Cover Crops Taking Flight

Nate Voss started out a cover crop skeptic. He’ll openly admit that.

“I’ll be honest with you, I really wasn’t sure about this whole [cover crop] thing startin’ out 6 years ago. Now we’re getting a lot better at it!”

After 6 years of cover crop experience, I think it’s safe to say he’s now a believer, sharing his cover cropping experience at an Iowa Learning Farms field day yesterday hosted by Steier Ag Aviation near Whittemore. Voss farms near LuVerne in north central Iowa and also works with Steier Ag Aviation.

Voss’s experience with cover crops includes flying on oats, and some radish, into standing crops in late August/early September.  He is also just starting to get his feet wet with cereal rye.  One of the first things he noticed with the integration of a cover crop was at harvest – “it gives you great field conditions combining into beans.”


Voss goes on to share with field day attendees all the benefits he has observed with using cover crops as part of his cropping system.

“There’s lots of different angles you can take with cover crops:

  • A lot of guys like it for erosion, keeping soil in place. In the winter when I’m driving around, my ditches are not filled with dirt like a lot of them are.
  • I personally like cover crops for holding nitrogen in place, not sending it down the creek. Maybe I can do something about the water quality challenges we face—I’d rather be proactive, get a head start on this thing.
  • After 6 years, I’m really starting to see improvements with soil structure. My soil microbiology is really firing back up!
  • Some folks also are going into cover crops for grazing.
  • My ultimate goal is I want to have something living out there all year round.”


For Voss, the integration of cover crops also served as a springboard into strip till:

“I get bored pretty easy and the wheels start turnin’… a couple beers and some pizza later [with a neighbor who was a long-time strip-tiller], and we were pulling strips out in the field.

“I think we can all acknowledge that last fall was not great.  But my best yielding corn was in the field with strip till and 5 years of cover crops.

“I loved it so much, I called my banker to buy a strip till bar!”


On the fence about taking the plunge and trying out cover crops or strip till?   Consider Voss’s top tips for success along the way:

  • Go to field days and workshops to learn. You’ve taken the first step just by being here today—opening your mind to something new.
  • Be willing to get outside your comfort zone and give it a shot. [My grandfather is my biggest critic. Now I just like to get out there and prove him wrong!]
  • Ask questions.
  • Talk to others that are also givin’ it a try. Get together over coffee. Or pizza and beers. Talk to them about their failures so you don’t make the same ones.
  • Sometimes you’re gonna question yourself along the way.
  • There are tons of great resources out there for everyone—the big guys down to little peons like me.
  • Head in to your NRCS office to learn about cost share options.
  • Weather is always an uncertainty. Think about how you can best work with Mother Nature.

Now is the time to be planning ahead for cover crop seeding this coming fall!   Check out our Iowa Learning Farms Cover Crop Resources page and YouTube channel to learn more, along with reaching out to your local ISU Extension and Outreach field agronomist and USDA-NRCS staff—they are the local “boots on the ground” ready to help you out with making conservation practices happen!

Ann Staudt

Do you have “cottage cheese” soil?

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It was a beautiful evening yesterday to spend learning about the benefits of cover crops and no-till at Rob Stout’s farm in Washington County.

Rob Stout talking to a group of people in a field with cover crops growing

Rob Stout discusses cover crops at the field day

“There’s a learning curve. You just need to step up your management a little bit,” Stout explained, when discussing implementing cover crops for the first time.

He went on to talk about the benefits he has seen on his farm: an increase in earthworms and microbes, erosion control, water quality benefits and improved soil health.

A close up of no-till residue with rye growing

Cover crops and no-till on one of Rob Stout’s fields

“Rye is my go-to – I like it best,” said Stout, “Where we have the rye we don’t have any winter annual weeds. There’s no Marestail on any of these fields with the cover crop.”

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

Soil structure under the cover crops

Attendees also heard from Jason Steele from the NRCS. Steele described the soil health benefits of implementing no-till or cover crops.

“If it looks like cottage cheese or Grape Nuts cereal, that’s what we want our soil to look like,” Steele said, “We want that granular structure. We don’t want it looking like concrete – if you do too much tillage it starts to look like concrete.”

