Burnin’ grass at the University of Iowa

CLGHeaderEmily Heaton | Assistant Professor of Agronomy, Iowa State University and co-authors: Collin De Graaf, Valeria Cano, Perla Carmenate, Tyler Donovan, and Danielle Clark

If you have been driving in rural eastern Iowa and noticed a lot of choppers and wagons, you might have been seeing the UI Biomass Fuel Project Miscanthus harvest.


What the what?

Figure 1

Figure 1. Miscanthus harvest in eastern Iowa, where more than 1000 acres are being grown for the University of Iowa power plant. Photo credit: Nicholas Boersma

Miscanthus (Miscanthus × giganteus) is perennial warm-season grass used for energy and products in Europe, and increasingly, in the US. The University of Iowa (UI) has been developing Miscanthus as a replacement for coal in the UI power plant since 2013 as part of the Iowa Biomass Fuel Project (BFP). Using Miscanthus, wood chips, and oat hulls from Quaker oats, the UI plans to be completely off coal by 2025! The Heaton Lab and CLG partner with UI to provide agronomic and extension support to the BFP.


Why Miscanthus?

Miscanthus is a good choice for the UI because it is one of the most productive crops that can be grown in temperate climates like Iowa (producing ~8 tons of dry biomass per acre per year) and it does it without much need for fertilizer or pesticides, making it a very environmentally friendly crop. It has a big root system, like other perennial grasses, so it is great for holding soil and cleaning water, as well as providing a home to critters above and below ground (Figure 2). In addition to energy, Miscanthus is also being used for poultry bedding, mulch, and erosion control.

Figure 2

Figure 2. Miscanthus (left) has been shown to improve water infiltration and protect soil better than annual row crops like corn (right). Photo credit: Emily Heaton

So why is Miscanthus being harvested at the end of winter? A few reasons:

1) it needs to be dry if it is going to be efficiently burned, so the crop dries all winter in the field.
2) Leaving it in the field saves on storage.
3) Letting the plant fully senesce lets the crop to recycle nutrients from the shoots back to the below-ground rhizomes for use the following season.
4) Over the winter Miscanthus slows blowing snow, holds soil and provides shelter for wildlife.

Now that the crop has been harvested, new miscanthus shoots will start emerging when soil temperatures reach 50 ℉, so hopefully any day now!


Harvest Methods

Silage Chopping:A silage harvester can harvest whole plant material after it dries down in the field (Figure 1). Chopped material is blown into carts or traditional trailers similar to corn silage harvesting. If a cart is used, a tractor trailer stationed at the edge of the field can transport the miscanthus to storage or directly to the plant for energy generation (Figure 3). Check out a harvester in action here.

Figure 3

Figure 3. University of Iowa Miscanthus harvest. The fluffy biomass is hauled by truck to storage in plastic silage bags before use. Photo credit Emily Heaton

Mowing and baling: Miscanthus can be baled into round or square bales (Figure 4) similar to corn stalks. Travel and transport can be greatly improved with baling to increase crop density.

Figure 4. Miscanthus in round or square bales. Photo credit: ISU Biomass

Our research indicates a little of these crops can go a long way: replacing consistently low-yielding corn/soy with a perennial grass can meet Iowa’s water goals (reduce N in water by ~40%) while making farmers more money. That’s a refreshing alternative to the billion-dollar price tag we usually hear for improving agriculture’s water quality impact in Iowa! Stay tuned to CLG and @ISUBiomass to learn more about putting perennials like Miscanthus into underperforming row crop fields.

Impact of cover crops on weed management

Dr. Bob Hartzler, professor of agronomy and an extension weed specialist, and Meaghan Anderson,  field agronomist in central Iowa posted this recent Integrated Crop Management blog on the impact of cover crops on weed management.

LichtBlog-02One benefit of planting cover crops is their contribution to weed management.  While several factors contribute to the inhibition of weeds by cover crops, the physical barrier of cover crop residue on the soil surface is most important.  Research has shown a strong relationship between the amount of cover crop biomass at termination and the level of weed control provided by the cover crop.

Because of the importance of cover crop biomass, it is essential to manage the cover crop to maximize growth when using cover crops to aid weed management.  The following practices have a major influence on cover crop biomass:

1) Planting and termination date.

