Going the Extra Yard

A few years ago, Liz, Matt and I attended the funeral of Barry Kusel, one of our dedicated ILF farmer partners. Barry had passed away unexpectedly right before Thanksgiving that year. Barry was always someone we could turn to when we needed a strong advocate for cover crops or no till. Attending his funeral was important. None of us knew the rest of his family but I kept thinking that Barry was always willing to go wherever we asked him to go in order to help educate others about cover crops. Since Barry was always there when we needed him, we needed to be there for his family when they needed us. I know it meant a lot to his mother and his wife that we would come from Iowa State to pay our respects.

Two people in my own life really stand out for helping me learn the lesson of going the extra yard for folks: Joe Gronstal and Steve Padgitt. They didn’t teach me so much by their words but by their actions.

Joe was an old friend of the family but I really got to know him when he invited me to spend the summer at his house on Spirit Lake years ago. I was young and sort of in between things. A summer on the lake sounded great. Joe was an “old school” guy. He had his own way of doing things around the house and he was good at getting everyone around him to do it his way. You knew you were in trouble when Joe would look at you with that twinkle in his eye and say, “Well, I was thinking maybe we should try…” That summer, I would go along with whatever he asked me to help out with. His kids still tease me about how he got me to sit in the canoe and paint the side of the dock. He thought it would be easier. Trust me, it wasn’t easier.

What really stands out to me from that summer was how generous Joe was with his time and resources. He would drive hours one-way to visit a sick friend or do a favor for a friend. He was always looking out for his neighbors. He would point out to me the importance of being there in person for other people. My parents also did that in their lives but Joe used to go to such lengths to be there for his friends and neighbors that it really impacted me.Steve Padgitt was the sociology professor who first hired me for the Iowa Learning Farms project in 2004. Steve was a really good guy and I was so lucky to get to work with him before he retired. He was incredibly generous with his time as he gave me a crash course in the social aspects of agriculture. He was a great listener. After decades of Extension work, he knew agriculture and rural Iowa but he was still interested in my insights.

In the beginning, our primary task with Iowa Learning Farms was to send out a baseline survey to assess the status of conservation practices in Iowa. We needed to report regionally and so we needed a large response rate. We sent out thousands of letters and surveys. Steve signed every one of those letters. He made it clear to me that I should always hand-sign the letters I sent with a survey. Steve said that if we were going to ask the person to take the time to fill out the survey, we could take the time to sign our names. In other words, he was telling me not to ask more of other people than we are willing to give. Make the extra effort in what you do and people will respond.Now that I am director of the Iowa Learning Farms, I constantly remind myself of these principles as we are developing programming and doing our day-to-day activities. We have tried to be generous with our resources and our time. It is one of the reasons we still exist after 13 years. We try to be present in the state as often as possible through field days and community events. We make the extra effort. We could do none of this without our farmer partners.

Through the years, our farmer partners like Barry have been the living embodiment of these principles. They show up in person for others and they are cheerfully generous with their time and resources. They participate in important on-farm research and are always trying to find additional ways they can build soil health, reduce nutrient loss and improve the health of our land and water. They aren’t asking other farmers to do more than they are willing to do. They make conservation and water quality practices work on the land while they still continue to produce good yields and earn a decent living.

During this Thanksgiving season, on behalf of the Iowa Learning Farms team, I would like to thank our farmer partners for all they do on the land to make our state healthy, for all you do in being present to others across the state, and all you do to make our program a success! Thank you!

Jacqueline Comito

On-the-Ground Experience with Cover Crops

“What’s building organic matter worth to you?”

For Prairie City, IA farmer Gordon Wassenaar and tenant farmer Will Cannon, it’s worth using no-till and cover crops on every single one of their 1300 acres of cropland.  In a field day hosted by Iowa Learning Farms, Jasper Co. NRCS and SWCD, Wassenaar and Cannon shared their perspectives on cover crops and how they can be very successfully integrated into corn and soybean cropping systems.

