Winkelplecks believe stewardship itself the true reward

Ruth (left) and Larry K. Winkelpleck (right) pictured Friday, August 20 on the front porch of their farm located just west of Dysart. The Winkelplecks and their extended family — including sons Larry, Jr. and Jon Winkelpleck — were recognized recently for their dedication to environmental stewardship. Photo by Ruby F. Bodeker

“You take care of the land and the land will take care of you.”

Such was the pragmatic yet poignant response from Larry Winkelpleck, Sr., 81, when asked to comment recently on his family’s 2021 award for environmental stewardship in the state of Iowa.

Larry, Sr. along with his wife Ruth Winkelpleck, sons Larry, Jr. and Jon Winkelpleck and their families made the drive August 18 from their Dysart and Clutier area farms to attend the 2020/2021 Iowa Farm Environmental Leader Awards ceremony at the Iowa State Fair.

The Winkelplecks — along with fellow Tama County recipients Sam Kvidera and Jeremy Sills — received the award presented by the State of Iowa, the Iowa Department of Agriculture & Land Stewardship, and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources for exemplary, voluntary actions undertaken to “improve or protect the environment and Iowa’s natural resources.

But the Winkelpleck family — while incredibly honored — believes nothing about their farming methods is quite so revolutionary to require an award, it’s just how they’ve always done it.

The Larry K. and Ruth Winkelpleck farm near Dysart as viewed looking northeast on Friday, August 20, 2021. Black Angus cattle graze on pasture in the distance. The Winkelplecks have utilized cover crops and buffer strips as part of their Tama County cattle operation for years and were recently recognized for their environmental stewardship. Photo by Ruby F. Bodeker

As both Larry, Sr. and Ruth sat rocking in matching white chairs on their front porch two days out from the ceremony, looking east at their cattle grazing in a grassy field near the western edge of Dysart, their son Jon summed up how they all felt when they got the news about the award.

“Well, we were very surprised. Shocked,” Jon said. “Excited about the recognition but it’s just something we’ve always done.”

Specifically, the Winkelplecks received the award for their historic use of buffer strips, no-till methods, cover crops, and various other conservation practices.

Larry, Sr. is semi-retired now but he doesn’t necessarily need to be out in the fields or checking on cattle daily anymore to make an impact on the farm, his sons said.

“Dad, over there, he’s always been kind of the instigator,” Jon said. “He reads about these new ideas, and for being his age he is very open minded. He never says we’re not going to try something. Every year it seems like we implement something new.”

Ruth (left) and Larry K. Winkelpleck (right) along with their dog Denver pictured Friday, August 20 on the front porch of their farm located just west of Dysart. The Winkelplecks and their extended family — including sons Larry, Jr. and Jon Winkelpleck, and grandson Zach Winkelpleck — were recognized recently by the State of Iowa for their dedication to environmental stewardship. Photo by Ruby F. Bodeker

Jon said using cover crops was his dad’s idea but he didn’t just pick it up yesterday.

“Dad was doing cover crops before cover crops were cool.”

In other words, Larry, Sr. and Ruth are the OG cover crop farmers — as the Winkelpleck grandkids might say — in their part of the state.

“I started using cover crops seriously about 12 to 15 years ago,” Larry, Sr. said. “[But] we did it long before that — put out a field of rye, bale it and use for cattle feed.”

“The ground was always meant to be covered,” Jon said, picking up his dad’s train of thought. “It was covered when the buffalo roamed.”

On the home farm near Dysart where Larry, Sr. and Ruth live, the Winkelplecks have a little over 100 head of Angus out on pasture most of the year. They sell locally to Iowa Premium Beef (IPB) in Tama and Upper Iowa Beef in Lime Springs.

Ruth’s late parents — who farmed north of Clutier where Jon’s son Zach Winkelpleck now farms — also had cattle and also used cover crops.

“Those cows,” Jon said as he pointed to the Winkelpleck herd in the distance, “are grazing on a permanent pasture. That pasture has acted like a buffer strip for years. Dad’s been doing that for decades. We have no interest in farming up to the water. [Buffer strips] stabilize the soil.”

Both Larry, Sr. and Jon admit there is extra labor and cost to farming in the manner they do, but the benefits outweigh anything negative about it.

“We typically calve the cows on the rye [cover crop] in the spring. It’s an excellent place for them to calve out on the green grass. We also bale it for winter feed. After harvest they’re back out on pasture,” Jon said.

Jon said the plants typically used as cover crops have a root mass that naturally soaks up the water like a sponge following heavy rains.

Cover crops also feed the soil.

“The microbes in the soil always need something to feed on. If you’re not using cover crops they’re feeding off your existing organic matter. … soil needs something to feed on. Organic matter in return holds moisture, a very important thing this year.”

According to the most recent statistics from the National Integrated Drought Information System, Tama County is experiencing its 11th driest year to date in the last 127 years.

Larry, Sr. and Ruth also just like the way their farm looks, especially in the spring when most fields in Iowa are still fallow.

“I like to see the green in spring,” Larry Sr. said.

“Several people have commented, ‘what is all that green out in your dad’s field?’ when nothing else is green. It’s the cereal rye,” Jon added.

This year the Winkelplecks are trying out more conservation techniques on their acres.

“We’ve got turnips and radishes [like usual]. We’re going to experiment a little and add winter peas,” Jon said.

By farming as a family — three generations now — the Winkelplecks are trying to ensure the way they interact with the land is preserved.

“Our main goal is for the future. … There are six grandkids. When you grow up in it, that’s all you know. We need to instill in our kids to take care of what we have,” Jon said.

And while doing so may not always be easy, it’s not meant to be, Ruth said.

“It all works when you have cattle. But a lot of these farmers don’t [have livestock]. They head to Florida. We don’t,” Ruth said — a response that elicited huge grins from the Winkelpleck men sitting around her.

“When the crops are in our work just starts,” Larry, Sr. added.

“It’s a wonderful way of life,” Jon said as he looked at his parents rocking away in front of him. “I’m fortunate to raise my kids on the farm.”

Photos of all the 2020 and 2021 Iowa Farm Environmental Leader Awards recipients can be viewed at https://flickr.com/photos/iowaagriculture.