2) Cover crop species.

Due to the risk for negative effects of cover crops on corn yield, there is greater potential for using cover crops for weed suppression in soybean.  The longer termination is delayed, the greater accumulation of biomass, and the more benefit in suppressing weeds.  In most years, delaying termination until mid- to late-May will allow sufficient biomass for consistent weed suppression.

Increasing the seeding rate of cereal rye above recommended rates generally has little impact on the quantity of biomass when termination is delayed, except in cases of very late planting. The tillering ability of rye is responsible for the lack of responsiveness to seeding rate.  Higher seeding rates may result in more rapid ground coverage in the fall and early spring, but the impact of seeding rate on biomass is diminished when termination is delayed until stem elongation.

Be sure to read the full blog here to learn more about potential reductions in herbicide use and allelopathy considerations.

Protecting our soil – a finite resource

ILFHeader(15-year)Why bother changing your tillage system?

That’s the exact question Brent Larson and his family asked themselves about 10 years ago as they considered using a no-till and strip-till system in their Webster County farming operation.

IMG_0048Answer: Fertile topsoil is a finite resources!

“Recreational tillage, especially ahead of soybeans, is depleting our topsoil and organic matter,” stated Larson. “We realized tilling wasn’t helping or necessary. So we switched to no-till soybeans and strip-till for corn about 10 years ago and added cover crops about 8 years ago.”

By reducing their tillage, Larson and his family were able to save time and reduce input costs like fuel, labor and equipment costs. This ultimately has increased net income and puts less money on the line each year.

An additional benefit of their system is the protection from soil erosion, improved soil structure and drainage.

LichtBlog-01“We want to grow our soil – saving the soil from erosion is the first step. We want to make sure that not only can we farm this land for the next 40+ years, but so can future generations to come. Soil erosion is insidious! It is can be difficult to see, making it easy to ignore in the short term,” commented Larson.

Larson also works as a farm manager for Sunderman Farm Management and shared some parting advice to farmers and landowners, alike.

“Surround yourself with can-do people, not can’t do people. Communication between landowners and tenant is key to protect the soil and implement conservation. Take that first step and bring the topic up in your next conversation. Determine your goals and make a plan to achieve them!”


If you weren’t able to attend this event, there are more opportunities to attend one of our upcoming field days!

April 9 – Cover Crop and Water Quality Field Day
5:00-7:00PM

Rob Stout Farm
2449 Hemlock Ave
Washington, IA 52353
Washington County
RSVP: 515-294-5429 or ilf@iastate.edu
Press Release
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April 10 – Cover Crop and No-Till Workshop
12:00-2:00pm
Steier Ag Aviation
202 190th St
Whittemore, IA 50598
Kossuth County
RSVP: 515-294-5429 or ilf@iastate.edu
Press Release
Flyer

Liz Juchems

 

Conservation Stations Crisscross Iowa to Deliver Conservation Messages

ILFHeader(15-year)

If you’ve been to an Iowa county fair or attended a field day covering water quality, conservation, cover crops, edge of field practices or a range of other topics, there’s a good chance you’ve seen or even visited a Conservation Station operated by Water Rocks! and Iowa Learning Farms. Last summer we hit the milestone of attending all 100 county fairs in Iowa – (yes 100, Pottawattamie County holds two.) They also make appearances at community events, farmer’s markets and other settings.

The Conservation Stations are traveling resource centers and classrooms, staffed by the ILF and Water Rocks! team members and interns, providing water quality and conservation outreach activities built on a foundation of science, research and best practices.

Rain, Rain, Don’t Wash our Soil Away

The idea for the first Conservation Station was germinated in the early years of ILF – which is celebrating 15 years in 2019. The precursor was a trailer equipped with a simple rainfall simulator for demonstrating soil erosion. It was a good start, but frankly, it was a limited demonstration and the team quickly realized that they needed a more sophisticated rainfall simulator. In addition, ILF saw the potential to expand its impact by providing a broad canvas for education through visual, interactive and multimedia displays.

