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

Rob Stout Farm
2449 Hemlock Ave
Washington, IA 52353
Washington County
RSVP: 515-294-5429 or
Press Release

April 10 – Cover Crop and No-Till Workshop
Steier Ag Aviation
202 190th St
Whittemore, IA 50598
Kossuth County
RSVP: 515-294-5429 or
Press Release

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

Cover Crop Crop Insurance Demonstration Project

This article was originally published on Clean Water Iowa’s website.


Crop insurance is an integral part of the farm safety net that provides protection for farmers after bad weather impacts their crops. Cover crops can help prevent erosion and improve water quality and soil health; among other benefits.

The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) and partners worked with the USDA Risk Management Agency (RMA) to establish a 3 year demonstration project aimed at expanding usage of cover crops in Iowa.

Through this project IDALS will provide $5/acre for cover crops to eligible applicants. Funding will be provided through RMA as an additional insurance premium discount through normal crop insurance processes. The new premium reduction will be available for fall-planted cover crops with a spring-planted cash crop. Some policies may be excluded, such as Whole-Farm Revenue Protection or those covered through written agreements. Participating farmers must follow all existing good farming practices required by their policy and work with their insurance agent to maintain eligibility.

Sign up is currently open until 5:00 pm on January 15, 2018, for farmers and landowners to certify cover crop acres for the program. Sign up to begin the application process. Please note that cover crop acres currently enrolled in state and/or federal programs are not eligible for this program.

For more information, please see the Program Rules, Frequently Asked Questions, or contact IDALS.

Julie Whitson

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

Reducing Nutrient Losses While Building Iowa’s Soils and Economy

Today’s guest post is by Marty Adkins, Assistant State Conservationist for Iowa Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), a member of the Iowa Learning Farms Steering Committee.

Iowa’s soils are globally precious and unique. These soils are the cornerstone of a vibrant and productive farming sector and make Iowa’s overall economy strong.  Protecting and building the productive capacity of Iowa’s soils is essential to Iowa’s future.  Happily, many of the same practices that help protect and build soils also have a positive impact on water quality.  This is especially true of cover crops, crop rotations that include small grains and forages, and no-tillage and strip-tillage planting.

Marty Adkins and his other passion in life; playing the ukulele.

The widespread adoption of cover crops will require increased availability of seed and seeding equipment.  There are new business opportunities related to the growing, cleaning, transportation, sales and custom planting of cover crop seed.  Iowa’s farm machinery industry can continue to design, build, sell and service equipment needed for cover crop seeding and management, and increased adoption of no-till and strip-till.

There are other farm business opportunities to consider when it comes to conservation farming practices.  Cover crops and extended rotations could provide more grazing for more livestock in more places, with more small-town businesses selling all needed goods and services to livestock farms.

In addition to increased economic activity in the farm and industrial sectors, there are other economic benefits to be gained from conservation practices.  An Iowa countryside that is green nearly all year-round, with the land covered and protected, would be a more attractive landscape for Iowa residents, and could attract visitors and new entrepreneurs.

Economic research shows that cleaner streams and lakes result in increased recreational opportunities (swimming, canoeing, boating, and fishing) and more tourism to towns and cities associated with these amenities.  More dollars stay in Iowa when Iowans vacation and recreate within the state.

The environmental benefits associated with better soil management are well documented.  But improved soil management can also contribute to Iowa’s economic well-being, now and long into the future.

~Marty Adkins

Suburban “City Girl” Perspectives on Rainfall and Soil Conservation

NOTE: Today’s guest blog post was written by water resources student intern Kate Sanocki! Originally hailing from Hudson, Wisconsin, outside the Twin Cities, Kate will be starting her sophomore year in Biological Systems Engineering at Iowa State University.


From the time I was a toddler I preferred spending the majority of my time outdoors and loved observing nature, organisms and the ecosystems that comprised it. This passion drove me to become involved in the Young Naturalist Club. In our weekly meetings, we would complete various projects such as planting trees, building bird feeders or studying different species of plants in the area.

However, one project was particularly rewarding to me.  A steep hill located near our middle school parking lot presented a challenge during heavy rainfalls resulting in deep ruts, erosion and topsoil washing onto the impervious asphalt parking lot. Seeing a need to prevent future erosion, the Young Naturalist Club was given a $460 budget to help design and install a rain garden. We researched plants that would be able to withstand intense bouts of rainwater runoff but also prosper during dry times. This process allowed me to become very familiar with conservation practices that could be implemented in urban locations.

While I have a good level of understanding of urban conservation practices, as a suburban “city girl,” this internship with Iowa Learning Farms/Water Rocks! has really opened my eyes to various agricultural practices. For example, while I traveled back and forth from Hudson, Wisconsin to Iowa State University last year as a college freshman, I never really looked beyond the fact that there were plants growing in the fields, let alone what type they were or even the type of conservation practices being implemented.

This summer internship has changed my whole perspective on agriculture! Last Friday when I was heading home for Memorial Day weekend, I found myself searching the numerous fields from the highway as I drove past and realized I was looking to see what type of tillage was lining the fields. I saw numerous tillage practices such as intense tillage, conservation tillage and no till. Most of Iowa’s cropland implements conservation tillage, while no till is used on about 25% of Iowa’s cropland.


A variety of tillage practices can be found across the Midwestern landscape… shown here from top to bottom are no tillage, strip tillage (a form of conservation tillage), and intense tillage.

