Field Day Recap: Management Matters with Cover Crops!

Cover crops and conservation leases were the theme of an Iowa Learning Farms Women Landowners Cover Crop Workshop held in Marshalltown on June 7.  While cover crops offer numerous benefits out on the landscape, one common theme emerged clearly from the workshop presentations and discussion  — it all comes down to active management when integrating a cover crop.

Allen Burt, who farms 3 miles north of Marshalltown, kicked off the workshop by sharing his experience with cover crops and some of his key management considerations.

He emphasized, “Start with something easy.”  In Burt’s playbook, that means getting oats out on soybean ground as soon as you can in September (drill or broadcast), let them winterkill, and then plant corn into that in the spring.

On corn ground, he suggests starting with cereal rye and a little bit of starter fertilizer (something like a 10-23-23 mix) after the corn is harvested, ideally in early October. The cereal rye will survive over the winter, and then Burt recommends terminating in the spring with glyphosate.

Burt’s recommendations align nicely with the Iowa Learning Farms’ findings, as well, shared at the workshop by Liz Juchems, Conservation Outreach Specialist.

Juchems also shared findings about yield impacts following cover crops. Farmer-partners working with cereal rye reported that in 59 of 63 site-years, strips with cover crops were yield neutral compared to strips without a cover crop – no negative impact on corn and soybean yields. The only significant yield declines were in the first two “learning” years of this long-term study, when producers faced challenges regarding spring termination and planter adjustments to accommodate the additional residue from the cover crop. Over time, those management challenges were overcome to realize cover crop success.

Interwoven with the presentations was an earthworm midden counting hands-on demonstration, as well as lively discussion and dialogue from the 25 people in attendance, including area landowners, operators, and conservation/ag professionals.

One producer in attendance brought up, “The #1 problem in farming today is soil erosion.”  Another producer added to that, commenting that a close second in terms of challenges today is the perception of “This is the way we’ve always done it,” acknowledging there can be some resistance to new practices like cover crops, despite the benefits to reducing erosion, benefitting soil structure, etc.

Charles Brown, Farm Management Specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, noted, “When you talk about using cover crops, it’s a different management practice – you can’t just do the same thing you’ve always done.”  He shared with the group his own experience with growing cover crops, as well as numerous suggestions for landowners and operators to work together to integrate cover crops into a written conservation lease.

Farmer Allen Burt emphasized, “As a producer, my message for you is, ‘Get out there and try it!  If you have the right attitude, you can do it! … Cover crops are a small investment to make things better in the long run.”

Ann Staudt

This workshop was put on as a partnership of Iowa Learning Farms and Marshall Co. Farm Bureau.

Opinion: The Iowa Farmer, and the Decay Of the Rural Economy

Today’s guest blog post represents the opinion of AmeriCorps Service Member Jack Schilling, part of the Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach program, serving with Water Rocks! in 2017-2018.

It’s been almost six months since I first started my service with Water Rocks! and Iowa State University. Throughout this time, I have traveled all over the state of Iowa for numerous outreach events, from Decorah to Council Bluffs, Sioux Center to Cedar Rapids. The bluffs and plains of Iowa offer some truly great views along the highways, but there is another sight that has become all-too-familiar to me: the sight of a small, rural, agricultural town along the way. My home town, Jefferson, was not much different than this when I was a child, but in the last few years gained new businesses, most notably a Hy-Vee and the Wild Rose Casino. However, many small towns do not get an opportunity like this and run the risk of fading away.

Rural areas on the decline is not a new concept: farm income plunged for three straight years since 2014, says Barbara Soderlin of the Omaha World Herald (American farm income to fall in 2018 according to USDA forecast). A combination of low prices and poor weather have made it rough for farmers trying to get by. Some made the tough decision to give up their family farms simply because it couldn’t provide. And as farm family numbers shrink, so do the number of stores, hospitals, and other places of work. Even the factories, a partner with farms as the great job producers of Iowa’s rural economy, will leave, searching for more workers. And as such, rural Iowa, the lands that we are known for, decay.

When you see the same circumstance time and time again, you truly want to help your state find a way to bring jobs, wealth, and prosperity back to how they used to be. And, in a way, it helps you realize why some decisions are made the way they are. At first, it may not make sense for a factory to get a tax credit. But, if they didn’t have the tax incentive, the factory may not have been there in the first place. Bringing one part of the rural economy’s life blood back is a good first step for the state. More jobs lead to more population in the towns, which leads to town necessities like stores, hospitals, and gas stations being built, which leads to more jobs and a better economy. Ideally, this leads to a revitalization of an entire area. But what of the farmers of the state? I can’t give an answer to that.

