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.
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.
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.
The 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.
When it comes to conservation, Sharon Krause, strives for a comprehensive approach. As owner and operator of Dalla Terra Ranch, a grass fed organic lamb operation, and a member of the Earlham community, she has a love for preserving soil and water as well as town heritage and pride.
In the 30th episode of the Conservation Chat, host Jacqueline Comito met with Sharon, a native Iowan, to discuss her passion for lambs, healthy lands and her local community.
Sharon’s motivation for conservation and the love of the outdoors is credited to her parents who encouraged her to get outside and explore the world around her. They also supported her as she pursued her engineering degree at Iowa State University.
Upon graduation, she was the first female engineer hired at the Firestone in Des Moines and helped launch their recycling program. Her career then led her to Metro Waste Authority where she pioneered their Curb It! Program that made household recycling easier which has led to increased participation. Before the program began in 1994, an average of 8 pounds per household was recycled each week. In 2015, nearly 28,000 tons of material were recycled through the program.
From working a tire manufacturing plant to a landfill and now a farm, Sharon and her husband, Kyle, joke that “she is not having fun if she’s not dirty!”
Sharon began her lamb operation about 10 years ago and as a former engineer, she is using data and research to help make decisions. The operation maintains about 225 ewes that throw nearly 400 lambs each year. Using a smart phone app, she analyzes her operation’s performance by tracking time spent in each of the 23 smaller pastures of the larger 153 acres of pasture that the lambs rotational graze.
“I very intensely rotationally graze my animals over the course of the year. You want to be very care that you don’t let your foliage get too short. That’s very hard on the root system and there’s not enough leaf area to take in the sunshine. So the shorter you graze your pastures, the less production you are really going to get.”
In addition to implementing conservation practices on her land, Sharon is helping lead a project to revitalize the Bricker-Price Block on Main Street Earlham. Through community input, the project aims to provide a farm-to-table restaurant, community center and a youth gathering space. The conservation of the building’s history will help tell the story of the city and strengthen the vitality of the rural community.
Tune in to Episode 30 of the Conservation Chat for more of this great conversation with Sharon Krause! You can also download or listen to any of the previous podcast episodes on the Conservation Chat website and on iTunes.
A question recently arrived in my email inbox: What is the potential for weed suppression when using cereal rye cover crops?
To help answer the question, I reached out to Dr. Bob Hartzler, ISU Extension Weed Specialist and Professor of Agronomy, and Meaghan Anderson, ISU Extension Field Agronomist.
There is pretty good evidence that a thick, consistent stand of cereal rye can effectively suppress winter annual weeds. In soybeans, rye with even cover and a lot of biomass (>4000 lb/ac) may provide some early season weed suppression, but generally the weeds will begin to emerge as the cereal rye breaks down.
Ann and I saw this first hand yesterday (photos below) when visiting our long term rye site in Page County to collection biomass samples. In the cereal rye strips only one or two field pennycress plants were found. However, in the neighboring strips without cover crops, the winter annual weed was thriving.
No evidence yet that cereal rye will help control perennial weeds, but it may help suppress perennial weeds germinating from seed or perennial rootstalks like dandelion, Canada thistle, field horsetail, etc. Perennials normally develop from established root structures with a lot more energy reserves, so they are going to be tolerant of the competition from the cover crop. If repeatedly used, cover crops could provide some suppression of things like dandelion and such.
Whether or not it provides some suppression or control of resistant weeds would depend on whether those weeds fall into the categories listed above (early-season weeds or winter annuals) and whether the cover crop stand is consistent.
To keep up to date on weed issues, follow Dr. Hartzler on Twitter @ISUWeeds!
The Iowa Cover Crop Working Group (ICCWG) has wrapped up a two-year study evaluating planting techniques for the successful establishment of cover crop mixtures and single species in Iowa. We are grateful to our partners: Hagie Manufacturing Company, famer partner Tim Smith, and Iowa State University Northern Research and Demonstration Farm.
Replicated cover crop strips were established in fall of 2014 and 2015 to compare three different seeding techniques:
Evaluation was completed through fall and spring biomass collection and crop yield. A no cover crop plot was included in the replications as a yield comparison check strip.
The mixtures species were selected based on the upcoming crop and their winter hardiness. Because the species seeds are different sizes, a goal of one million seeds per acre was used for seeding calibration to provide a fair comparison between treatments.
