Soil Health in Iowa Featured on Iowa Public Radio

Today, Iowa Public Radio’s Talk of Iowa hosted a show on soil health across Iowa featuring several policy makers, researchers, and farmers involved in protecting the soil.  The show included guests Jason Weller, Chief of the NRCS, Doug Peterson, NRCS Regional Soil Health Specialist for Iowa and Missouri, Rick Bednarek, NRCS State Soil Scientist, and Steve Berger, who farms near Wellman, Iowa.

Jason Weller talked about how the push to focus on soil health has exploded in the past three to four years.  NRCS has provided cost share dollars to get cover crops on at least five million acres throughout the United States, but it’s a drop in the bucket when we consider we have over 300 million acres of row crops in the United States.  Doug Peterson and Rick Bednarek talked about how the interest in soil health has brought about recent changes to the NRCS which added a new soil health division and 16 soil health specialists located throughout the United States.  This new division will teach producers and staff about the rapidly evolving sciences and technology related to soil health.  We now have a much deeper understanding of soil as a living organism than we did 20 years ago, and our knowledge is constantly evolving on how soil microbes can change soil’s physical and chemical properties, including texture, organic matter, and pore space.  The new NRCS division will work with producers who have an interest in soil health and teach them about changes in management and how less soil disturbance will benefit the soil by keeping fungi, nematodes, and protozoa intact.

Rick Bednarek said that, as a farmer, one of the most important things you can do to begin to understand soil health is to dig a hole and look at your soil.  Many field days held throughout the state each year feature soil pits dug in a farm field that gives an up close view of soil aggregates and root structure.  Field days provide an excellent opportunity for farmers to talk to other producers about what worked, what problems they had, and what solutions might exist for those problems.


2015 Iowa Learning Farms Field Day at the Arliss Nielson farm near Woolstock


2013 Iowa Learning Farms Field Day at the Kent Swanson farm in rural Red Oak

Steve Berger, an Iowa farmer in Washington County, agreed that talking to farmers in your area is key when experimenting with new practices for your farm.  Berger’s advice to farmers who might be interested in trying out a new way of farming is to take it slow and be patient.  It’s important for farmers to try a new practice on a small area first to make sure it’s going to work for them instead of going big and having a failure that would make them never want to try the practice again.  Berger works with a small group of farmers in Washington County that have been with him for more than 35 years as he’s experimented with no-till and cover crops.  What keeps him farming this way?  Berger said he might not always understand what’s going on biologically in his soil, but he sees marked improvements in stopping erosion on his land.  He also knows that what he’s doing on his farm is beneficial not only to him, but also to his neighbors and everyone in Iowa.

This episode of Talk of Iowa provided a great overview of the new focus on soil health across Iowa.  To hear this episode, go to Iowa Public Radio’s Podcast and RSS Feed webpage.  If you’re interested in learning more about cover crops, consider attending an upcoming Cover Crop Workshop Series with the Iowa Learning Farms.

-Julie Whitson

Cover Crops: Taking a Closer Look at Legumes

In the previous weeks, we’ve showcased grasses and brassicas as great options for cover crops that can be readily integrated into corn and soybean cropping systems across Iowa. Now it’s time to show some love to the legumes!

Last month, Liz shared the Top 10 Cover Crops for Iowa in 2016 identified by plant scientists, agronomists, and other researchers focused on cover crops, as well as you, our blog readers. Two of the top ten cover crops from this poll are legumes: red clover and hairy vetch.


What makes the legumes special, and why consider them as potential winter cover crops in your farming operation? The biggest difference between legumes and the other (non-leguminous) cover crops is their ability to fix nitrogen. Particular bacteria in the soil (rhizobium species) form nodules on the roots of the legume plant. It’s a natural symbiotic relationship that allows for the capture of nitrogen from the atmosphere (N2 gas) and conversion of this nitrogen to forms that are plant usable. This process is referred to as biological nitrogen fixation.


A very common example of this nitrogen fixation process happens in our soybean fields. The reason nitrogen fertilizer historically has not been added to soybean crops is because they are able to pull the nitrogen they need from the atmosphere as well as from mineralized nitrogen in the soil.

