Spring Travels Provide Glimpse of Goals to Work Toward

Springtime is a great time of year. It is a rebirth of sorts with fresh growth across the landscape. A new beginning to the growing season brings on yet another opportunity to refine cropping system management. Spring is also a time that exposes crop production challenges when heavy rains sweep across the state and we see the damage that water can do in our fields giving us more reasons to reevaluate and fine-tune our crop production system.

In a previous blog, I challenged you to consider whether or not prairie potholes should be farmed. Now I am asking you to consider no-till planting soybeans and putting cover crops ahead of soybean. This feels like a modest challenge. I am not asking for a complete overhaul of your cropping systems. I am only asking that a small incremental change be made.

[Early stage no-till soybeans]

I am often asked what ‘cropping system’ means. It is simple. A cropping system involves the individual management practices that go into producing a crop such as nutrient management plans, herbicide programs, seed selection, planting practices, etc. Focusing on the whole crop production system over the course of several years is a way to balance profitability and environmental stewardship.

There are two keys to this statement. First, profitability has to be thought of at the onset of crop year planning but should factor in the past with an eye toward the future. The second point is environmental stewardship. This means taking care of the land that we depend on as individuals and as a nation. Where can we place practices that will benefit the cropping system and the community around us? The lowest hanging fruit is the placement of waterways, terraces, and buffer strips. Through innovations of farmers and researchers, we are now talking about using native prairie species instead of solid seeded perennial grasses in those areas.

Now that your crops are growing tall, this is an excellent time to evaluate what you saw this spring and consider grabbing for a little higher hanging fruit on the conservation tree. Just like you, spring is my busy season as I am driving to research plots and conducting field calls. During my spring drives, I saw the impact of the heavy rains on soil erosion. At one point after a rather big storm, I came across emerging crops that were bisected by a newly formed gully. I decided to follow the path left by this running water. My best estimate was that the flow path of erosion was approximately 3.5 miles of which only 1 mile was protected by a grass waterway. What could we have done to prevent these problems?, because the heavy rains are going to continue to happen and increase in frequency.

Again, the low hanging fruit is to install grass waterways. My challenge for you today is to no-till plant your soybeans and, in addition, plant a cover crop ahead of the soybeans to increase the residue protection in the spring before the crop emerges.

[No-till soybeans following a cover crop]

One of the projects I follow is a no-till soybean field that is planted into corn residue. As I have monitored this field, I have not noticed delayed growth. Think about the saving by no-till planting. My estimate is no-till planting alone could save $20 to $25 per acre. These savings could go a long way to implementing nutrient management or cover crops within your cropping system.

[Early stage no-till soybeans]

Take the opportunity to evaluate your cropping systems. While adopting cover crops ahead of soybean will come with added cost, it also requires cost savings from no-till planting. No-till before soybean does work. Cover crops before soybean is a viable option. These are two easy entry points to being more profitable and more environmentally friendly. Do the math: if all Iowa farmers were to no-till soybeans and plant cover crops before soybeans, Iowa will be a lot closer to the number of acres needed to make a real difference in our water quality.

Mark Licht

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