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Conservation on the ground

New solutions protect water, soil quality

January 22, 2012
By DARCY DOUGHERTY MAULSBY, For The Messenger , Messenger News

DES MOINES - In an era of weak state and federal budgets, conservation agencies are not likely to add more staff to help farmers and landowners implement practices to protect soil and water quality.

To fill the gap, a Carroll-based consulting firm specializing in agriculture and the environment, is offering new tools that have sparked interest amongfarmers and land improvement contractors across Iowa.

"Despite budget and staff limitations, conservation 'on the ground' is still critical," said Stan Buman, vice president of Agren, who spoke Jan. 9 at the Iowa Land Improvement Contractors' Association's 53rd annual meeting in Des Moines.which is dedicated to helping agriculture find profitable solutions to environmental challenges.

Article Photos

-Messenger photo by Darcy Dougherty Maulsby
If a landowner wants to install a pond, a contractor or conservation technician can use Agren’s PondBuilder planning tool to create multiple options for pond depth, size and cost. This process, which used to take 40 hours or more, can be completed in just 30 minutes, the company claims.

"We believe that online conservation planning tools can lead to more results in less time," Buman said.

Agren is introducing web-based tools that can help contractors design ponds, sediment control basins, wetlands and waterways in minutes, rather than hours, while offering landowners a variety of options.

The company is also developing additional tools for terraces and drainage water management, along with a soil loss calculator.

"Before now, conservation required time to meet with landowners and operators, time to create and consider alternatives, time to select the best option for any given situation and time to create additional options if the first one isn't right for the landowner," said Buman. "We are developing an online suite of tools to get more planning, options and accurate cost estimates done in less time, which leads to more completed projects."

Using LiDAR

If a landowner wants to install a pond, for example, a contractor or conservation technician can use Agren's PondBuilder planning tool to create multiple options for pond depth, size and cost.

The program will then generate an aerial photo with the conservation practice shown. This process, which used to take 40 hours or more using soil maps, aerial photography, paper elevation and contour maps to create a single option, can be completed in just 30 minutes.

"The landowner gets input on options, and you can quickly generate every possible pond that could be built on this land," Buman said. He added that the system computes all the financial calculations using average county costs.

At the heart of Agren's suite of planning tools is a geographical information system that leverages light detection and ranging technology to pinpoint elevations across the Iowa landscape.

This mapping project was made possible when the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and the Iowa Department of Transportation pooled money to acquire this database in recent years.

By taking a reading of every 3-by-3-foot sectiion, LiDAR created an elevation map across Iowa, with data that's accurate to within sixth-tenths of a foot.

"We have an incredible database to work with, so let's use it," Buman said.

Working technology

Conservation technicians and contractors are taking advantage of Agren's solutions.

"We're using the program to advise landowners and farmers about their options on pond sizes and waterway sizes," said Denis Schulte, an NRCS district conservationist, who serves Sac and Calhoun counties.

Tim Recker, LICA's state president who owns Recker Excavating Inc., in northeast Iowa, sees tremendous potential with this technology.

"To me, this is where farmers and contractors need to go to get faster, more precise results that lead to more conservation practices."

For more information on Agren'sweb-based tools, log onto

You can contact Darcy Dougherty Maulsby by email at



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