LegumesKnowing that legumes have the potential to add nitrogen back into the soil, this offers another “tool in the toolbox” when it comes to cover crops!  Hairy vetch and red clover were mentioned above, but there are a number of other legume cover crops to consider as well, including common vetch, crimson clover, white clover, kura clover, sweet clover, cow peas, winter lentils, and alfalfa.

When it comes to getting your cover crop planted in the fall, legumes and brassicas need more heat units than small grains to be effective. Thus, timely planting is of the essence!  In the Cover Crops: A Guide for Iowa Producers recommendations from USDA-NRCS, legumes should optimally be seeded between August 1 – September 15.

Seeding rates vary based on the specific legume you’re using – check out Practical Farmers of Iowa’s Cover Crop Recommendations and the Midwest Cover Crops Council webpage, which includes information on a variety of cover crop research trials as well a robust cover crop selector tool.


Do legume cover crops survive over the winter? It depends – it depends on the intensity of the winter, when the legume cover crop was planted, fall weather conditions (how much fall cover crop growth was attained?), and where geographically you are located in the state! From the Iowa Learning Farms’ perspective, the only experience we’ve had with legumes overwintering in Iowa came from one of our farmer-partners in the southern part of the state, and that was only described as being moderately successful.

Legumes on their own can offer many benefits, including fixing atmospheric nitrogen, providing a nitrogen source for the soil to be used by future crops, as well as protection from soil erosion along with building soil structure and organic matter. However, this is ultimately dependent upon how much growth is achieved, which can be a big challenge – weed control abilities are less, and legumes do not increase soil organic matter as much as other cover crops.

However, legumes can be used in a cover crop mixture with grasses or brassicas, which offers the ability to harness some of the benefits of different types of cover crops. From SARE’s Managing Cover Crops Profitably: Third Edition, “Mixtures of legume and grass cover crops combine the benefits of both, including biomass production, N scavenging and additions to the system, as well as weed and erosion control.”


We are using one legume, hairy vetch, as part of our USDA-NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant investigating cover crop mixtures. It is being utilized in a three species grass-brassica-legume mixture, including oats, radish, and hairy vetch (this specific mixture is seeded in the fall following soybeans). All three species can be seen distinctly in the above photograph from November 2015; the hairy vetch is the small plant with fern-like leaves in the foreground.

Fall 2015 offered fantastic conditions for cover crop growth, including hairy vetch, so it will be interesting to see what impact that has as we carry out soil testing as well as look at the nitrate-nitrogen data in the spring. Will there be observable differences between the single species plots (containing oats only) compared to those with a mixture of oats, radish, and hairy vetch? Stay tuned…

Additional Cover Crop Resources:
Cover Crops in Iowa: A Quick Guide (Iowa Learning Farms)
Cover Crops: A Guide for Iowa Producers (USDA-NRCS)
Cover Crop Recommendations (Practical Farmers of Iowa)
Cover Crop Business Directory (Practical Farmers of Iowa)
Overview of Legume Cover Crops (SARE)
Managing Cover Crops Profitably: Third Edition

Ann Staudt

Iowa Watershed Successes


The Iowa DNR’s annual publication Working for Clean Water tells the story of groups, individuals, researchers, and organizations who have been working in partnerships across the state in an effort to positively impact water quality for all Iowans. Each year the DNR chooses to highlight particular “watershed successes” and the most recent edition features both Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks!

DNRCleanWater_Stories-02The efforts of our farmer partners Rick Juchems and Dick Sloan are profiled, each telling their conservation stories. Both tell of how they began to embrace conservation practices, why they continue using them on their land, and how they each contribute to ongoing education and conversation regarding conservation practices in farming.

Teacher Elisha Kubalsky is featured telling her story of how participating in the Water Rocks! Teacher Summit enhanced the way she teaches her middle school students in Davenport about the importance of water quality. Kubalsky highlights the need for students to understand water as a resource given they all live in such close proximity to the Mississippi River.

To read these stories and more visit the DNR website to download the 2015 Working for Clean Water.

We also always love hearing of your own watershed successes, if you have a story you’d like to have featured on our blog, feel free to reach out and share it with us! Remember you can always share your 2016 #1newthingforwater pledge and progress with us on Twitter too!