Steele went on to say that despite the very wet fall we had last year, there were no ruts visible in Stout’s fields due to the fact that the fields were not tilled. The combination of no-till and cover crops reduced compaction and kept the top two inches of soil light and fluffy, with good soil structure and infiltration and the most biological activity.

Rounding out the program were Liz Juchems from Iowa Learning Farms, who shared research updates; Tony Maxwell from the NRCS, who talked about cost share; and Matt McAndrew and Paul Brandt from MB Water, who discussed testing water quality in tile drains.

Check out the events page of our website to find out about upcoming field days and workshops in your area!

Hilary Pierce

Conservation Stations Crisscross Iowa to Deliver Conservation Messages

If you’ve been to an Iowa county fair or attended an Iowa State University (ISU) extension field day covering water quality, conservation, cover crops, edge of field practices or a range of other topics, there’s a good chance you’ve seen or even visited a Conservation Station operated by Water Rocks! and Iowa Learning Farms. Last summer we hit the milestone of attending all 100 county fairs in Iowa – (yes 100, Pottawattamie County holds two.) The trailers also make appearances at community events, farmer’s markets and other settings.

The Conservation Stations are traveling resource centers and classrooms, staffed by ILF and Water Rocks! team members and interns, providing water quality and conservation education and outreach activities built on a foundation of science, research and best practices. These events also provide great learning opportunities for the team to sharpen trailer pulling and backing skills.

Rain, Rain, Don’t Wash our Soil Away
The idea for the first Conservation Station was germinated in the early years of Iowa Learning Farms (ILF) – which is celebrating 15 years in 2019. The precursor was a trailer equipped with a simple rainfall simulator for demonstrating soil erosion.

It was a good start, but frankly, it was a limited demonstration and the team quickly realized that they needed a more sophisticated rainfall simulator. In addition, ILF saw the potential to expand its impact by providing a broad canvas for education through visual, interactive and multimedia displays.

“We were awarded funding to purchase and develop a larger trailer and knew how to make a better rainfall simulator,” said Jacqueline Comito, executive director of Water Rocks! and ILF program director. “We just didn’t know how to realize our vision of a traveling and flexible unit. Ann Staudt joined the team to help us, and with her fresh ideas and creativity, the Conservation Station was born.”

The trailer, dubbed the Big Conservation Station, allowed space for an improved rainfall simulator as well as a walk-through learning lab. To facilitate use in different environments such as field days, outdoor classrooms and county fairs, the trailer accommodates interchangeable displays. Inside the learning lab, visual and multimedia presentations are designed to engage audiences in conversations and to elicit questions about conservation practices.

The learning lab was updated in 2018 to incorporate mixed-media artwork and enhanced messaging with the purpose of eliciting visitors’ hopes for Iowa.

ILF faculty adviser Matthew Helmers developed the new rainfall simulator which more accurately models both surface runoff and subsurface flow or drainage in tiled environments and uses soil blocks extracted from field environments to best parallel actual soil conditions in Iowa fields.

“The complexity of the new rainfall simulator was a challenge, but it also enabled us to tell a much more realistic story that farmers in Iowa could relate to,” noted Staudt.

A smaller trailer referred to as Conservation Station 3 was built specifically for outdoor classrooms and other youth activities. Along with a rainfall simulator, it is also equipped with the space to carry enough tables and chairs for students as well as a full complement of displays and activity resources.

Edge of Field Practice Demonstrations Expand Education Opportunities
In 2018, the original rainfall simulator trailer (which we called the Lil’ CS) was redesigned to become the Conservation Station on the Edge, addressing best practices for nutrient mitigation at the edge of tile-drained fields. Equipped with working saturated buffer and bioreactor models, this trailer takes the story of nutrient reduction to a deeper level. The demonstration stations allow the audience to see what happens within structures –that when implemented in a field are completely underground and out of sight.

Each Conservation Station includes interactive demonstrations that appeal to all backgrounds, ages and walks of life. Games such as the Poo Toss tend to appeal to youngsters but provide tangible lessons about waste runoff that pertains to everyone –whether they live on a farm or in a city. The Watershed Game is another highly visual interactive game that helps make the concepts of a watershed and how pollution moves with water easy to grasp.

