Farming for the Future

Last night was a lovely evening to learn more about cover crops and adding conservation to lease agreements at the Fawcett Farm near West Branch. The Fawcett Family has adopted a variety of conservation practices on their farm including prairie strips and a recently installed saturated buffer. The site was a perfect backdrop for what is possible when farmers and landowners work together to keep keep the soil in place to maintain the ability to farm the land for generations to come.

IMG_5089“Organic matter is one of the best indicators of soil health,” stated Virgil Schmitt, ISU Extension Field Agronomist, who kicked off the program. ” In the long run, improved soil health improves yields as the biological processes are working better. You can’t improve soil health if you loosing soil to erosion.”

That’s where no-till and cover crops come into play! By adding a cover crop to a no-till system, organic matter is able to accumulate and the nearly continuous cover of living plants significantly reduces soil erosion.

Virgil provided some key tips for those getting started with cover crops:

  • Cereal rye before soybeans
  • Oats before corn (terminates with a hard frost and will not need to be terminated in the spring)
  • Start on a single field or portion of field
  • Pay attention to details

“Adding a cover crop can be a relatively easy process if recognized as a change in management that requires planning to increase success,” said Schmitt. There are resources like Iowa Learning Farms farmer partners with years of cover crop experience that can serve as mentors – reach out to one in your area!

IMG_5109Chris Henning, Greene County landowner, shared some advice with fellow landowners in attendance, “It’s never to early to think about succession planning. My goal is to keep Iowa beautiful for years to come and part of reaching that goal is making a plan for my land after I’m no longer making the decisions.”

Henning also stressed the importance of communication between the landowner and tenant to maintain a good working relationship that meets production and conservation goals. “When I first required cover crops on my farm, my tenant was skeptical but willing to work with them. After a couple years of seeing the benefits on my fields, he has added cover crops to his own acres and has been very pleased.”

IMG_5121If you or someone you know is looking for information on adding conservation to leases, Charles Brown, ISU Extension Farm Management Specialist, shared some great resources along with his personal experiences helping landowners and tenants work through the discussion.

“Working together is crucial to the success of the changes. If you simply tell someone they have to do it, the results may not turn out as you had hoped. Instead, sit down and have a conversation about the land and the management and get the lease agreement in writing,” shared Brown.

Brown also highlighted an important item to consider in the discussion: who pays for the cover crops. “I have seen many different payment arrangements – landowner, tenant, shared costs, longer leases. All are possible and have worked well, but it is a matter of having the discussion.”

For more information on conservation leases, visit ISU Ag Decision Maker. You can find a cover crop lease insertion from Nature Conservancy here.

We still have more field days coming up, so be sure to check out our events page to learn more and subscribe to our e-newsletter to stay in touch!

Liz Juchems

Secure your cover crop seed for fall 2019 today!

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Gaesser Family

We had a great evening for a cover crop field day hosted by the Gaesser family near Corning on Tuesday, July 9th. With nearly 50 people in attendance, there was great interest in adding more cover crop acres among the experienced users and a handful of those looking to try it for the first time.

Sarah Carlson, Practical Farmers of Iowa, helped set the stage by sharing how farmers can help make cover crops pay with benefits beyond improved water quality and soil erosion reduction.

“If we want to get started and make it pay, it is best to start with a small grain like rye or oats,” commented Carlson. “In a corn/soybean rotation, legumes and brassicas are not going to get enough sunlight to justify the seed cost.”

IMG_5746For the more experienced cover crop users, Carlson recommended taking them to the next level by delaying spring termination of rye ahead of soybeans to achieve weed control benefits and reducing herbicide costs. Another suggestion was planting corn in 60 inch rows to interseed the cover crop earlier in the season to achieve more growth.

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The Gaesser family has been growing their own rye seed for cover crops for the past few years as a way to control costs and improve soil and water quality on their farm.

“We grow our own cereal rye seed each year averaging between 3,000-7,000 bushels to help us cover about half of our crop acres. We like to include rye in the rotation on fields that have been a challenge before – weed pressure or erosion. Once harvested, we clean and store it for use that same year,” stated Chris Gaesser.

Having your own seed supply is a major advantage this year due to the widespread need for prevented planting seed across the Midwest.