Wassenaar, who has farmed for over 50 years, stated that he first got into cover crops for the purpose of protecting the soil from erosion. He started with cereal rye, broadcast seeded from an airplane.

As time has gone on, Wassenaar’s reasons for using cover crops have evolved from simply erosion control, to improving the structure and functioning of the soil — raising soil organic matter, aggregate stability, and water holding capacity. Cannon commented that on top of that, another big benefit is feeding the biodiversity of the soil, like the beneficial mycorrhizal fungi, all while growing a healthy crop.

Timing and seed-soil contact are two big factors with establishing successful cover crop stands, and it’s a balancing act between the two. Aerial broadcast seeding (or interseeding with a high clearance vehicle) allows for a larger window of time for fall growth, while drilling provides greater seed-soil contact. Today, Wassenaar and Cannon have moved to drilling all of their cover crops, ideally getting them in the ground 24 hours or less behind the combine.

When asked about the financial considerations of cover crops, Cannon responded, “We’ve got to be willing to be a little creative and inventive to make it work.”  And they certainly are.

Cannon outlined several approaches they are taking to minimize costs and improve efficiencies in their operation:

  1. Shop around for cover crop seed.
    Compare prices with different cover crop seed houses in order to get the best bang for your buck. Wassenaar and Cannon are even considering growing their own cover crop seed down the road.
  2. Consider your seeding techniques.
    Aerial broadcast seeding and custom planting carry a significant cost.  Cannon explained that they have moved to seeding all of their acres now with a drill, which has provided greater seed-soil contact, and thus improved the seeding efficiency in terms of the number of seeds that actually grow (they’ve subsequently optimized/reduced seeding rates accordingly).  They are also saving dollars through the use of a smaller 120hp tractor and a cover crop drill that was bought used.
  3. There are a lot of good programs out there that can help.
    Take a look at the conservation programs and personnel on the federal, state, and local levels that can help out.

With years of experience implementing conservation practices of no-till and cover crops, Wassenaar reflected on how much the technology advances make conservation readily doable today.

“Back in the day, we plowed because we didn’t have planters that could plant into high residue. The equipment is so good today, that now we can plant into just about any residue.  … With cover crops out there, it’s almost like planting onto a mattress.”

Wassenaar is clearly passionate about conservation, and left field day attendees with the following thoughts:

“I don’t know any other way you can farm and save your soil than with no-till and cover crops.  … I’m convinced that if Iowans take care of their soil, the soil will take care of Iowa.”

Ann Staudt

Getting Started with Rotational Grazing

Considering the transition to rotational grazing?  Wondering where exactly to start?  Ruminate on the following tips and words of wisdom for getting started with rotational grazing, shared at an Iowa Learning Farms Whiterock Conservancy joint field day this past week.

1.  Build the system to what you can afford.
Infrastructure considerations up front include fencing, water lines, tank/waterer system, and mineral feeder.

2.  Start with a system that’s manageable for you.
Pat Corey, NRCS (tenant at Whiterock/rotational grazing guru) recommends starting with a 5-6 paddock system, in which the cattle are moved once per week. That gives each paddock a 30 day rest period before the cattle return.

3.  Scale up when you’re ready. Each initial paddock can be divided in half, resulting in a 10-12 paddock system, in which the cattle are moved every 4 days.

4.  Be aware of herbicide residuals.
Always read and follow label directions, and be aware of grazing restrictions – some herbicides have up to an 18 month residual.

5.  Integrate cover crops for an additional spring food source.
Let the rye grow big enough in the spring so there is good root structure in place to balance out compaction from the livestock. At Whiterock, cattle are out on the rye from approximately April 1 until May 15, providing an excellent supplemental food source in the spring months.

6.  Try to maximize flexibility in the system! 
It’s all a learning process. Planning up front for the desired infrastructure, combined with active on-the-ground management, can yield a robust rotational grazing system, resulting in improved pasture productivity, reduced inputs, increased wildlife, benefits to soil health and water quality, and healthier herds overall.