“We were awarded funding to purchase and develop a larger trailer and knew how to make a better rainfall simulator,” said Jacqueline Comito, executive director of Water Rocks! and ILF program director. “We just didn’t know how to realize our vision of a traveling and flexible unit. Ann Staudt joined the team to help us, and with her fresh ideas and creativity the Conservation Station was born.”

The trailer, dubbed the Big Conservation Station, allowed space for an improved rainfall simulator as well as a walk-through learning lab. Inside the learning lab, visual and multimedia presentations are designed to engage audiences in conversations and to elicit questions about conservation practices. The learning lab was updated in 2018 to incorporate mixed-media artwork and enhanced messaging with the purpose of eliciting visitors’ hopes for Iowa.

conservationstation_trailer

ILF faculty adviser Matt Helmers developed the new rainfall simulator which more accurately models both surface runoff and subsurface flow or drainage in tiled environments and uses soil blocks extracted from field environments to best parallel actual soil conditions in Iowa fields.

“The complexity of the new rainfall simulator was a challenge, but it also enabled us to tell a much more realistic story that farmers in Iowa could relate to,” noted Staudt.

img_2012.jpgA smaller trailer referred to as Conservation Station 3 was built specifically for outdoor classrooms and other youth activities. Along with a rainfall simulator, it is also equipped with the space to carry enough tables and chairs for students as well as a full complement of displays and activities resources.

Edge of Field Practice Demonstrations Expand Education Opportunities

InCSOTE-01 2018, the original rainfall simulator trailer (which we called the Lil’ CS) was redesigned to become the Conservation Station on the Edge, addressing best practices for nutrient runoff mitigation at the edge of tile-drained fields. Equipped with working saturated buffer and bioreactor models, this trailer takes the story of field runoff to a deeper level. The demonstration stations allow the audience to see what happens within structures –that when implemented in a field are completely underground and out of sight.

Each Conservation Station includes interactive demonstrations that appeal to all backgrounds, ages and walks of life. Games such as the Poo Toss tend to appeal to youngsters but provide tangible lessons about waste runoff that pertains to everyone –whether they live on a farm or in a city. The Watershed Game is another highly visual interactive game that helps make the concepts of a watershed and how pollution moves with water easy to grasp.

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“The Conservation Stations are filling a tremendous need by providing easy-to-understand information about water quality, conservation, agricultural best practices, and other topics of importance to all Iowans,” concluded Staudt. “We intend to continue to share this knowledge as frequently and in as many venues as we can.”

Find out where to see a Conservation Station near you!

The Conservation Stations are used April through October. Click here for the schedule of appearances or to request a visit. In most circumstances, a Conservation Station can join an event at no cost, due to the generous funding received from our partners.

Liz Juchems

USDA Ready to Help Iowa Farmers Recover from Recent Flooding

USDA BannerNews Release by United States Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service and Risk Management Agency, Des Moines, Iowa

Extreme weather conditions like the recent “bomb cyclone” impacted farmers and ranchers in Iowa. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has disaster assistance programs available to help agricultural producers recover after natural disasters, including floods.

USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA), Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Risk Management Agency (RMA) offer programs that help producers recover losses, rehabilitating farms and ranches, and managing risk.

Recovering Losses
FSA offers many programs to help producers recover from losses, including the Livestock Indemnity Program, the Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honeybees, and Farm-Raised Fish ProgramEmergency Forest Restoration Program and the Tree Assistance Program. Producers located in counties receiving a primary or contiguous disaster designation are eligible for low-interest emergency loans to help them recover from production and physical losses.

“FSA has a variety of disaster assistance programs to support farmers and ranchers through times of adversity,” said Amanda DeJong, State Executive Director for the FSA in Iowa. “Once you are able to evaluate your losses, it is important to contact your local FSA office to report all damages and losses and learn more about how we can assist.”

Rehabilitating Farms and Ranches
NRCS provides technical and financial assistance through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and other conservation programs to help producers recover and build resilience to better weather future disasters. Any practice that is needed to address an approved resource may be eligible. This could include deceased livestock disposal, or repairing a failed practice, like flood damaged fencing, from a previous EQIP contract. In some cases, farmers may be able to add a practice to existing EQIP contracts through a modification.

