New online tool helps farmers assess value of cover crops

Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, in partnership with Practical Farmers of Iowa, has launched a new Ag Decision Maker tool on their website to help crop and livestock farmers assess the economics of cover crops in their operations.20150428_092027

The Economics of Cover Crops tool consists of three in-depth budgeting worksheets designed to help farmers analyze the costs and benefits of cover crops – and paths to profitability – in their row crop operations with or without the integration of livestock:

  • Cover Crops Budget looks at the economics of cover crops in systems without grazing or harvesting
  • Grazing Cover Crops Budget estimates the costs and benefits with grazing or harvesting for feed
  • Grazing Cover Crops Results uses farmers’ farm data to calculate the actual economic value of grazing or harvesting cover crops from the prior year

The unique three-in-one tool was developed to let farmers see the potential added value they could gain when cover crops are used for forage. Recent Practical Farmers of Iowa on farm research has found that, when properly managed, grazing cover crops can result in sizeable profits within the first year.

The worksheets are available online and were created with funding by Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship’s Water Quality Initiative.

Help available to use the tool

To ensure farmers feel confident using the new tool, Meghan Filbert, Livestock Coordinator with Practical Farmers of Iowa, is available to help farmers gets started. Contact her at (515) 232-5661 or meghan@practicalfarmers.org with questions or to request assistance working with the tool.

Liz Juchems

 

AmeriCorps Week: Doing My Part

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

This month, AmeriCorps Service Members participated in AmeriCorps Week, a week dedicated to raising awareness and promoting AmeriCorps. As a great opportunity to promote the program I have been a part of for six months, I immediately set my sights on my way of promotion: a radio interview in my hometown of Jefferson.

The local radio station, Raccoon Valley Radio, was kind enough to do an interview with me about AmeriCorps at my request. I spoke about AmeriCorps, Water Rocks!, and what I enjoyed about both. I even got the chance to talk about why I joined AmeriCorps: I needed more time to figure out what I wanted to do in life, and AmeriCorps seemed like a great use of time in my gap year.

As glad as I am to have done my part in promoting AmeriCorps, I wish I could have done more to promote the program for the week. I planned on giving a presentation to my county’s schools about AmeriCorps, but sadly their spring breaks were right over AmeriCorps Week! Nevertheless, I’m happy that I and the other AmeriCorps members were able to reach out and promote AmeriCorps to all who are looking for an opportunity just like this.

Jack Schilling

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

Webinar highlights cover crop, water quality connections

In case you missed it, this past week’s Iowa Learning Farms webinar offered an excellent overview of the research findings related to the potential of winter cover crops to reduce nitrate leaching in corn and soybean cropping systems. Dr. Tom Kaspar, plant physiologist with the USDA-Agricultural Research Service, shared results from numerous studies that show the ability of cover crops to reduce nitrate concentrations and loads in tile drainage water.

The press headlines about nitrates and water quality are seemingly ubiquitous, and Kaspar provided solid data that help to paint a complete picture of the challenges and opportunities. Our land uses have changed dramatically, and over the past 60-70 years, our cropping systems have likewise changed dramatically with significant reductions in small grains, hay and perennial vegetation.  With corn and soybeans having a 7-month brown gap when they are not actively uptaking nutrients, that leaves a significant amount of time with nutrients vulnerable to leaching.

However, Kaspar’s research clearly demonstrates that cover crops help transition that brown gap to a green gap, providing the ability to “capture” nutrients in the soil that would otherwise be vulnerable to leaching loss. One of Kaspar’s long-term research studies in central Iowa found that rye cover crops in a corn-soybean cropping system reduced nitrate concentrations in tile drainage water by 57%. Additional studies by Kaspar and collaborators around the state found nitrate reductions of anywhere from 20% to 40%. This variability is expected, with different amounts of cover crop growth, weather, rainfall, soil types, tile systems, and field histories.

Kaspar also pointed out that it takes quite some time for nitrate to move through the system – there is a noticeable lag effect.  For instance, Kaspar and collaborators found that nitrate concentrations in subsurface tile drainage continued to decrease through the summer, long after spring cover crop termination.

Check out the full webinar, Lessons Learned from Using Cover Crops to Reduce Losses of Nitrate for 15 Years, on the Iowa Learning Farms webinar archives page.  And to hear more perspectives from Dr. Kaspar, tune in to Episode 06 of the Conservation Chat podcast!

Ann Staudt

Guest Blog: Fair Eats

Our final summer guest blog post comes from high school intern Josh Harms, who will be a senior at South Hamilton this fall. Take it away, Josh!

