Getting Started with Rotational Grazing

Considering the transition to rotational grazing?  Wondering where exactly to start?  Ruminate on the following tips and words of wisdom for getting started with rotational grazing, shared at an Iowa Learning Farms Whiterock Conservancy joint field day this past week.

1.  Build the system to what you can afford.
Infrastructure considerations up front include fencing, water lines, tank/waterer system, and mineral feeder.

2.  Start with a system that’s manageable for you.
Pat Corey, NRCS (tenant at Whiterock/rotational grazing guru) recommends starting with a 5-6 paddock system, in which the cattle are moved once per week. That gives each paddock a 30 day rest period before the cattle return.

3.  Scale up when you’re ready. Each initial paddock can be divided in half, resulting in a 10-12 paddock system, in which the cattle are moved every 4 days.

4.  Be aware of herbicide residuals.
Always read and follow label directions, and be aware of grazing restrictions – some herbicides have up to an 18 month residual.

5.  Integrate cover crops for an additional spring food source.
Let the rye grow big enough in the spring so there is good root structure in place to balance out compaction from the livestock. At Whiterock, cattle are out on the rye from approximately April 1 until May 15, providing an excellent supplemental food source in the spring months.

6.  Try to maximize flexibility in the system! 
It’s all a learning process. Planning up front for the desired infrastructure, combined with active on-the-ground management, can yield a robust rotational grazing system, resulting in improved pasture productivity, reduced inputs, increased wildlife, benefits to soil health and water quality, and healthier herds overall.

Thanks to Pat Corey (NRCS), Darwin Pierce and Rob Davis (Whiterock Conservancy) for sharing their insights on rotational grazing!  To learn more, check out the following resources:

Ann Staudt

Midwest Climate Hub: Continued Dry Conditions for Fall

Today’s guest post is by Dr. Dennis Todey, USDA Midwest Climate Hub Director, with timely climate information for harvest 2017.

The latter part of summer presented a marked change from early summer. Cooler than average weather predominated over Iowa and the eastern Midwest since late July. This is sharp contrast to the June warmth and warm late winter/early spring. These conditions and new outlooks present some different issues for Iowa concerning crop development and moisture as we enter the fall.

Crop Development

The warm early season exacerbated the dry early season in much of Iowa leading to increased drought conditions. The warm temperatures also helped push crop development that had been slowed because of some delayed planting and cool late spring temperatures. The recent coolness has been a benefit for corn and beans allowing some better grain fill. However, the lack of Growing Degree Days is a problem for corn development, which is as much as 2-3 weeks behind in places in the state. The first fall freeze will need to hold off until near average or later to alleviate potential freeze issues on crops.

Rainfall/Drought

Conditions in parts of the state have flipped from early to late summer. Much drier than average conditions predominated much of the south to northwest parts of Iowa while the northeast to east central were moist to wet. Over the last 30 days rainfall has helped ease drought conditions in northwest Iowa while the eastern part of the state has dried showing changes in the US Drought Monitor. Most of the southern part of the state is still in some level of drought.

Todey Blog 9-2017Continued Dry Conditions

Dry conditions are likely to continue to affect much of the state into the fall given the current US Drought Monitor status. This is a positive for fall agricultural field work and completion of construction in the state because of the reduced chances for muddy conditions. But for dry areas impacted by drought, this is not good news (largely central and southern Iowa). Soil moisture recharge in these areas needs to begin in the fall to replenish soil moisture.

Cooler than average temperatures are still likely to impact the state for the balance of September. This will continue to slow crop development and increase the risk of freezing conditions earlier than hoped for many crops. Exact freeze dates will continue to be monitored.

Early Winter Outlook

Winter outlooks are largely impacted by having an El Niño or La Niña. Neither is likely to be affecting the winter outlook. Thus, our ability to say much for the winter is limited. The overall trend over recent years has been toward warmer winters. Thus, the outlook for the winter would lean a little more likely to be warmer. Precipitation chances are largely unknown at this point.

Nurturing the Seeds of Conservation

In 2009, the Soil and Water Conservation District commissioners challenged us to teach Iowa’s youth about soil and water. The Conservation Station and Water Rocks! program were our answers. Since that time, we have been to every county in Iowa at least twice, reaching over 100,000 people, inspiring the next generation to be thinking about and talking about conservation issues.

Starting this year, we are reaching out to the next generation in a new way, by getting college students out to our field days and talking to college students who want to farm about water quality and conservation issues.

