Cover Crops on Tap at Nick Meier Field Day

ILFHeaderAs the weather gets colder and the days grow shorter, evening cover crop field days move indoors. Fortunately, the indoor atmosphere was perfect for an informal cover crop discussion.

The Nick Meier Field Day was hosted at Single Speed Brewery in Waterloo where attendees enjoyed several different varieties of flat bread pizza made from local ingredients. After dinner, the conversations turned toward cover crops, crop insurance, herbicide planning, soil health, earthworms and water sampling.

“Sampling your water is not something to be afraid of. It’s something to understand.” Theo Gunther, Iowa Soybean Association

There was particular interest in the earthworm study being done by the Iowa Learning Farms. Jamie Benning led the discussion and had some updates to share about the study.“Preliminary data determined that there was a 40% increase in earthworm middens found in fields with a cover crop versus without cover crops.”  Jamie Benning, Extension Water Quality Program Manager

The evening concluded with an excellent farmer panel where they discussed their experience using cover crops, planting into cover crops and tips for termination.

The field day was hosted by Practical Farmers of Iowa, the Iowa Farmers Union, the Soil Health Partnership, the Iowa Seed Association, the Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship Clean Water Initiative, Iowa Corn, Iowa Soybean Association and the Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance and Iowa Learning Farms.

If you missed the field day and are interested in attending one this month, visit our events page to find one near you and RSVP today!

 

~Nathan

Scaling Up Conservation Implementation: An Investment in Practices AND People

CLLHeaderDr. Matt Helmers, Professor Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering and Director of the Iowa Nutrient Research Center presented our November webinar and discussed the innovative Conservation Learning Lab (CLL) project that is key to understanding impacts of in-field conservation practices beyond the research plot scale.

Floyd Co CLLHow does watershed delivery scale compare to a research plot? Plots are kept relatively small (e.g. 6 rows wide by 50 feet long) for easy replication at a research site. Whereas for this project, watershed delivery scale is capturing both surface and subsurface delivery of water from a small watershed (540-1,300 acres) of row crop production agriculture.  The goal is to assess the performance of conservation practices, specifically cover crops and strip-tillage, as the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy calls for large scale adoption of these practices.

Although scaling up requires investments in the practices, by the producer and taxpayers through cost-share, this project has highlighted also the importance of investing in the people that are helping make the implementation possible.

On average it took 12 hours per completed plan – from initial contact to signed contract. If the goal is 50% implementation in a HUC-12 watershed, it can take an estimated 47 weeks to complete the planning process!

Be sure to tune into the archived version of the webinar to see the preliminary water quality monitoring results and the next steps of the project.

Liz Juchems

Sustainable Intensification

CLGHeaderEarlier this month I was in Baltimore for the American Society of Agronomy annual meeting. The keynote speaker was Jules Pretty, professor and deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Essex. Jules spoke on sustainable intensification. The concept of sustainable intensification takes a systems approach to increasing yields without increasing land area under cultivation or negative environmental effects. The argument that Jules states is that transition to sustainability draws on three components: efficiency, substitution, and redesign.

This thought-provoking presentation made me ask, “How can sustainable intensification be applied to agricultural production areas that are already under intensive management?”

Over the last several years, Iowa land area under corn and soybean production has been about 23.25 million acres. In the last 3 years, Iowa farmers have produced the highest three years of total corn and soybean production on record for the state. In addition, Iowa leads the nation in pork, egg, and ethanol production. Clearly, Iowa farmers have figured out how to intensify production practices to efficiently produce agricultural products.

Equally clear, is that intensification has come with environmental costs, especially with increased precipitation in Iowa. As documented in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, excess nitrogen and phosphorus movement into waterbodies are targeted as reasons for poor water quality leading to impairments of Iowa waterbodies and hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico. It is clear that intensification of corn and soybean production has led to highly efficient production with environmental consequences through increased land under production and less a less diverse land use.

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Winter cereal rye aerially seeded in early September into standing soybean.

Through substitution and redesign, can sustainable intensification be achieved in an already intensified production system? I think so. The case can be made that a systems approach to nitrogen use efficiency will lead to less nitrogen loss while accounting for the delicate balance between production and environmental impact. By substituting minor changes such as changing nitrogen application product or moving to less aggressive tillage systems, we could see small reductions in nitrogen and phosphorus loss. Moving to a complete redesign of the intensive production systems through the addition of cover crops (and modifications nutrient, tillage, pest management practices) is another step in the right direction. Ultimately, a complete redesign of the production system would need to include high impact practices such as multi-year rotations, perennial crops, and establishment of wetlands.

While Iowa’s efforts on incorporating conservation practices have been targeted as nutrient loss reduction practices, we have been buying into sustainable intensification of an already intensive production system. Our challenge remains that same, maintain or increase productivity while being profitable environmental stewards.

Mark Licht

Five-Year Cover Crop Mixtures Study: Significant Nitrate Reduction and Unchanged Crop Yields

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The results of a five-year study conducted by the Iowa Learning Farms, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach and Practical Farmers of Iowa, reinforced that cover crops added to a corn-soybean rotation have no negative effect on yield and result in statistically significant reductions in nitrate concentration in subsurface water. The details of the study are included in a brand new infographic now available for download.

