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

cover-crop-species1-e1523647673791.jpg

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

From the Archives: Conservation Chat with Paul and Nancy Ackley

The Conservation Chat podcast is taking a break for the next few months, but I would like to take you back through our archives on a tour of the “Best of the Conservation Chat Podcast.” There are 38 great podcast episodes to choose from – what’s your favorite?

paul-ackleyIn Episode 17 of the Conservation Chat, Paul and Nancy Ackley discuss how their interest in conservation and restoring the health of their farm led to changing how they farmed in Taylor County, Iowa over the past 40 years.  One big driver for the couple was knowing that much of the land in hilly Taylor County was degraded and prone to erosion.

To keep more of that soil in place, Paul and Nancy worked to increase organic matter in the soil through the use of no-till and cover crops. Now that they have several areas of soils with 4% organic matter and continue to plant cover crops, they are seeing a big change between their fields and other fields in their county.

“One thing for me that’s always resonated . . . when you drive down the road, and we have terraces standing full of water and there’s all green rye above it, and you go by [another] place, they’ve done full-blown tillage and it looks like chocolate malt ran down the hill.  Pretty soon, it begins to click in your mind.”

The Ackleys talk about the mindset that many farmers have about tilling, and how some farmers find it hard to get past their desire to see the dark soil and smell the overturned earth after tilling. The Ackleys, however, don’t like to see the dark soil in their ditches.

Listen to the podcast!

Julie Winter

Tips for rye termination after a short growing season

ICYMI – A recent article from Iowa Farmer Today highlights tips from ISU Extension and Outreach for terminating a rye cover crop following a reduced growing season.

Given the limited fall growth and persistent cold weather this spring, there will likely be less cover crop growth compared to recent years. This could lead to termination challenges for those that are not prepared.  With three methods of termination, there are options for producers to choose from to find the best fit.  These methods include: herbicide (most widely used), rolling/crimping (after pollen shed) and limited tillage.

CC-TipsForTermination
Here are some keys for successful herbicide termination:

  • Translocated herbicides, like glyphosate, work best on actively growing plants
  • Spray on sunny afternoons when daytime temperatures are 60°F or above & nighttime temperatures stay above 40°F
  • Avoid spraying in the early morning or evening hours

Timing of termination recommendations:

  • Ahead of corn = terminate 10-14 days before planting
  • Ahead of soybeans = terminate 1-2 days before planting to maximize spring growth

For more tips, check out our earlier post Cover Crops: Tips for Termination!

Liz Juchems

From the Archives: Conservation Chat Podcast with Farmer Nathan Anderson

The Conservation Chat podcast is taking a break for the next few months, but I would like to take you back through our archives on a tour of the “Best of the Conservation Chat Podcast.” There are 38 great podcast episodes to choose from – what’s your favorite?

nathan-and-father-randy

This month, take some time out to listen to Conservation Chat Episode 28 with Cherokee County farmer Nathan Anderson. Nathan’s interview with host Jacqueline Comito sheds light on a common problem that many young Iowa farmers are facing: how to make the transition back onto the farm.

“It takes people like my dad who are willing to let somebody come back into the farming operation,” Nathan said of his father. He recognizes that his father made sacrifices, including “[forgoing] some of that income, and also [letting] me try new things that maybe he doesn’t agree with or doesn’t know about.”

Livestock is an early entry point for the next generation to begin or return to the farm. Nathan raises a cow-calf herd with his father and was given the opportunity to try new practices including rotational grazing, cover crops, increasing herd size and changing herd genetics to favor cattle that could utilize certain pasture resources. Nathan has fire in his belly for conservation and farming, but he also recognizes that it’s important to be patient.

“This farming world that we work in, there are a lot of things that we might want to do and we can’t have them all right now,” Nathan commented. “It’s a practice of patience. Patience is active. If you’re being patient, you have to work at it.”

Listen to the podcast episode now! Learn more about Iowa Learning Farms’ Emerging Farmer Project and consider attending our upcoming Emerging Farmer Soil Health and Grazing Workshop  on March 15 in Creston!

Julie Winter

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.

Cover Crop Acres Grow But Rate of Growth Declines in 2017

According to the Iowa Learning Farms 2017 Field Day Evaluation Report, Iowa cover crop acres grew last year by approximately 22% to 760,000 total acres. While the positive growth with shrinking profit margins is notable, the rate of growth is ten percent less than the growth measured in 2016, and still well below the goal of 12.5 million acres of cover crops called for in Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

Cover Crop Acres 2017 (2)

Many of the new acres were planted by experienced cover crop farmers. The majority (69%) of respondents to Iowa Learning Farms’ year-end evaluation questionnaire started seeding cover crops at least three years ago. Only eleven percent of respondents reported implementing cover crops for the first time on their land last year. Those respondents with cover crops reported an average of 46% of their total row crop acres in cover crops—6% more than in 2016.

Cost Share Cover Crops 2017. (2)The overall percentage of farmers who are using cost share to seed cover crop acres has increased by seven percent over four years of Iowa Learning Farms evaluation data. Of the respondents seeding cover crops in 2017, 65% of them did so with the assistance of cost share.

Iowa Learning Farms sponsored 29 conservation field days and workshops in 2017 on cover crops, strip-tillage, saturated buffers, prairie strips and more. These events drew an attendance of 1,280 people, primarily farmers and landowners (89%). Twenty-seven percent of Iowa Learning Farms field day attendees were female.Eval Cover (2)

In January 2018, 580 farmers and landowners who attended Iowa Learning Farms field days were mailed an evaluation questionnaire to investigate whether they made changes to their farming practices. In a one-month period, 251 evaluation questionnaires were returned for a 42% response rate.

The Iowa Learning Farms 2017 Field Day Evaluation Report can be found at www.iowalearningfarms.org.

Established in 2004, Iowa Learning Farms is building a Culture of Conservation by encouraging adoption of conservation practices. Farmers, researchers and team members are working together to identify and implement the best management practices that improve water quality and soil health while remaining profitable. Partners of Iowa Learning Farms include the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Iowa Natural Resources Conservation Service, and Iowa Department of Natural Resources (USEPA section 319).

Liz Juchems