Thanks to Pat Corey (NRCS), Darwin Pierce and Rob Davis (Whiterock Conservancy) for sharing their insights on rotational grazing!  To learn more, check out the following resources:

Ann Staudt

Reducing Soil Erosion with Cover Crops: New Infographic

Iowa Learning Farms is pleased to announce the release of a new infographic publication titled Reducing Soil Erosion with Rye Cover Crops.

This visually engaging document highlights one of the biggest benefits of cover crops — the ability to significantly reduce soil erosion. Based upon long-term cover crop work conducted by Korucu, Shipitalo, and Kaspar, colleagues at the USDA-ARS National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment here in Ames, this study looks specifically at one of Iowa’s most popular cover crops, winter cereal rye.

The USDA-ARS team conducted in-field simulated rainfall studies on plots with and without cereal rye cover crops, and their findings are powerful in terms of quantifying erosion reduction – 68% less sediment in surface runoff water with a rye cover crop. Further, the amount of surface runoff water decreased, while the amount of water infiltrating was found to increase with the cover crop.

This study was conducted in central Iowa, in the heart of the Des Moines Lobe, on land with a 2% slope. Substantial erosion reductions were found here with rye cover crops — consider the benefits of cover crops to reduce erosion on more sloping lands across the state!

The full infographic is available as a free PDF download on the Iowa Learning Farms website. Clicking on the image below will also take you right there.

Ann Staudt

Cover Cropping on the Lobe

Last evening, a group of 40 area farmers, Soil & Water Conservation District commissioners, and a nice delegation of ISU students from the Ag & Biosystems Engineering department gathered up at Gilmore City, Iowa for a conservation field day hosted by Iowa Learning Farms. Located between Humboldt and Pocahontas, in the heart of the Des Moines Lobe, the Gilmore City research site is home to some of the longest running research in the state on nutrient management and drainage water quality. Last evening’s field day focused on conservation practices that could be utilized in-field (emphasis on cover crops) as well as edge-of-field (bioreactors, saturated buffers, and wetlands).

Kicking things off were father-son duo Bob and Jay Lynch, who farm just outside of Gilmore City. The Lynchs have been long-term ridge tillers, and in recent years, have largely transitioned to strip tillage. In addition, they began integrating cover crops into their corn and soybean operation in 2012, and they have continued to increase cover crop usage since then. With five plus years of cover crop experience under their belts, Bob and Jay shared some words of wisdom and lessons learned with field day attendees.

 

Benefits of Cover Crops
Bob and Jay Lynch see soil health as the biggest reason to use cover crops. Bob commented, “To see the real benefits of cover crops, you need to go below the ground surface. I go out in my fields where I had rye, and take a shovel out there – the biologicals in the soil are a big deal. I hope I get an earthworm in EVERY handful of my soil! The cover crop roots give them something to eat for much more of the year. In addition to the earthworms, you have all of the other beneficial microbes, too.”

The “feel” of the soil is improved with cover crops, as well. The Lynchs spoke about cover crops giving their soil “a really nice spongey-ness.” The benefits of soil aggregation are there, too, with a cover crop – Bob referenced that the ground would come apart just like cottage cheese with a rye cover crop!

While the Des Moines Lobe is known for its rich, fertile soils, cool temperatures can pose a challenge. The Lynchs commented that cover crops help to moderate soil temperatures, and those results are consistent with data collected from the research plots at Gilmore City, as well.

The Lynchs have also seen some weed suppression benefits with cover crops – when the rye gets knee high in the spring, they’ve seen its potential for blocking out/reducing the abundance of some competing spring weed species.

 

Fall — Cover Crop Seeding
Aerial application of the rye cover crop has resulted in the best cover crop stand for the Lynchs. They emphasized that fall growth is a function of light availability, so the amount of crop canopy cover will be a big factor with the cover crops starting out.