IMG_5788“The cover crop seed surplus from 2018 has been used up already this year,” shared Bert Strayer of La Crosse Seed. “That means this year’s cover crop seed will come from what gets harvested in the next month or so. For that reason it is encouraged to get your seed orders in as soon as you can to make sure you have access to seed when you want to be seeding this fall.”

If you are looking for a seed source near you, check out the Practical Farmers of Iowa Cover Crop Business Directory.

Be sure to stay tuned to our events page for more cover crop field days later this year!

Liz Juchems

Change to Haying and Grazing Date for Cover Crop Prevented Planting Acres

Risk Management Agency Release, June 20, 2019

Farmers who planted cover crops on prevented plant acres will be permitted to hay, graze or chop those fields earlier than November this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced today. USDA’s Risk Management Agency (RMA) adjusted the 2019 final haying and grazing date from November 1 to September 1 to help farmers who were prevented from planting because of flooding and excess rainfall this spring.

“We recognize farmers were greatly impacted by some of the unprecedented flooding and excessive rain this spring, and we made this one-year adjustment to help farmers with the tough decisions they are facing this year,” said Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation Bill Northey. “This change will make good stewardship of the land easier to accomplish while also providing an opportunity to ensure quality forage is available for livestock this fall.”

RMA has also determined that silage, haylage and baleage should be treated in the same manner as haying and grazing for this year. Producers can hay, graze or cut cover crops for silage, haylage or baleage on prevented plant acres on or after September 1 and still maintain eligibility for their full 2019 prevented planting indemnity.

“These adjustments have been made for 2019 only,” said RMA Administrator Martin Barbre. “RMA will evaluate the prudence of a permanent adjustment moving forward.”

Other USDA Programs

Other USDA agencies are also assisting producers with delayed or prevented planting. USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) is extending the deadline to report prevented plant acres in select counties, and USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is holding special sign-ups for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program in certain states to help with planting cover crops on impacted lands. Contact your local FSA and NRCS offices to learn more.

More Information

Read our frequently asked questions to learn more about prevented plant.

Crop insurance is sold and delivered solely through private crop insurance agents. A list of crop insurance agents is available at all USDA Service Centers and online at the RMA Agent Locator. Learn more about crop insurance and the modern farm safety net at rma.usda.gov.

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USDA is an equal opportunity provider, employer and lender.

Cover Crops Taking Flight

Nate Voss started out a cover crop skeptic. He’ll openly admit that.

“I’ll be honest with you, I really wasn’t sure about this whole [cover crop] thing startin’ out 6 years ago. Now we’re getting a lot better at it!”

After 6 years of cover crop experience, I think it’s safe to say he’s now a believer, sharing his cover cropping experience at an Iowa Learning Farms field day yesterday hosted by Steier Ag Aviation near Whittemore. Voss farms near LuVerne in north central Iowa and also works with Steier Ag Aviation.

Voss’s experience with cover crops includes flying on oats, and some radish, into standing crops in late August/early September.  He is also just starting to get his feet wet with cereal rye.  One of the first things he noticed with the integration of a cover crop was at harvest – “it gives you great field conditions combining into beans.”


Voss goes on to share with field day attendees all the benefits he has observed with using cover crops as part of his cropping system.

“There’s lots of different angles you can take with cover crops:

  • A lot of guys like it for erosion, keeping soil in place. In the winter when I’m driving around, my ditches are not filled with dirt like a lot of them are.
  • I personally like cover crops for holding nitrogen in place, not sending it down the creek. Maybe I can do something about the water quality challenges we face—I’d rather be proactive, get a head start on this thing.
  • After 6 years, I’m really starting to see improvements with soil structure. My soil microbiology is really firing back up!
  • Some folks also are going into cover crops for grazing.
  • My ultimate goal is I want to have something living out there all year round.”


For Voss, the integration of cover crops also served as a springboard into strip till:

“I get bored pretty easy and the wheels start turnin’… a couple beers and some pizza later [with a neighbor who was a long-time strip-tiller], and we were pulling strips out in the field.

“I think we can all acknowledge that last fall was not great.  But my best yielding corn was in the field with strip till and 5 years of cover crops.

“I loved it so much, I called my banker to buy a strip till bar!”


