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.

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

Thousands of Steps, Millions of Seeds

Labor Day often marks the end of summer, but for the Iowa Learning Farms team it’s the start of cover crops season! Last week we traveled across the state to seed our cover crop mixture project sites. The project began in 2013 with hand broadcasting seeding cover crops at six Iowa State University Research and Demonstration Farms.  In 2016, we continued the project at four sites and this fall marked the fifth and final year of seeding.

As we traveled across the state, I began to wonder just how many miles I had walked seeding each row of the plots…

20150901_111602But first some background – to seed the research plots we prepared individually weighed seed packets to help achieve an even seeding rate of roughly one million seeds per acre. These are labeled, bundled and packaged by site to maximize efficiency in the field while seeding.

IMG_3325Once we arrive at the research farm, we carefully double check the map and add orange stakes to mark the first row of each plot. I then load up my nail apron with the packets for one of the plots and prepare to seed.  A teammate holds the end of our tape measure and I grab a hold of the other end. I then tear open a corner of the packet and walk backwards shaking out the seed.  Once the nail apron is empty, we check the map and move to the next plot.

Here’s a peek at seeding into corn at the Lewis Research Farm in southwest Iowa.

So how many miles did I cover walking backwards while seeding?

Each site had 16 cover crops plots that were 50 feet in length.  The width ranged from 6-12 rows.  All told, in the last five years I have walked 30.6 miles or 61,200 steps backwards seeding cover crops. In the span of four days last week, our team traveled 975 miles to seed the cover crops and collect the lysimeter water samples.

This year offered incredible weather to get the cover crops seeded and it was bittersweet to shake out the last packet of seed – oats – into the soybeans at Kanawha. I am also pleased to announce that I did not fall into the badger holes at our site in southwest Iowa – fifth year is the charm!

To everyone who helped establish the plots, the farm managers at the research farms and farmer partners for collecting biomass samples, yield data and management information, the pilots that flew on the cover crops, our outstanding summer interns and the team at Iowa Learning Farms – Thank You!

Stay tuned for an upcoming project report summarizing the great information this project has yielded.

Liz Juchems

Navigating the return of the next generation to the family farm

Chris and Kristi BlogThe most recent episode of the Conservation Chat podcast provides a candid look at how one father/daughter duo is navigating the addition of another household to the farm business, the joys and challenges that come with working with family, and the mutual goals of caring for the land. In Episode 34, host Jacqueline Comito met with Chris Foss and Kristi Heffelmeier at their farm in Northeast Iowa to chat about their whole farm approach to conservation.

The farm has been in the family for many generations, with Chris first farming with his father.  Kristi grew up on the farm and now lives with her husband at her grandparents place nearby. However, her path to farming was a winding one – first a degree in art education, then a Masters in Business and working in the corporate business world, next up was teaching middle school art in Texas before returning home to the family farm in 2013.

When she returned to Iowa, Kristi understood she had a lot to learn and wasn’t ready to take on a large financial stake in the farm.  Through open communication, she and Chris landed on an hourly payment rate arrangement that helped support the addition of another household. This agreement allows them flexibility to grow and learn from each other while utilizing the skills and passions each of them bring to the partnership.

Together they have a worked with the local watershed projects in Black Hawk and Tama Counties to maintain and add new conservation practices to the operation.  They are nearly 100% strip-tillage (corn), no-tillage (soybeans), and cover crops on 850 of their 2,200 acres to help protect the soil. They have also installed and maintained waterways and a bioreactor that treats about 80 acres along Miller Creek. The bioreactor is being monitored by Shane Wulf as part of Miller Creek Watershed Project that was featured in Episode 33 of the Conservation Chat.

Kristi and Puppy BlogKristi’s return to the farm, also meant the return of livestock – although not the variety we may be used to!  She and her husband breed competition Labrador dogs and sell them all over the country.  And although Chris had gotten used to the quiet without livestock, he has taken a shining to Hogan, Kristi’s indoor pet.

Be sure to tune into this episode to learn more about how they are managing the transition of a child’s return to the farm and the benefits of working together to care for our natural resources. You can also download or listen to any of the previous podcast episodes on the Conservation Chat website and through iTunes.

Liz Juchems

How Drought Affects Soil Health

Dr. Mahdi Al-Kaisi, professor of agronomy and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach soil and water specialist, published a great article on the impacts of drought on soil health and management practices that can help reduce drought effects.

Drought conditions during most of the growing season in Iowa can have a profound impact on soil heath, just as when we have extreme wet conditions. The effect of drought can be noticed very clearly on crop performance when the lack of water availability is severe. This water stress can affect soil chemical, physical, and biological activities that are essential for plant and soil health.

One of the obvious effects of drought on soil health is the lack of nutrient uptake by crops, as water is the major medium for moving nutrients into plants as a result of water uptake. The increase in soil temperature associated with lack of soil moisture has an impact on microbial activities and nutrient processing, both of which are important for plant use for biomass and grain production. Microbial activities in soil generally are controlled by soil moisture and temperature. The departure from the optimum ranges of soil moisture (water field capacity) and soil temperature (approximately 76-86o F), which varies for different microbial communities in soil, can alter microbial activity. Changes in soil temperature during drought conditions can affect soil organic matter (SOM) decomposition and increase the release of carbon dioxide. Also, during this process additional mineral N, mostly in the form of nitrate, will be released in the soil system. This change in soil environment affects the stability of SOM and subsequently, affects the soil biological system.

The most profound effect that can be experienced in cropland is the excess release of nitrate which may not be utilized by crops due to the lack of moisture available for the plant to uptake nutrients. This shift in biological and chemical processes during the growing season influences many other relationships that are essential for crop performance, quantitatively and qualitatively, by changing activities that are important to nutrient cycling such as, enzymatic activities, change in soil chemicals concentrations, etc.