Throughout the 22 site-years of yield data, there was no significant difference in cash crop yields between control strips without cover crops and those planted with cover crops. Is it important to note that planter settings may impact yield if not properly managed to accommodate residue from the cover crops.

yield results

Iowa soils are highly vulnerable to nitrate losses between April and June when natural nitrate production exceeds typical crop demands. The analysis of water samples from those three months, showed a statistically significant reduction in nitrate concentration in the cover crop strips.
nitrate reduction

We are really excited to see this significant reduction in nitrate concentration when cover crops are present, as addressing nitrate levels is a key component to reaching our Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy goals.

Project MapSince this project had locations located throughout the state, we were able to see how the different cover crop species performed in different soil regions and weather patterns. We observed consistent establishment and biomass production of the rye and oats at all sites and gained the largest reduction in nitrate concentration from those single species treatments. Rye and oats provided the most biomass and had the lowest cost of establishment, helping make them the top choice for cover crops in Iowa!

The infographic is available online at the ILF website. Funding for this study was provided by NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant and Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

-Liz Juchems

Have we reached a tipping point for phosphorus saturation?

CLG-BannerImages-180213-04Phosphorus is one of the main nutrients of focus in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. It is essential to the growth of plants, but when phosphorus enters our water bodies it leads to excessive plant growth and increases in toxic algae that are harmful to human and animal health.

A recent study from the University of Montreal quantified, for the first time, the maximum amount of phosphorus that can accumulate within the watershed before additional pollution is released into the water.

Their results indicate a relatively low threshold compared to current application rates and notes that tipping points could be reached in less than a decade.

Research supervisor, Roxane Maranger, aquatic ecosystem ecologist at University of Montreal, compared the relationship of the land and phosphorus accumulation like this:

“Think of the land as a sponge,” Maranger said. “After a while, sponges that absorb too much water will leak. In the case of phosphorus, the landscape absorbs it year after year after year, and after a while, its retention capacity is reduced. At that point historical phosphorus inputs contribute more to what reaches our water.”

Be sure to read the full article to learn how they conducted the study and further implications of the results.

Locally, the implementation of nutrient reduction strategy practices like no-till, cover crops, phosphorus application management, perennial vegetation, buffers and more are imperative to the long-term sustainability on our water resources.

Liz Juchems

What a Night for a Field Day

While 2.5 inches of rain the previous day forced the field day location to be moved on to the Dordt College campus that did not diminish the enthusiasm and discussion. It also helped that at least for those of us from Ames it was the first time we had seen the sun in quite a few days.

The field day was hosted by Dordt College, Iowa Learning Farms, and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach on September 5.  The field day stations included Joel Dejong, NW Iowa Crop Extension Specialist, talking about protecting soil resources, Colton Meyer, West Branch of the Floyd River Watershed Project Coordinator, talking about saturated buffer planning, and our Iowa Learning Farms group demonstrating the Conservation Station On the Edge.

This was a unique event as there were approximately 150 students from the Dordt College Agriculture Program in attendance in addition to local farmers and landowners. This provided a great opportunity to discuss the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy with them and how edge-of-field practices such as bioreactors, saturated buffers, and wetlands can be used to reduce nitrate loss from agricultural lands.

 

Not only did the students ask questions during our allocated time but many came back after the end of the field day to make sure they fully understood how these practices work including how tile drainage worked. If we had not had a 4 hour drive ahead of us I think we might have been there discussing these practices until long after dark.

It was encouraging to say the least to see the interest among the students in these systems. Some of their questions  we have heard many times throughout the summer including how long will the woodchips last, what kind of wood should we use, and can we crop over a bioreactor. Many of the answers to these questions are touched on in our Talking With Your Tenant: Denitrifying Practices publication.

However, the questions went beyond this. We had a discussion about whether diversifying our landscape and cropping system can also play a part in reducing downstream nutrient delivery which it absolutely can.

There were also questions about what time of the year we see the most nitrate lost. Which based on nearly thirty years of data from our drainage water quality site near Gilmore City we see about 60-70% of our annual drainage and nitrate loss in April-June.

Overall, it was exciting seeing the interest from the students and really highlighted the need to provide these out of class learning opportunities to students of all ages.

Matt Helmers

Webinar Recap: Exploring Economic Benefits of Nitrogen Reductions in Iowa

On July 18th, Dr. Chuan Tang, postdoctoral research associate with the Center for Agriculture and Rural Development (CARD), joined us for our monthly webinar series to  discuss an ongoing project looking to provide economic valuation to the benefit of reducing nitrate in Iowa’s water.

The economic costs of nutrient pollution are relatively well known, but to develop good policy directed at reducing nutrients in our waters it is important to estimate the economic benefits too.  To help provide policy makers this important resource Dr. Tang worked along with Dr. Gabriel Lade, Assistant Professor in the Department of Economics at ISU, Dr. David Kaiser, Assistant Professor in the Department of Economics at ISU and the head of CARD’s Resource and Environmental Economics division, and Dr. Catherine Kling, former CARD Director to conduct this study. Together they divided the benefits into three categories:Slide9During his presentation Dr. Tang explored each of these categories more closely, but here are a few highlights –

  • About 90% of Iowans receive their water from a public water supply system that are monitored for nitrate levels. Of those systems – 55% rely on groundwater and 45% on surface water sources.
  • The remaining 10% use private wells. Private well users can contact their county health department to receive free test supplies to monitor the health of their water supply.
  • Lakes and other water bodies provide an estimated $30M each year in recreational benefits.
  • In addition to acute health impacts like Blue Baby Syndrome, health researchers are examining the chronic issue from long term exposure to high nitrate levels.

Be sure to watch the archive version of the webinar for more information and check out the related publication “Economic Benefits of Nitrogen Reductions in Iowa“.

Liz Juchems