On August 30th, we held a field day at the Gilmore City Research and Demonstration Site. If you want to learn about conservation and water quality practices that work, this research site is the place to be. A few days before the field day, we sent an email out to all the Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering undergraduates to invite them to attend. Nine students enthusiastically took us up on the offer and joined us for this excellent event (read more about it in Ann’s blog Cover Cropping on the Lobe).

During the actual field day presentations, the college students quietly listened and didn’t say much. However, the faculty and staff who accompanied them said that when they got back into the van, they were filled with so many questions and were nonstop talk about what they were seeing and learning.

It is very likely that each of these students will either farm someday or work in the agricultural industry. We are doing our part to whet their curiosity about conservation practices such as cover crops and wetlands. We are also fertilizing the seeds that will grow into a lifelong conservation ethic. We plan to offer more of these field days with college students – in partnership with both ISU and our many other outstanding colleges/community colleges around the state —  in the months and years to come.

In addition, with the help of a new grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, we are developing and launching an “Emerging Farmers” program. This program takes a proactive approach to address the need for new programming that reaches out to limited resource farmers, emerging farmers and future landowners. We define emerging farmer as someone with ties to agricultural land, not currently farming but would like to return to the farm or have a voice in its management.

In collaboration with ILF farmer partners, Iowa Beef Center, Beginning Farmer Center and Practical Farmers of Iowa, we will produce a series of emerging farmers conservation publications. Partners will collaborate to create a sustainable business plan template for the emerging farmers. We will host workshops across the state, as well as a two-day intensive emerging farmer workshop. In the years to come, we will present emerging farmer seminars to ISU agricultural student groups, as well as to community colleges and colleges across Iowa to reach those individuals with ties to agricultural land, infusing the traditional agricultural curriculum with a strong conservation focus.

The SWCD commissioners challenged us in 2009 and we continue to listen to that challenge as the Iowa Learning Farms adapts to meet the needs in Iowa for conservation education. We cannot succeed if we are not engaging and inspiring our young people. Send me an email if you would like to get involved in these efforts.

Jacqueline Comito

Importance of Cover Crops Following a Drought

With corn and soybean harvest approaching, many folks are planting their cover crops, or planning to plant their cover crops as soon as they can. The biggest question we are getting these days is whether cover crop seeding recommendations need to be changed because of the dry conditions in many parts of Iowa.

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Drilled Cereal RyeThe quick answer is that cover crop seeding recommendations remain the same: aerial and broadcast seeding methods require a slightly greater seeding rate than drill seeding. If there is not enough soil moisture or a rain within a week of seeding, there will be diminished and variable stand establishment across the field. To minimize this, you might consider drill seeding over aerial and broadcast seeding. Typically, drill seeding results in more uniform stands across the field with the consequence of less fall biomass production due to a later seeding date. Even later planting due to drilled seeding results in soil health improvements from spring growth of winter cereals.

Regardless of how you are going to seed, it is important to get the cover crops out inCereal Rye the fields. Cover crops play a crucial role in building soil moisture by improving water infiltration and aggregate stability. Additionally, they have the added benefit of scavenging residual soil nitrogen. Winter cereal grains such as winter rye, wheat, and triticale, are the preferred cover crop for their exceptional ability to use residual soil nitrogen. This is an extremely important characteristic following drought years where nitrogen leaching and crop nitrogen uptake are both potentially lower.

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Gilmore City research site that measures difference in nitrate levels under different treatments

Iowa State University research conducted by Dr. Matt Helmers at Gilmore City, Iowa, show seasonal spring nitrate concentrations from 2011 to 2015 were the highest in 2013 (wet spring following a dry 2012). In the conventionally tilled system, nitrate concentration in drainage was 23.7 mg/L. When cover crops were added to the system, the nitrate concentration was reduced by 51% to 11.5 mg/L.

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Left and center: Exterior of sumps which are connected to the tile drainage lines in each plot. Right: Interior of a sump. The sump shows a meter reading for each pump located in each plot. Water samples are taken from each pump to be tested for nitrates.

While establishing cover crops in dry conditions may be a challenge, these are the situations where the impact of cover crop can provide big benefits.

Mark Licht

Mark Licht is an Iowa Learning Farms team member and Assistant Professor and Extension Cropping Systems Specialist at Iowa State University.

 

 

 

IDALS and Iowa Learning Farms: A Partnership on the Edge

Today’s guest post is by Jake Hansen, Chief of the Water Resources Bureau Division of Soil Conservation & Water Quality at Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS). 

