ICYMI – Can Cover Crops Clean the Corn Belt?

There are many news headlines competing for our attention every day and while some fade into the background, water quality and conservation practices remain in the forefront as we work to meet the goals of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.  A recent article written by Laura Sayre for New Food Economy asks the question: Can Cover Crops Clean the Corn Belt? and I strongly encourage you to check it out!

Cover crops provide a multitude of benefits including: helping improve water quality by reducing the losses of both nitrates and phosphorus, minimizing soil erosion, improving soil health and mimicking diversified crop rotation benefits by keeping the fields green in the winter.
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Biomass sampling cereal rye in Taylor County spring 2017

A key practice in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy toolbox, cover crops are able to help reduce both nitrogen and phosphorus leaving the field and entering water bodies.  In addition to practices like wetlands, bioreactors and nutrient management, one of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy scenarios calls for 65% of Iowa row crop acres (about 15 million acres) to be seeded with cover crops.  At just over 600,000 acres seeded in 2016, we still have a long way to go to reach that level of adoption. However, there are a variety of economic opportunities that accompany that goal including cover crop seed growers and dealers, co-op, and equipment manufacturers.

Whether or not cover crops can indeed help clean the Corn Belt is up to all Iowans.  This includes, but not limited to those mentioned in the article: researchers like Dr. Matt Liebman with Iowa State University, farmers and landowners like ILF farmer partner Tim Smith, non-profit organizations like Practical Farmers of Iowa, our state agency partners, and urban residents, like myself, all doing our part to help keep the water clean and supporting the efforts of others working towards meeting the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy goals.

Liz Juchems

Soil Health: The Spark of a National Movement

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Steven Rosenzweig, a PhD Candidate at Colorado State University, recently wrote an article titled, “How a new way of thinking about soil sparked a national movement in agriculture.” In the article, Rosenzweig details how Ray Archuleta and many others within the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) began thinking about how to change agriculture in a way that would allow farmers to avoid the “double squeeze” of rising inputs costs and declining returns. Thus, in the 1990’s, the soil health movement was born. Rosenzweig explains the movement below:

“Known as the soil health movement, it is a management philosophy centered around four simple principles: reduce or eliminate tillage, keep plant residues on the soil surface, keep living roots in the ground, and maximize diversity of plants and animals. Some immensely successful farmers have ascended to celebrity status in the agricultural community preaching these principles. They are growing more food while drastically reducing their use of inputs like herbicides and fertilizers, which is the ultimate strategy for becoming more profitable.”

Ray Archuleta has now reached over 100,000 farmers and ranchers in the U.S. with his soil health message. Rosenzweig describes how Archuleta has been able to distill his message to farmers, captivating them with just a few clumps of soil that each tell a story about soil structure and its relationship to soil health:

“The implications of Archuleta’s demonstrations are obvious to food producers, who see the fate of their acres in those clumps of soil. The message is powerful, and producers drive home knowing that soil is alive, that it can be sick or healthy, and that healthy soil can do some pretty amazing things — like make a farm more resilient to drought, sequester enormous amounts of carbon, reduce erosion and support an ecosystem that’s teeming with life.”

Read Steven Rosenzweig’s article to learn more about the soil health movement and how it’s shaping the future of agriculture.

ILF_Badge_Multi_LGIf you are interested in implementing soil health practices, you can find more information about soil conservation, cover crops, and more at our website. Find an ILF Farmer Partner in your area who might have experience with a conservation practice you’re interested in trying, or attend an upcoming field day to learn more about conservation practices.

Julie Whitson

When the Governor comes for lunch

What do you serve when the Governor and Lieutenant Governor are coming for lunch?
An all-Iowa meal of course!

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Photo Credit: Jean Simmet

Iowa Learning Farms farmer partners (and my parents), Rick and Jane Juchems, were honored with a visit from Governor Terry Branstad and Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds on Wednesday, August 3rd. The visit was a stop on the Governor’s soil and water conservation tour of the state.

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Photo Credit: Jean Simmet

The visit was an opportunity for our family and fellow Butler County Soil and Water Commissioners to highlight the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy practices they have implemented including cover crops, filter strips, buffers, prairie areas, no-tillage and much more!  Over the delicious cheese hors devours, the group discussed the steps taken thus far while also discussing what it will take to reach our water quality and soil health goals.

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Photo Credit: Jean Simmet

The conversation continued over the meal and the visit concluded with a tour of a newly finished shallow water pond to address erosion concerns, a prairie area and nearby soybean field where cereal rye had been seeded last fall.

 

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Photo Credit: Jean Simmet

For those of you still wondering what was served  – the menu included smoked pork loin, and from the family garden: sweet corn (the Governor’s favorite!), roasted garden vegetables of carrots, beets and zucchini, and homemade coleslaw. For dessert, brownies with ice cream and fresh raspberries were enjoyed.

