There are dozens of farmers in the Cheney Watershed who have voluntarily changed their farming practices, and who continue to implement the latest ideas from ongoing research on maintaining clean streams, rivers and reservoirs.
They are proud of their totally voluntary, farmer-led initiative to keep their reservoir relatively free from silting.
These are the stories of just five of those farmers.
Chad Basinger farms and ranches outside of Pretty Prairie, Kan. He has a current Conservation Stewardship Program contract, and he participates in EQIP and initiatives sponsored by the Cheney Lake Watershed Inc. Basinger grows wheat, soybeans and grain sorghum in Reno County. He also manages a cow-calf herd, and backgrounds and finishes calves.
On a cold, windy day in early April, Basinger was top-dressing a no-till wheat field in the watershed.
He pointed out a conventionally tilled field across the road — a field that showed the telltale yellow color and bare spots from soil blowing. Ripples of blown dirt filled the road ditch next to the field.
“That’s still there from the little bit of snow we had a couple of weeks ago,” he says. “When I planted this field last fall, the cover crops were up to my waist. I drilled right into that.”
Marion Krehbiel was one of the original founders of the Cheney Lake Water Quality Initiative in the early 1990s. The farm he grew up on was claimed by the construction of the reservoir in 1962. In his present location, which is still in the watershed, he has established alternative water systems in pastures and converted cropland to grass in order to keep soil and nutrients out of the North Fork of the Ninnescah that flows into Cheney Lake.
He says that for many years, the fields near the river were in cropland, then in wheat and finally converted to permanent grass pasture. In early April, the residue of last year’s grass crops still stood more than two feet tall.
Kreibel put in a watering system and pumps water into tanks on a concrete pad to prevent erosion around the watering site.
John Riehl manages Long View Farms with his partner, Mike Miller, in Partridge, Kan. They began using cover crops in their corn and soybean rotation five years ago, initially participating in an incentive program funded by Cheney Lake Watershed Inc.
Riehl says that when he first moved to Kansas to farm 25 years ago, almost all of the land was in conventional tillage.
“I remember standing in this very field on a windy day and just being covered with blowing dirt,” he says from his field near the Ninnescah. "I remember thinking, 'I have to do something different. This isn’t going to work'"
He implemented no-till practices immediately, and began working with the Cheney Watershed Project a few years later.
They now have a robust cover crop program to keep the soil rooted and covered year round.
“When I look at the land surrounding me today, there is almost nothing still in conventional till,” he says, “It’s a total turnaround from when I started farming here.”
C.J. Blew is a fifth-generation farmer in Reno, Kingman and Barber counties. He operates a commercial cow-calf operation on cropland, and says he is on a path to use cattle on all of his cropland.
Blew’s operation is a family partnership. He has current EQIP and Conservation Stewardship Program contracts. The partnership is currently shifting much of their cultivated acres into grazing systems.
“My goal is to manage cropland that I own or that I rent for long-term results,” Blew says. “We are a land rehabilitation company and more often than not land that needs rehab has been neglected over the long term.”
Blew says he has utilized EQIP funding for water conservation and brush control, CSP funds to implement cover crops, and Cheney Watershed help to develop water sources for livestock and plant forage cover crops.
“Without help from these important federal programs, there are landowners who could not afford to implement and maintain them and we would see land broken out and put back in crop production,” he says. “These programs are important in providing the tools that help us make good decisions without regulations.”
Sam Sanders, a Reno County farmer and rancher, has used EQIP and CSP to expand his use of cover crops in a no-till system, and to convert cultivated acres to grass. Sanders also serves on the Reno County Conservation District board.
Sanders says his family relocated to the west when their land became part of Cheney Reservoir. He says he has used “just about every program” offered since the early 1990s in making his ranch and farmland more watershed-friendly.
“NRCS came to us in the late '90s and asked for some changes,” he says. “We implemented soil sampling, put in cover crops and cattle watering systems and did terraces. Those projects were possible because of the benefits of cost-sharing programs and CRP.”
He says CSP helped with conversion of cropland to no-till and then again when adding cover crops. He used EQIP to help pay for brush control on rangeland, develop a rotational grazing system and to put in water tanks that kept cattle away from streams.
“Those watering systems can be expensive,” he says, citing costs of anywhere from $6,000 to drill a well with a solar powered pump to up to $50,000 to run underground water lines from a well to several different tanks.
But he agreed with Blew and others in the Cheney Watershed that voluntary programs work best.
“Give us incentive to make the right decision rather than try to regulate everybody into it,” he says.
Sanders added that he has found immense value in the technical assistance provided by NRCS.
“I think the relationship with NRCS technicians and the advice and help they can provide is as valuable as the financial help for projects,” he says.