Getting Started with Rotational Grazing

Considering the transition to rotational grazing?  Wondering where exactly to start?  Ruminate on the following tips and words of wisdom for getting started with rotational grazing, shared at an Iowa Learning Farms Whiterock Conservancy joint field day this past week.

1.  Build the system to what you can afford.
Infrastructure considerations up front include fencing, water lines, tank/waterer system, and mineral feeder.

2.  Start with a system that’s manageable for you.
Pat Corey, NRCS (tenant at Whiterock/rotational grazing guru) recommends starting with a 5-6 paddock system, in which the cattle are moved once per week. That gives each paddock a 30 day rest period before the cattle return.

3.  Scale up when you’re ready. Each initial paddock can be divided in half, resulting in a 10-12 paddock system, in which the cattle are moved every 4 days.

4.  Be aware of herbicide residuals.
Always read and follow label directions, and be aware of grazing restrictions – some herbicides have up to an 18 month residual.

5.  Integrate cover crops for an additional spring food source.
Let the rye grow big enough in the spring so there is good root structure in place to balance out compaction from the livestock. At Whiterock, cattle are out on the rye from approximately April 1 until May 15, providing an excellent supplemental food source in the spring months.

6.  Try to maximize flexibility in the system! 
It’s all a learning process. Planning up front for the desired infrastructure, combined with active on-the-ground management, can yield a robust rotational grazing system, resulting in improved pasture productivity, reduced inputs, increased wildlife, benefits to soil health and water quality, and healthier herds overall.

Thanks to Pat Corey (NRCS), Darwin Pierce and Rob Davis (Whiterock Conservancy) for sharing their insights on rotational grazing!  To learn more, check out the following resources:

Ann Staudt

Importance of Cover Crops Following a Drought

With corn and soybean harvest approaching, many folks are planting their cover crops, or planning to plant their cover crops as soon as they can. The biggest question we are getting these days is whether cover crop seeding recommendations need to be changed because of the dry conditions in many parts of Iowa.

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Drilled Cereal RyeThe quick answer is that cover crop seeding recommendations remain the same: aerial and broadcast seeding methods require a slightly greater seeding rate than drill seeding. If there is not enough soil moisture or a rain within a week of seeding, there will be diminished and variable stand establishment across the field. To minimize this, you might consider drill seeding over aerial and broadcast seeding. Typically, drill seeding results in more uniform stands across the field with the consequence of less fall biomass production due to a later seeding date. Even later planting due to drilled seeding results in soil health improvements from spring growth of winter cereals.

Regardless of how you are going to seed, it is important to get the cover crops out inCereal Rye the fields. Cover crops play a crucial role in building soil moisture by improving water infiltration and aggregate stability. Additionally, they have the added benefit of scavenging residual soil nitrogen. Winter cereal grains such as winter rye, wheat, and triticale, are the preferred cover crop for their exceptional ability to use residual soil nitrogen. This is an extremely important characteristic following drought years where nitrogen leaching and crop nitrogen uptake are both potentially lower.

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Gilmore City research site that measures difference in nitrate levels under different treatments

Iowa State University research conducted by Dr. Matt Helmers at Gilmore City, Iowa, show seasonal spring nitrate concentrations from 2011 to 2015 were the highest in 2013 (wet spring following a dry 2012). In the conventionally tilled system, nitrate concentration in drainage was 23.7 mg/L. When cover crops were added to the system, the nitrate concentration was reduced by 51% to 11.5 mg/L.

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Left and center: Exterior of sumps which are connected to the tile drainage lines in each plot. Right: Interior of a sump. The sump shows a meter reading for each pump located in each plot. Water samples are taken from each pump to be tested for nitrates.

While establishing cover crops in dry conditions may be a challenge, these are the situations where the impact of cover crop can provide big benefits.

Mark Licht

Mark Licht is an Iowa Learning Farms team member and Assistant Professor and Extension Cropping Systems Specialist at Iowa State University.

 

 

 

Reducing Soil Erosion with Cover Crops: New Infographic

Iowa Learning Farms is pleased to announce the release of a new infographic publication titled Reducing Soil Erosion with Rye Cover Crops.

This visually engaging document highlights one of the biggest benefits of cover crops — the ability to significantly reduce soil erosion. Based upon long-term cover crop work conducted by Korucu, Shipitalo, and Kaspar, colleagues at the USDA-ARS National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment here in Ames, this study looks specifically at one of Iowa’s most popular cover crops, winter cereal rye.