Attend an upcoming cover crop workshop near you!

Weldon_FD_soybean_field_dead_ryeIowa Learning Farms, Practical Farmers of Iowa and the Iowa Cover Crop Working Group, will host six cover crop workshops this spring in Cerro Gordo, O’Brien, Black Hawk, Johnson, Mahaska, and Pottawattamie counties. The workshops are free, open to the public, and include a complimentary meal.

Cover crops continue to grow in popularity in Iowa due to the many benefits they provide. Such benefits include reduced nitrogen and phosphorus loads entering water bodies, increased soil organic matter, and reduced soil erosion.  Fall 2015 was a good season for cover crop establishment and growth, with adequate moisture and growing temperatures.  Great fall growth helped protect the soil during the heavy rain events, but could present challenges this spring if farmers are not prepared with a termination plan and equipment adjustments.

These cover crop workshops will help prepare producers for spring management of cover crops and allow time for discussion to answer questions from new and experienced cover crop users. Topics at the workshops range from herbicide recommendations for termination and establishment, planter settings to handle higher amounts of biomass, cover crop seed selection, cover crop effects on soil health and more. Speakers include experts from Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, Practical Farmers of Iowa and USDA-ARS National Soil Tilth Laboratory.

 Cover crop workshop dates and locations include:

February 23: Ventura Community Center, 12:30-2:30pm

4 North Weimer Street, Ventura, IA 50482


February 24: ISU Northwest Research and Demonstration Farm, 10:30am-12:30pm

6320 500th Street, Sutherland, IA 51058


February 25: Hawkeye Community College, 10:30am-12:30pm

Tama Hall, Room 102; 1501 E Orange Rd, Waterloo, IA 50701

In partnership with Miller Creek Water Quality Improvement Project


March 1: The Celebration Farm, 10:30am-12:30pm

Timber Frame Barn; 4696 Robin Woods Ln NE, Iowa City, IA 52240

In partnership with Rapid Creek Watershed Project


March 2: Mahaska County Extension Office, 10:30am-12:30pm

212 North I Street, Oskaloosa IA 52577


March 3: Armstrong Memorial Research and Demonstration Farm, 10:30am-12:30pm

53020 Hitchcock Avenue, Lewis, IA 51544


Workshops are free and open to the public, but reservations are suggested to ensure adequate space and food. Contact Liz Juchems at 515-294-5429 or email

For details on the workshops, and for more information about Iowa Learning Farms, visit the website:

Liz Juchems

Cover Crops: Spotlight on Grasses

The benefits of cover crops are undeniable: helping to protect from soil erosion during the “brown” months, uptaking nutrients that would otherwise be vulnerable to leaching, forage value for livestock, and, over time, helping to build soil organic matter. Cover crops can be readily integrated into corn and soybean cropping systems, as farmers are doing on hundreds of thousands of acres across Iowa. However, up front there are a number of important management considerations that must be taken into account:


This blog post will focus on the first question above. There are three major types of winter cover crops used in Iowa: brassicas, grasses, and legumes. Over the last few weeks, we’ve introduced the “Top 10” cover crop species in Iowa, and we’re in the process of highlighting each of those in individual blog posts. So let’s get the low down on using grasses as winter cover crops!

When considering grasses as cover crops, there are wide variety of species to consider:NSRW_Rye_and_other_Grains

  • Cereal Rye
  • Oats
  • Winter Barley
  • Sorghum Sudangrass
  • Winter Triticale
  • Winter Wheat
  • Annual Ryegrass

Grasses are the most abundantly utilized type of cover crop in Iowa, offering many benefits to the user. First and foremost, the ease of establishment in the fall is a definite plus! Grasses can be successfully established via a variety of seeding techniques, including drilling, broadcast seeding, overseeding, and aerial seeding. With sufficient moisture for germination, they tend to quickly establish a nice green carpet across the surface of the field, while also establishing an extensive root system underground.




While they do not grow a taproot that helps break up compaction like the brassicas, the quick-growing grasses have a more fibrous root system with outstanding abilities to hold soil firmly in place, anchor corn and soybean residues in the field, and promote water infiltration. Further, the grasses like to scavenge vulnerable nitrogen in the soil profile. Two cover crop grasses are featured in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, with cereal rye and oats offering nitrate-nitrogen reduction rates of 31% and 28%, respectively.

