Importance of Cover Crops Following a Drought

With corn and soybean harvest approaching, many folks are planting their cover crops, or planning to plant their cover crops as soon as they can. The biggest question we are getting these days is whether cover crop seeding recommendations need to be changed because of the dry conditions in many parts of Iowa.

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Drilled Cereal RyeThe quick answer is that cover crop seeding recommendations remain the same: aerial and broadcast seeding methods require a slightly greater seeding rate than drill seeding. If there is not enough soil moisture or a rain within a week of seeding, there will be diminished and variable stand establishment across the field. To minimize this, you might consider drill seeding over aerial and broadcast seeding. Typically, drill seeding results in more uniform stands across the field with the consequence of less fall biomass production due to a later seeding date. Even later planting due to drilled seeding results in soil health improvements from spring growth of winter cereals.

Regardless of how you are going to seed, it is important to get the cover crops out inCereal Rye the fields. Cover crops play a crucial role in building soil moisture by improving water infiltration and aggregate stability. Additionally, they have the added benefit of scavenging residual soil nitrogen. Winter cereal grains such as winter rye, wheat, and triticale, are the preferred cover crop for their exceptional ability to use residual soil nitrogen. This is an extremely important characteristic following drought years where nitrogen leaching and crop nitrogen uptake are both potentially lower.

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Gilmore City research site that measures difference in nitrate levels under different treatments

Iowa State University research conducted by Dr. Matt Helmers at Gilmore City, Iowa, show seasonal spring nitrate concentrations from 2011 to 2015 were the highest in 2013 (wet spring following a dry 2012). In the conventionally tilled system, nitrate concentration in drainage was 23.7 mg/L. When cover crops were added to the system, the nitrate concentration was reduced by 51% to 11.5 mg/L.

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Left and center: Exterior of sumps which are connected to the tile drainage lines in each plot. Right: Interior of a sump. The sump shows a meter reading for each pump located in each plot. Water samples are taken from each pump to be tested for nitrates.

While establishing cover crops in dry conditions may be a challenge, these are the situations where the impact of cover crop can provide big benefits.

Mark Licht

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

 

 

 

Land Use Mismatches

Conservation is ensuring the greatest good for the greatest number of people. This idea is credited to American forester Gifford Pinchot, but many have arrived at the same conclusion. Conservation is thus, a resource allocation challenge and among our many resources, land is the most finite.

We have a little over 35 million acres of land in Iowa and 82% of it is in production agriculture. In a state with world-class agricultural land values, most of those acres are living up to their potential, growing food and energy, or housing the people that make the system work. The challenge for conservation is to find acres that aren’t living up to their potential—land use mismatches.

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underperforming cropland

We could debate for a lifetime what the highest and best use of an individual parcel is. However, we can more swiftly agree on a lowest common denominator of land use. That calculus settles at the answer to the following question: Is land functioning as a place to either 1) produce a product, 2) make memories, or 3) carry out natural processes?

Some may balk at the implication that we have places failing on all three fronts. These are areas where the current land use is such that the land doesn’t produce some product, like livestock or another commodity, it fails to provide a place for friends and families to gather and make memories, and it falls short of contributing to important natural processes like purifying water or providing habitats for pheasants and bees. However, close inspection of our current landscape reveals otherwise.

Here are a few examples:

Parking Lots
In many cities, parking lots can satisfy two parts of our decision tree by promoting the sale of products and helping create memories. But many city designers get swept up in anticipation of large crowds and have thus paved thousands of acres that are rarely used, often degrading water quality and city environments.

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Parking lot in West Des Moines, Iowa. Image courtesy of Google Maps.

Lawns
Studies have estimated that nearly a quarter of urban areas (as well as the areas around farm houses) are lawns. Take a drive across the state and you’ll find neatly manicured lawns spanning the horizon, often taking 20 acres at a time at substantial cost for maintenance without any return of crops, memories, or natural function. Sure, countless memories are made in the lawn, but the first two whole football fields would suffice, while the rest could be reallocated for higher uses like habitat, fruits, or vegetables.


Underperforming Areas of Crop Fields
Mismatches occur in crop fields, too. Soils, topography, and prevailing climate patterns make some areas consistently underperform. Continued inputs create hot spots for water quality issues and fluxes of greenhouse gasses while failing to yield any products in most years.