On the fence about taking the plunge and trying out cover crops or strip till?   Consider Voss’s top tips for success along the way:

  • Go to field days and workshops to learn. You’ve taken the first step just by being here today—opening your mind to something new.
  • Be willing to get outside your comfort zone and give it a shot. [My grandfather is my biggest critic. Now I just like to get out there and prove him wrong!]
  • Ask questions.
  • Talk to others that are also givin’ it a try. Get together over coffee. Or pizza and beers. Talk to them about their failures so you don’t make the same ones.
  • Sometimes you’re gonna question yourself along the way.
  • There are tons of great resources out there for everyone—the big guys down to little peons like me.
  • Head in to your NRCS office to learn about cost share options.
  • Weather is always an uncertainty. Think about how you can best work with Mother Nature.

Now is the time to be planning ahead for cover crop seeding this coming fall!   Check out our Iowa Learning Farms Cover Crop Resources page and YouTube channel to learn more, along with reaching out to your local ISU Extension and Outreach field agronomist and USDA-NRCS staff—they are the local “boots on the ground” ready to help you out with making conservation practices happen!

Ann Staudt

Impact of cover crops on weed management

Dr. Bob Hartzler, professor of agronomy and an extension weed specialist, and Meaghan Anderson,  field agronomist in central Iowa posted this recent Integrated Crop Management blog on the impact of cover crops on weed management.

LichtBlog-02One benefit of planting cover crops is their contribution to weed management.  While several factors contribute to the inhibition of weeds by cover crops, the physical barrier of cover crop residue on the soil surface is most important.  Research has shown a strong relationship between the amount of cover crop biomass at termination and the level of weed control provided by the cover crop.

Because of the importance of cover crop biomass, it is essential to manage the cover crop to maximize growth when using cover crops to aid weed management.  The following practices have a major influence on cover crop biomass:

1) Planting and termination date.

2) Cover crop species.

Due to the risk for negative effects of cover crops on corn yield, there is greater potential for using cover crops for weed suppression in soybean.  The longer termination is delayed, the greater accumulation of biomass, and the more benefit in suppressing weeds.  In most years, delaying termination until mid- to late-May will allow sufficient biomass for consistent weed suppression.

Increasing the seeding rate of cereal rye above recommended rates generally has little impact on the quantity of biomass when termination is delayed, except in cases of very late planting. The tillering ability of rye is responsible for the lack of responsiveness to seeding rate.  Higher seeding rates may result in more rapid ground coverage in the fall and early spring, but the impact of seeding rate on biomass is diminished when termination is delayed until stem elongation.

Be sure to read the full blog here to learn more about potential reductions in herbicide use and allelopathy considerations.

Protecting our soil – a finite resource

ILFHeader(15-year)Why bother changing your tillage system?

That’s the exact question Brent Larson and his family asked themselves about 10 years ago as they considered using a no-till and strip-till system in their Webster County farming operation.

IMG_0048Answer: Fertile topsoil is a finite resources!

“Recreational tillage, especially ahead of soybeans, is depleting our topsoil and organic matter,” stated Larson. “We realized tilling wasn’t helping or necessary. So we switched to no-till soybeans and strip-till for corn about 10 years ago and added cover crops about 8 years ago.”

By reducing their tillage, Larson and his family were able to save time and reduce input costs like fuel, labor and equipment costs. This ultimately has increased net income and puts less money on the line each year.

An additional benefit of their system is the protection from soil erosion, improved soil structure and drainage.

LichtBlog-01“We want to grow our soil – saving the soil from erosion is the first step. We want to make sure that not only can we farm this land for the next 40+ years, but so can future generations to come. Soil erosion is insidious! It is can be difficult to see, making it easy to ignore in the short term,” commented Larson.

Larson also works as a farm manager for Sunderman Farm Management and shared some parting advice to farmers and landowners, alike.

“Surround yourself with can-do people, not can’t do people. Communication between landowners and tenant is key to protect the soil and implement conservation. Take that first step and bring the topic up in your next conversation. Determine your goals and make a plan to achieve them!”


If you weren’t able to attend this event, there are more opportunities to attend one of our upcoming field days!