The future of the Iowa farmer is uncertain. Price lulls, poor weather, and a disappearing rural community all factor in to the life blood of the rural economy. Ideally, the price of corn and soybeans will rise again, and the problem will solve itself, but the future lies at a crossroads. Does the small town/rural Iowa we know rebound and thrive again, or does it become the agricultural equivalent of the Rust Belt, a relic of a better time?

Jack Schilling

On-the-Ground Experience with Cover Crops

“What’s building organic matter worth to you?”

For Prairie City, IA farmer Gordon Wassenaar and tenant farmer Will Cannon, it’s worth using no-till and cover crops on every single one of their 1300 acres of cropland.  In a field day hosted by Iowa Learning Farms, Jasper Co. NRCS and SWCD, Wassenaar and Cannon shared their perspectives on cover crops and how they can be very successfully integrated into corn and soybean cropping systems.

Wassenaar, who has farmed for over 50 years, stated that he first got into cover crops for the purpose of protecting the soil from erosion. He started with cereal rye, broadcast seeded from an airplane.

As time has gone on, Wassenaar’s reasons for using cover crops have evolved from simply erosion control, to improving the structure and functioning of the soil — raising soil organic matter, aggregate stability, and water holding capacity. Cannon commented that on top of that, another big benefit is feeding the biodiversity of the soil, like the beneficial mycorrhizal fungi, all while growing a healthy crop.

Timing and seed-soil contact are two big factors with establishing successful cover crop stands, and it’s a balancing act between the two. Aerial broadcast seeding (or interseeding with a high clearance vehicle) allows for a larger window of time for fall growth, while drilling provides greater seed-soil contact. Today, Wassenaar and Cannon have moved to drilling all of their cover crops, ideally getting them in the ground 24 hours or less behind the combine.

When asked about the financial considerations of cover crops, Cannon responded, “We’ve got to be willing to be a little creative and inventive to make it work.”  And they certainly are.

Cannon outlined several approaches they are taking to minimize costs and improve efficiencies in their operation:

  1. Shop around for cover crop seed.
    Compare prices with different cover crop seed houses in order to get the best bang for your buck. Wassenaar and Cannon are even considering growing their own cover crop seed down the road.
  2. Consider your seeding techniques.
    Aerial broadcast seeding and custom planting carry a significant cost.  Cannon explained that they have moved to seeding all of their acres now with a drill, which has provided greater seed-soil contact, and thus improved the seeding efficiency in terms of the number of seeds that actually grow (they’ve subsequently optimized/reduced seeding rates accordingly).  They are also saving dollars through the use of a smaller 120hp tractor and a cover crop drill that was bought used.
  3. There are a lot of good programs out there that can help.
    Take a look at the conservation programs and personnel on the federal, state, and local levels that can help out.

With years of experience implementing conservation practices of no-till and cover crops, Wassenaar reflected on how much the technology advances make conservation readily doable today.

“Back in the day, we plowed because we didn’t have planters that could plant into high residue. The equipment is so good today, that now we can plant into just about any residue.  … With cover crops out there, it’s almost like planting onto a mattress.”

Wassenaar is clearly passionate about conservation, and left field day attendees with the following thoughts:

“I don’t know any other way you can farm and save your soil than with no-till and cover crops.  … I’m convinced that if Iowans take care of their soil, the soil will take care of Iowa.”

Ann Staudt

Juchems Receives Outstanding New Professional Award at ISU

It’s May and that means it is American Wetlands Month. Normally, I would want to try to make my argument once again about how landowners should consider giving wetlands a second look on their land. Wetlands are a key component to Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy (learn more in Jake Hansen’s blog post titled Iowa CREP Wetlands) and often when farmed aren’t profitable (Should prairie potholes and other wet areas be farmed?). I know there is a history between landowners, wetlands and government regulation that sticks in many craws. But if we care about a sustainable and healthy Iowa, we need to rethink those issues going forward. Wetlands have important jobs to do in Iowa.

Instead of writing that column, I am dedicating this space to Iowa Learning Farms staff member, Liz Juchems, for recently receiving an Iowa State University Professional and Scientific Outstanding New Professional Award. This award reflects Liz’s commitment to Iowa State, her professional reputation and her esteem among her peers.

I have known Liz since she began working for the Iowa Learning Farms in 2008 as a student hourly employee while a freshman at ISU, and have been fortunate to work with her as our events coordinator since 2013. If you have been to any ILF field days over the last four years, you have Liz to thank for their quality and effectiveness.