Through my internship, I learned that tillage practices can greatly affect water quality, which is something I hadn’t really thought about before. I learned that leaving plant material on the field can dramatically reduce the amount of sediment runoff because it protects the soil like armor would. When a raindrop hits the ground it acts like a person cannon-balling into a pool; it strikes the ground and the impact causes soil to be knocked loose and carried away with the water.

RainfallSimulatorWBorderTo demonstrate this we travel around the state of Iowa and use a special machine called the Rainfall Simulator (part of the Conservation Station) where community members can see what happens to soil and water quality in various urban and rural settings.

While presenting a module on soil conservation to a group of 3rd graders at Swan Lake State Park, the class eagerly watched as the jars on the Rainfall Simulator started to fill up. A boy in the front row raised his hand and said the water coming from the no till plot seemed really clean compared to the water from the two tillage plots. In response, one of his peers blurted out that the plots containing no till and cover crops were clean because there wasn’t any soil moving out of the plots.

I was excited to see that the concept we had been teaching them had really sunk in. And their teacher, who had grown up on a farm, interjected and said, “I bet you guys are going to see a lot more of these practices on cropland in the future…” as she pointed to the no till and cover crop trays, “ we learn more about conservation, we’re getting smarter about conserving our resources.”

The quantity of information I have learned from this program just in the past three weeks is incredible. I look forward to continuing to learn and teach others about conservation. I am excited to see what the rest of the summer will bring. Who knows, maybe there really is some “country” in this “city girl.”

Kate Sanocki



Cover Crops: Taking a Closer Look at Legumes

In the previous weeks, we’ve showcased grasses and brassicas as great options for cover crops that can be readily integrated into corn and soybean cropping systems across Iowa. Now it’s time to show some love to the legumes!

Last month, Liz shared the Top 10 Cover Crops for Iowa in 2016 identified by plant scientists, agronomists, and other researchers focused on cover crops, as well as you, our blog readers. Two of the top ten cover crops from this poll are legumes: red clover and hairy vetch.


What makes the legumes special, and why consider them as potential winter cover crops in your farming operation? The biggest difference between legumes and the other (non-leguminous) cover crops is their ability to fix nitrogen. Particular bacteria in the soil (rhizobium species) form nodules on the roots of the legume plant. It’s a natural symbiotic relationship that allows for the capture of nitrogen from the atmosphere (N2 gas) and conversion of this nitrogen to forms that are plant usable. This process is referred to as biological nitrogen fixation.


A very common example of this nitrogen fixation process happens in our soybean fields. The reason nitrogen fertilizer historically has not been added to soybean crops is because they are able to pull the nitrogen they need from the atmosphere as well as from mineralized nitrogen in the soil.

LegumesKnowing that legumes have the potential to add nitrogen back into the soil, this offers another “tool in the toolbox” when it comes to cover crops!  Hairy vetch and red clover were mentioned above, but there are a number of other legume cover crops to consider as well, including common vetch, crimson clover, white clover, kura clover, sweet clover, cow peas, winter lentils, and alfalfa.

When it comes to getting your cover crop planted in the fall, legumes and brassicas need more heat units than small grains to be effective. Thus, timely planting is of the essence!  In the Cover Crops: A Guide for Iowa Producers recommendations from USDA-NRCS, legumes should optimally be seeded between August 1 – September 15.

Seeding rates vary based on the specific legume you’re using – check out Practical Farmers of Iowa’s Cover Crop Recommendations and the Midwest Cover Crops Council webpage, which includes information on a variety of cover crop research trials as well a robust cover crop selector tool.


Do legume cover crops survive over the winter? It depends – it depends on the intensity of the winter, when the legume cover crop was planted, fall weather conditions (how much fall cover crop growth was attained?), and where geographically you are located in the state! From the Iowa Learning Farms’ perspective, the only experience we’ve had with legumes overwintering in Iowa came from one of our farmer-partners in the southern part of the state, and that was only described as being moderately successful.

Legumes on their own can offer many benefits, including fixing atmospheric nitrogen, providing a nitrogen source for the soil to be used by future crops, as well as protection from soil erosion along with building soil structure and organic matter. However, this is ultimately dependent upon how much growth is achieved, which can be a big challenge – weed control abilities are less, and legumes do not increase soil organic matter as much as other cover crops.

However, legumes can be used in a cover crop mixture with grasses or brassicas, which offers the ability to harness some of the benefits of different types of cover crops. From SARE’s Managing Cover Crops Profitably: Third Edition, “Mixtures of legume and grass cover crops combine the benefits of both, including biomass production, N scavenging and additions to the system, as well as weed and erosion control.”


We are using one legume, hairy vetch, as part of our USDA-NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant investigating cover crop mixtures. It is being utilized in a three species grass-brassica-legume mixture, including oats, radish, and hairy vetch (this specific mixture is seeded in the fall following soybeans). All three species can be seen distinctly in the above photograph from November 2015; the hairy vetch is the small plant with fern-like leaves in the foreground.

Fall 2015 offered fantastic conditions for cover crop growth, including hairy vetch, so it will be interesting to see what impact that has as we carry out soil testing as well as look at the nitrate-nitrogen data in the spring. Will there be observable differences between the single species plots (containing oats only) compared to those with a mixture of oats, radish, and hairy vetch? Stay tuned…

Additional Cover Crop Resources:
Cover Crops in Iowa: A Quick Guide (Iowa Learning Farms)
Cover Crops: A Guide for Iowa Producers (USDA-NRCS)
Cover Crop Recommendations (Practical Farmers of Iowa)
Cover Crop Business Directory (Practical Farmers of Iowa)
Overview of Legume Cover Crops (SARE)
Managing Cover Crops Profitably: Third Edition

Ann Staudt