Farmer Profile: Ben and Andy Johnson

Ben and Andy Johnson_cropCLLThe Johnson brothers farm in Floyd County where they grow corn and soybeans and manage a ewe flock and feeder lamb operation. The duo are no strangers to conservation and trying new practices. They began no-tilling soybeans over fifteen years ago and have nearly ten years of experience strip-tilling corn. Other conservation methods they have employed on their farm include buffer strips, prairie CRP, pollinator habitats, field windbreaks, a pheasant safe program and cover crops.

Ben began using cover crops in 2013 when a wet spring delayed planting on hundreds of acres until it was too late to plant a cash crop. Not wanted the fields to remain empty all year, Ben planted oats and radishes for the first time. As to why he does it, Ben explained, “I want all my black soil still on top of my hills and not at the bottom of all of them, not in my road ditches and not in the Cedar River.” Within his no-till system for soybeans and strip-till system for corn, he found that using cover crops helped control erosion and improved organic matter and overall soil structure.


“I want all my black soil still on top of my hills and not at the bottom of all of them, not in my road ditches and not in the Cedar River.” – Ben Johnson


In 2016, Iowa Learning Farms approached Ben and Andy to be a part of a new Conservation Learning Labs* (CLL) project that is studying changes in nitrogen and phosphorus loss at the delivery scale. The Johnsons farm near an existing Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) wetland in Floyd County that has measured water quality for about three years.

Using the CREP wetland monitoring system, the project will be able to measure changes in water quality after cover crops are planted in the project area over the next three years. The Johnsons agreed to participate in the CLL project, and in fall of 2017 they seeded cover crops on over 54% of the nearby research watershed acres.

Ben says, “The easiest place for somebody to start is no-tilling their beans. They don’t really seem to respond to tillage and it’s such a labor and money eater. That’s the biggest reason we switched. The most precious resource on my farm is time.”

Ben Johnson and his wife Amy have two sons, Jackson and Riley. Andy Johnson had his wife Abbie also have two young sons, Kyle and Carter. Ben was featured in our Conservation Chat podcast – listen to the episode to hear more about his operation and what drives his conservation ethic.

Julie Winter

*The Conservation Learning Labs 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.

Meet Conservation Learning Labs Farmer Brian Sampson

CLL Brian.jpg

Brian Sampson and his wife Deb raise corn and soybeans as well as operate a cattle feedlot in rural Story County. In 2016, Iowa Learning Farms approached Brian to be a part of a new Conservation Learning Labs (CLL)* project that is studying changes in nitrogen and phosphorus loss at the delivery scale.

Brian lives near an existing Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) wetland in Story County that has measured water quality for about three years. Using the CREP wetland monitoring system, the project will be able to measure changes in water quality after the implementation of conservation practices like cover crops and strip-tillage in the project area over the next three years.

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CREP Wetland near Roland in Story County

Brian tried cover crops on some of his fields in the past, but his results were mixed. In the fall of 2012, Brian says, “I flew cover crops onto my corn. I wanted to grow them to boot stage for my cattle. In the spring, it got wet and my bean planting was delayed . . . but it was a beautiful stand. I ended up baling it.” Brian tried cover crops again in 2013, but a dry fall hindered germination. The start of the CLL project was the assistance he was looking for to give cover crops another try.


“I flew cover crops onto my corn. I wanted to grow them to boot stage for my cattle. In the spring, it got wet and my bean planting was delayed . . . but it was a beautiful stand. I ended up baling it.”


In 2017, through the NRCS conservation planning process, Brian seeded a cereal rye cover crop and started strip-tillage on his fields, treating 42% of the project watershed. With technical support from CLL project partners and Key Coop, Brian hopes to be successful as he makes changes to his operation.

“I’m not an island. I need help,” Brian commented. “I have felt very supported through the project help I have received from ISU Extension, NRCS and Iowa Learning Farms.”

Brian and Deb have two children, Alex and Brice. In addition to farming, Brian is a member of the Story County Cattlemen’s Association and the Story County Farm Bureau.

Julie Winter

*The Conservation Learning Labs 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.

Why the delivery scale?

