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.

Five-Year Cover Crop Mixtures Study: Significant Nitrate Reduction and Unchanged Crop Yields

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The results of a five-year study conducted by the Iowa Learning Farms, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach and Practical Farmers of Iowa, reinforced that cover crops added to a corn-soybean rotation have no negative effect on yield and result in statistically significant reductions in nitrate concentration in subsurface water. The details of the study are included in a brand new infographic now available for download.

Throughout the 22 site-years of yield data, there was no significant difference in cash crop yields between control strips without cover crops and those planted with cover crops. Is it important to note that planter settings may impact yield if not properly managed to accommodate residue from the cover crops.

yield results

Iowa soils are highly vulnerable to nitrate losses between April and June when natural nitrate production exceeds typical crop demands. The analysis of water samples from those three months, showed a statistically significant reduction in nitrate concentration in the cover crop strips.
nitrate reduction

We are really excited to see this significant reduction in nitrate concentration when cover crops are present, as addressing nitrate levels is a key component to reaching our Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy goals.

Project MapSince this project had locations located throughout the state, we were able to see how the different cover crop species performed in different soil regions and weather patterns. We observed consistent establishment and biomass production of the rye and oats at all sites and gained the largest reduction in nitrate concentration from those single species treatments. Rye and oats provided the most biomass and had the lowest cost of establishment, helping make them the top choice for cover crops in Iowa!

The infographic is available online at the ILF website. Funding for this study was provided by NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant and Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

-Liz Juchems

Back in the seeding saddle again!

IMG_1668We were busy last week seeding our cover crop mixture project sites for the sixth year.  We are continuing the plots at three of our sites to take a closer look at the common nightcrawler, Lumbricus terrestris, as a biological indicator of soil health.

Between the storms, we were able to seed oats and a mixture of oats, hairy vetch and radish into the soybeans. We also seeded rye and a mixture of rye, radish and rapeseed into the standing corn to cover this fall but also next spring ahead of soybeans. This is a perfect example of using an overwintering cover crop species like cereal rye to #CoverYourBeans!

Many thanks to Emily Waring, Taylor Kuehn and Maddie Tusha for all your help!

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Liz Juchems

Highlighting Opportunities for Cover Crop Assistance

Interested in using cover crops? We’re here to help!

Questions from farmers and landowners on adding cover crops and ways to help offset the costs drove the conservation at our recent field day held August 8th in Roland.  Just over 50 people turned out to hear from local cover crop farmers Brian Sampson and Tim Couser, in addition to discussing water quality and cost share opportunities with staff from Iowa Learning Farms, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, Practical Farmers of Iowa, Story County Natural Resources Conservation Service and Key CooperativeSampson 8-8-2018

“I was being told I was part of the polluting problem. This project (Conservation Learning Lab) offered the opportunity to have partners and quantify how my choices – cover crops and strip-till – impact the water quality,” stated Sampson. 

CLL LogoThrough the Conservation Learning Lab project, Sampson is tapping into knowledge and financial resources to implement the practices and see how his land management choices are impacting local water quality. Initial readings (2015-2017) from the wetland watershed that includes his farmland show a 30 lb/ac of Nitrate-N yield from the watershed. Through implementing cover crops and strip-till, Sampson is hopeful that he will help that number decrease.

It is important to note that the resources Brian is utilizing are widely accessible! The Iowa Learning Farms, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, and Practical Farmers of Iowa all have great print and digital resources and are also available by phone, email or in person to answer questions.

There are also opportunities to apply for cost-share to help reduce the risk of implementing a new management practice to the farm. Check out the links below to learn more!

State and Federal Cost-Share – Contact Local NRCS Office
Iowa Seed Corn Cover Crops Initiative – Contact Shannon Moeller, shannon.moeller16@gmail.com
Pepsi Co/Cargill Low Carbon Corn Program – Contact Practical Farmers of Iowa, 515-232-5661
2018 Unilever/ADM Sustainable Soy Program – Contact Practical Farmers of Iowa, 515-232-5661

Liz Juchems

 

Field Day Recap: Management Matters with Cover Crops!

Cover crops and conservation leases were the theme of an Iowa Learning Farms Women Landowners Cover Crop Workshop held in Marshalltown on June 7.  While cover crops offer numerous benefits out on the landscape, one common theme emerged clearly from the workshop presentations and discussion  — it all comes down to active management when integrating a cover crop.

Allen Burt, who farms 3 miles north of Marshalltown, kicked off the workshop by sharing his experience with cover crops and some of his key management considerations.

He emphasized, “Start with something easy.”  In Burt’s playbook, that means getting oats out on soybean ground as soon as you can in September (drill or broadcast), let them winterkill, and then plant corn into that in the spring.

