Do Crop Insurance Rules Put a Chill on Soil Health Practices?

An opinion piece by authors Ryan Stockwell and Jim Moseley argues that inflexible crop insurance rules are slowing the adoption of conservation practices that build soil health such as cover crops.

Practices that can improve soil health such as no-till, cover crops or multi-year crop rotations can decrease erosion, decrease nutrient loss, improve water infiltration and even provide added value in the form of fewer field passes and increased forage value for livestock. The authors argue, however, that crop insurance rules could force farmers to choose between crop insurance coverage and adopting practices that could improve their soil health:

“Yet, a significant barrier stands in the way related to crop insurance, which has become an absolute necessity in today’s weather extremes. To be eligible for crop insurance, farmers who use cover crops must meet specific management rules. No other agronomic practice includes such eligibility rules.”

While some rules have been changed in the past several years, confusion persists over rules and requirements. The article encourages policy to become more flexible by allowing local agronomic experts to guide best practices, as is the case with many other agricultural practices such as fertilizer application or weed management.

Read the article from Agri Pulse here. What do you think? Do you have a crop insurance question or story related to a soil health practice?

Julie Whitson

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Do you want to stay up-to-date on all of the latest news, research and events of the Iowa Learning Farms? Sign up for our monthly E-News! The Iowa Learning Farms monthly E-News features information from a network of contributors, including our partner agencies, farmer partners and the Iowa Learning Farms team.

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It’s easy to sign up for Iowa Learning Farms E-News. Simply go to our website at www.iowalearningfarms.org and click on “Sign up for our E-News” in the center of the page in the “Featured” section. You can also sign up on our Facebook page. Go to www.facebook.com/iowalearningfarms and click “Join Our Mailing List!” on the left side of the page.

Email ilf@iastate.edu if you have a topic that you would like to see discussed or a question that you would like answered as part of the Iowa Learning Farms E-News.

Julie Whitson

Iowa CREP Wetlands

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 Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) is a joint effort of the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) and USDA’s Farm Service Agency, in cooperation with local soil and water conservation districts (SWCDs). The program provides incentives to landowners to voluntarily restore shallow, semi-permanent wetlands in the heavily tile-drained regions of Iowa to improve surface water quality while providing valuable wildlife habitat and increased recreational opportunities.

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The goal of the program is to reduce nitrogen loads and the movement of other agricultural chemicals from croplands to streams and rivers by targeting wetland restorations to “sweet spots” on the landscape that provide the greatest water quality benefits. CREP wetlands are positioned to receive tile drainage by gravity flow; they remove nitrate and herbicides from the water before it enters streams and rivers. Excess nitrogen not only affects Iowa’s waters but is also one of the leading causes of hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico. CREP wetlands are one strategy to help reduce nitrogen loading to those waters.

Targeted results. To ensure that wetlands are sited in the most advantageous locations, IDALS uses advanced geographic information system (GIS) analyses to find locations that are properly sized and situated to provide large nitrogen removal benefits. The CREP wetland criteria are based on over two decades of research and monitoring conducted by Iowa State University.

This research and monitoring has demonstrated that strategically sited and designed CREP wetlands remove 40 to 70 percent of nitrates and over 90 percent of herbicides from cropland drainage waters. Nitrogen reduction is achieved primarily through the denitrifying bacteria that occur naturally in wetlands. Through denitrification, the bacteria remove nitrate from the water and release it into the air as nitrogen gas (N2), an innocuous end product.

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The highly targeted nature of this program has led to 83 wetlands currently restored and another 12 under development. During their lifetimes, these wetlands are expected to remove more than 100,000 tons of nitrogen from 122,350 acres of cropland. In 2016 the number of restored wetlands reached an annual capacity of removing over 1,300,000 lbs of nitrogen. These 95 targeted restorations total more than 891 acres of wetlands and 3,100 acres of surrounding buffers planted to native prairie vegetation.

More than nitrogen removal. Even with the impressive results so far, Iowa continues to explore and develop new technologies to optimize wetland performance by incorporating additional considerations for habitat, hydraulic efficiency, and temporary flood storage benefits. CREP wetlands are already providing high-quality wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities in addition to water quality benefits. Studies conducted by USGS have shown dramatic increases in the presence of several frog species at CREP wetland sites. The high-quality buffers, in conjunction with the shallow wetland habitats, have proven to be a tremendous boon to a multitude of wildlife species commonly found in these areas. Populated by birds ranging from trumpeter swans to shorebirds, these areas have shown that targeting wetland restoration for water quality benefits does not come at the expense of mutual habitat and recreational benefits.

To see additional photographs of CREP wetlands across Iowa and to read more about the program, click here (http://www.iowacrep.org).

Jake Hansen

Should prairie potholes and other wet areas be farmed?

If you farm in the Des Moines Lobe, you know a thing or two about growing corn and soybeans in prairie potholes. They don’t usually yield as much as other parts of your field and they can often cause planting to be delayed in the spring. Perhaps it is time to consider a more economical and environmental land use for those areas.

Prairie potholes account for approximately 3.5 million acres (44%) of the Des Moines Lobe landform. These soils were naturally wetland soils until intensive agriculture and artificial drainage came into being. Most farmers know these potholes are not holes with clear boundaries. Sometime they can be found in upland locations and other times as riparian wetlands.

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Capture2Through artificial drainage, these soils have become part of the row crop systems common across Iowa. In dry years, even when tiled, these areas are the most productive soils. More often than not, in normal to wet years these areas struggle to be profitable. These soils have poor natural drainage and shallow water tables that limit root growth that makes for a poor productivity soil environment due to seedling diseases, root rots, and poor nutrient uptake.

