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
Flyer

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

Cover Crop Acres Increase but Rate of Growth Declines in 2018

ILFHeader(15-year)According to the Iowa Learning Farms 15-year Evaluation data, Iowa cover crop acres grew last year by approximately 16 percent resulting in approximately 880,000 total acres. While the positive growth at a time when farmers are reporting shrinking profit margins is notable, this represents a six percent decline in new cover crop acres compared to last year’s estimate and a 19 percent cumulative decline since 2015. A year in which 35 percent of all the cover crop acres were new. This number is still well below the goal of 12.5 million acres of cover crops called for in Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

Since 2009, Iowa Learning Farms, based at IMG_1800Iowa State University, has been tracking cover crop data reported by farmers and landowners who attend an ILF workshop and field day. In addition, in recognition of its 15-year anniversary, ILF conducted a mailed survey of all farmers and landowners that had participated in field days since 2005. Eight hundred ninety-nine people responded to the survey reporting 131,389 acres of cover crops on their land or 15 percent of the overall estimated cover crop acres in Iowa.

Many of the new acres were planted by experienced cover crop farmers. The majority (85 percent) of respondents to Iowa Learning Farms’ 15-year evaluation questionnaire started seeding cover crops at least three years ago. Only six percent of respondents reported implementing cover crops for the first time on their land last fall. Those respondents with cover crops reported an average of 44 percent of their total row crop acres in cover crops, representing a consistent value over the last three years.

“It is encouraging to see growth in cover crop use among experienced cover crop farmers, even with low crop prices and a fall with less than ideal weather,” commented Jamie Benning, Iowa State University Extension water quality program manager and Iowa Learning Farms adviser. “I am concerned that the rate of growth has declined for the third year in a row and that the number of first-time cover crop users declined significantly this year. For this reason, ILF is already ramping us this spring with cover crop events to reach new farmers.”

All of the respondents who planted cover crops for the first time in 2018 used cost share and planted an average of 100 acres, higher than last year’s average of 89 acres. Overall, 66 percent of the total reported cover crop acres were planted with cost share, while 78 percent of the new acres were planted with cost share.

Iowa Learning Farms has held 265 conservation field days and workshops since 2005 on cover crops, strip-tillage, saturated buffers, prairie strips and more. These events drew an attendance of 13,621 people—72 percent are farmers and landowners. Cover crop field days in 2019 will stress the benefits and best practice management for implementing cover crops.

ILF continues to work with ISU Extension and other partner organizations throughout Iowa to raise awareness of beneficial conservation practices such as cover crops among landowners and farmers. The complete 15-year Iowa Learning Farms report will be released in early April 2019, and will be found at www.iowalearningfarms.org.

Liz Juchems

Spring Field Day Season Has Arrived!

ILFHeader(15-year)The 2019 Iowa Learning Farms field day season begins on March 26th and includes a series of five cover crop, no-till and grazing workshops and field days. Please plan to join us at one near you!

March 26 – Cover Crop and No-Till Workshop
12:00-2:00PM

Greene County Extension Office
104 West Washington St
Jefferson, IA 50129
Greene County
RSVP: 515-294-5429 or ilf@iastate.edu
Press Release
Flyer

March 27 – Cover Crop and Grazing Workshop
12:00-2:00PM

McNay Research Farm
45249 170th Ave
Chariton, IA 50049
Lucas County
RSVP: 515-294-5429 or ilf@iastate.edu
Press Release
Flyer

March 28 – Cover Crop and No-Till Workshop
12:00-2:00PM

Titan Machinery
3093 220th St.
Williams, IA 50271
Hamilton County
RSVP: 515-294-5429 or ilf@iastate.edu
Press Release
Flyer

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

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

See you there!

Eval Cover (2)

Liz Juchems

A Legacy of Conservation

Conservation is a legacy that runs generations deep with the Whitaker family. Go back 165 years, and there were Whitakers farming this same ground, now recognized as a Heritage Farm, in southeast Iowa.

As nearly 50 farmers and landowners gathered in Hillsboro earlier this week for a conservation field day, area farmer Clark Whitaker shared the importance of conservation to the family over the years, and how that has carried through to their farming operation today. His father had been a district conservationist with the Soil Conservation Service in the 1970s, brother John has been actively involved with conservation through USDA-FSA and Conservation Districts of Iowa, and today Clark is the “boots on the ground” guy making conservation happen on their land.

Clark commented, “The land needs to be cared for and maintained.  Part of that care is trying to keep the soil on the farm instead of road ditches and waterways.”

Back in the 1970s, that meant installing broadbase terraces. In the 1980s, the Whitakers’ conservation focus transitioned to no-till. Today, the Whitakers’ approach to conservation includes variable rate technology, prescription planting, cover crops, and they have also recently installed a saturated buffer to help reduce nitrate levels in drainage water.

Cover crops were the main focus at the Hillsboro field day, where Clark shared that his goals in using cover crops are two-fold: keeping the soil in place, while also raising levels of organic matter in their soils. He has experimented with cereal rye, oats, and radishes thus far.

For best results with cover crops, Clark made several recommendations to the group based on his experience in southeast Iowa:

To learn more about cover crops and how to integrate them into your farming operation, check out Cover Crop Videos and Cover Crop Resources on the Iowa Learning Farms website.

Ann Staudt

This field day was a partnership of Iowa Learning Farms, Lower Skunk Water Quality and Soil Health Initiative, and Henry County Soil and Water Conservation District.