Tips for Adding Cover Crops to Your Farm

Today’s post focuses another in-field conservation practices covered in the Whole Farm Conservation Best Practices Manual and the great decisions trees related to cover crops!

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

Cover crops are plant species, such as oats and cereal rye, planted to reduce soil erosion, improve soil health, and provide water quality benefits during the months of the year when crops are not actively growing on farmland. Incorporating cover crops improves soil health by:

  • Improving soil structure
  • Reducing soil compaction
  • Protecting the soil surface

Cover crops are seeded in the fall, either before or after harvest. They are not harvested as grains, but can be grazed or harvested as forage. Cover crops go hand-in-hand with no-tillage and strip-tillage.

6 Tips to Success for Starting Out with Cover Crops:

  • Oats ahead of corn
  • Cereal rye ahead of soybean
  • Selecting the seeding method that fits your system (see decision trees below)
  • Terminate 10-14 days ahead of corn and 3-7 days ahead of soybeans
  • Spring tillage of cover crops is NOT recommended
  • Adjust planter settings to higher residue system

The manual provides more detailed information on each of these tips and more, so download a FREE copy for your farm today.

Also be sure to check out our YouTube video series Cover Crops: Farmer Perspectives and Adding a Cover Crop to a Corn-Soybean System, as well as our recent webinar – Succeeding with Cover Crops & No-Till: A Guide for Spring 2020​​​​​​​ and virtual field days for more great information.

Liz (Juchems) Ripley

Farming for the Future

Last night was a lovely evening to learn more about cover crops and adding conservation to lease agreements at the Fawcett Farm near West Branch. The Fawcett Family has adopted a variety of conservation practices on their farm including prairie strips and a recently installed saturated buffer. The site was a perfect backdrop for what is possible when farmers and landowners work together to keep keep the soil in place to maintain the ability to farm the land for generations to come.

IMG_5089“Organic matter is one of the best indicators of soil health,” stated Virgil Schmitt, ISU Extension Field Agronomist, who kicked off the program. ” In the long run, improved soil health improves yields as the biological processes are working better. You can’t improve soil health if you loosing soil to erosion.”

That’s where no-till and cover crops come into play! By adding a cover crop to a no-till system, organic matter is able to accumulate and the nearly continuous cover of living plants significantly reduces soil erosion.

Virgil provided some key tips for those getting started with cover crops:

  • Cereal rye before soybeans
  • Oats before corn (terminates with a hard frost and will not need to be terminated in the spring)
  • Start on a single field or portion of field
  • Pay attention to details

“Adding a cover crop can be a relatively easy process if recognized as a change in management that requires planning to increase success,” said Schmitt. There are resources like Iowa Learning Farms farmer partners with years of cover crop experience that can serve as mentors – reach out to one in your area!

IMG_5109Chris Henning, Greene County landowner, shared some advice with fellow landowners in attendance, “It’s never to early to think about succession planning. My goal is to keep Iowa beautiful for years to come and part of reaching that goal is making a plan for my land after I’m no longer making the decisions.”

Henning also stressed the importance of communication between the landowner and tenant to maintain a good working relationship that meets production and conservation goals. “When I first required cover crops on my farm, my tenant was skeptical but willing to work with them. After a couple years of seeing the benefits on my fields, he has added cover crops to his own acres and has been very pleased.”

IMG_5121If you or someone you know is looking for information on adding conservation to leases, Charles Brown, ISU Extension Farm Management Specialist, shared some great resources along with his personal experiences helping landowners and tenants work through the discussion.

“Working together is crucial to the success of the changes. If you simply tell someone they have to do it, the results may not turn out as you had hoped. Instead, sit down and have a conversation about the land and the management and get the lease agreement in writing,” shared Brown.

Brown also highlighted an important item to consider in the discussion: who pays for the cover crops. “I have seen many different payment arrangements – landowner, tenant, shared costs, longer leases. All are possible and have worked well, but it is a matter of having the discussion.”

For more information on conservation leases, visit ISU Ag Decision Maker. You can find a cover crop lease insertion from Nature Conservancy here.

We still have more field days coming up, so be sure to check out our events page to learn more and subscribe to our e-newsletter to stay in touch!

Liz Juchems

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

 

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.

cover.PNG

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