Wet areas

Barring annexation by Minnesota, Iowa’s 35 million acres are here to stay. Let’s work together to make sure they’re used to their greatest societal (and environmental) potential. That should ensure future generations still find places to grow crops, make memories, and live in a healthy environment.

Adam Janke

Adam Janke is an Iowa Learning Farms team member, Assistant Professor in Natural Resources Ecology and Management and Extension Wildlife Program Specialist at Iowa State University.

The Nutrient Reduction Strategy: Creating A More Resilient Iowa

Have you ever fallen in love with a new car at the dealership and wanted to take it home until you look at the sticker price? Well, as I travel around Iowa, it seems like folks are pretty enthusiastic about the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS) until they hear the “sticker price,” i.e. the scale of practice implementation and cost.

NRS Goals_3-24-2017

One example scenario to reach the nitrate-N reduction targets of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy includes 60% of corn-soybean and continuous corn acres having cover crops (~12.5 million acres), 27% of all agricultural land being treated with a wetland, and 60% of the tile-drained acres being treated with a bioreactor.

For wetlands, it was assumed that each wetland (10 acres of wetland surface area with 35 acres of buffer) treats 1,000 acres of agricultural land, which would result in approximately 7,600 wetlands for this scenario. For bioreactors, it was assumed that each bioreactor treats 50 acres of subsurface-drained land, which would total approximately 120,000 bioreactors in Iowa alone.

See what I mean – quite a sticker price!

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But, while the scale of implementation and costs associated with reaching the NRS goals seem daunting, it is important to recognize the additional benefits that could come from pursuing nutrient reduction such as the economic benefits of cleaner water as well as the employment and labor opportunities to implement the various strategies.

Throughout the Midwest, discussions have begun on resources needed to implement the various state nutrient reduction strategies. While this is encouraging and exciting, most of the discussion has focused on the resources needed to implement the practices. There is very little discussion of the labor needed to successfully scale up the practices.

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I believe that for large-scale implementation of the NRS to be successful, we need to make the necessary investment in people. We need trained individuals that can work with farmers and landowners on implementing these practices. We need them both in the private and public sectors. Developing and delivering programs and classes that can train individuals to promote and assist in NRS practice implementation is crucial if we are going to make significant progress on reaching our nutrient reduction goal. There will be a significant increase in job opportunities for individuals who are trained and willing do this work.

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I firmly believe that if we accelerate the rate of practice implementation, we will see numerous small business opportunities throughout rural Iowa to site, design, and maintain these various practices and provide technical assistance to farmers and landowners.

 

It is a win-win for our state. Yes, it is a big investment, but it could stimulate our economy and make for a more resilient Iowa in every way.

Matt Helmers

Matt Helmers is an Iowa Learning Farms team member and Professor of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering at Iowa State University. To hear more about implementing Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, listen to Matt’s Conservation Chat with ILF Program Director Jacqueline Comito.

Working Within Our Current System: A Conservation Chat with Eileen Kladivko

Cover kladivko_creditHost Jacqueline Comito sat down with Dr. Eileen Kladivko, Professor of Agronomy at Purdue University and founding member of the Midwest Cover Crops Council (MCCC), for the most recent episode of the Conservation Chat podcast.

Eileen Kladivko’s chat covered many issues areas that she has studied for decades surrounding soil health, cover crops, earthworms and drainage. To start the chat off, Eileen wanted to make something clear: drainage is essential.

“I like to remind people that we wouldn’t be growing crops at all on some of our most productive lands in the Midwest if we didn’t have tile drainage.”

Tile drainage is essential if we want to farm much of the land that we currently farm – especially in Iowa. While there are benefits to tile drainage, a drawback of the system is the movement of nitrate with water that flows out of tile lines and into the surface water. How can we begin to solve this challenge? Mimic nature and the system that we replaced, Eileen suggested.

We’ve got agriculture, we’ve got lots of human beings here, and we want to be productive. We want to mimic nature where we can, but we’re not going back to pre-settlement conditions. That’s impossible. But let’s see if there are some things we can learn from what the vegetation cycles were, and the hydrology cycles, that can help us with our current system.”

Adding cover crops to our current system is one way to address our nitrate challenge and to mimic the natural vegetation cycle that once existed on the land. Cover crops have seen a steady increase in popularity, and for some farmers, the desire to grow something comes naturally.

