Ten-Year Cover Crop Study and ILF 2018 Cover Crop Report: Good News and Less-Good News

ILFHeader(15-year)Iowa Learning Farms and Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) recently published the ten-year results of an on-farm field research study about cover crops. And ILF recently released the cover crop statistics it has been tracking for many years. The results of both these newsworthy items include both promise and troubling points. The cover crop study indicates no loss of yield, and limited improvements – not a homerun, but not a strike-out either. The cover crop report shows 880,000 acres in 2018. More than 2017, but a significant slowing of acres planted in cover crops statewide – for the second year in a row.

Farmers and researchers seem to hold the strongest opinions about cover crops – and these opinions are not always the same. Since 2008, before anyone was really talking about cover crops, ILF and PFI launched a long-term on-farm field research study to help understand the impacts of planting cover crops on soil health, yields and nutrient/soil leaching.

As the ILF project lead, I get to work with the farmer partners as well as colleagues at PFI. Stefan Gailans, PFI project lead, noted that research studies such as this are often in response to requests and questions from working farmers looking to improve or change how they operate. A goal of this project is to address the question, “How does a cereal rye cover crop affect cash crop yields?”

To our knowledge, this is the only study in the Midwest that has spanned 10 years of working with farmers on their farms. One challenge for this kind of study is that these farms are run by real people making real-life decisions every day and every year. Operating a farm business sometimes leads to actions and decisions that are not what the researchers would prefer, but sometimes lead to learning by all parties.

Working with farmer-partners in conducting research at field scale, lends weight to the outcomes reported. Farm operators do read studies and look for anything that will give them a performance edge. But, many also like to share tips and tricks with each other, and experiment on their own.

These farmer-partners are not content to only participate in the research project, they have also become strong leaders on cover crop implementation, traveling all over the state to talk at field days and conferences, as well as hosting field days. This is indicative of the trust farmers have in peers, and the broad-based desire to share knowledge and learn from each other. We are always seeking participants and sites for field days to promote conservation techniques such as cover crops. Please reach out to ILF if you are interested in learning more or hosting.

The group of cooperating farmers has varied over the study term, comprising 12 operating farms in Iowa. Taken as a whole, the data collected covers 68 site-years with cereal rye cover crops planted before both corn and soybean cash crops.

The number one negative perception we hear: Cover crops reduce yield.

Cooperators have reported that in 61 of 68 site-years properly managed cover crops had little to no negative effects on corn and soybean yield, and there were improvements in soybean yield in eight site-years and corn yield in three site-years.

Winter_Rye_Effect_on_Corn YieldWinter_Rye_Effect_on_Soybean YieldWhile we don’t claim huge yield gains, it’s becoming quite clear that when done consistently and managed well, cover crops don’t substantially impact yields. And there are substantial benefits beyond yield that help to offset the upfront investment in cover crops.

 So where do we find the financial upside?

We cannot argue with the logic that cover crops take investment to plant in the fall, and terminate in the spring, however reaching the no yield impact determination allows us to start at zero instead of in-the-hole when assessing return on investment.

Farmers with an inherent values-based desire to improve water quality and conserve soil naturally consider cover crops as a long-term investment in the environment that will bear fruit in many ways. This isn’t saying that they aren’t concerned with the operational costs, just that they tend to roll it into the overall cost of doing business.

For those that are more focused on the exact economic impacts, we suggest a longer-term viewpoint. Soil erosion may take years, but with the loss of each fraction of an inch from the fertile topsoil, the production capacity of a field will go down.

To learn more about cover crop field days in your area, or if you are interested in hosting one on your farm, please contact me ejuchems@iastate.edu

For more detailed information on the project, see “Winter Cereal Rye Cover Crop Effect on Cash Crop Yield” on our website.

Liz Juchems

Spring Field Day Season Has Arrived!

ILFHeader(15-year)The 2019 Iowa Learning Farms field day season begins on March 26th and includes a series of five cover crop, no-till and grazing workshops and field days. Please plan to join us at one near you!

March 26 – Cover Crop and No-Till Workshop
12:00-2:00PM

Greene County Extension Office
104 West Washington St
Jefferson, IA 50129
Greene County
RSVP: 515-294-5429 or ilf@iastate.edu
Press Release
Flyer

March 27 – Cover Crop and Grazing Workshop
12:00-2:00PM

McNay Research Farm
45249 170th Ave
Chariton, IA 50049
Lucas County
RSVP: 515-294-5429 or ilf@iastate.edu
Press Release
Flyer

March 28 – Cover Crop and No-Till Workshop
12:00-2:00PM

Titan Machinery
3093 220th St.
Williams, IA 50271
Hamilton County
RSVP: 515-294-5429 or ilf@iastate.edu
Press Release
Flyer

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

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

See you there!

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Liz Juchems

A Huge Thank You!

ILFHeaderOn behalf of the Iowa Learning Farms team, I would like to thank all of our hosts, speakers and partners for an awesome 2018 Field Day season. This year our 24 field days and workshops were attended by 1,134 farmers, landowners, government employees, students and educators, media and agribusiness staff. The topics covered included: cover crops, grazing cover crops, soil health, strip-till/no-till, bioreactors and other edge of field practices, water quality, Emerging Farmers and events for women landowners.  Implementing these practices on our landscape is so important in helping us reach our Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy goals.

Keep an eye out for mail from us this January! We will be mailing a brief survey to all farmers/operators and landowners who attended an ILF-sponsored field day or workshop.

Be sure to check out our events page on our website to attend a 2019 event near you.

Hilary Pierce

 

3 Practices, 1 Field Day

Q: Where can you see a bioreactor, saturated buffer and wetland all working together to reduce nitrate leaving agricultural land?