The USDA-ARS team conducted in-field simulated rainfall studies on plots with and without cereal rye cover crops, and their findings are powerful in terms of quantifying erosion reduction – 68% less sediment in surface runoff water with a rye cover crop. Further, the amount of surface runoff water decreased, while the amount of water infiltrating was found to increase with the cover crop.

This study was conducted in central Iowa, in the heart of the Des Moines Lobe, on land with a 2% slope. Substantial erosion reductions were found here with rye cover crops — consider the benefits of cover crops to reduce erosion on more sloping lands across the state!

The full infographic is available as a free PDF download on the Iowa Learning Farms website. Clicking on the image below will also take you right there.

Ann Staudt

Thousands of Steps, Millions of Seeds

Labor Day often marks the end of summer, but for the Iowa Learning Farms team it’s the start of cover crops season! Last week we traveled across the state to seed our cover crop mixture project sites. The project began in 2013 with hand broadcasting seeding cover crops at six Iowa State University Research and Demonstration Farms.  In 2016, we continued the project at four sites and this fall marked the fifth and final year of seeding.

As we traveled across the state, I began to wonder just how many miles I had walked seeding each row of the plots…

20150901_111602But first some background – to seed the research plots we prepared individually weighed seed packets to help achieve an even seeding rate of roughly one million seeds per acre. These are labeled, bundled and packaged by site to maximize efficiency in the field while seeding.

IMG_3325Once we arrive at the research farm, we carefully double check the map and add orange stakes to mark the first row of each plot. I then load up my nail apron with the packets for one of the plots and prepare to seed.  A teammate holds the end of our tape measure and I grab a hold of the other end. I then tear open a corner of the packet and walk backwards shaking out the seed.  Once the nail apron is empty, we check the map and move to the next plot.

Here’s a peek at seeding into corn at the Lewis Research Farm in southwest Iowa.

So how many miles did I cover walking backwards while seeding?

Each site had 16 cover crops plots that were 50 feet in length.  The width ranged from 6-12 rows.  All told, in the last five years I have walked 30.6 miles or 61,200 steps backwards seeding cover crops. In the span of four days last week, our team traveled 975 miles to seed the cover crops and collect the lysimeter water samples.

This year offered incredible weather to get the cover crops seeded and it was bittersweet to shake out the last packet of seed – oats – into the soybeans at Kanawha. I am also pleased to announce that I did not fall into the badger holes at our site in southwest Iowa – fifth year is the charm!

To everyone who helped establish the plots, the farm managers at the research farms and farmer partners for collecting biomass samples, yield data and management information, the pilots that flew on the cover crops, our outstanding summer interns and the team at Iowa Learning Farms – Thank You!

Stay tuned for an upcoming project report summarizing the great information this project has yielded.

Liz Juchems

Navigating the return of the next generation to the family farm

Chris and Kristi BlogThe most recent episode of the Conservation Chat podcast provides a candid look at how one father/daughter duo is navigating the addition of another household to the farm business, the joys and challenges that come with working with family, and the mutual goals of caring for the land. In Episode 34, host Jacqueline Comito met with Chris Foss and Kristi Heffelmeier at their farm in Northeast Iowa to chat about their whole farm approach to conservation.

The farm has been in the family for many generations, with Chris first farming with his father.  Kristi grew up on the farm and now lives with her husband at her grandparents place nearby. However, her path to farming was a winding one – first a degree in art education, then a Masters in Business and working in the corporate business world, next up was teaching middle school art in Texas before returning home to the family farm in 2013.

When she returned to Iowa, Kristi understood she had a lot to learn and wasn’t ready to take on a large financial stake in the farm.  Through open communication, she and Chris landed on an hourly payment rate arrangement that helped support the addition of another household. This agreement allows them flexibility to grow and learn from each other while utilizing the skills and passions each of them bring to the partnership.

Together they have a worked with the local watershed projects in Black Hawk and Tama Counties to maintain and add new conservation practices to the operation.  They are nearly 100% strip-tillage (corn), no-tillage (soybeans), and cover crops on 850 of their 2,200 acres to help protect the soil. They have also installed and maintained waterways and a bioreactor that treats about 80 acres along Miller Creek. The bioreactor is being monitored by Shane Wulf as part of Miller Creek Watershed Project that was featured in Episode 33 of the Conservation Chat.

