Full-Circle Farming
Mon Apr 21, 2014 10:29 AM CDT
(Page 1 of 2)
Nothing goes to waste on Bill Couser's Iowa farm. The 5,200-head cattle feeder uses his corn crop for feed and fuel, and recycles manure from the redesigned feedlot into fertilizer. A system of berms, settlement basins and bromegrass Vegetative Treatment Areas manage feedlot runoff. (DTN/Progressive Farmer photo by Bob Elbert)

Bill Couser sees farming as a full circle. If it comes off the farm, it can go back into the farm. And in just about every case, it can make money or save money for the operation in the process.

Start with the corn the Nevada, Iowa, producer grows. He hauls the grain to an ethanol plant. From there, he gets dried distillers grains (DDGs), which he brings home to feed to cattle in the family's on-farm feedlot. The manure from the cattle fertilizes several thousand acres of crops. And that's just the tip of the cow at this 5,200-head capacity feedlot.


Improvement and adaption takes expertise and partnerships. To that end, the 59-year-old farmer/feeder has been working with Iowa State University and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to bring new, innovative practices to his operation.

Changes are well thought out, with a goal of fitting every piece into that circle of farming Couser talks about.

One change includes the Cousers' new cattle facility. Built in 2009, it took the place of an old, outdoor feedyard that dated all the way back to 1889.

The new facility includes two monoslope feed barns along with two outdoor feedyards. A monoslope building has a roof truss higher on the front side, sloping toward the back. Couser's monoslope barn has no front wall and a partial 6-foot back wall. The facility faces south so the sun shines to the back wall in winter, providing warmth.

A 6-foot-long curtain can be lowered during extreme weather. Most of the time, the facility remains open to allow air circulation and ventilation. The interior is shaded during the summer, keeping animals cool.

The monoslope directs rainfall away from feeding areas and allows for more capacity without compromising the Vegetative Treatment Area (VTA) system put into place to handle runoff.

Protecting the feeding area preserves the value of manure, which Couser uses as fertilizer on his corn crop. Since the manure is protected from rain, it isn't diluted. Cornstalks are used as bedding in the buildings. The mixture of stalks and manure provides the fertilizer for a 200-bushel-per-acre corn crop, with additional nitrogen added as the corn develops early in the growing season. Couser's goal is to raise an acre of corn for every feedlot animal.

The new facility has also meant better gains. Couser said depending on the group of animals, cattle average 12% improved feed conversion and 5% to 15% better average daily gains in the monoslope building compared to outdoor pens.


Every feedlot deals with runoff and Couser's is no different. Looking for cost-effective and efficient strategies to reduce runoff, he partnered with National Resources Conservation Service, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, ISU and the EPA. A pilot system came out of the partnership.

The system uses a series of berms, settlement basins and bromegrass VTAs to treat feedlot runoff to an acceptable standard. Based on studies and monitoring, the VTAs reduced the mass of total solids, nitrogen and phosphorus runoff by at least 75%.

Couser gets maximum use of the VTA by harvesting the bromegrass and using it as hay for his cattle. He is also transforming corn husks, stalks and cobs into feed, fuel and bedding.


"I've tried to put on my thinking cap and come up with several products from an acre of grain," Couser said. He decided that stover was a proven and effective way to get the most out of his corn crop.

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