“NRCS can be a very valuable partner to help landowners with their recovery effort,” said Kurt Simon, State Conservationist for the NRCS in Iowa. “Our staff will work one-on-one with landowners to make assessments of the damages and develop approaches that focus on effective recovery of the land.”

Meanwhile, the FSA Emergency Conservation Program provides funding and technical assistance for farmers and ranchers to rehabilitate farmland damaged by natural disasters.

Managing Risk
Producers with coverage through federal crop insurance should contact their agent for issues regarding filing claims. Those who purchased crop insurance will be paid for covered losses.

“Producers should report crop damage within 72 hours of damage discovery and follow up in writing within 15 days,” RMA Regional Director Duane Voy said. “The Approved Insurance Providers, loss adjusters and agents are experienced and well-trained in handling these types of events.”

Compensation also is available to producers who purchased coverage through FSA’s  Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program, which protects non-insurable crops against natural disasters that result in lower yields, crop losses or prevented planting. Eligible producers must have purchased NAP coverage for 2019 crops.

Supporting Communities
In addition to helping producers, USDA also offers local governments and other entities with rebuilding infrastructure and removing debris. The NRCS Emergency Watershed Protection (EWP) program provides assistance to local government sponsors with the cost of addressing watershed impairments or hazards like debris removal and streambank stabilization. Interested entities should contact their local NRCS conservationist.

More Information
USDA offers a disaster assistance discovery tool that walks producers through five questions to help them identify personalized results of what USDA disaster assistance programs meet their needs. For more information on disaster assistance programs, contact your local USDA service center or farmers.gov/recover.

NRCS Contact:
Laura Crowell
515-323-2207
Laura.crowell@ia.usda.gov

FSA Contact:
Amanda Hartman
515-331-8480
Amanda.J.Hartman@ia.usda.gov

RMA Contact:
Duane Voy
515-323-2207
Duane.Voy@.usda.gov

Ten-Year Cover Crop Study and ILF 2018 Cover Crop Report: Good News and Less-Good News

ILFHeader(15-year)Iowa Learning Farms and Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) recently published the ten-year results of an on-farm field research study about cover crops. And ILF recently released the cover crop statistics it has been tracking for many years. The results of both these newsworthy items include both promise and troubling points. The cover crop study indicates no loss of yield, and limited improvements – not a homerun, but not a strike-out either. The cover crop report shows 880,000 acres in 2018. More than 2017, but a significant slowing of acres planted in cover crops statewide – for the second year in a row.

Farmers and researchers seem to hold the strongest opinions about cover crops – and these opinions are not always the same. Since 2008, before anyone was really talking about cover crops, ILF and PFI launched a long-term on-farm field research study to help understand the impacts of planting cover crops on soil health, yields and nutrient/soil leaching.

As the ILF project lead, I get to work with the farmer partners as well as colleagues at PFI. Stefan Gailans, PFI project lead, noted that research studies such as this are often in response to requests and questions from working farmers looking to improve or change how they operate. A goal of this project is to address the question, “How does a cereal rye cover crop affect cash crop yields?”

To our knowledge, this is the only study in the Midwest that has spanned 10 years of working with farmers on their farms. One challenge for this kind of study is that these farms are run by real people making real-life decisions every day and every year. Operating a farm business sometimes leads to actions and decisions that are not what the researchers would prefer, but sometimes lead to learning by all parties.

Working with farmer-partners in conducting research at field scale, lends weight to the outcomes reported. Farm operators do read studies and look for anything that will give them a performance edge. But, many also like to share tips and tricks with each other, and experiment on their own.

These farmer-partners are not content to only participate in the research project, they have also become strong leaders on cover crop implementation, traveling all over the state to talk at field days and conferences, as well as hosting field days. This is indicative of the trust farmers have in peers, and the broad-based desire to share knowledge and learn from each other. We are always seeking participants and sites for field days to promote conservation techniques such as cover crops. Please reach out to ILF if you are interested in learning more or hosting.

The group of cooperating farmers has varied over the study term, comprising 12 operating farms in Iowa. Taken as a whole, the data collected covers 68 site-years with cereal rye cover crops planted before both corn and soybean cash crops.

