Higher Adoption of Cover Crops in Watershed Projects Areas

Today’s guest post is by Steve Hopkins, CPM, Nonpoint Source Coordinator, Iowa Department of Natural Resources 

The increase in cover crop acres across Iowa is encouraging news for soil health and water quality. According to a news release sent out on May 31, 2017 by Iowa NRCS and IDALS, the number of acres of cover crops increased to 353,000 in 2016 for landowners receiving financial assistance, plus another 247,000 acres in cover crops planted outside of cost-share programming, for an estimated total of 600,000 acres in cover crops statewide.

Of Iowa’s 23 million acres of land in corn and soybeans, approximately 1.2% of row crop acres are in cover crops through financial assistance programs, and an estimated 2.1% of row crop acres are in cover crops when including all cover crop acres. The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy calls for a goal of cover crops on 12.5 million of Iowa’s row crop acres, close to 50% of the state’s row crop acres. Since we have a long way to go to reach that goal, it makes sense to look closely at where cover crops are being adopted most quickly and ask why.

Where are the Highest Percentages of Cover Crop Acres in Iowa?

Where in Iowa are the highest percentages of row crop acres in cover crops? Below is a list I compiled showing the top ten counties by percentage of row crop acres planted under cost-shared cover crops (this excludes cover crop acres planted without cost-share, which is not reported), based on the county data from NRCS and IDALS:

1.   Washington (7.5% of row crop acres in cover crops)
2.   Cedar (4.6%)
3.   Monroe (2.9%)
4.   Buena Vista (2.6%)
5.   Audubon (2.26%)
6.   Wapello (2.23%)
7.   Polk (2.20%)
8.   Black Hawk (2.17%)
9.   Marion (2.1%)
10. Jefferson (2.06%)

Why Cover Crops There?

Washington County leads the state in both the percent of row crop land in cover crops and total acres in cover crops. This is very likely due to the presence of a successful Water Quality Initiative (WQI) project in the county, plus the presence of several prominent producers and producer-led groups who have championed cover crops for a number of years. Social science research shows that farmers are most influenced by other farmers, and this seems to be exemplified by Washington County’s lead among all Iowa counties in cover crop adoption.

Most of the other top ten cover crop counties are located within or near watershed projects, such as a WQI project, which focus solely on practices to reduce nutrients, a DNR Section 319 project, which focus on restoring impaired waters (many of which focus on reducing phosphorus), or a watershed project funded by some other source. This is not surprising, given that water quality practices do not sell themselves. The presence of a watershed project means that local producers have access not only to additional cost-share for cover crops, they also have increased access to technical information on how to manage cover crops, plus an outreach program on why cover crops are important for soil health and water quality in Iowa.

The map below–a statewide map of watershed project areas, plus the top ten cover crop counties highlighted in yellow–shows the correlation between watershed projects and cover crop areas:

July 2017 Hopkins Blog

“Boots on the Ground”

Watershed project coordinators serve as needed “boots on the ground” who deliver key information directly to producers about water quality practices, like cover crops. Given the declining numbers of federal and state agency staff who deliver conservation information to producers, the presence of a highly skilled watershed project coordinator can help fill the gap and boost local adoption of practices like cover crops.

Along with experienced cover crop producers who are sharing information with other producers, watershed project coordinators are key to continuing the expansion of cover crop acres in Iowa.  To continue the progress made so far, the map shows we need to fund not only the cost-share for cover crops themselves, we also need to keep funding the “boots on the ground” who sell the practice.

Steve Hopkins