On corn ground, he suggests starting with cereal rye and a little bit of starter fertilizer (something like a 10-23-23 mix) after the corn is harvested, ideally in early October. The cereal rye will survive over the winter, and then Burt recommends terminating in the spring with glyphosate.

Burt’s recommendations align nicely with the Iowa Learning Farms’ findings, as well, shared at the workshop by Liz Juchems, Conservation Outreach Specialist.

Juchems also shared findings about yield impacts following cover crops. Farmer-partners working with cereal rye reported that in 59 of 63 site-years, strips with cover crops were yield neutral compared to strips without a cover crop – no negative impact on corn and soybean yields. The only significant yield declines were in the first two “learning” years of this long-term study, when producers faced challenges regarding spring termination and planter adjustments to accommodate the additional residue from the cover crop. Over time, those management challenges were overcome to realize cover crop success.

Interwoven with the presentations was an earthworm midden counting hands-on demonstration, as well as lively discussion and dialogue from the 25 people in attendance, including area landowners, operators, and conservation/ag professionals.

One producer in attendance brought up, “The #1 problem in farming today is soil erosion.”  Another producer added to that, commenting that a close second in terms of challenges today is the perception of “This is the way we’ve always done it,” acknowledging there can be some resistance to new practices like cover crops, despite the benefits to reducing erosion, benefitting soil structure, etc.

Charles Brown, Farm Management Specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, noted, “When you talk about using cover crops, it’s a different management practice – you can’t just do the same thing you’ve always done.”  He shared with the group his own experience with growing cover crops, as well as numerous suggestions for landowners and operators to work together to integrate cover crops into a written conservation lease.

Farmer Allen Burt emphasized, “As a producer, my message for you is, ‘Get out there and try it!  If you have the right attitude, you can do it! … Cover crops are a small investment to make things better in the long run.”

Ann Staudt

This workshop was put on as a partnership of Iowa Learning Farms and Marshall Co. Farm Bureau.

New online tool helps farmers assess value of cover crops

Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, in partnership with Practical Farmers of Iowa, has launched a new Ag Decision Maker tool on their website to help crop and livestock farmers assess the economics of cover crops in their operations.20150428_092027

The Economics of Cover Crops tool consists of three in-depth budgeting worksheets designed to help farmers analyze the costs and benefits of cover crops – and paths to profitability – in their row crop operations with or without the integration of livestock:

  • Cover Crops Budget looks at the economics of cover crops in systems without grazing or harvesting
  • Grazing Cover Crops Budget estimates the costs and benefits with grazing or harvesting for feed
  • Grazing Cover Crops Results uses farmers’ farm data to calculate the actual economic value of grazing or harvesting cover crops from the prior year

The unique three-in-one tool was developed to let farmers see the potential added value they could gain when cover crops are used for forage. Recent Practical Farmers of Iowa on farm research has found that, when properly managed, grazing cover crops can result in sizeable profits within the first year.

The worksheets are available online and were created with funding by Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship’s Water Quality Initiative.

Help available to use the tool

To ensure farmers feel confident using the new tool, Meghan Filbert, Livestock Coordinator with Practical Farmers of Iowa, is available to help farmers gets started. Contact her at (515) 232-5661 or meghan@practicalfarmers.org with questions or to request assistance working with the tool.

Liz Juchems

 

Grass species most popular cover crops among Iowa farmers

Grasses, brassicas, legumes – oh my! With so many cover crop species to choose from, how does one decide?

One way is to look at what the producers in your area are using and observe how well those species will help reach the goals you have for your land. Here are some examples of cover crops by group:

  • Grasses = cereal rye, oats, wheat, triticale, barley
  • Brassicas (plants producing a tap root) = radishes, rapeseed, mustards
  • Legumes = red clover, crimson clover, hairy vetch, peas

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To help identify what cover crop species are being used across the state, we asked our 2017 field day attendees.  Responses to our 2017 Field Day Evaluation Report are similar to our conclusions of what works best in our cover crop species research projects. Grasses are the best choice of cover crops for a corn/soybean system. Cereal rye was the mostly widely used species, with 85% respondents listing it as what they seeded in 2017. Reported brassica and legume usage is down overall compared to 2016 data.

Cover Crop Species

For those looking to get started with cover crops, we recommend the following:

Oats Before Corn & Cereal Rye Before Soybeans

These cover crop species are relatively inexpensive, readily available and easy to establish. Oats will winter kill whereas cereal rye is winter hardy and requires spring termination. That is why we recommend using it before soybeans to provide the best opportunity for first time cover croppers to learn how to manage the cereal rye and minimize negative yield impacts.

Liz Juchems