Grasses tend to produce large amounts of residue. Depending on the grass species chosen, some will winter kill (e.g. oats) while others are winter hardy (e.g. cereal rye, winter wheat, winter triticale), offering the opportunity for additional biomass growth in the spring. Another benefit offered by winter hardy cover crops is the potential for helping with weed suppression in the spring as the cover crops can outcompete weeds for resources including light, moisture, nutrients, and space.


For these overwintering cover crops, they must be terminated in the spring prior to planting your corn or soybean crop, whether that be via herbicide (e.g. glyphosate), mowing, tilling, or rolling. If using a glyphosate herbicide, the general recommendation for termination is 14 days in advance of planting to minimize adverse impacts on the following corn crop.

To the best of our knowledge, Iowa Learning Farms and Practical Farmers of Iowa have the longest on-farm cover crop research and demonstration project going on in Iowa, investigating the use of cereal rye as a winter cover crop across the state. In 25 of the 28 site-years of this study, farmers experienced no adverse impacts to corn yield following a cereal rye cover crop. The three instances in which corn yield was reduced by the cover crop occurred only in the first two growing seasons of the trial (2009 and 2010). Farmer inexperience with terminating cover crops or adjusting the planter to plant into the cover crop residues could have contributed to the yield losses in these instances. Want to dig in deeper? Full results of this ongoing study (through Year 6) can be found in the document Winter Cereal Rye Cover Crop Effect on Cash Crop Yield.


Cost is always an important consideration in evaluating conservation practices on the farm, and even more so with the tighter margins that farmers are facing today. Grasses are a big plus in the cover crop world as they offer a significantly lower cost in comparison to other cover crop species.

How about seeding rates, seeding dates, and other considerations? Check out the USDA-NRCS’s recommendations in Cover Crops: A Guide for Iowa Producers and Cover Crop Recommendations from Practical Farmers of Iowa. Another excellent resource is the Midwest Cover Crops Council webpage, which includes information on a variety of cover crop research trials as well a robust cover crop selector tool.

In summary, cover crop grasses are versatile, well-tested across the state of Iowa, and offer numerous benefits to the producer. As our friends at Practical Farmers of Iowa like to say, “Don’t Farm Naked!

Additional Cover Crop Resources:
Cover Crops in Iowa: A Quick Guide (Iowa Learning Farms)
Iowa Learning Farms Cover Crop Resources page
Cover Crops: A Guide for Iowa Producers (USDA-NRCS)
Cover Crop Recommendations (Practical Farmers of Iowa)
Cover Crop Business Directory (Practical Farmers of Iowa)
Overview of Nonlegume Cover Crops (SARE)
Managing Cover Crops Profitably: Third Edition

Ann Staudt

New video showcases drainage and water quality research

There’s no question that water quality is a hot topic in Iowa these days! Here at Iowa Learning Farms, we dedicate a good portion of our time to promoting and explaining the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy to farmers, landowners, and rural/urban residents alike as we travel to field days, workshops, Crop Advantage presentations, and county fairs (during the warmer months!).

The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy lays out a practical, thorough, science-based approach to reducing Iowa’s total nitrogen export and total phosphorus export by 45%. In developing this Strategy, the Science Assessment Team evaluated numerous research studies across Iowa (and the larger Corn Belt) to quantify what impact different conservation practices can have on reducing nutrient transport.

Some of the most long-term research available in the State of Iowa in relation to agricultural drainage, nutrient transport, water quality, and impacts on crop performance has been conducted at the Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Research and Demonstration Site near Gilmore City, Iowa. Check out the above short video which celebrates the 25th anniversary of the Gilmore City Research and Demonstration Site and highlights the importance of the drainage and water quality research taking place there.


ConservationChatLogoAngleWant to hear more about the role Iowa State University Extension and Outreach plays in the development and implementation of Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy?  Tune in to the latest episode of the Conservation Chat podcast which features a conversation with Dr. John Lawrence. Alternatively, the Iowa Learning Farms webinar page to watch the archived video feed there.

Ann Staudt