Water in the Public Domain

Public domain: a concept that evokes thoughts of music, photographs, paintings, and other creative works of art … and their relationships with copyright policy. From another perspective, public domain is all about shared availability, the common good …  much like our natural resources.

As nearly 40 people gathered for a conservation field day at Paustian Family Farm just outside Walcott, IA this past week, this idea of water in the public domain was an ever-present undercurrent in the conversations among area farmers, landowners, rural and urban residents alike.

In addition to in-field conservation practices like reduced tillage, cover crops, and a close eye on nutrient management, host farmer Mike Paustian is now taking conservation to the edge of the field as well. In fall 2017, the Paustians installed a saturated buffer on their land to specifically address the challenge of nitrates in tile drainage water.

Saturated buffers are a field-scale practice, treating subsurface tile drainage water from 30-80 acres of cropland. The presence of an existing streamside vegetative buffer is a great first step, and makes the installation a breeze. In order to “saturate” the existing buffer, a flow control structure and lateral tile line running parallel to the stream (700’ long, in this case) are installed.

Quite a bit of the water then moves through that new perforated tile line parallel to the stream, slowly trickling out of the tile, working its way through the soil. On this journey to the stream, the water is in direct contact with plant roots and the soil itself – where the biological process of denitrification occurs. Under saturated, anaerobic conditions, naturally occurring bacteria breathe in the nitrate, and then transform it to atmospheric N2 gas, sending cleaner water to the stream (to the tune of 40-50% nitrate reduction).

As folks got to see the saturated buffer firsthand, one of the attendees asked Paustian, “As a city person, why should somebody from Davenport, Pleasant Valley, etc. care about what’s going on out here?”

Paustian responded, “We’re all in this together, using the same water. It’s a limited resource. We’ve got to find common ground – urban and rural – being good stewards of our land and water. That’s why saturated buffers matter out here.”

Washington Co. farmer Steve Berger, an early adopter and long-term user of cover crops, emphasized the benefits of cover crops for water quality, promoting infiltration and likewise minimizing soil erosion.  Berger added, “Anything that comes off this field ends up in the public domain somewhere … long-term no-till and cover crops are working together to keep soil and nutrients in place in the field!”

As Iowa’s water quality continues to garner attention locally, statewide, and even on the national level, that concept of water in the public domain resonates strongly. Bringing urban and rural people together to see how we can work for positive improvements in water quality is a step in the right direction. This field day was an excellent example of the engaging conversations and positive dialogue we at Iowa Learning Farms hope to facilitate surrounding water quality, soil health, and our agricultural production systems across the state of Iowa.

Ann Staudt

Webinar Recap: Creating Conservation Legacies Through Farm Leases

Our June webinar featured Sara Berges, project coordinator with the Allamakee Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD). Her presentation focused on three main areas: How to include conservation in a lease, developing a Farm Legacy Report and cover crops with manure.

There is a real need to include conservation within a farm lease. Low commodity prices have led to more ground being converted into row crop agriculture according to Berges. Coupled with the fact that over 50% of Iowa ground is leased by absentee and non-farming landowners.

“We noticed that conservation is often left out of lease discussions. Leases tend to be fairly basic and cover mainly when rent is due and how much”    -Sara Berges

If you missed the webinar and would like more information on this topic, an archived version is available on our website: https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars.

~Nathan

Every Little Bit Counts

What do you know about earthworms? Before this internship, I knew a few basics: they’re useful for fishing and they live underground. But, what do these small creatures have to do with water quality and soil health? It turns out that they are very good indicators. Today I’m going to touch more on our most recent project for this summer, earthworm counting, and how it has shown me that every little bit of information counts.

Before we start each research project, the other interns and I all sit down with our supervisors and discuss what the projects are and how we’re supposed to go about them. When this project was presented to us, I was more than a bit skeptical about how this could help us. So far, through the two weeks of earthworm counting that we have completed, that skepticism I originally had has faded away.

LEFT: I am looking for the middens within the area of our research point. RIGHT: Cutting the cover crop and removing residue to find the middens.

Earthworm counting is exactly what it sounds like. We head to test plots all over the state to take a look at the number of earthworms within a 19” x 30” frame between the rows of crops, corn or soybeans. We count the middens, the tops of the worms’ holes where the organic matter is pulled into the tunnel, closely examining the soil surface looking for the mounds they leave behind. When we think we found one, we dig with a pair of scissors to look at the underside of the midden and find the tunnel. The main variable that we look at is cover crops – are there observable differences in the number of earthworms between strips with cover crops and those without? Earthworms are very good for our soil and the more we have, the better the soil health of that area is.

One of our other interns, Kaleb, found a midden while we were at a farm in southwest Iowa.

The last time that I went home, my cousin, who is in 6th grade, asked me what some of the projects were that I was working on and I told her that I was doing earthworm counting. She didn’t sound very impressed when that’s what I told her, so I decided to have her complete the experiment herself at home. After about a week of testing the fields at home I had my cousin tell me any conclusions that she came up with. She told me that in the places with cover crops, the number of earthworms was higher than places with no cover crops — which is the same exact results we have been getting in the research plots across the state. But, that wasn’t all. To me, the best part about all of this was that I allowed a 6th grader to conduct an experiment that can provide important information about soil health in about 30 minutes of instructions.

