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

Expand Beyond a Two Crop System, Clean Up Our Water

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Seth hosted a 3rd grade field trip to his farm on May 11, 2016 and invited us to visit too!

Earlier today Iowa Learning Farms farmer partner, Seth Watkins, was featured in the Des Moines Register Editorial: To clean up our water, go ‘nuts’ like this Iowa famer. Seth has shifted away from a two crop (corn/soybean) rotation on his family farm near Clarinda.  He still grows corn, but has also added oats, alfalfa, and cover crops.  Seth also actively raises 600 cows and has converted nearly 400 acres to prairie, ponds, and other wildlife areas. As a result of this diversification, he has seen better financial returns while improving soil health and water quality.

Be sure to also take a listen to Episode 20 of our Conservation Chat to hear first hand as Seth shares his whole farm approach to conservation.

Seth is no stranger to trying something new.  He agreed to be interviewed by our Conservation Pack for a video series produced by Water Rocks!  It continues to be one of our most viewed videos and is a sneak peak into Seth’s farm and management choices.

You don’t miss out on a great read and fun video as you head into the weekend!

-Liz Juchems

 

Field Work Frenzy!

For the last three weeks our team of interns and the Agricultural Water Management team have been busy collecting field research data from our Conservation Learning Lab sites. To gather baseline measurements of soil health, we collected bulk density samples last fall and are in the process of measuring water infiltration and soil aggregate stability.

Both the Story County and Floyd County locations have five fields participating in the project, representing 50-68% of the watershed.  We are collecting data from three samples points in each soil type within the field for a total of 36 samples sites per watershed. We will compare these measurements in three years to those taken after the addition of cover crops to all fields and a decrease in tillage (transition to strip-tillage) for half of the fields.

story panaramaMeasuring Infiltration

Healthy soil has adequate pore space to receive and retain rainwater.  By increasing the infiltration potential of soil, we can reduce runoff and soil erosion during rain events.  Healthy soil also has better water holding capacity during periods without rain.

Using the Cornell Sprinkle Infiltrometer, we are looking to find out how much water is able to permeate into the soil. The infiltrometer–essentially a portable rainfall simulator–connects to a 9.5 inch metal ring that has been installed in the ground.  We calibrate the infiltrometer to “rain” about 0.5cm/minute within the metal ring.

After recording the time of first runoff, we record the height of the water in the infiltrometer and the volume of runoff every three minutes.  We continue this process until a steady state is achieved in the volume of runoff (about an hour).

Each runoff sample is poured into a cylinder for measurement. Calculating the difference between how much water is gone from the infiltrometer and how much has runoff, we can compute how much of the water that has infiltrated into the soil.

Collecting Samples for Aggregate Stability

Soil SamplingAggregate stability is a soil health indicator that provides a measurement of the soils ability to resist erosion, especially from water. It is desirable to have stable aggregates to withstand rainfall and water movement compared to weak aggregates that can seal the surface of the field and decrease infiltration. The weak aggregates can also create a crust that can make it difficult for seedlings to emerge.

Check back for updates as the team begins to process the soil samples that were collected near the infitrometer sites.

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Still smiling as the storm rolls in! Our interns are outstanding.

Liz Juchems

 

Do cover crops reduce phosphorus loss?

Cover crops are proven to reduce nitrate loss and decrease soil erosion on our agricultural landscape, but field scale studies on phosphorus loss are still in their infancy. Drs. Antonio Mallarino, Matt Helmers, Rick Cruse, John Sawyer with Iowa State University and Dan Jaynes with National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment have completed two years of a long-term field study and have released their preliminary results.

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The Hermann farm site south of Ames allowed Mallarino’s team to observe the effects of cover crops on phosphorus in the runoff study funded by the Iowa Nutrient Research Center.

The study is located at south of Ames on Iowa State’s Hermann Farm. The study includes replication on 12 areas ranging from one to three acres in a field that tested very high in soil phosphorus and is managed with a corn and soybean rotation. The study compares the use of winter cereal rye cover crops with and without tillage.

After two years, Dr. Mallarino observed:

“It is confirmed that cover crops reduce soil loss with tillage or no-till but mainly with tillage. Results also show that with tillage a cover crop reduces phosphorus loss. But it is not so clear that with no-tillage management a cover crop reduces phosphorus loss,” Mallarino said. “With no-tillage, there seems to be a small reduction in particulate phosphorus loss, but an increase in dissolved phosphorus loss.”
revisedherman-flowing-runoff-6-14-17

Surface runoff at the testing site is evaluated for total solids and several forms of nutrients.

Why the focus on dissolved phosphorus? The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy is a technical, scientific and voluntary approach to reducing the loss of nitrogen and phosphorus to our waterbodies and the Gulf of Mexico that is home of a large hypoxic or dead zone.  Both particulate and dissolved phosphorus are part of the reduction goal, however dissolved phosphorus is responsible for algae blooms and has a visible impact on aquatic ecosystems.

Caution should be taken when drawing conclusions from only two years of data. Environmental factors play a role in nutrient dynamics with surface runoff, and during the two years of the study, major rain events at the test site had been minimal with very low runoff.

“We can’t make a strong conclusion from these two years of data. There needs to additional data collection from this site and better science-based projecting so we can encourage the addition of cover crops for the right reasons,” Mallarino said.

Click here to read the full article and learn more about project.

Questions about the project contact:

Antonio Mallarino, Agronomy, 515-294-6200, apmallar@iastate.edu

 

Liz Juchems

Summer Precipitation in Iowa? Still A Work in Progress

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

The spring and early summer in Iowa has been one of large opposing extremes from warm February to cool in early May to near record heat in early June.  Precipitation has also been excessive at times, but much less extreme than the wetness of the eastern Corn Belt and dryness of the northern plains so far this spring.