A: At the Land Improvement Contractors Association (LICA) farm near Melbourne, Iowa.

We had great weather for our field day yesterday at the LICA farm that allowed farmers, landowners, contractors, and state agency staff the opportunity to see these practices in action first hand. The saturated buffer installation was started the day before the event and was left open to allow visitors a chance to see how the process occurs.

Attendees rotated through three stations to learn more about each of the practices installed on the farm and got a chance to view what goes on underground with a stop at the Conservation Station On The Edge. There were great questions and discussions as we work together to ramp up the installation of these practices all across the state.

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Wetland constructed in 2009, Photo Credit: Iowa Soybean Association

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Chris Hay, Iowa Soybean Association, discussing bioreactors, Photo Credit: Iowa Soybean Association

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Tim Recker, LICA, highlighting the installation of the saturated buffer on 9/12/18, Photo Credit: Iowa Soybean Association

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Liz Juchems, ILF, with the Conservation Station On The Edge sharing information on the denitrification process, Photo Credit: Iowa Soybean Association

Many thanks to LICA for hosting the event, Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance for helping plan the field day, Iowa Soybean Association and Iowa Corn for promoting the event, and Iowa Pork Producers Association for sponsoring the meal.

Learn more about edge of field practices by attending a field day in your area or visit our website. If you are interested in learning more about the farm or visiting to check out all the conservation practices they have installed, contact Keith and Melanie Bohe at 563-202-0682 or send them a message on their website.

Liz Juchems

Bioreactors: Effective Tool for Reducing Nitrate Loss

 

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Photo credit: Iowa Soybean Association

Roger and Louise Van Ersvelde are passionate about conservation and land stewardship on their farm east of Brooklyn in Poweshiek County. They shared that passion with just over 50 field day attendees and highlighted the newest practice they are using on their farm – a denitrifying bioreactor.

“Installing the bioreactor was the next logical step for helping do my best to help make sure the water leaving our farm is as clean as possible.” Roger Van Ersvelde, Poweshiek Co Farmer.

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Photo Credit: Poweshiek County Soil and Water Conservation District

Their denitrifying bioreactor was completed fall of 2017 with assistance from the local Natural Resource Conservation Service staff and Poweshiek County Soil and Water Conservation District. To measure the performance of the bioreactor, they partnered with Andrew Graham, Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Grinnell College, to collect and analyze paired samples collected from the inlet and outlet structures.

Some key takeaways from the data results:

Van Ersvelde Bioreactor

Credit: Andrew Graham, Grinnell College

  1. Average nitrate removal is 46% from March-July 2018.
  2. Observed higher removal efficiencies during lower flow times (March-Early May and again in July). Removal efficiencies ranged from 10-30% during high flow times.
  3.  Removals of total N are pretty comparable to nitrate removal.  This indicates the bioreactor is promoting denitrification to primarily N2 and not generating ammonia.
  4. The high nitrate removal tends to coincide with high dissolved organic carbon concentrations, suggesting that the extent of denitrification is strongly dependent on the amount of readily degradable carbon.

“If you care about the environment, bioreactors are a great practice – even with no direct benefit to the landowner,” commented Dave Maxwell, contractor who helped install the bioreactor. “Thank you Roger and Louise.”

To learn more about bioreactors and other edge of field practices, visit our website for videos, webinars and print materials and attend a field day near you! Contact Iowa Learning Farms if you’re interested in talking about edge-of-field conservation practices on your land!

Liz Juchems

 

Request the Conservation Station On the Edge Trailer for Your Next Event!

Have you heard of a saturated buffer or bioreactor, but aren’t sure how they work to reduce nitrate loss? Are you curious about installing them on your farm or in your watershed?

To help answer those questions and more we are excited to announce the launch of our newest Conservation Station – On The Edge!

The Conservation Station On The Edge features a saturated buffer and bioreactor model to demo the edge of field practices and discuss how they reduce nitrate entering Iowa’s water bodies through the natural nitrate removal process.

Designed for farmers and landowners, this new trailer is available to request for your upcoming field day, workshop or community event. It is staffed by the Iowa Learning Farms team, offered free of charge and is available for single-day events. Trailer availability begins June 1, 2018.

Request the Conservation Station On The Edge today by emailing Liz Juchems at ejuchems@iastate.edu

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Why Field Days Matter

Through our evaluation work since 2004, we have found that there is a relationship between attending field days, adopting conservation practices and influencing other farmers. We call this our Field Day Success Loop.

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Iowa Learning Farms has learned the importance of taking a closer look at who among field day attendees is networking with other farmers and discussing conservation ideas. Since 2013, the number of farmers who attended field days and networked conservation ideas with other farmers continues to increase – from 65% in 2013 to 68% in 2017.

A follow-up question on our year-end evaluation asks “How successful were you?,” and asks if farmers were able to influence zero, one, or two or more people when they networked conservation ideas with other farmers. Of those attendees who networked in 2017, 60% reported that they were successful in influencing at least one other person.

We know that some farmers network about conservation ideas and others do not. Certain factors make respondents more likely to connect with others and network about conservation ideas. Those respondents who have more years of experience with cover crops and those who attend more field days are more likely to report networking conservation ideas. Particularly in 2017, respondents who farm a larger number of total acres were more likely to report networking conservation ideas.

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Multiplier Effect

Field day attendees are networking with their peers, influencing farmers who did not attend the field day, thus creating a multiplier effect. In 2017, 68% of farmers who attended an ILF event said that they networked. As a result, farmers are extending influence to 55% more farmers than attended the event. That’s a $1.55 value for every dollar invested in ILF. Field days make sense!

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Keep up to date on upcoming field days in your area by following us on Facebook and Twitter or visiting our events page.

Hope to see you at a 2018 Field Day!

Liz Juchems