Management practices to reduce drought effects
In order to moderate future drought event’s effect on soil health, several practices can be valuable to enhance soil health by improving soil physical, chemical, and biological properties:

  1. Crop residue: crop residue can provide important benefits like improving soil moisture with an increase in soil water infiltration during and off-season as well as increase recharge of the sub-soil profile. The other benefit of residue is the moderation of soil temperature, where crop residue acts as an insulation layer by increasing soil surface reflectance to sun radiation (i.e., change in Albedo, the ratio of the light reflected by surface to that received by it, where residue color is lighter than soil surface). These benefits of crop residue have direct impacts on soil biological and chemical properties by reducing soil temperature and the slowdown of organic matter mineralization. The increase in soil organic matter can increase soil water storage capacity (Fig. 1). The other benefit of moisture conservation and its availability to crops during drought periods is the increase of utilization of nutrients and reduction of nutrient concentration in soil and loss during off-season rain events.
  2. Cover crops: cover crops have many benefits that are critical, especially during drought conditions. The way that cover crops provide such benefits during drought conditions is based on the cumulative effects of cover crops during previous seasons, where they promote better soil biological and physical conditions. It is well documented that cover crops increased soil water infiltration and recharge of the soil profile by improving soil aggregate stability and soil porosity. Furthermore, cover crops contribute to the increase of the soil organic matter pool, which is essential for building soil health.
  3. Balanced crop rotation: crop rotation and diversity of crops within one year or over several years is one of the most important practices that enhance soil health and mitigate drought conditions during the growing season. The diversity of crops on the land can provide a rich soil environment for a healthy and diverse biological system. The inclusion of different crops such corn, soybean, alfalfa, small grain, etc., provides diversity of root systems that promote a wide range of microbial community, therefore enhancing soil nutrient and organic matter pools as compared to a mono-cropping system (i.e., continuous corn).

These practices, in addition to organic amendments, are important in mitigating unexpected drought conditions in the long-term. These practices, along with minimum or no-tillage, can reduce the prolonged impact of drought events by increasing soil resiliency. The degree at which soils in Iowa and the Midwest have absorbed the dramatic impact of drought events was due to the rich soil organic matter content. Factors which contributed to that are the temperate climate and vegetation base (i.e., prairie), which encourage greater organic matter accumulation. This unique soil quality provides high water storage capacity that sustains crop production. So, to sustain such soil quality, we need to maintain it through the implementation of soil health principles by adopting conservation systems.

figure_1_Al-Kaisi drought article 8-23-2017

The article was published by Integrated Crop Management News on August 23, 2017.

Liz Juchems

Iowa’s Future Begins with Healthy Soils

Today’s guest post is by Marty Adkins, Assistant State Conservationist for Iowa Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), a member of the Iowa Learning Farms Steering Committee.

The quality of Iowa’s soils make this a unique place. How we manage Iowa’s agricultural soils affects just about everything else here. From increasing wildlife to improved water quality to sustainable economic development, our future begins with healthy soils.

Janke-PheasantWildlife – Over 97% of Iowa’s land is privately owned, and a vast majority is a part of farms. Most Iowa wildlife spends some or all of their lives on farms.

The same practices that are good for Iowa soils – no-till farming, cover crops, buffer strips, diverse native plant seeded areas, waterways, diverse crop rotations, well-managed pastures – are good for wildlife. The practices provide cover, food and travel corridors. They protect water sources on which wildlife depends. Practices that protect and build soils are good for wildlife too.

Water Quality – Water bodies reflect the condition of their watersheds. Eroding fields deliver sediment and nutrients to streams and lakes. Soils protected from erosion keep that soil and associated nutrients in fields where they belong.

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Fields protected by cover crops or other vegetation growing throughout the growing season retain nutrients in the root zone that would otherwise find their way into streams or ground water. Practices that protect and build soils are good for water quality

Economic Development – Over one-third of the largest 100 food manufacturers have Iowa operations. These companies are located in Iowa because the commodities they depend on are produced here.

HC-SoilStatistics from 2014 showed that agriculture and related industries contributed $31.6 billion to the Iowa economy and was responsible for 122,764 jobs. They also showed that 37 of Iowa’s counties derived at least one half of their economic output from agriculture and related industries.

The foundation of all of this economic activity, now and into the future, is Iowa’s productive soil.

No matter what issue you care about, you need to be interested in protecting and building Iowa’s soils.

Marty Adkins

Exploring whether cover crop mixtures make sense on Iowa farmland

Last week I had the opportunity to attend the Soil and Water Conservation Society’s 72nd Annual Conference in Madison, Wisconsin.  In addition to attending some great sessions, meeting fellow conservationists, and exploring Madison, I participated in the Conservation Innovation Grant Showcase poster exhibition.  On display were early results from our cover crops mixtures project that began in 2013.

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 Some preliminary observations from the study: 

  • Achieved more biomass from the single species (oats or rye) than mixtures
  • Oats and rye resulted in the majority of biomass from the mixtures
  • Cereal rye was the only species to over-winter consistently
  • Generally lower pore water nitrate concentrations following rye and mixture of rye, radish and rapeseed

As we continue to analyze the data collected, the project indicates:

  • Cereal rye and oats establish readily and provide the most biomass growth when seeded on their own.
  • Cover crops can offer some water quality benefits, reducing nitrate concentration in pore water.
  • Rye and oats provide the best biomass return on seed investment! Single Species are the way to go in Iowa for corn and soybean producers.

Be sure to subscribe to our blog and check back for updates on the project, including analysis on crop yields.

Liz Juchems