He’s sent me spreadsheets of manure tests from 15 years back, asking me to check that he was using manure properly.”
The record keeping extends across the operation. “Steve has the most detailed record-keeping system I know of,” Steele says.
There’s a lot to keep track of. Steve soil-tests every four years on a rotational basis, is increasing his use of prescription planting and applies nutrients with variable rates. He practices integrated pest management and scouts for pests on all cropland.
GOT IT COVERED: Terraces and crop residue left from planting soybeans no-till into a standing green cereal rye cover crop gives blanket protection to Steve Berger’s rolling hills. The practice goes beyond conserving soils to building them.
On-farm facilities include a 300,000-bushel grain drying and storage facility, solar power systems, and a state-of-the-art farm shop, which is complete with a geothermal heating and air conditioning system.
Steve and Dennis built 14 miles of tile inlet terraces on the farm, installed 2 million feet of subsurface tile drains, and established buffer strips and grassed waterways. Steve sidedresses nitrogen, applying it in smaller doses for better use, and monitors nitrates in tile water.
Giving back to community
Steve was named the American Soybean Association’s Conser-vation Legacy Award winner in 2015 and has received more than half a dozen other state or national awards. He’s a lifetime member of Practical Farmers of Iowa, and a member of the Iowa Soybean, Corn Growers and Pork Producers associations.
Steve currently serves as president of the Iowa Farm Business Association. He’s also an Iowa Farm Bureau member, a certified crop adviser for more than 20 years, and member of each of the Crop Science, Soil Science and Agronomy Societies of America.
A founding member and donor of the ISU Southeast Iowa Research Farm, he’s on the English River Watershed board and is a 10-year Iowa Learning Farms partner.
Steve makes recommendations on judges to the governor as a member of the State of Iowa Judicial Nominating Com-mission.
An active Rotarian, Steve says he is proud of notching a 30-year perfect attendance record earlier this year. He and Julie have hosted many Rotary exchange students over the years.
Steve and Julie are members of Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Richmond. Steve has hosted hundreds of visitors on the farm at conservation field days and other events, and has spoken at more than 100 farmer events across eight states.
Betts writes from Johnston.