Oats and rye win the day
Results show that earlier seeding with the high clearance interseeder resulted in more cover crop biomass, both fall and spring, than the later seeding with a drill. For Iowa, oats and rye work better than any other species tested at this time. The single species (oats and rye) resulted in more total biomass than the mixtures providing better soil erosion protection. Oats and rye were also the predominant species in the mixtures, accounting for the majority of the biomass.
There are no statistical differences in corn or soybean yields across the different cover crop treatments and no cover check plots. This yield neutral response following a cover crop is consistent with a long term ICCWG cereal rye cover crop project now entering its ninth year.
The publication is now available online and at upcoming ILF field days.
This research project was made possible with a State Conservation Innovation Grant through the Iowa Natural Resource Conservation Service.
The ICCWG includes core members from: Iowa Learning Farms, Practical Farmers of Iowa, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, USDA-Agricultural Research Service, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.
Today’s guest post is by Dr. Dennis Todey, USDA Midwest Climate Hub Director, with timely climate information as we prepare for crop year 2017.
Planting season is quickly approaching, with field prep work and crop insurance dates for corn only days away. Initial season concerns include the early spring progression from late winter warmth and its impact on alfalfa and soil N levels. The warm and wet conditions allow soil nitrogen to convert to nitrate, which can be easily lost. A late spring nitrate test would help determine if additional nitrogen is needed to meet crop demands.
As crop year 2017 begins, key factors to consider include:
Current Soil Conditions
Background precipitation issues for Iowa differ for northern versus southern Iowa. Heavier rain fell across northern Iowa last fall producing wetter harvest conditions. Some soil wetness issues are likely to carry over into the spring. In contrast chunks of southern Iowa were much drier – not only in the fall but through the summer. National soil moisture models currently support this difference in soil conditions indicating overall wetter north and drier in the far southeast.
While several current storms have produced more rain in southern Iowa, the focus on precipitation should again switch to northern Iowa. The current 30 day April outlook and spring (April-June) outlook from NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center has better chances for above average precipitation in northern Iowa. Combining this rainfall potential with the carry-over wetness from the fall creates the highest risk for wetter planting conditions across the north.
Growing Season Outlook
Looking ahead to the rest of the growing season utilizes a few tools including the status of El Niño conditions and computer-based outlooks. The current El Niño situation is neutral, but hinting toward El Niño conditions by late summer. The switch to El Niño would reduce the risk of a poor growing season, but seems unlikely to start in time to affect the growing season. The progress will be monitored through the season.
Computer outlooks lean toward less chance of dry conditions across most of the state. Thus, the overall drought risk seems fairly small at this point. It should be noted that longer range precipitation outlooks are more difficult to assess.
Temperature outlooks Iowa and the whole Midwest are likely warmer than average. This is based mostly on recent trends of warmth in the summer, which has been driven by warmer overnight temperatures. The risk of excessively high day temperatures seems lower at this point.
Severe Weather Risk
Overall storminess would likely be increased along with more precipitation. But the chances of severe weather currently are similar to climatology at this point.
In partnership with Rapid Creek Watershed Project, we are hosting a filter strips and soil health workshop on Thursday, April 13, from 5:30-7:30 p.m. at the Morse Community Club near Iowa City. We hope to see you there!
Field Day Agenda:
Tim Youngquist, discussing the Science-based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips (STRIPS) project where a small percentage of a field is planted into strips of perennial prairie plants to reduce soil erosion, water runoff, improve soil health and to create habitat for pollinators and wildlife.
Matt Berg, Johnson County Farm Service Agency Director, to lead a discussion on the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).
Adam Janke, Iowa State University Extension Wildlife Specialist and newest ILF team member, will talk about ways to incorporate wildlife habitat on the farm.
Wren Almitra, Rapid Creek Watershed Coordinator, with a project update.
Attendees are encouraged to bring their own soil samples for a free SOILSCAN 360 analysis by Johnson County NRCS staff during the event.
The field day will be held at the Morse Community Club located at 2542 Putnam St NE, Iowa City, IA. The workshop is free and open to the public, but reservations are suggested to ensure adequate space and food. Contact Liz Juchems at 515-294-5429 or email@example.com.
– Liz Juchems