Kristi and Puppy BlogKristi’s return to the farm, also meant the return of livestock – although not the variety we may be used to!  She and her husband breed competition Labrador dogs and sell them all over the country.  And although Chris had gotten used to the quiet without livestock, he has taken a shining to Hogan, Kristi’s indoor pet.

Be sure to tune into this episode to learn more about how they are managing the transition of a child’s return to the farm and the benefits of working together to care for our natural resources. You can also download or listen to any of the previous podcast episodes on the Conservation Chat website and through iTunes.

Liz Juchems

Cover Cropping on the Lobe

Last evening, a group of 40 area farmers, Soil & Water Conservation District commissioners, and a nice delegation of ISU students from the Ag & Biosystems Engineering department gathered up at Gilmore City, Iowa for a conservation field day hosted by Iowa Learning Farms. Located between Humboldt and Pocahontas, in the heart of the Des Moines Lobe, the Gilmore City research site is home to some of the longest running research in the state on nutrient management and drainage water quality. Last evening’s field day focused on conservation practices that could be utilized in-field (emphasis on cover crops) as well as edge-of-field (bioreactors, saturated buffers, and wetlands).

Kicking things off were father-son duo Bob and Jay Lynch, who farm just outside of Gilmore City. The Lynchs have been long-term ridge tillers, and in recent years, have largely transitioned to strip tillage. In addition, they began integrating cover crops into their corn and soybean operation in 2012, and they have continued to increase cover crop usage since then. With five plus years of cover crop experience under their belts, Bob and Jay shared some words of wisdom and lessons learned with field day attendees.

 

Benefits of Cover Crops
Bob and Jay Lynch see soil health as the biggest reason to use cover crops. Bob commented, “To see the real benefits of cover crops, you need to go below the ground surface. I go out in my fields where I had rye, and take a shovel out there – the biologicals in the soil are a big deal. I hope I get an earthworm in EVERY handful of my soil! The cover crop roots give them something to eat for much more of the year. In addition to the earthworms, you have all of the other beneficial microbes, too.”

The “feel” of the soil is improved with cover crops, as well. The Lynchs spoke about cover crops giving their soil “a really nice spongey-ness.” The benefits of soil aggregation are there, too, with a cover crop – Bob referenced that the ground would come apart just like cottage cheese with a rye cover crop!

While the Des Moines Lobe is known for its rich, fertile soils, cool temperatures can pose a challenge. The Lynchs commented that cover crops help to moderate soil temperatures, and those results are consistent with data collected from the research plots at Gilmore City, as well.

The Lynchs have also seen some weed suppression benefits with cover crops – when the rye gets knee high in the spring, they’ve seen its potential for blocking out/reducing the abundance of some competing spring weed species.

 

Fall — Cover Crop Seeding
Aerial application of the rye cover crop has resulted in the best cover crop stand for the Lynchs. They emphasized that fall growth is a function of light availability, so the amount of crop canopy cover will be a big factor with the cover crops starting out.

With adequate moisture, rye cover crops will germinate quickly and begin their fall growth. Here is some emerging rye at the Gilmore City research site, just five days old!

 

Spring – Cover Crop Termination
With rye and other overwintering cover crop species, spring termination is necessary ahead of planting your row crops. The Lynchs prefer to terminate their rye via chemical in the spring. For the greatest effectiveness, Bob and Jay have found success in separating out herbicide application into two passes – even on the same day — applying glyphosate first to begin the rye termination process, then following with the pre-emergence residual herbicide.

While rolling, roller crimping, and tillage are also possibilities for cover crop termination, they require very particular conditions for success, and as Bob puts it, “It you try to till rye, you’re just making it mad … and then it comes back with a vengeance!”

 

Spring – Planting into Cover Crop Residue
When rye is growing ahead of corn, the Lynchs presented two options for termination timing: plant your crop the same day you terminate your rye, OR it needs to be dead for 14 days before planting corn.

With abundant cover crop growth, they emphasized that planter settings should definitely be taken into consideration. When planting soybeans into rye residue, the Lynchs recommend that your soybean seeds be planted using similar settings as if you were planting corn. If you use the same bean setting as you would without cover crops, you run an increased risk of the bean seeds sitting on top of the surface.

 

Management Matters
Bob and Jay concluded, “With cover crops, it all comes down to management. What works with YOUR individual farm?

 

Wetlands in the Spotlight
The evening field day concluded out at a CREP wetland just a few miles from Gilmore City, sited specifically for nitrate removal. It was a stunning end to the field day as the sun dropped lower and lower on the horizon!  The beauty of the wetland and its ability to benefit water quality clearly piqued people’s interest, as the questions and conversations continued even after the sun went down.