“The Conservation Stations are filling a tremendous need by providing easy-to-understand information about water quality, conservation, agricultural best practices, and other topics of importance to all Iowans,” concluded Staudt. “We intend to continue to share this knowledge as frequently and in as many venues as we can.”

Find out where to see a Conservation Station near you
The Conservation Stations are used April through October. Check out the Water Rocks! website to request a visit (requests for summer events are being accepted now!).  In most circumstances, a Conservation Station can join an event at no cost, due to the generous funding received from our partners.

It’s Opening Week!

ILFHeader(15-year)Thought I was talking about baseball didn’t you?

This week we kicked off our spring field day/workshop season with a stop in Jefferson. Yesterday we held a Cover Crops and Grazing Cover Crops Field Day at the McNay Research Farm near Chariton.

The leadoff speaker was Chariton farmer Duane Steenhoek, who talked about his experience growing and grazing cover crops.

“The best part is we get over 30 days where the calves didn’t even touch the feeders. They gained 50 pounds from the cover crops.” Steenhoek said. “It’s funny watching them walk around carrying turnips in their mouth, but they love them.”

On deck was Liz Juchems with the Iowa Learning Farms. She shared the main findings from an ILF 10-year study on cover crops and what impact they have on yield. She also hit on planter settings, cost share opportunities and how oats and cereal rye are great for rookies.

Closing out the field day were ISU Extension Field Agronomist Rebecca Vittetoe and ISU Beef Field Specialist Erika Lundy. They spoke to utilizing cover crops as a forage source. They covered seeding methods, the importance of your herbicide program, possible grazing issues and which species to select for maximum grazing benefits.

Lundy says, “If you want to graze in the fall and spring, I recommend planting oats and cereal rye. Because oats will grow quicker in the fall and cereal rye will shoot up in the spring.” 

If you weren’t able to attend this event, there are more opportunities to attend one of our upcoming workshops or field days!

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
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

 

~Nathan

 

Oats: The Gateway Cover Crop

ILFHeader(15-year)

“Here’s the thing with cover crops that no one really talks about – there’s a lot of worry that your beans might not look as good as your neighbor’s. There’s a social barrier there. I might think, ‘This neighbor’s beans look great. I have to change the way I drive home.'” – James Holz

James Holz, a farmer and co-founder of Iowa Cover Crop, shared some of his knowledge about cover crops at our workshop in Jefferson on March 26th.

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Here are some of James’ cover crop tips:

  • Have a plan and goals
  • Keep it simple
  • Do corn going into beans the first year
  • Remember that every year is different
  • Get the cover crops established
  • Get ideal weather – don’t wait for the ideal date

“My biggest feeling of accomplishment was when my farmer said to me, ‘I think these cover crops are working’, and then he went and planted them on his own land.” – Chris Henning, a Greene County landowner

Attendees also heard from Chris Henning, who shared about her experiences as a landowner and working with a tenant to incorporate conservation practices, like cover crops and no-till. Rounding out the agenda was Mark Licht, ISU Extension Cropping Systems Specialist and Liz Juchems, Iowa Learning Farms.

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If you weren’t able to attend this event, there are more opportunities to attend one of our upcoming workshops or field days!

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
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

Hilary Pierce

Learning Life Lessons as ISU Water Resources Interns

Both Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks! owe a lot of their successes over the past decade to the energy and enthusiasm of student Water Resources Interns. Each summer the young people in these positions have become the faces and voices of water and land resource management, conservation, and agricultural practices which benefit Iowa’s environment. The programs are closely affiliated with the highly-regarded Iowa State University (ISU) Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering which provides research opportunities as well as much foundational science for the outreach efforts.

Interns come from different degree programs, backgrounds and even states. (Know a college student who might be interested? Applications are open now through Jan. 31 for our 2019 Water Resources Internship Program!) The common thread among them is enthusiasm for engaging with members of the community through different learning and demonstration opportunities. Forty-five individuals have served in this important role over the years. We asked them to reflect on what they gained and learned from the experience, and were quite pleased with the responses.

Eleven Years and still going strong
From a relatively small beginning as student research assistantships in 2007, the internship program provided resources which enabled Iowa Learning Farms to respond to research needs, programming opportunities and expansions of outreach. From humble beginnings in 2007 with a single trailer-mounted rainfall simulator, to the addition of a second and the launch of the Conservation Station fleet in 2010, interns were integral to the program. Today there are three Conservation Stations in regular use, and the teams of interns go out with them for nearly every visit.

