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

Field Days to Help Participants Improve Profit and Water Quality

Five field days are being offered as part of Iowa State University (ISU) Extension and Outreach’s Nitrogen and Water Week, which runs from June 27-29.

June_FieldDay140The purpose of these field days is for farmers and their consultants to learn the research related to profitable nitrogen management and water quality. They will also allow participants to visit the sites where research is occurring relating to nitrogen management and water quality.

The field days will be held throughout the state at ISU Research and Demonstration Farms, providing an opportunity to learn about the university’s research facilities that evaluate nitrate loss. A tour of plots where ISU researchers study the effects of fall application, cover crops and nitrification inhibitors is included in the event. The field days will also provide an opportunity to learn about factors that are used to make nitrogen fertilizer recommendations and nitrogen deficiency in corn and how to correct it.

Participants will leave the field day with a better understanding of research and the breadth of projects and practices that they are evaluating. They will also receive a better understanding of tools that are available to them like the N Rate Calculator and how they can help farmers be more profitable while minimizing impact on water quality.

Each field day will provide the same format and program, with ISU Extension and Outreach field agronomists and agricultural engineering specialists providing instruction. Registration at the research farm meeting room begins at 9:15 on the day of the event, with the program beginning at 9:45. The program concludes at 12:15 p.m. with lunch following.

The format provides for four 30-minute sessions during the field day, discussing how a water quality research site works, what practices are being studied, how effective the various management practices are in reducing nitrogen loss, and the impact of those practices on farm profitability.

2017 Nitrogen and Water Week Field Days

There is a $25 registration fee for the program that includes lunch, refreshments, and course materials and publications. Attendees are asked to pre-register to assist with facility and meal planning. For additional information or to register online visit www.aep.iastate.edu/nitrogen.

Jamie Benning

Jamie Benning is an Iowa Learning Farms team member and Water Quality Program Manager at Iowa State University.

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

Extra! Extra! Field Day near Iowa City Planned for April 13

McNay Strips Field Day2In partnership with Rapid Creek Watershed Project, we are hosting a filter strips and soil health workshop on Thursday, April 13, from 5:30-7:30 p.m. at the Morse Community Club near Iowa City.  We hope to see you there!

Field Day Agenda:

Tim Youngquist, discussing the Science-based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips (STRIPS) project where a small percentage of a field is planted into strips of perennial prairie plants to reduce soil erosion, water runoff, improve soil health and to create habitat for pollinators and wildlife.

Matt Berg, Johnson County Farm Service Agency Director, to lead a discussion on the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).

Adam Janke, Iowa State University Extension Wildlife Specialist and newest ILF team member, will talk about ways to incorporate wildlife habitat on the farm.

Wren Almitra, Rapid Creek Watershed Coordinator, with a project update.

SoilScan360Attendees are encouraged to bring their own soil samples for a free SOILSCAN 360 analysis by Johnson County NRCS staff during the event.

The field day will be held at the Morse Community Club located at 2542 Putnam St NE, Iowa City, IA. The workshop is free and open to the public, but reservations are suggested to ensure adequate space and food. Contact Liz Juchems at 515-294-5429 or ilf@iastate.edu.

Liz Juchems

A Tale of Two Trails of Tillage

Last month Iowa Learning Farms participated in a field day about cover crops in Southeast Iowa. After the field day presentations were finished, we were approached by Don Mathews, a farmer from Danville, Iowa. Don shared with us his personal story of how contrasting practices in land management have impacted his land over the past several decades. Don’s story was full of anecdotal evidence about how dramatically soil quality can be changed when conservation practices are continually utilized, or abandoned, after several years time.

We want to share Don’s story with you. We hope you will find inspiration in Don’s tale about the positive impact of conservation practices on soil health for those who commit to its use for the long haul!

Don Mathews purchased his first eighty acres of land in 1962. In 1975, he purchased an additional eighty acres right across the road. After farming the land for several years, he took on an off-farm job in 1978. Don began to use no-till methods on all of his land in the early 1980s. Soon after, it became difficult to balance farming with his other job and family responsibilities, and so Don made the decision to rent his land out to tenant operators, and transitioned to the role of landowner.

Don rented out each plot of eighty acres to two different neighbors. One neighbor continued to use no-till methods to farm his plot, while the other began discing and chisel tilling his plot of land. So began a tale of two side-by-side plots of land, each consisting of eighty acres. These two pieces of land were once managed identically and contained similar soil compositions. Yet when we fast-forward thirty years to the present, Don tells us, the soil in each has become quite different from one another.

mathews-quote01updated

Don’s 26-year-old son has now taken over all of the original land and is farming it himself. Upon taking over operation of the land, Don and his family began to discover contrasts in soil health between these two plots that had been farmed so differently over the past twenty-five years.

mathews-quote02withimage

Speaking about his relationship with the tenant who chose not to continue with the conservation farming practices Mathews had established, Don said, “I wish I could go back to the early 1980s with what I know now. I could have suggested to him renting out some of the work and equipment [for planting into no-till land].”