With that background let’s go back to the title; should prairie potholes and other wet areas be farmed? Even with tile drainage systems, these field areas pull down field average yields more years than not. This question is just as much about the social and economic aspects as it is about productivity. It should be hard to justify high corn and soybean costs of production when the return on investment in those areas is negative 50 to 80 percent of the time. There is an opportunity of land use change in these soils and field areas to minimize nutrient loss, increase wildlife habitat, and provide ecosystems services.

GraphicI truly recognize that ease of farming could be impacted and farming around small areas may not be feasible. I also recognize that this takes a commitment of both the tenant and landowner. Despite the challenges, the benefits are many: higher overall profit margins, reduced nutrient loss, and recreational opportunities through increased wildlife habitat.

Mark Licht

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

Soil Health: The Spark of a National Movement

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Steven Rosenzweig, a PhD Candidate at Colorado State University, recently wrote an article titled, “How a new way of thinking about soil sparked a national movement in agriculture.” In the article, Rosenzweig details how Ray Archuleta and many others within the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) began thinking about how to change agriculture in a way that would allow farmers to avoid the “double squeeze” of rising inputs costs and declining returns. Thus, in the 1990’s, the soil health movement was born. Rosenzweig explains the movement below:

“Known as the soil health movement, it is a management philosophy centered around four simple principles: reduce or eliminate tillage, keep plant residues on the soil surface, keep living roots in the ground, and maximize diversity of plants and animals. Some immensely successful farmers have ascended to celebrity status in the agricultural community preaching these principles. They are growing more food while drastically reducing their use of inputs like herbicides and fertilizers, which is the ultimate strategy for becoming more profitable.”

Ray Archuleta has now reached over 100,000 farmers and ranchers in the U.S. with his soil health message. Rosenzweig describes how Archuleta has been able to distill his message to farmers, captivating them with just a few clumps of soil that each tell a story about soil structure and its relationship to soil health:

“The implications of Archuleta’s demonstrations are obvious to food producers, who see the fate of their acres in those clumps of soil. The message is powerful, and producers drive home knowing that soil is alive, that it can be sick or healthy, and that healthy soil can do some pretty amazing things — like make a farm more resilient to drought, sequester enormous amounts of carbon, reduce erosion and support an ecosystem that’s teeming with life.”

Read Steven Rosenzweig’s article to learn more about the soil health movement and how it’s shaping the future of agriculture.

ILF_Badge_Multi_LGIf you are interested in implementing soil health practices, you can find more information about soil conservation, cover crops, and more at our website. Find an ILF Farmer Partner in your area who might have experience with a conservation practice you’re interested in trying, or attend an upcoming field day to learn more about conservation practices.

Julie Whitson

Welcome to Soil and Water Conservation Week!

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Soil and Water Conservation Week
is April 30 – May 7, 2017. This week, we will be featuring stories and information about how healthy soils are full of life. To kick things off, check out our recent video, “Keep That Soil Alive.” The video explores our legacy and connection with the land, landowner-tenant relationships, and the many different conservation practices that help our soil stay alive and thrive – all woven together with a Johnny Cash-inspired tune and some good ol’ fashioned country line dancing!

Do you have your own story to tell about soil and water conservation? There are a few ways you can participate.

  1. Share your stories this week on social media using the hashtag #HealthySoilsAreFullofLife.
  2. Participate in the Handful of Soil campaign by taking a photo of someone’s hands Healthy soilholding healthy soil with an Iowa plant (seedling, cover crop, corn, etc.) in it. Don’t forget to use the hashtag #HealthySoilsAreFullofLife!
  3. Nominate a farmer for an award! Nominations are currently being accepted for the Iowa Soil Conservation Awards Program (ISCAP) Conservation Farmer of the Year and the Iowa Farm Environmental Leader Award. Visit the Conservation Districts of Iowa’s website for details.

More information about Soil and Water Conservation Week is available at the websites of Conservation Districts of Iowa or the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS).

Julie Whitson

Farmers Must Come Together to Drive Farm Policy

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A recent article written by Matthew Russell of the Drake University Agricultural Law Center provides some food for thought and discusses how farmers could benefit, both economically and politically, by adopting practices that address climate change. With a continued downturn in commodity prices that began in 2013, farmers might be more open to adding conservation practices to their operation to help their bottom line.

“Farmers are motivated by economic incentives to implement environmental practices. As an example, they recently enrolled nearly 400,000 acres in the USDA Conservation Reserve Program CP-42 which pays farmers to take land out of production and establish habitat for pollinators. Ironically, today we may need to embrace a source of revenue that just eight years ago seemed to many like regulatory overreach.”

Many of the conservation practices already being implemented in the U.S. such as cover crops, no-till, and extended crop rotations can increase soil carbon and address climate change. With higher adoption rates of these practices, and the exploration of new or improved practices designed to increase carbon in soils, farmers stand to profit. So, Russell inquires, will farmers rise to the challenge?

“Now American farmers face a choice. Do we want to explore ways of providing environmental services to fight climate change? Or will we sit back and allow farmers in other parts of the world to develop these agricultural solutions?”

Russell notes that The Paris Agreements and the upcoming 2018 Farm Bill are two opportunities for farmers to unite in support of policies that address climate change while also benefiting the individual farmer, especially as forward-thinking farmers are looking for creative ways to manage on-farm income.

Read the article here.

Julie Whitson