Research can come from anywhere and anything and the impact it can have is limitless. It also appeals to me in that it allows for all generations to be involved with the same issues. You can have a 6th grader counting earthworms to find out more about soil health while at the same time you can have a farmer taking core samples to test for the same thing. Research is a big part of my internship, but it’s also a big part of the future. When understanding complex issues such as soil health, every little bit of information counts, and I’m super excited that I get to experience all of this research firsthand this summer!

Donovan Wildman

Donovan Wildman is participating in the 2018 Water Resources Internship Program at Iowa State University.  Wildman grew up near West Branch, IA (Clear Creek Amana High School). In the fall, he will be starting his sophomore year at Iowa State University, majoring in Agricultural Engineering with an emphasis in Land and Water Resources.

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.

Webinar Recap: Farmer and Farm Management Expert Discusses Cover Crops and Farm Leases

s5-sampson-042418-121-e1525362676924.jpgCover crops have taken off in Iowa over the years, but there are lingering questions about how to best incorporate the practice on rented farmland. Who pays for the practice? What are the short- and long-term benefits and costs to consider? How do you capture the arrangement in a farm lease?

Charles Brown joined us this week in our monthly Iowa Learning Farm webinar series to cover frequently asked questions about cover crops as part of a farm lease arrangement. He shared his unique perspective as both an Iowa State University Extension Farm Management Specialist and as a farmer himself who uses cover crops in Wapello County.

Why Add Cover Crops to Your Farmland?
Corn
Cover crops are an important tool to help reduce soil erosion and nutrient losses while also improving soil health. On rented land, questions arise about how to account for short-term costs for cover crop seed and application and the long-term benefits to the land. Charles shared some of his experiences as a farmer in Wapello County, including his yield bump he has experienced with corn following cover crops in 2017.

“Adjoining fields or fields within a half mile made 95 bushel to the acre, 110 and 130. That field made 170. Now whether that’s because of the cover crops, no-till, was I just luckier than the rest of them, I don’t know. It’s probably a combination of all of those things.”

“I have not seen any yield reduction because of using cover crops. As a matter of fact, I’d probably say the opposite in my experience over the past five years.”

What Should You Consider When Writing a Farm Lease with Cover Crops?
Charles recommended looking at the most recent 2018 Cash Rental Survey from Ag Decision Maker for average cash rental rates in your area. In addition:

  • Use written leases over verbal agreements
  • Farm land according to conservation plan (often on file at FSA office)
  • Landlord should receive a copy of production records, fertilizer invoices and soil tests when they are taken each year to make decisions about land productivity and maintenance

Refer to the webinar for specific recommendations and best practices. More information is included about how to handle the cost of seeding cover crops, whether to reduce the rent to share the costs and other considerations.

Resources
Here are links to a few resources that Charles mentioned during the webinar.

CharlesWatch the archived version of the webinar now! There is great information for landlords, tenants and anyone who works in the industry.

Julie Winter

Carrot vs Stick – Are farmers ready to change?

In a recent article from Civil Eats, author Virginia Gewin, features a couple familiar Iowa faces and asks the tough question – As farm runoff in U.S. Waters hits crisis levels, are farmers ready to change?

Addressing our water quality challenges in Iowa and across the U.S. is a serious undertaking that to-date has primarily used the voluntary approach.  Using incentives or cost share (carrots), there has been slow adoption of conservation practices like cover crops and edge of field practices.  This is where the author poses the question of whether it’s time to impose the ‘stick’ method of regulation.

In the article Sarah Carlson, Practical Farmers of Iowa, discusses the innovative ways Iowa farmers are working with industry groups like Cargill, Pepsi, Unilever and more to implement cover crops through incentives and the challenges of providing a uniform message across sources to help producers successfully implement cover crops.  speaking_pfi-field-day-2016

ILF Farmer Partner, Nathan Anderson, shares how he transitioned cover crops in his area from a curiosity to a serious consideration among his farming neighbors.  “Farmers that I never thought would be asking me for cover crop advice are asking those questions,” said Anderson.

Be sure to check out the full article here! This story is part of a year-long series about the underreported agriculture stories in our rural communities.

Liz Juchems

Learn How to Add Cover Crops to Your Farm Lease: Watch the Webinar on May 16

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Watch the Iowa Learning Farms webinar on May 16 at 12:00 p.m. to learn more about how cover crops can be incorporated into a farm lease arrangement. Cover crops are an important tool to help reduce soil erosion and nutrient losses while also improving soil health.

On rented land, adding a conservation practice like cover crops involves the cooperation of both the landowner and tenant. Common questions arise in this situation, including who pays for the practice, how the agreement should be documented and long-term benefits to consider.

Charles Brown, Farm Management Specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, will share best practices for adding cover crops to a farm lease arrangement. Don’t miss it!

DATE: Wednesday, May 16, 2018
TIME: 12:00 p.m.
HOW TO PARTICIPATE: Log on as a guest shortly before 12:00 p.m.:
https://connect.extension.iastate.edu/ilf/

More information about this webinar is available at our website. If you can’t watch the webinar live, an archived version will be available on our website: https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars.

Julie Winter