April 9 – Cover Crop and Water Quality Field Day
5:00-7:00PM

Rob Stout Farm
2449 Hemlock Ave
Washington, IA 52353
Washington County
RSVP: 515-294-5429 or ilf@iastate.edu
Press Release
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April 10 – Cover Crop and No-Till Workshop
12:00-2:00pm
Steier Ag Aviation
202 190th St
Whittemore, IA 50598
Kossuth County
RSVP: 515-294-5429 or ilf@iastate.edu
Press Release
Flyer

Liz Juchems

 

Ten-Year Cover Crop Study and ILF 2018 Cover Crop Report: Good News and Less-Good News

ILFHeader(15-year)Iowa Learning Farms and Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) recently published the ten-year results of an on-farm field research study about cover crops. And ILF recently released the cover crop statistics it has been tracking for many years. The results of both these newsworthy items include both promise and troubling points. The cover crop study indicates no loss of yield, and limited improvements – not a homerun, but not a strike-out either. The cover crop report shows 880,000 acres in 2018. More than 2017, but a significant slowing of acres planted in cover crops statewide – for the second year in a row.

Farmers and researchers seem to hold the strongest opinions about cover crops – and these opinions are not always the same. Since 2008, before anyone was really talking about cover crops, ILF and PFI launched a long-term on-farm field research study to help understand the impacts of planting cover crops on soil health, yields and nutrient/soil leaching.

As the ILF project lead, I get to work with the farmer partners as well as colleagues at PFI. Stefan Gailans, PFI project lead, noted that research studies such as this are often in response to requests and questions from working farmers looking to improve or change how they operate. A goal of this project is to address the question, “How does a cereal rye cover crop affect cash crop yields?”

To our knowledge, this is the only study in the Midwest that has spanned 10 years of working with farmers on their farms. One challenge for this kind of study is that these farms are run by real people making real-life decisions every day and every year. Operating a farm business sometimes leads to actions and decisions that are not what the researchers would prefer, but sometimes lead to learning by all parties.

Working with farmer-partners in conducting research at field scale, lends weight to the outcomes reported. Farm operators do read studies and look for anything that will give them a performance edge. But, many also like to share tips and tricks with each other, and experiment on their own.

These farmer-partners are not content to only participate in the research project, they have also become strong leaders on cover crop implementation, traveling all over the state to talk at field days and conferences, as well as hosting field days. This is indicative of the trust farmers have in peers, and the broad-based desire to share knowledge and learn from each other. We are always seeking participants and sites for field days to promote conservation techniques such as cover crops. Please reach out to ILF if you are interested in learning more or hosting.

The group of cooperating farmers has varied over the study term, comprising 12 operating farms in Iowa. Taken as a whole, the data collected covers 68 site-years with cereal rye cover crops planted before both corn and soybean cash crops.

The number one negative perception we hear: Cover crops reduce yield.

Cooperators have reported that in 61 of 68 site-years properly managed cover crops had little to no negative effects on corn and soybean yield, and there were improvements in soybean yield in eight site-years and corn yield in three site-years.

Winter_Rye_Effect_on_Corn YieldWinter_Rye_Effect_on_Soybean YieldWhile we don’t claim huge yield gains, it’s becoming quite clear that when done consistently and managed well, cover crops don’t substantially impact yields. And there are substantial benefits beyond yield that help to offset the upfront investment in cover crops.

 So where do we find the financial upside?

We cannot argue with the logic that cover crops take investment to plant in the fall, and terminate in the spring, however reaching the no yield impact determination allows us to start at zero instead of in-the-hole when assessing return on investment.

Farmers with an inherent values-based desire to improve water quality and conserve soil naturally consider cover crops as a long-term investment in the environment that will bear fruit in many ways. This isn’t saying that they aren’t concerned with the operational costs, just that they tend to roll it into the overall cost of doing business.

For those that are more focused on the exact economic impacts, we suggest a longer-term viewpoint. Soil erosion may take years, but with the loss of each fraction of an inch from the fertile topsoil, the production capacity of a field will go down.

To learn more about cover crop field days in your area, or if you are interested in hosting one on your farm, please contact me ejuchems@iastate.edu

For more detailed information on the project, see “Winter Cereal Rye Cover Crop Effect on Cash Crop Yield” on our website.

Liz Juchems