Ann Staudt

How Drought Affects Soil Health

Dr. Mahdi Al-Kaisi, professor of agronomy and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach soil and water specialist, published a great article on the impacts of drought on soil health and management practices that can help reduce drought effects.

Drought conditions during most of the growing season in Iowa can have a profound impact on soil heath, just as when we have extreme wet conditions. The effect of drought can be noticed very clearly on crop performance when the lack of water availability is severe. This water stress can affect soil chemical, physical, and biological activities that are essential for plant and soil health.

One of the obvious effects of drought on soil health is the lack of nutrient uptake by crops, as water is the major medium for moving nutrients into plants as a result of water uptake. The increase in soil temperature associated with lack of soil moisture has an impact on microbial activities and nutrient processing, both of which are important for plant use for biomass and grain production. Microbial activities in soil generally are controlled by soil moisture and temperature. The departure from the optimum ranges of soil moisture (water field capacity) and soil temperature (approximately 76-86o F), which varies for different microbial communities in soil, can alter microbial activity. Changes in soil temperature during drought conditions can affect soil organic matter (SOM) decomposition and increase the release of carbon dioxide. Also, during this process additional mineral N, mostly in the form of nitrate, will be released in the soil system. This change in soil environment affects the stability of SOM and subsequently, affects the soil biological system.

The most profound effect that can be experienced in cropland is the excess release of nitrate which may not be utilized by crops due to the lack of moisture available for the plant to uptake nutrients. This shift in biological and chemical processes during the growing season influences many other relationships that are essential for crop performance, quantitatively and qualitatively, by changing activities that are important to nutrient cycling such as, enzymatic activities, change in soil chemicals concentrations, etc.

Management practices to reduce drought effects
In order to moderate future drought event’s effect on soil health, several practices can be valuable to enhance soil health by improving soil physical, chemical, and biological properties:

  1. Crop residue: crop residue can provide important benefits like improving soil moisture with an increase in soil water infiltration during and off-season as well as increase recharge of the sub-soil profile. The other benefit of residue is the moderation of soil temperature, where crop residue acts as an insulation layer by increasing soil surface reflectance to sun radiation (i.e., change in Albedo, the ratio of the light reflected by surface to that received by it, where residue color is lighter than soil surface). These benefits of crop residue have direct impacts on soil biological and chemical properties by reducing soil temperature and the slowdown of organic matter mineralization. The increase in soil organic matter can increase soil water storage capacity (Fig. 1). The other benefit of moisture conservation and its availability to crops during drought periods is the increase of utilization of nutrients and reduction of nutrient concentration in soil and loss during off-season rain events.
  2. Cover crops: cover crops have many benefits that are critical, especially during drought conditions. The way that cover crops provide such benefits during drought conditions is based on the cumulative effects of cover crops during previous seasons, where they promote better soil biological and physical conditions. It is well documented that cover crops increased soil water infiltration and recharge of the soil profile by improving soil aggregate stability and soil porosity. Furthermore, cover crops contribute to the increase of the soil organic matter pool, which is essential for building soil health.
  3. Balanced crop rotation: crop rotation and diversity of crops within one year or over several years is one of the most important practices that enhance soil health and mitigate drought conditions during the growing season. The diversity of crops on the land can provide a rich soil environment for a healthy and diverse biological system. The inclusion of different crops such corn, soybean, alfalfa, small grain, etc., provides diversity of root systems that promote a wide range of microbial community, therefore enhancing soil nutrient and organic matter pools as compared to a mono-cropping system (i.e., continuous corn).

These practices, in addition to organic amendments, are important in mitigating unexpected drought conditions in the long-term. These practices, along with minimum or no-tillage, can reduce the prolonged impact of drought events by increasing soil resiliency. The degree at which soils in Iowa and the Midwest have absorbed the dramatic impact of drought events was due to the rich soil organic matter content. Factors which contributed to that are the temperate climate and vegetation base (i.e., prairie), which encourage greater organic matter accumulation. This unique soil quality provides high water storage capacity that sustains crop production. So, to sustain such soil quality, we need to maintain it through the implementation of soil health principles by adopting conservation systems.

figure_1_Al-Kaisi drought article 8-23-2017

The article was published by Integrated Crop Management News on August 23, 2017.

Liz Juchems