My favorite intern memories were taking the Conservation Station to field days. It was a neat experience to see communities bonding over conservation and their love of the land. –Emily Steinweg, 2011


Jumping in with both feet
As summer interns, there is no warmup period, the work starts on day one and keeps going throughout the ten-week term. Research projects are ready to go, Conservation Station events are booked, and since the university summer overlaps with the primary and secondary school spring semester, lending a hand with Water Rocks! school visits fills up the initial weeks.

Interns are expected to know some, learn a lot of new, and be able to put new knowledge and skills to work immediately. Flexibility and learning on your feet are fundamental requirements. Some interns have noted that it’s about learning how much you don’t know and having fun filling the gaps. Over the years many have contributed to the ILF blog sharing their experiences.

Intern duties include collecting water and soil samples, working under the direction of staff, faculty and graduate students, tabulating data, driving – and parking – trailers, participating in video projects, and staffing the Conservation Station. As representatives of Iowa Learning Farms in many venues, interns quickly become experts at listening, communicating and educating.

The Conservation Conversation
A common theme we heard from our former interns was their development of stronger public speaking and communications skills. Leading or participating in a public event, county fair, or field day would bring them face to face with people of different ages and backgrounds. The audience diversity kept them on their toes in shaping the information to make sure they connected with the audience.

The internship for me was a lot about public speaking and being able to interact with any age group or demographic. – Ryan Nelson, 2009, 2010

The biggest, perhaps most important, skill I developed was communication with the public. As a farmer myself, it’s relatively easy to communicate with other farmers. But with the public, one has to explain the basics in a way that a non-farmer can understand. –Mikayla Edwards, 2015

Working with ILF provided many of our interns with valuable experience that they continue to use in their careers – even in fields beyond conservation and water quality. From teachers to manufacturing engineers, being a part of a team and communicating information, ideas and solutions are universal skills.

I was exposed to people ranging from a farmer who thought cover crops were ridiculous to a sixth-grader learning about soil and water interactions. Understanding how the message needs to be tailored or modified to a specific audience has greatly benefited me in my career. –Brett McArtor, 2012

The majority of problems that I work on in my career necessitate a team to be involved; however, the expectation is that I will be able to problem solve and troubleshoot to contribute toward the solution. The combination of teamwork and independence that I exercised as a student intern for ILF prepared me well for this type of environment. –Patrick Kelly, 2012, 2013

The biggest benefits of being a part of ILF for me professionally would have to be the experience of giving short, informal presentations, and the importance of honestly saying, I don’t know. There is considerable skill in taking a message, condensing it into something manageable, wording it in such a way that others without background knowledge can understand, and presenting it in such a manner to grab and hold the attention of your listeners. This is something helpful for me as a software engineer as pitching ideas to clients or management needs to undergo this process in order to be effective. –Nathan Waskel, 2016, 2017


Making a Connection
One thing we’ve repeatedly observed at Conservation Station stops is that many of our adult audience members will seek out the interns just to talk. They seem drawn to the enthusiasm shown by these young adults in sharing their stories and connecting to people through excitement and hopeful messages. Many of these folks have a genuine interest in learning about the interns’ backgrounds, how they are doing in school, and where they see themselves after graduation. In fact, older citizens seem to prefer watching the young people present than the ISU-based professionals. And the interns truly appreciate the conversations and audience interactions as well.

The knowledge I gained from community members teaching community members helped me make the decision to continue in the course of community education and engagement. –Megan Koppenhafer, 2015, 2016, and 2018 AmeriCorps Service Member

It always felt nice to have people come up and talk about their own experiences with conservation. –Nathan Waskel, 2016, 2017

While visiting the Conservation Station one dad said to me, “I want my kids to know about this stuff; a lot of people don’t realize how important it is.” It was rewarding to make that connection. –Wyatt Kaldenberg, 2018

The other strong connection we see is with children in the audience. At field days and fairs young people are drawn to the goofy games and hands-on activities – but we see the parents and grandparents leaning in and learning along the way. And when they get into schools for Water Rocks! assemblies and outdoor classrooms, the interns have a chance to teach – and sometimes get stumped – by the next generation.