A subject that Eileen Kladivko is most passionate about is soil health. Soil health is a popular topic because we want our soil to function to full capacity for crop production, but we understand relatively little about the soil biology that can shape the physical and chemical properties of soil. In recent years, the soil health conversation is shifting to research about soil biology. The downside is that soil health research takes time.

“That’s one of the challenges with the whole soil health thing . . . we’re trying to look at some of the commercial soil health tests that are available right now and see which of those might actually be able to detect changes with time in some of our Indiana sites. It’s quite challenging because the tests are quite variable. Soil health does take time to improve, and sometimes those tests just don’t show it over the short term.”

Without lab tests to show short-term gains in soil health, there is one indicator that can give farmers a short-term pat on the back: earthworms! Earthworm populations are highest in systems with limited tillage and high levels of crop residue. Eileen has spent much of her career counting earthworms.

“I didn’t think that was going to be a long-term commitment of mine,” said Eileen. Decades later, Eileen has developed a foundation for research on the physical and chemical properties of soil as they relate to soil health and good soil biology.

What are your chances of having a high earthworm population within a system that includes tillage? Not likely. Switching to no-till and adding a cover crop will increase your chances to see early signs of soil health and good soil biology before other commercial soil health tests are able to show results. Iowa Learning Farms has seen similar results when counting earthworms under different tillage and cover crop systems here in Iowa.

Listen to the full Conservation Chat episode! If you’re on the go, take the Conservation Chat podcast with you – find it on iTunes or search for “Conservation Chat” on the podcast app of your choice!

Julie Whitson

Your Personal Invite to the Soil and Water Conservation “Emmys” on July 17 & 18

Today’s guest post is by Clare Lindahl, Executive Director of Conservation Districts of Iowa, a member of the Iowa Learning Farms Steering Committee.

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It was July 15th last year and I stood before the National Association of Conservation District’s Executive Board, both nervous and excited. I knew I was prepared for the pitch I was about to deliver to bring the first National Soil and Water Conservation District event to Iowa. I had been working on it for months. I also knew I was about to embark on the biggest event planning endeavor our office of two staff at the time had ever experienced.

Iowa’s 100 Soil and Water Conservation Districts and 500 elected Commissioners are part of a national effort to protect and enhance natural resources. Just like Conservation Districts of Iowa represents and supports Iowa’s Districts and Commissioners, the National Association of Conservation Districts represents America’s 3,000 conservation districts and the 17,000 men and women who serve on their governing boards.

After the pitch, I looked around the room and I knew I had landed it! One Executive Board member stated, “Heck, I might just move to Iowa!”  Full disclosure, he was from Oklahoma. : )

I felt in that moment I knew just a little how Hugh Hammond Bennett felt when he nailed his presentation 82 years ago, passing the conservation bill that established the Soil Conservation Service as a permanent agency in the USDA. The bill authorized them to assist farmers to conserve soil and prevent erosion without a single dissenting vote. I said just a little!

In my pitch to come to Iowa, I touted Iowa Learning Farms and their award-winning, innovative conservation education programming. They have the ability to make conservation education and outreach a science, and to quantify the impacts they have after a farmer leaves one of their field days.

June_Summer-Meeting-Logo2017So on July 17-18, 2017, the National Association of Conservation Districts Summer Forum and Tour will be held in conjunction with the Iowa Soil and Water Conservation District Commissioners 71st Annual Conference.  Hundreds of Conservation District Commissioners and partners from across the state and nation will descend on Prairie Meadows Conference Center in Altoona, Iowa, and participate in tours across the state.

The forum, which will start with lunch and Iowa awards after the Iowa and national business meetings, will include invited speakers Governor Kim Reynolds, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey, and United States Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Purdue. We will follow up with an inspirational speaker and then break into simultaneous panels on public-private approaches to conservation planning and community and agriculture working together for clean water.