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If you would like to learn more about what the Juchems family is doing to help improve Iowa’s soil and water quality, you can check out our recent episode on the Conservation Chat.

Liz Juchems

ILF Partner Seth Watkins hosts 3rd Grade Field Trip

On Wednesday of this week, we had the pleasure of traveling down to our friend Seth Watkins’ farm in southwest Iowa to help out with a special field trip. A small group of 3rd grade students in the Corning schools, working with TAG Instructor and STEM Coordinator Tabatha Klopp, have been studying water quality, pollution, animal waste, nutrients, and more, and she was looking for field trip ideas to engage this great group of kids.

The Iowa Learning Farms program works with farmer-partners across the state, so we called upon Seth Watkins, near Clarinda, to help out and serve as host – a great opportunity for these 3rd grade students to see a wide variety of good conservation practices all in one place!  We brought the Conservation Station trailer down, as well, and had an awesome morning touring Seth’s farm, talking about water quality, and doing some water quality monitoring. Continue reading for the highlights!

The rain had been pretty relentless across southwest Iowa over the past week, so when the skies cleared on Wednesday morning, we immediately hopped on Seth’s hayrack for the farm tour first.  After the recent deluge of rain, one might be leery to be out driving through any field. But thanks to cover crops and perennial cover such as alfalfa, it was no problem at all!

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First we stopped to check out Seth’s grassed waterway. The students were in awe when Seth told us that the water moving down his grassed waterway eventually ends up at the Gulf of Mexico!  We worked together to trace the entire path of those raindrops, from Seth’s waterway, to the stream, to the 102 River near Bedford, to the Missouri River, to the Mississippi River, and ending up in the Gulf of Mexico. Before moving on, they collected water samples.

As the tour continued, we got to see several different types of cover crops, both living as well as recently terminated. We looked at the extensive roots of the cover crops and talked about how they make “tunnels” or pathways for water to move. As if on cue, an earthworm crawled out of the root bundle just as we were talking about soil structure!

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We also got to visit Seth’s pond; while we didn’t get to see the beavers that have taken up residency there, we did see other creatures like birds, frogs, and fish. Seth emphasized the importance of providing habitat for these creatures out on the landscape, whether it’s in a filter strip or around the pond, and how each one is an important part of our ecosystem.

Finally, Seth shared his golden rule of agronomy, which is if you take something from the land, you have to put something back – e.g. protecting the soil however we can, growing cover crops and perennials that put nutrients back in the soil, grazing livestock, etc.

Back at the shop, we gathered around the Conservation Station’s rainfall simulator, giving students the opportunity to see up close how different land management practices affect where water flows and how clean or dirty it is. The 3rd graders saw erosion happening right before their eyes and learned how long it takes new soil to form – 500 years for just 1 inch.

One of the students replied, “500 years?!  I wouldn’t even be alive!”

We wrapped up the morning by trying out some water quality monitoring. We tested different water samples for nitrate, pesticides, copper, iron, and transparency.  Several of the tests required dissolving a tablet and then shaking for 5 minutes, which quickly turned into a Taylor Swift dance party (Shake It Off!) …

To wrap things up, here are the 3rd grade students’ take home messages from the field tour and the Conservation Station trailer:

Water from here ends up in the ocean
Soil can get into water and make it dirty
Water can get polluted pretty fast
Don’t till the land
And you should plant cover crops!

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Thanks to Seth, Tabatha, and the Corning 3rd grade group for letting us spend part of the day with you. We had a great time!

Check out more photos on the Corning ELP & STEM Facebook page.

-Ann Staudt

ILF farmer partner Steve Berger gets national recognition

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Steve Berger talks to ILF field day attendees about his no-till with cover crop operation.

Iowa Learning Farms farmer partner Steve Berger was in Phoenix last week to receive recognition from the American Soybean Association. He was named the National Conservation Legacy Award winner. He was one of three regional awardees who qualified for the national recognition.

Berger is a southeast Iowa farmer who is using cover crops along with his no-till corn-soybean operation. You can read the article about the ASA award recipients here.


 

Also, make plans to attend an ILF field day at Steve’s farm on March 25. He and his father Dennis manage the 2,000 acre farm which includes a large hog operation. The field day is from 5:30-7:00 p.m. It is free and open to the public. Visit the ILF website for field day details.
-Carol Brown

Clean Water Radio Recap

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Dr. Jacqueline Comito co-hosted Friday morning’s episode of Clean Water Radio on KHOI 89.1FM.  The program was informative as well as entertaining, covering topics ranging from the voluntary nature of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy to music videos to cover crops and bioreactors.  ILF farmer-partner Tim Smith of Eagle Grove was interviewed as part of the program as well.

Listen to the program in its entirety at KHOI’s Local Talk website.

Ann Staudt