When it comes to monitoring water quality, there are quite a number of factors to consider: What are you monitoring for? How is land utilized within the targeted area?  How, when, where, and for how long will water samples be collected? Under what flow conditions? The scale at which you monitor really makes a difference!

The plot scale is valuable for looking at the impacts of specific in-field management practices. Plot scale (or field-scale) monitoring is where most of the pollutant export and delivery data come from that informed the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Treatments can also be easily replicated on the plot scale. However, it’s challenging to properly scale up plot-level measurements to the area of practice implementation to truly assess water quality impacts across landscapes and with multiple practices.

Monitoring on the watershed scale allows us to look at the collective impacts over a much larger land area.  For instance, watershed-scale monitoring provides a broad picture of water quality challenges and aids in the identification of impaired waters. When monitoring on the watershed scale, measurements inherently include what’s happening on the land (field scale practices), plus field-to-stream transport, plus in-stream processes (bed and bank processes).  It certainly provides a comprehensive look the big picture, but you can’t “sort” out the different contributions of what’s happening in-field versus in-stream.

In between these two lies the delivery scale.  Delivery scale monitoring occurs at the point where water is delivered to a creek or stream. For instance, with drainage research, this would be the point where the tile main surfaces and water empties into a stream. In a nutshell, the delivery scale reflects the direct water quality impacts from an agricultural area, minus the potential confounding effects of in-stream processes like bed and bank erosion. Here at the Iowa Learning Farms, we’d argue that this is truly a sweet spot for looking at the impacts of specific conservation practices.

You need to monitor at the delivery scale if you want to know specifically what the agricultural impacts are.  That’s exactly what we’re striving towards with the Conservation Learning Labs project.

Within a small watershed area (several hundred acres), can we get a substantial percentage of producers adopting a conservation practice, like cover crops, and then measure corresponding water quality improvements at the delivery scale?  Modeling suggests so, and this project will quantify what nutrient load reductions are actually realized thanks to large scale, targeted adoption of cover crops.

Cover crops were seeded for the first time in fall 2017 within our two Conservation Learning Labs project sites.  Stay tuned for results as we look at the water quality (and soil health) impacts of substantial cover crop adoption on the delivery scale!

Ann Staudt

Conservation Chat: We must clean up our water sources voluntarily

Ben&Amy Johnson2

Ben Johnson and his wife Amy.

This month, host Jacqueline Comito has a conversation with a farmer in northeast Iowa. Ben Johnson is a sixth generation farmer that purchased his first farm with his brother Andy when he was a sophomore at Iowa State University. Conservation saves him one of his most valued resources on the farm: time.

Johnson takes part in our Conservation Learning Lab program with a small scale watershed and CREP wetland on a neighbors property. He and his family began using cover crops in 2013, a year that had a terribly wet spring. They had 200-300 acres that were too wet to plant and didn’t want them to sit bare all year so they took an old seeder and ran oats and radishes that August. He noticed an improvement in the soil tilth right away and in the beans produced that fall. 2013 was also the year that they introduced strip-tilling, increasing water absorption and yield in those areas.

Other conservation methods Johnson employs are buffer strips, prairie CRP, pollinator habitats, field windbreaks and a pheasant safe program. Johnson says, “The easiest place for somebody to start is no-tilling their beans. They don’t really seem to respond to tillage and it’s such a labor and money eater. That’s the biggest reason we switched. The most precious resource on my farm is time.”

“I hope my kids can be the seventh generation (to farm) so it means a lot to me to leave the land in as good or better shape than it was when I started,” that means the soil needs to be productive and the water needs to run clear “I want all my black soil still on top of my hills and not at the bottom of all of them, not in my road ditches and not in the Cedar River.”

Listen to this Episode of Conservation Chat to learn about the numerous benefits of strip-till, no-till and cover crops and how easy it can be to get started! You can subscribe to the podcast for future episodes as well.

Brianne Osborn

Post-Harvest Field Day Series Heading Your Way!

As the crop year is coming to an end, cover crop season 2017 is starting to take root! This fall Iowa Learning Farms is co-sponsoring nine cover crop workshops.  Be sure to mark your calendars and plan to attend one near you.