With adequate moisture, rye cover crops will germinate quickly and begin their fall growth. Here is some emerging rye at the Gilmore City research site, just five days old!

 

Spring – Cover Crop Termination
With rye and other overwintering cover crop species, spring termination is necessary ahead of planting your row crops. The Lynchs prefer to terminate their rye via chemical in the spring. For the greatest effectiveness, Bob and Jay have found success in separating out herbicide application into two passes – even on the same day — applying glyphosate first to begin the rye termination process, then following with the pre-emergence residual herbicide.

While rolling, roller crimping, and tillage are also possibilities for cover crop termination, they require very particular conditions for success, and as Bob puts it, “It you try to till rye, you’re just making it mad … and then it comes back with a vengeance!”

 

Spring – Planting into Cover Crop Residue
When rye is growing ahead of corn, the Lynchs presented two options for termination timing: plant your crop the same day you terminate your rye, OR it needs to be dead for 14 days before planting corn.

With abundant cover crop growth, they emphasized that planter settings should definitely be taken into consideration. When planting soybeans into rye residue, the Lynchs recommend that your soybean seeds be planted using similar settings as if you were planting corn. If you use the same bean setting as you would without cover crops, you run an increased risk of the bean seeds sitting on top of the surface.

 

Management Matters
Bob and Jay concluded, “With cover crops, it all comes down to management. What works with YOUR individual farm?

 

Wetlands in the Spotlight
The evening field day concluded out at a CREP wetland just a few miles from Gilmore City, sited specifically for nitrate removal. It was a stunning end to the field day as the sun dropped lower and lower on the horizon!  The beauty of the wetland and its ability to benefit water quality clearly piqued people’s interest, as the questions and conversations continued even after the sun went down.

Ann Staudt

Internship offers new perspectives, new direction

Today’s guest post in our Water Resources Internship blog series was provided by Andrew Hillman. Hillman grew up in Bettendorf, Iowa, and went to school at Pleasant Valley. He will be entering his junior year at ISU in the fall, majoring in Biosystems Engineering. Read on for his unique perspectives in the internship coming from an urban background!  

It has been a fun, wild ride in a way for me this summer. Coming from a completely urban background in the Quad Cities and starting this internship, I had little to no idea about any of these issues, or really anything about agriculture at all to be honest. But, from the pre-job training to all the experiences I have had this summer, from field work to outreach events, I have learned quite a bit. I never thought before this summer that I would ever be excited to go out and see things like bioreactors and restored oxbows, but here I am!

I have always been somewhat informed about environmental issues, but the thing that I have enjoyed the most about this summer is that I now have more nuanced and informed opinions about issues. And I can actually draw on my own experiences now, which is very neat. I knew that erosion and nutrient loss and runoff were environmental issues on the forefront in Iowa, but now is the first time that I can say that I feel personally connected to these issues, which is always something I felt that as an Iowan I should be doing, but never knew enough about.

Going to Iowa State University for Biosystems Engineering, I quickly was exposed to how little I knew about agriculture in Iowa, and so this summer has helped me fill a gap in my knowledge that was fairly noticeable compared to some of my peers. Now that I have experience going out to a field, seeing cover crops and collecting water samples, some of the things we talked about in my ABE classes are suddenly much clearer to me now that I have the context.

Something specific that I did in my ABE 218 course was build a table-scale system for reducing nitrate levels in water. Now that I have seen an actual bioreactor site, and presented the model bioreactor that Extension has, I have a greater appreciation for that project and the things that I learned while doing it. I even had the opportunity to work with Chase, one of the other interns, to come up with a preliminary design of our own for a model bioreactor to possibly be placed in one of our conservation trailers in the future. Edge-of-field practices like bioreactors are really fascinating to me.