The number one negative perception we hear: Cover crops reduce yield.

Cooperators have reported that in 61 of 68 site-years properly managed cover crops had little to no negative effects on corn and soybean yield, and there were improvements in soybean yield in eight site-years and corn yield in three site-years.

Winter_Rye_Effect_on_Corn YieldWinter_Rye_Effect_on_Soybean YieldWhile we don’t claim huge yield gains, it’s becoming quite clear that when done consistently and managed well, cover crops don’t substantially impact yields. And there are substantial benefits beyond yield that help to offset the upfront investment in cover crops.

 So where do we find the financial upside?

We cannot argue with the logic that cover crops take investment to plant in the fall, and terminate in the spring, however reaching the no yield impact determination allows us to start at zero instead of in-the-hole when assessing return on investment.

Farmers with an inherent values-based desire to improve water quality and conserve soil naturally consider cover crops as a long-term investment in the environment that will bear fruit in many ways. This isn’t saying that they aren’t concerned with the operational costs, just that they tend to roll it into the overall cost of doing business.

For those that are more focused on the exact economic impacts, we suggest a longer-term viewpoint. Soil erosion may take years, but with the loss of each fraction of an inch from the fertile topsoil, the production capacity of a field will go down.

To learn more about cover crop field days in your area, or if you are interested in hosting one on your farm, please contact me ejuchems@iastate.edu

For more detailed information on the project, see “Winter Cereal Rye Cover Crop Effect on Cash Crop Yield” on our website.

Liz Juchems

Cover Crop Acres Increase but Rate of Growth Declines in 2018

ILFHeader(15-year)According to the Iowa Learning Farms 15-year Evaluation data, Iowa cover crop acres grew last year by approximately 16 percent resulting in approximately 880,000 total acres. While the positive growth at a time when farmers are reporting shrinking profit margins is notable, this represents a six percent decline in new cover crop acres compared to last year’s estimate and a 19 percent cumulative decline since 2015. A year in which 35 percent of all the cover crop acres were new. This number is still well below the goal of 12.5 million acres of cover crops called for in Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

Since 2009, Iowa Learning Farms, based at IMG_1800Iowa State University, has been tracking cover crop data reported by farmers and landowners who attend an ILF workshop and field day. In addition, in recognition of its 15-year anniversary, ILF conducted a mailed survey of all farmers and landowners that had participated in field days since 2005. Eight hundred ninety-nine people responded to the survey reporting 131,389 acres of cover crops on their land or 15 percent of the overall estimated cover crop acres in Iowa.

Many of the new acres were planted by experienced cover crop farmers. The majority (85 percent) of respondents to Iowa Learning Farms’ 15-year evaluation questionnaire started seeding cover crops at least three years ago. Only six percent of respondents reported implementing cover crops for the first time on their land last fall. Those respondents with cover crops reported an average of 44 percent of their total row crop acres in cover crops, representing a consistent value over the last three years.

“It is encouraging to see growth in cover crop use among experienced cover crop farmers, even with low crop prices and a fall with less than ideal weather,” commented Jamie Benning, Iowa State University Extension water quality program manager and Iowa Learning Farms adviser. “I am concerned that the rate of growth has declined for the third year in a row and that the number of first-time cover crop users declined significantly this year. For this reason, ILF is already ramping us this spring with cover crop events to reach new farmers.”

All of the respondents who planted cover crops for the first time in 2018 used cost share and planted an average of 100 acres, higher than last year’s average of 89 acres. Overall, 66 percent of the total reported cover crop acres were planted with cost share, while 78 percent of the new acres were planted with cost share.

Iowa Learning Farms has held 265 conservation field days and workshops since 2005 on cover crops, strip-tillage, saturated buffers, prairie strips and more. These events drew an attendance of 13,621 people—72 percent are farmers and landowners. Cover crop field days in 2019 will stress the benefits and best practice management for implementing cover crops.

ILF continues to work with ISU Extension and other partner organizations throughout Iowa to raise awareness of beneficial conservation practices such as cover crops among landowners and farmers. The complete 15-year Iowa Learning Farms report will be released in early April 2019, and will be found at www.iowalearningfarms.org.

Liz Juchems