Why Improving the Soil Will Pay Dividends

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What does it take to weather-proof a cropping system? Yesterday, during an Iowa Learning Farms webinar, Dr. Jerry L. Hatfield suggested that the answer to that question lies in our soil. He shared research findings that show the importance of soil quality in rain-fed agricultural systems to reduce variation in crop yield and increase yield overall.

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Dr. Jerry L. Hatfield

Hatfield, who is Laboratory Director and Supervisory Plant Physiologist at the USDA National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment in Ames, IA, conducts research that focuses on understanding the dynamics of the G x E x M (genetics x environment x management) complex to evaluate the role of soil, with the changing weather, on crop performance. 

Hatfield’s research has found that in rain-fed systems, better soil means a better crop yield, when looking at counties in three Midwestern states. Nebraskan counties, which all used irrigation, were an outlier in the data showing that if you can control the water, the quality of soil is less important. In rain-fed agricultural systems, like we have here in Iowa, the soil quality is very important since the water cannot be controlled—having higher quality soil will lead to higher yield amounts and less variation in yield.

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A figure from Hatfield’s presentation, “Good Soils = Good Yields”, showing soybean yields across Iowa, Kentucky and Nebraska counties. (NCCPI = National Commodity Crop Productivity Index)

How can you improve your soil quality? Hatfield suggested the use of strip-till or no-till in the place of traditional tillage. Crop residue on the surface has benefits for the soil—providing food for the complex soil biology and stabilizing the soil micro-climate. Cover crops are another way to improve soil health and further research is being conducted on the benefits of different types and combinations of cover crops. In addition to the benefits to soil quality that no-till and cover crops can provide, they can also sequester carbon, reducing the amount that is released to the atmosphere.

To learn more about how improved soil quality can weather-proof your cropping system, and the use of no-till and cover crops to improve soil quality and reduce carbon loss to the atmosphere, watch the full webinar here.

Tune in next month, on Wednesday May 15 at noon, when Emily Waring, Graduate Research Assistant at Iowa State University, will present an Iowa Learning Farms webinar titled “Cover Crop Impact on Crop Yield and Water Quality: Single Species vs. Mixtures”.

Hilary Pierce

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

Do you have “cottage cheese” soil?

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It was a beautiful evening yesterday to spend learning about the benefits of cover crops and no-till at Rob Stout’s farm in Washington County.

Rob Stout talking to a group of people in a field with cover crops growing

Rob Stout discusses cover crops at the field day

“There’s a learning curve. You just need to step up your management a little bit,” Stout explained, when discussing implementing cover crops for the first time.

He went on to talk about the benefits he has seen on his farm: an increase in earthworms and microbes, erosion control, water quality benefits and improved soil health.

A close up of no-till residue with rye growing

Cover crops and no-till on one of Rob Stout’s fields

“Rye is my go-to – I like it best,” said Stout, “Where we have the rye we don’t have any winter annual weeds. There’s no Marestail on any of these fields with the cover crop.”

Hands holding a clump of soil with green rye growing over a shovel

Soil structure under the cover crops

Attendees also heard from Jason Steele from the NRCS. Steele described the soil health benefits of implementing no-till or cover crops.

“If it looks like cottage cheese or Grape Nuts cereal, that’s what we want our soil to look like,” Steele said, “We want that granular structure. We don’t want it looking like concrete – if you do too much tillage it starts to look like concrete.”

Steele went on to say that despite the very wet fall we had last year, there were no ruts visible in Stout’s fields due to the fact that the fields were not tilled. The combination of no-till and cover crops reduced compaction and kept the top two inches of soil light and fluffy, with good soil structure and infiltration and the most biological activity.

Rounding out the program were Liz Juchems from Iowa Learning Farms, who shared research updates; Tony Maxwell from the NRCS, who talked about cost share; and Matt McAndrew and Paul Brandt from MB Water, who discussed testing water quality in tile drains.

Check out the events page of our website to find out about upcoming field days and workshops in your area!

Hilary Pierce

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

 

It’s Opening Week!

ILFHeader(15-year)Thought I was talking about baseball didn’t you?

This week we kicked off our spring field day/workshop season with a stop in Jefferson. Yesterday we held a Cover Crops and Grazing Cover Crops Field Day at the McNay Research Farm near Chariton.

The leadoff speaker was Chariton farmer Duane Steenhoek, who talked about his experience growing and grazing cover crops.

“The best part is we get over 30 days where the calves didn’t even touch the feeders. They gained 50 pounds from the cover crops.” Steenhoek said. “It’s funny watching them walk around carrying turnips in their mouth, but they love them.”

On deck was Liz Juchems with the Iowa Learning Farms. She shared the main findings from an ILF 10-year study on cover crops and what impact they have on yield. She also hit on planter settings, cost share opportunities and how oats and cereal rye are great for rookies.

Closing out the field day were ISU Extension Field Agronomist Rebecca Vittetoe and ISU Beef Field Specialist Erika Lundy. They spoke to utilizing cover crops as a forage source. They covered seeding methods, the importance of your herbicide program, possible grazing issues and which species to select for maximum grazing benefits.

Lundy says, “If you want to graze in the fall and spring, I recommend planting oats and cereal rye. Because oats will grow quicker in the fall and cereal rye will shoot up in the spring.” 

If you weren’t able to attend this event, there are more opportunities to attend one of our upcoming workshops or field days!

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
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

 

~Nathan

 

Oats: The Gateway Cover Crop

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“Here’s the thing with cover crops that no one really talks about – there’s a lot of worry that your beans might not look as good as your neighbor’s. There’s a social barrier there. I might think, ‘This neighbor’s beans look great. I have to change the way I drive home.'” – James Holz

James Holz, a farmer and co-founder of Iowa Cover Crop, shared some of his knowledge about cover crops at our workshop in Jefferson on March 26th.

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Here are some of James’ cover crop tips:

  • Have a plan and goals
  • Keep it simple
  • Do corn going into beans the first year
  • Remember that every year is different
  • Get the cover crops established
  • Get ideal weather – don’t wait for the ideal date

“My biggest feeling of accomplishment was when my farmer said to me, ‘I think these cover crops are working’, and then he went and planted them on his own land.” – Chris Henning, a Greene County landowner

Attendees also heard from Chris Henning, who shared about her experiences as a landowner and working with a tenant to incorporate conservation practices, like cover crops and no-till. Rounding out the agenda was Mark Licht, ISU Extension Cropping Systems Specialist and Liz Juchems, Iowa Learning Farms.

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If you weren’t able to attend this event, there are more opportunities to attend one of our upcoming workshops or field days!

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
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

Hilary Pierce