Liz joined the team at a time when the ILF and Water Rocks! programs were starting to see substantial growth. Liz assumed not only the responsibility for coordinating farmer field days, but also coordinating all incoming requests for Iowa Learning Farms/Water Rocks! community outreach events (school visits, camps, youth outdoor classrooms, farmers markets, festivals and more) that are received annually – no small task with hundreds of event requests each year.

Over the last four years, the Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks! programs have grown significantly and have become widely recognized flagship conservation programs across Iowa. This is due in large part to Liz’s tremendous ability to keep track of details and ensure positive, clear communication internally and externally. We now average 30+ field days and 200+ outreach events each year, reaching 20,000+ people each year in quality educational encounters across Iowa!

With Iowa Learning Farms, Liz has also been instrumental in taking on a leadership role with field research/demonstrations, data collection, communications and outreach delivery. Since her hiring in 2013, the field research/demonstration arm of the Iowa Learning Farms has seen significant expansion and diversification, thanks in large part to being awarded multiple new research/demonstration grants. Each of these funded proposals involved the establishment of different cover crop trials across Iowa, collectively adding 20 new field research/demonstration sites statewide. Liz took the reigns as the farmer liaison, coordinating all project details with participating farmer-partners and research farm staff, as well as coordinating field data collection efforts with Iowa Learning Farms staff and student interns, training her co-workers on the appropriate protocols to follow both in the field and in the lab to ensure successful data collection.

However, data collection is just one portion of the job –another major component is how that content is delivered to the general public, making often complex science, social science and economic data accessible to farmers, other conservation stakeholders and youth across the state. A good example of her work is the ILF publication series titled Talking With Your Tenant that offers talking points and relevant research findings about a number of different conservation practices. Liz has grown into the role of being one of our team’s key educators on conservation issues in the state of Iowa.

For these and so many other reasons, Liz is more than deserving of this prestigious university honor. Quite simply, she is excellent! We are grateful to have her as a member of our team. Congratulations, Liz!

Jacqueline Comito

Lessons Learned from Farmer Interviews of the Lyons Creek Watershed Project

Today’s guest post was provided by Steve Hopkins, Nonpoint Source Coordinator with the Iowa DNR’s Watershed Improvement Section.

The University of Northern Iowa’s Center for Social and Behavioral Research recently completed a study of farmers and stakeholders involved with the Lyons Creek Watershed Project about the farmers’ participation in the project and their attitudes toward adopting conservation practices.  The study was a post-project evaluation done at the end of the Lyons Creek Watershed Project, administered through the Hamilton County SWCD in north central Iowa.

The primary goal of the watershed project was to reduce nitrate levels in Lyons Creek, which has the highest nitrate levels of all of the tributaries of the Boone River.  The Boone River is a tributary of the Des Moines River, which is a source of drinking water for the city of Des Moines.

lyonscreekmap

Despite the fact that the primary goal of the project was to reduce nitrate levels, and that the project coincided with the release of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, the project fell short of its goals due to a lack farmer participation and adoption of nitrate-reducing practices.  The purpose of the study was to find out why.

The study, based on in-depth interviews with farmers and project stakeholders, found both positive and negative factors related to farmer participation in the watershed project:

lyonscreek-positivefactors

lyonscreek-negativefactors

The study included recommendations for future watershed projects, including providing funding for a full-time project coordinator, involving farmers early on in project planning, and making project goals clearer.

UNI will be presenting the results of the study at the 2017 Iowa Water Conference in March.

This study, funded by Iowa DNR with EPA Section 319 funds, is available on the DNR Watershed Improvement webpage under “Watershed News” at  http://www.iowadnr.gov/Environmental-Protection/Water-Quality/Watershed-Improvement.

Steve Hopkins

 

A Conservation Chat with the 2016 Iowa Conservation Woman of the Year, Susan Kuennen Massman

Susan Kuennen Massman describes herself as having “a lot of irons in the fire.” Massman’s many roles include farm manager, nurse, professor, Master Gardener, artist, award-winning basket weaver, conservationist and volunteer. Recently added to this list is 2016 winner of the Iowa Conservation Woman of the Year Award, presented by the Iowa Soil and Water Conservation District Commissioners at their 70th Annual Conference in August.

conservationchat-massmanangle

Iowa Learning Farms Director Jacqueline Comito sat down with Massman at her home in northeast Iowa, where she manages 160 acres of farmland. During this most recent Conservation Chat, Massman describes her last six years of living and working on a farm as living out a life-long dream. Massman waited forty years to be able to break into farming before she and her late husband purchased their Fayette County land in 2010.