Don’s son, who is using strip-tillage on his field corn and no-tillage on the soybeans, is working with his father on plans to incorporate cover crops onto their fields. Finding themselves in a phase of transition as they attempt to get the land back to where they’d like it to be, the Mathews family planted some cover crops this past year, and have plans to add a lot more in the coming years. They also plan to graze their cover crops, to get the added benefit of manure on the land. Don and his son feel strongly about doing what they can to bring the tilled soils on their land back to the same quality of health as the non-tilled soils.

mathews-quote03

When asked if he has advice for other farmers wanting to change the way their land is managed to incorporate more conservation practices, Don says this:

mathews-quote04

Thank you to Don for sharing with us his “tillage tale.” Do you have a story you’d like to share with Iowa Learning Farms about implementing conservation practices? We invite you to share your stories with us by emailing them to Brandy at casehaub@iastate.edu.

Brandy Case Haub

Field day highlights cover crops & soil health

Well, the groundhog indeed saw his shadow yesterday, so we are in for six more weeks of cold weather. While the temperatures outside were certainly brisk, it was a great day to be inside learning some new perspectives on cover crop management, soil health, and even earthworms!

covercropssoilhealth-title

I was invited to be a part of a Cover Crop & Soil Health Field Day in Houghton yesterday, put on by the Lower Skunk River Watershed & Soil Health Initiative. Approximately 55 farmers, landowners, crop advisors, and NRCS staff from across southeastern Iowa and northeastern Missouri gathered together to spend the morning digging in with cover crops and soil health issues.

Dave Otte, of Green Valley Seed (Kahoka, MO) kicked things off by sharing his experiences with cover crops over the years, both in corn/soybean farming systems and as a “cattle guy.” He explained the many different benefits that he’s seen with cover crops, including soil health and quality (feeding the biology under the ground surface), water control (promoting infiltration), erosion control, moderating soil temperatures, nutrient management (creating, capturing, holding, and releasing fertility), weed suppression, and forage. He was also very open in discussing the challenges with cover crops, but emphasized that the benefits are well worth it. We were quite entertained by his analogy that cover crops are a lot like marriage. As he put it, “I’ve been married 40 years, and there have certainly been ups and downs. But the positives definitely outweigh the negatives!” I liked how he emphasized that going with cover crops will make you THINK more – rethinking your farm management in a positive way.

Rebecca Vittetoe, ISU Extension field agronomist in south central Iowa, was up next, helping the attendees think ahead to creating a game plan for cover crop termination in advance of planting in the spring. She shared a number of different termination options, ranging from mechanical means (like mowing, rolling, or roller-crimping) to chemical means (herbicide). It was very interesting to hear her discuss data from the University of Missouri Weed Science program regarding the effectiveness of different herbicides on different cover crops, and how much that effectiveness can vary with termination date. Lots of food for thought!

mizzou-ryetermination

mizzou-hairyvetchtermination

After a short break, NRCS soil scientist Jason Steele shared his wealth of knowledge on all things soil health, offering perspectives on what exactly soil health is, improvements in soil organic matter that can be realized with practices like no-till and cover crops, and the benefits of increasing water infiltration across our landscape. He also performed the Slake test, demonstrating aggregate stability and how healthy soils are “glued together” biologically.

Steele also offered some great analogies about how cover crops fit into our farming operations … “Cover crops are a lot like small children. For those of you that have small children (or have raised kids), you know that it takes patience and it takes time.”

And regarding earthworms and soil health, “It’s a lot like the movie Field of Dreams … ‘If you build it, they will come’ …  well, with earthworms, they’re probably close by in your fencerows. If you make them a home, they will come!”

That was a great transition, because I concluded the learning portion of the field day by sharing findings from our  ILF study of earthworm populations related to cover crops!  I highlighted the fact that we found 38% more nightcrawlers in corn/soybean fields with a cereal rye cover crop compared to those without, and how earthworms can serve as a tangible, early biological indicator of soil health. There were also questions earlier in the day about tenant/landowner relationships regarding the implementation of cover crops, so I also promoted our new Talking With Your Tenant publication series which offers tips for starting that conversation, as well as ways to potentially share the cost of implementing a conservation practice like this.

While we are certainly still very much in the throes of winter, take a look at these beautiful cover crops that I spotted while journeying through southeastern Iowa yesterday (Feb. 2)!  I’ll leave you with a few photographs from just south of Swedesburg in Henry County.

dscn8608

dscn8612

Ann Staudt

Winter Cover Crop Workshop Series Announced

The 2017 Iowa Learning Farms winter cover crop workshop series schedule is now available and we hope to see you there!

Iowa Learning Farms, in partnership with the Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, will host five cover crop workshops this winter in Floyd, Linn, Marion, Sioux and Hardin counties. The workshops are free, open to the public, and include a complimentary meal.

At the beginning of the workshop, facilitators will invite questions and concerns from the participants using the Rapid Need Assessment and Response technique. For the remainder of the workshop, Matt Helmers, professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering, and Mark Licht, assistant professor of agronomy, will address the topics and questions raised by the participating farmers and landowners. They will also be prepared to discuss herbicide recommendations for termination and establishment, planter settings to handle higher amounts of biomass, cover crop seed selection, impacts on crop yields and soil health and more.

iowamapfielddaysjan

The workshops are free and open to the public, but reservations are suggested to ensure adequate space and food. Contact Liz Juchems at 515-294-5429 or email ilf@iastate.edu.

Liz Juchems