Teaching youth during outdoor classrooms opened my eyes to youth development and education. I loved seeing things click and watching their excitement grow as they understood how their actions could impact the environment either negatively or positively. –Brittney Carpio, 2012

I was caught off guard when a fifth-grade student asked, “What inspires you to do this?” After a long moment of panic, and a room full of fifth-graders staring up at me, I finally came up an answer. The experience made me think and quickly translate my passion for conservation into words I hope made an impact on another generation. –Kaleb Baber, 2017, 2018


Hands-on Research
When not on the road with the Conservation Stations, the interns also spend a good deal of time conducting hands-on research. Tasks range from taking water and soil samples to things such as counting earthworms. While these simple tasks are beneficial to ongoing research, there is also a lot of learning going on. Interns learn research techniques and gain an understanding of the importance of research processes and protocols to obtaining verifiable and repeatable results.

Earthworm counting is exactly what it sounds like. We head to test plots all over the state to look at the number of earthworms within a 19” x 30” frame between the rows of crops, corn or soybeans. – Donovan Wildman, 2018

Understanding the theory or research behind a process is an important first step, but a project is far from complete at this stage. Once the system is operating in the ‘real world’, such as the working bioreactors in the ILF program, there are many unpredictable factors that can arise. –Kate Sanocki, 2016

In addition to the field research, interns have also helped conduct various social science research through the years helping with survey mailings and data collection as well as event evaluations. The event evaluations, in particular, demonstrate to the interns the importance of documenting impact on an event by event basis.


A Bidirectional Impact
Water Resources Interns are crucial to the ongoing success of ILF and Water Rocks! outreach and education activities. Every year they infuse the team with new energy, perspectives and ideas. The interns are there to learn and gain valuable career experience, but their contributions over the years have also helped make the programming and content better and more impactful for all constituencies.

What does it take to become a Water Resources Intern?
In a word, Enthusiasm.

Enthusiasm to learn, enthusiasm to teach, and enthusiasm to engage with Iowans from all walks of life. We can teach them the content, but the spark and passion for sharing what they know and learning what they don’t is what makes for great interns and great experiences.

Interns will be challenged with new ideas, new tasks and some exhausting days. We seek people who are passionate about conservation, the environment, water or soil quality, and agriculture. To learn more about the Water Resources Internship program, and for application instructions, please visit our 2019 Water Resources Internship Program page — applications close this Thursday, Jan. 31!

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This story was first published in Wallaces Farmer in December 2018.

A Legacy of Conservation

Conservation is a legacy that runs generations deep with the Whitaker family. Go back 165 years, and there were Whitakers farming this same ground, now recognized as a Heritage Farm, in southeast Iowa.

As nearly 50 farmers and landowners gathered in Hillsboro earlier this week for a conservation field day, area farmer Clark Whitaker shared the importance of conservation to the family over the years, and how that has carried through to their farming operation today. His father had been a district conservationist with the Soil Conservation Service in the 1970s, brother John has been actively involved with conservation through USDA-FSA and Conservation Districts of Iowa, and today Clark is the “boots on the ground” guy making conservation happen on their land.

Clark commented, “The land needs to be cared for and maintained.  Part of that care is trying to keep the soil on the farm instead of road ditches and waterways.”

Back in the 1970s, that meant installing broadbase terraces. In the 1980s, the Whitakers’ conservation focus transitioned to no-till. Today, the Whitakers’ approach to conservation includes variable rate technology, prescription planting, cover crops, and they have also recently installed a saturated buffer to help reduce nitrate levels in drainage water.

Cover crops were the main focus at the Hillsboro field day, where Clark shared that his goals in using cover crops are two-fold: keeping the soil in place, while also raising levels of organic matter in their soils. He has experimented with cereal rye, oats, and radishes thus far.

For best results with cover crops, Clark made several recommendations to the group based on his experience in southeast Iowa:

To learn more about cover crops and how to integrate them into your farming operation, check out Cover Crop Videos and Cover Crop Resources on the Iowa Learning Farms website.

Ann Staudt

This field day was a partnership of Iowa Learning Farms, Lower Skunk Water Quality and Soil Health Initiative, and Henry County Soil and Water Conservation District.