IowamapFieldDays(Nov)

November 7, Gordon Wassenaar Cover Crop Field Day
3:30-5:30pm

8718 West 109th St S
Prairie City, IA
Jasper County
Press Release
Flyer
RSVP to Jasper SWCD:641-792-4116 Ext. 3 or jessica.rutter@ia.nacdnet.net

November 8, Jim Lindaman Cover Crop and Soil Conservation Field Day
12:00-2:00pm

16969 310th St
Aplington, IA
Butler County
Press Release
Flyer
RSVP to 515-294-5429 or ilf@iastate.edu

November 15, Lucas Bayer Cover Crop Field Day
4:00-6:00pm

2310 430th Ave
Guernsey, IA
Poweshiek County
Press Release
Flyer
RSVP to 515-294-5429 or ilf@iastate.edu

November 16, Ben and Andy Johnson Cover Crop and Strip-Tillage Field Day
10:00am-12:00pm
1170 Hwy 218
Floyd, IA
Floyd County
Press Release
Flyer
RSVP to 515-294-5429 or ilf@iastate.edu

November 21, Jacob Groth Cover Crop Field Day
12:30-2:30pm
Winneshiek County NRCS Office
2296 Oil Well Rd
Decorah, IA
Winneshiek County
RSVP to 563-382-8777 ext 3 or Matt.Frana@ia.nacdnet.net

November 28, Walnut Creek Watershed Cover Crop Field Day
TBD
Montgomery County

November 30, Conservation Learning Lab Cover Crop Field Day
5:30-7:30pm

Roland Area Community Center
208 Main St
Roland, IA
Story County
RSVP to 515-294-5429 or ilf@iastate.edu

December 6, Elk Run Watershed Cover Crop and Soil Health Workshop
TBD
Sac County

December 13, Cover Crop Workshop
TBD
East Pottawattamie County

Liz Juchems

Field Work Frenzy!

For the last three weeks our team of interns and the Agricultural Water Management team have been busy collecting field research data from our Conservation Learning Lab sites. To gather baseline measurements of soil health, we collected bulk density samples last fall and are in the process of measuring water infiltration and soil aggregate stability.

Both the Story County and Floyd County locations have five fields participating in the project, representing 50-68% of the watershed.  We are collecting data from three samples points in each soil type within the field for a total of 36 samples sites per watershed. We will compare these measurements in three years to those taken after the addition of cover crops to all fields and a decrease in tillage (transition to strip-tillage) for half of the fields.

story panaramaMeasuring Infiltration

Healthy soil has adequate pore space to receive and retain rainwater.  By increasing the infiltration potential of soil, we can reduce runoff and soil erosion during rain events.  Healthy soil also has better water holding capacity during periods without rain.

Using the Cornell Sprinkle Infiltrometer, we are looking to find out how much water is able to permeate into the soil. The infiltrometer–essentially a portable rainfall simulator–connects to a 9.5 inch metal ring that has been installed in the ground.  We calibrate the infiltrometer to “rain” about 0.5cm/minute within the metal ring.

After recording the time of first runoff, we record the height of the water in the infiltrometer and the volume of runoff every three minutes.  We continue this process until a steady state is achieved in the volume of runoff (about an hour).

Each runoff sample is poured into a cylinder for measurement. Calculating the difference between how much water is gone from the infiltrometer and how much has runoff, we can compute how much of the water that has infiltrated into the soil.

Collecting Samples for Aggregate Stability

Soil SamplingAggregate stability is a soil health indicator that provides a measurement of the soils ability to resist erosion, especially from water. It is desirable to have stable aggregates to withstand rainfall and water movement compared to weak aggregates that can seal the surface of the field and decrease infiltration. The weak aggregates can also create a crust that can make it difficult for seedlings to emerge.

Check back for updates as the team begins to process the soil samples that were collected near the infitrometer sites.

story-storm.jpg

Still smiling as the storm rolls in! Our interns are outstanding.

Liz Juchems

 

Cover Crops: One Piece of the Puzzle in CLL Project

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.

Cover_crop_April_Berger_FarmThe 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.