Massman sought to educate herself about modern farming practices, and participated in Annie’s Project to help her achieve that goal (Annie’s Project is a nonprofit that seeks to educate farm women and strengthen their roles in modern farm enterprises). Conservation has long been on her mind when it came to being a steward of her land. Massman attributes her motivation and commitment to conservation to a book by Rachel Carson entitled “Silent Spring,” where the author says, “It is not half so important to know as it is to feel when teaching children about nature.” Massman builds on this to say:

We need to teach children how important the land is, and how important our plants and flowers are, [how they] benefit us, and the whole world. You know, the spider web effect; like one thing connects to another. So it’s teaching- not only children, but my own children, how important this land is to us.

massman-farm

Massman now manages her land to include a corn/soybean/alfalfa rotation in an effort to keep from depleting the soil. About her choice to plant alfalfa, she says:

Alfalfa has one of the deepest root systems of any green vegetation out there, and I knew that was going to hold the topsoil. So to me, it was a win-win: that I could plant something that was productive, that I could earn some money from, and to conserve as much topsoil as possible. There was a definite impact there. In places in the field where I saw that there were deep ditches and gullies, they weren’t there anymore. So I knew that I was doing something right.

massman-gator

To hear more about the admirable efforts to farm in a conservation-minded way, check out this Conservation Chat with Susan Kuennen Massman!

Brandy Case Haub

 

River Stomping with ILF

As Dr. Tom Isenhart, Iowa State University Professor of Natural Resource Ecology and Management, tells his students,

“You can’t understand the health of our rivers by driving by in a car. You have to get down to the bank. Better still, get in the river…”

So we partnered with Tom this week to do just that with a group of our farmer leaders on a section of the Skunk River north of Ames.

The dozen farmer leaders from across the state were joined by members of our Iowa Learning Farms Steering Committee and our summer college interns. Tom divided the group into four teams, upon which they donned boots and waders and got to work looking for the biological indicators of river health.

SouthSkunkRiverThe group was told to explore under branches along the bank, stir up the bottom, and capture the insects that might call that location home…

MattWaders

… pick up rocks and search the moss for insects…

Annie

Participants like southwest Iowa farmer Seth Watkins were not afraid of getting wet and going to deeper sections of the river where the little creatures would make their home.

SethIowa doesn’t get any prettier than the Skunk River was that day as intern Kate Sanocki and farmer leaders Craig Fleishman and Tim Smith would tell you. The water was clear and the bottom was rocky. Rumor has it that there are good smallmouth bass to be found here!

CraigTimKateParticipants were told to put their finds in insect collection receptacles (i.e. ice cube trays).

TrayJakeJim Gillespie, Director of IDALS-Division of Soil Conservation and Water Quality, was heard to comment that he hadn’t done something like this since he was in college — that was a long time ago!

MattJimAfter about 45 minutes, it was with big smiles that the group left the river with their finds. Their job was not yet done.

SteveHTom put them to work identifying the insects using tools from IOWATER.

InsectIDThe group was happy to learn that they found macroinvertebrates such as caddisfly and stonefly that are pollution intolerant. Their presence suggested that this section of the South Skunk River is fairly healthy.

RickNathanThe crawdads they found belong in the “somewhat pollution tolerant” category. Tom pointed out that they make good smallmouth bass bait.

CrawdadsThis damselfly was as curious about us as we were about her. Damselflies belong to the somewhat pollution tolerant group and are good to find at our rivers, lakes, and wetlands.

DamselflyTom told the group that the health of a stream or river fluctuates by season and rainfall. During times of drought and floods, life on the river can be stressed. The Iowa DNR has put a lot of resources into making the Skunk River a healthier body of water.

While the group would have been content to stay at this beautiful stretch of the South Skunk River for the day, we headed on to our next stop at one of the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) wetlands where Dr. Matt Helmers discussed the use of these wetlands as part of our new Conservation Learning Labs project (stay tuned to the blog for further information).

WetlandWe ended at the site of the very first saturated buffer in Iowa (possibly the world) along Bear Creek. Here the group asked Tom many detailed questions about how the buffers worked.

SaturatedBufferAll in all, the group had fun and asked great questions at every stop of the field day. The participants went away with a better understanding of river ecosystems and its relationship to our land management choices. Everyone returned to Ames grateful for the quality time spent near (and in) an Iowa river!

Jacqueline Comito