The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship has a long history of working together with USDA-Natural Resource Conservation Services, Farm Service Agency, Iowa Department of Natural Resources, and numerous other state and federal partners.

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Water Quality Field Day in Wright County September 2015

Many of you have been partnering at the local level for years to such great depths that you may not consider your conservation team to be a collection of partners anymore. Local extension councils, county boards of supervisors, county conservation boards, and local Farm Bureau chapters throughout Iowa are working with soil and water conservation districts to share staff, complete outreach, and identify local priorities. Additionally, local retailers, particularly in the agronomic sector, are coming to the table to assist in promoting conservation plans and practices as they are seeing increased value in conservation practices, and taking advantage of growing markets for sustainable commodities. These local partnerships will be essential in taking new practices from concept to mainstream adoption through the Iowa Water Quality Initiative.

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Bioreactor installation in Monroe County July, 2015

IDALS is looking to take the next step in putting together a water quality program that can be scaled up quickly to put water quality investments to work for farmers and all Iowans. One way we are doing this is by showcasing new practices that work in targeted locations to improve water quality at the field scale. While IDALS has assisted in construction of some of these wetlands, bioreactors, and saturated buffers, we are now looking at ways to deploy these practices intensely at a watershed scale.

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Wetland and Cover Crop Field Day in Pocahontas County August 2017

Beginning in late 2017, IDALS will partner with Iowa Learning Farms to conduct watershed-scale planning and landowner outreach in high-priority watersheds. Our goal will be to develop a model for identifying suitable sites and working with landowners to complete edge-of-field practice installation. Iowa Learning Farms will conduct field days in the selected areas to showcase water quality practices, and will give landowners an opportunity on the spot to sign up for conservation planning assistance. It is our hope that together we will be able to create an efficient process for edge-of-field project development that can be replicated statewide as a key component of a long-term water quality improvement program.

The daunting task of improving water quality, soil health and environmental stewardship in Iowa is one that cannot be completed successfully by a single person or agency. Economic challenges and competing priorities will continue to change the way we are able to deliver programs at IDALS, which means that perhaps more than ever, we will have to find creative ways to partner at all levels. IDALS is excited to look to the future in our long-standing partnership with Iowa Learning Farms to continue to advance water quality efforts in our state!

Jake Hansen

Welcome, Jack!

Hello! I am the newest member of the Water Rocks! and Iowa Learning Farms teams, so I wanted to introduce myself!

My name is Jack Schilling, and I am the first AmeriCorps Member to serve with Water Rocks! at Iowa State University. I am delighted to be a part of it. Once the program caught my eye, I knew that it would be a perfect fit for me, as it involved some of my favorite things: agriculture, the environment, music, and entertainment. And thanks to the AmeriCorps program being a part of ISU Extension and Outreach (Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach), I can continue service with 4-H, which I participated in since 4th grade.

I have lived in Iowa my entire life where I grew up on my family farm near Jefferson. On the farm, I raised chickens, cows, sheep, goats, pigs, and even turkeys and geese! I have not enrolled in a college yet, as I felt that I was not ready to take the dive in without first knowing what I wanted to do. So, I chose AmeriCorps, as it seemed to be the alternative for those who did not know what they wished to pursue yet. In my free time, I enjoy video games, music, and video production. 

I am excited to have joined the team and can’t wait to meet all of you at schools, county fairs, and more! 

Jack Schilling

Reducing Soil Erosion with Cover Crops: New Infographic

Iowa Learning Farms is pleased to announce the release of a new infographic publication titled Reducing Soil Erosion with Rye Cover Crops.

This visually engaging document highlights one of the biggest benefits of cover crops — the ability to significantly reduce soil erosion. Based upon long-term cover crop work conducted by Korucu, Shipitalo, and Kaspar, colleagues at the USDA-ARS National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment here in Ames, this study looks specifically at one of Iowa’s most popular cover crops, winter cereal rye.

The USDA-ARS team conducted in-field simulated rainfall studies on plots with and without cereal rye cover crops, and their findings are powerful in terms of quantifying erosion reduction – 68% less sediment in surface runoff water with a rye cover crop. Further, the amount of surface runoff water decreased, while the amount of water infiltrating was found to increase with the cover crop.

This study was conducted in central Iowa, in the heart of the Des Moines Lobe, on land with a 2% slope. Substantial erosion reductions were found here with rye cover crops — consider the benefits of cover crops to reduce erosion on more sloping lands across the state!

The full infographic is available as a free PDF download on the Iowa Learning Farms website. Clicking on the image below will also take you right there.

Ann Staudt