Back on July 12, I had the opportunity to go to my home county for a Scott County soil health and cover crops field day. This was a great event for me, because growing up in Bettendorf, I really did not associate Scott Co. with much farming compared to the other places I had been in Iowa. It was interesting to see all the things that farmers in my area were doing to further soil and water quality goals.

The host location, Cinnamon Ridge Farms in Donahue, Iowa was amazing. It was eye-opening to hear the owner talk about all the strategies he was using, including his methods for integrating cover crops into his operation. Because their operation does tours year-round, including tours to farmers from all around the world, he had a unique perspective on many of the government cost share programs that are available to farmers, noting that there are not very many countries in which the government will pay you to adopt a farming practice. I think that this is very important, and one that people should keep in mind as Iowa communities look to adopt more parts of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy in the future.

I am currently in the Biorenewables option right now in Biological Systems Engineering, but after my experiences this summer with the Iowa Learning Farms, I am seriously considering switching my option so I can continue to learn more about the issues that I have been exposed to this summer! As an engineering student, this is where I can see so many opportunities to get involved after graduation.

Andrew Hillman

Is Palmer Paranoia a Threat to Conservation?

As a wildlife biologist, I admittedly have a less mainstream attitude towards weeds. For me, keeping those less obtrusive but often disgraced varieties of flowering and seed-producing plants on field edges and in barn lots is a good deal for the birds and the butterflies. But, as a wildlife biologist and a conservationist, I know that anything that affects efficiency in crop production affects conservation. So when I heard about the weed called Palmer Amaranth being found across Iowa last summer, I read the headline articles, watched the top stories, followed the unanimous senate vote, and learned how to identify the new pigweed to see where I could help.

Palmer, as it’s called, is a major challenge in cropping systems in the southern U.S. and until 2016 had only been found in five Iowa counties. Then, during the 2016 growing season, that list grew to at least 48  and experts predict that number could be higher.

The culprit? Seed mixes shipped to Iowa from southern dealers to meet burgeoning demand for high-diversity native plantings contracted under the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). The CRP fields where Palmer was rearing its ugly, thousands-of-seed-bearing head were the same fields lauded by conservationists as the best practice ever conceived under the CRP for addressing the plight of economically and ecologically important insects and many declining wildlife populations.

And, just as Palmer had entered the lexicon seemingly overnight, something else became apparent: “conservation plantings” had become synonymous with “Palmer.”

In the last year, I’ve seen this phenomena play out everywhere from professional meetings to farmsteads. I’ve heard stories from across the state about inquiries on CRP contract termination. I’ve talked with landowners that have dismissed high-diversity plantings out of fear for being the source of a new Palmer infestation. I’ve read gloom-and-doom articles implicating CRP in fueling the spread of Palmer on pages of periodicals from across the Midwest.

Vigilance and education are unequivocally important. My concern though is not with the messaging in educational efforts on this emerging threat, but rather the implicit deduction often drawn. That is, if Palmer is the effect and conservation plantings the cause, won’t less of the latter preclude more of the former?

I don’t have any data to support the veracity my concerns. Only my own experiences and anecdotes, which of course is shaky ground as a scientist. Dr. Bob Hartzler, the respected authority and defacto leader of the important response to the Palmer outbreak in 2016, recently told Iowa Learning Farms in his Conservation Chat podcast interview that he didn’t think concerns over Palmer were driving people away from conservation. I hope he’s right.

Professional educators and everyone in the agriculture and conservation community need to continue to address this emerging threat. But, we need to do so while retaining and building on progress for conservation of pollinators, soil, water, and wildlife that are fundamental to our quality of life and the sustainability of rural landscapes in Iowa. We need to be careful to not lose sight of the original goal of the high-diversity conservation plantings. We need to push a uniform message that less conservation isn’t the solution but rather that more vigilance is. Palmer is a huge deal. But I hope we don’t forget, conservation is a huge deal, too.

Adam Janke

Thank you to Adam Janke, Bob Hartzler, and Meaghan Anderson for their willingness to share photographs for this article!