Crop planting progress in Iowa was slightly delayed because of cooler and wetter conditions during planting.  The early season warmth slowed and very cool early May conditions took over with soil temperatures falling below the critical 50 F level for development for several days.  After early May, dry conditions have been prevalent with most of the state below average precipitation accumulation over the last 30 days into early June. The dryness was beneficial in allowing planting to progress more readily and crops to develop. Rains returned in mid-June easing the dryness somewhat.

Precip dots

Drought in the Northern Plains and near 100 F heat in mid-June has created some concern about drought/heat conditions impacting crop condition.  At this point the extreme heat will have only a limited impact on crop yield.  The additional heat will be beneficial (to a certain extent) in helping overcome delayed crop development.

A Look Ahead

Looking ahead to the rest of the growing season is a bit difficult because summer precipitation projections are limited.  At this point, it doesn’t seem like the hot and dry of early June will stick around for the whole summer. There are some hints of hotter and drier conditions returning in July in Iowa and more of the Midwest.  However, current projections would not carry those into August.  Both July and August conditions are only slightly better than 50-50 chance of being accurate. Current NOAA outlooks indicate warmer than average temperatures more likely in July and July – August.  The 90 day outlooks have a small chance of above average temperatures in far northwest Iowa.

temp outlook 6-2017

The overall impact in Iowa and the Corn Belt is still developing.  The late planting of the eastern Corn Belt will be somewhat overcome by the current warm temperatures.  The northwest Corn Belt may see some problems with heat and drought because of the early June developing drought conditions.  Iowa is still a work in progress.  If the July heat does occur, some yield loss will be likely.  Overall yields in the Corn Belt have likely been trimmed because of the variety of problems.

Corn GDD Tracking

For anyone growing corn with questions where they are in GDD development, there is a tool from a recently-completed USDA NIFA-funded project that allows producers to check their crop progress daily based on Growing Degree Day accumulation.  The Corn GDD Tool allows a producer to pick their location, corn maturity and planting date. After choosing these the tool creates a plot of GDDs compared to average up to the previous day, a projection for the growing season GDD accumulation to tasseling and freeze date and comparison to selected analog years.  This tool is unique in its local data accumulation and projection of GDD accumulation through the year.

 

ICYMI – Can Cover Crops Clean the Corn Belt?

There are many news headlines competing for our attention every day and while some fade into the background, water quality and conservation practices remain in the forefront as we work to meet the goals of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.  A recent article written by Laura Sayre for New Food Economy asks the question: Can Cover Crops Clean the Corn Belt? and I strongly encourage you to check it out!

Cover crops provide a multitude of benefits including: helping improve water quality by reducing the losses of both nitrates and phosphorus, minimizing soil erosion, improving soil health and mimicking diversified crop rotation benefits by keeping the fields green in the winter.
Tobin Rye 2017

Biomass sampling cereal rye in Taylor County spring 2017

A key practice in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy toolbox, cover crops are able to help reduce both nitrogen and phosphorus leaving the field and entering water bodies.  In addition to practices like wetlands, bioreactors and nutrient management, one of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy scenarios calls for 65% of Iowa row crop acres (about 15 million acres) to be seeded with cover crops.  At just over 600,000 acres seeded in 2016, we still have a long way to go to reach that level of adoption. However, there are a variety of economic opportunities that accompany that goal including cover crop seed growers and dealers, co-op, and equipment manufacturers.

Whether or not cover crops can indeed help clean the Corn Belt is up to all Iowans.  This includes, but not limited to those mentioned in the article: researchers like Dr. Matt Liebman with Iowa State University, farmers and landowners like ILF farmer partner Tim Smith, non-profit organizations like Practical Farmers of Iowa, our state agency partners, and urban residents, like myself, all doing our part to help keep the water clean and supporting the efforts of others working towards meeting the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy goals.

Liz Juchems

Cover Crops: One Piece of the Puzzle in CLL Project

Cover crops are an important tool for helping keep soil, nitrogen and phosphorus in the field – instead of our water bodies. Because they grow outside the typical corn/soybean growing season, cover crops help reduce soil erosion and take up nutrients that could otherwise leave the field. It is also the most popular practice among our Conservation Learning Lab (CLL) farmer partners.

The CLL project is studying the impact of conservation practices implementation at the watershed scale in Floyd and Story County.  The conservation planning process within the watersheds has yielded cover crop contract enrollment of 675 acres and 1,081 acres, respectively, starting this fall covering 50-68% of the crop acres within the watershed.

Cover_crop_April_Berger_FarmThe farmer partners chose to seed either winter cereal rye and oats.  These grass species are easy to establish, relatively inexpensive and are the leading biomass producers in our cover crop research projects – keeping that soil covered (reducing the loss of phosphorus) and taking up nitrogen.

The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy team reviewed cover crop research results from across Iowa and the Midwest and found that cereal rye and oats reduced nitrogen loss by 31% and 29%, respectively.  Similarly, the reduction of phosphorus when adding cereal rye is about 29%, primarily as a result of reduced soil erosion. According to our RUSLE2 calculations, a cereal rye cover crop added to a no-till system can reduce soil erosion by 30-80% and can be even larger when transitioning from a conservation tillage system.

Be sure to keep checking back as we will be providing updates as the cover crops are seeded this fall!

The project is funded by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) and the United States Department of Agriculture – Natural Resources Conservation Services (USDA-NRCS) of Iowa.