That evening, we will have an exhibitor social with hors d’oeuvre preceding our banquet with awards and a live auction with father-son auctioneer team Jeff and Dylan Webber. Leadership from the National Association of Conservation Districts and the Natural Resources Conservation Service will deliver talks as well.

wqThe next morning, after breakfast and an Iowa Natural History Primer, we will divide up into two tours. The water quality tour will feature urban conservation practices in Ankeny, a visit to Iowa’s Land Improvement Contractors Farm to view conservation practices, a water quality monitoring demo, a driving tour of Iowa State University and a visit to Alluvial Brewing Company.

soilThe Soil Health Tour will feature the Badger Creek Lake Watershed Project, a talk on Palmer Amaranth, a drive by a Madison County Covered Bridge, lunch at historic Keller Brick Barn and a presentation from the Dallas County Soil and Water Conservation District and a demonstration of soil health – in town and on the farm.

If this sounds as fun to you as it does to me, consider this your personal invite to the Soil and Water Conservation event of the century – register here.

Clare Lindahl

Field Days to Help Participants Improve Profit and Water Quality

Five field days are being offered as part of Iowa State University (ISU) Extension and Outreach’s Nitrogen and Water Week, which runs from June 27-29.

June_FieldDay140The purpose of these field days is for farmers and their consultants to learn the research related to profitable nitrogen management and water quality. They will also allow participants to visit the sites where research is occurring relating to nitrogen management and water quality.

The field days will be held throughout the state at ISU Research and Demonstration Farms, providing an opportunity to learn about the university’s research facilities that evaluate nitrate loss. A tour of plots where ISU researchers study the effects of fall application, cover crops and nitrification inhibitors is included in the event. The field days will also provide an opportunity to learn about factors that are used to make nitrogen fertilizer recommendations and nitrogen deficiency in corn and how to correct it.

Participants will leave the field day with a better understanding of research and the breadth of projects and practices that they are evaluating. They will also receive a better understanding of tools that are available to them like the N Rate Calculator and how they can help farmers be more profitable while minimizing impact on water quality.

Each field day will provide the same format and program, with ISU Extension and Outreach field agronomists and agricultural engineering specialists providing instruction. Registration at the research farm meeting room begins at 9:15 on the day of the event, with the program beginning at 9:45. The program concludes at 12:15 p.m. with lunch following.

The format provides for four 30-minute sessions during the field day, discussing how a water quality research site works, what practices are being studied, how effective the various management practices are in reducing nitrogen loss, and the impact of those practices on farm profitability.

2017 Nitrogen and Water Week Field Days

There is a $25 registration fee for the program that includes lunch, refreshments, and course materials and publications. Attendees are asked to pre-register to assist with facility and meal planning. For additional information or to register online visit www.aep.iastate.edu/nitrogen.

Jamie Benning

Jamie Benning is an Iowa Learning Farms team member and Water Quality Program Manager at Iowa State University.

Meet Our 2017 Water Resources Interns!

We are happy to introduce a great crew of interns this year! You can catch our interns out this summer at county fairs, farmers markets, field days and festivals across the great state of Iowa as they travel with our fleet of Conservation Station trailers. Our interns will also play a large role in field work and data collection for research projects with Iowa State University Extension’s Iowa Learning Farms program and Iowa State’s Ag Water Management research group.

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Pictured above from left to right:

Elizabeth Schwab, hailing all the way from Levittown, Pennsylvania, is double majoring in Agronomy and Environmental Science at Iowa State. Elizabeth will begin her senior year this fall.

Chase Bethany, representing northeast Iowa, grew up in Chickasaw County in New Hampton. Chase is studying Agricultural Engineering (Power and Machinery Option) with a minor in business at Iowa State and will be a junior this fall.

Kaleb Baber represents the great state of Missouri. Kaleb grew up in Weston, Missouri, and headed north to pursue a degree in Agronomy at Iowa State. Kaleb will be a junior this fall.

Andrew Hillman hails from eastern Iowa and is a native of Bettendorf. Andrew is studying Biological Systems Engineering at Iowa State and will begin his junior year this fall.

Laura Lacquement, originally from Martensdale, Iowa, in Warren County, is studying Environmental Science and heading into her senior year this fall.

We are happy to have our interns on board! Come meet them at a community event near you. Keep your eyes peeled on the blog and on our program social media pages as our interns author guest blogs, talk about their experiences and share what they think is important about water quality, conservation and our natural resources.

Iowa Learning Farms: Follow Iowa Learning Farms on Facebook and Twitter!
Water Rocks!: Follow Water Rocks! on Facebook and Twitter!

Julie Whitson