Hello, my name is Josh Harms. I am a high school intern with Iowa State’s Water Rocks! program this summer. While I have been traveling across the state of Iowa to many different county fairs, I have had the privilege of experiencing a diversity of fair food, everything from the basic corndog to the amazing tacos and black raspberry ice cream at the Wright Co. Fair. I also tried pulled pork nachos at Badger Fest, fried cheese balls at the Central Iowa Fair, a pork tenderloin at the Washington Co. Fair, and a mango smoothie followed by mini donuts at the Cherokee Co. Fair.

Throughout all the fairs I have attended, the Wright Co. Fair had the best food by far, but I guess that could just be my bias towards tacos and ice cream, especially black raspberry! After eating all these different foods, I still enjoy all the unique foods that Iowa’s fairs have to offer, but I think I maxed out my capacity for fried foods when I had chicken tenders, fried cheese balls, and a funnel cake all in the same trip!

As my internship is coming to a close, I have really enjoyed the county fairs and camps I’ve been to, and I have also learned a lot about the environment in Iowa. One thing that is really memorable is that one gram of dog poo has 23 million bacteria. Also, sediment is the #1 pollutant in Iowa. Actually, in Iowa, we lose 1 inch of topsoil every 20 years and we gain that 1 inch back in 500-1000 years. Overall, I have enjoyed working with the other interns along with traveling to all the different fairs across the state of Iowa. I would also like to thank the staff at Iowa State University for this wonderful internship opportunity!

Josh Harms

Internship offers new perspectives, new direction

Today’s guest post in our Water Resources Internship blog series was provided by Andrew Hillman. Hillman grew up in Bettendorf, Iowa, and went to school at Pleasant Valley. He will be entering his junior year at ISU in the fall, majoring in Biosystems Engineering. Read on for his unique perspectives in the internship coming from an urban background!  

It has been a fun, wild ride in a way for me this summer. Coming from a completely urban background in the Quad Cities and starting this internship, I had little to no idea about any of these issues, or really anything about agriculture at all to be honest. But, from the pre-job training to all the experiences I have had this summer, from field work to outreach events, I have learned quite a bit. I never thought before this summer that I would ever be excited to go out and see things like bioreactors and restored oxbows, but here I am!

I have always been somewhat informed about environmental issues, but the thing that I have enjoyed the most about this summer is that I now have more nuanced and informed opinions about issues. And I can actually draw on my own experiences now, which is very neat. I knew that erosion and nutrient loss and runoff were environmental issues on the forefront in Iowa, but now is the first time that I can say that I feel personally connected to these issues, which is always something I felt that as an Iowan I should be doing, but never knew enough about.

Going to Iowa State University for Biosystems Engineering, I quickly was exposed to how little I knew about agriculture in Iowa, and so this summer has helped me fill a gap in my knowledge that was fairly noticeable compared to some of my peers. Now that I have experience going out to a field, seeing cover crops and collecting water samples, some of the things we talked about in my ABE classes are suddenly much clearer to me now that I have the context.

Something specific that I did in my ABE 218 course was build a table-scale system for reducing nitrate levels in water. Now that I have seen an actual bioreactor site, and presented the model bioreactor that Extension has, I have a greater appreciation for that project and the things that I learned while doing it. I even had the opportunity to work with Chase, one of the other interns, to come up with a preliminary design of our own for a model bioreactor to possibly be placed in one of our conservation trailers in the future. Edge-of-field practices like bioreactors are really fascinating to me.

Back on July 12, I had the opportunity to go to my home county for a Scott County soil health and cover crops field day. This was a great event for me, because growing up in Bettendorf, I really did not associate Scott Co. with much farming compared to the other places I had been in Iowa. It was interesting to see all the things that farmers in my area were doing to further soil and water quality goals.

The host location, Cinnamon Ridge Farms in Donahue, Iowa was amazing. It was eye-opening to hear the owner talk about all the strategies he was using, including his methods for integrating cover crops into his operation. Because their operation does tours year-round, including tours to farmers from all around the world, he had a unique perspective on many of the government cost share programs that are available to farmers, noting that there are not very many countries in which the government will pay you to adopt a farming practice. I think that this is very important, and one that people should keep in mind as Iowa communities look to adopt more parts of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy in the future.

I am currently in the Biorenewables option right now in Biological Systems Engineering, but after my experiences this summer with the Iowa Learning Farms, I am seriously considering switching my option so I can continue to learn more about the issues that I have been exposed to this summer! As an engineering student, this is where I can see so many opportunities to get involved after graduation.

Andrew Hillman

Lost in the Corn: The Search for Lysimeters

Today’s guest blog post was provided by summer student intern Laura Lacquement. A native Iowan, Laura grew up south of Des Moines, and went to school at Martensdale-St. Mary’s. She started her college career at Valparaiso University, and later transferred to ISU, where she is now a senior studying Environmental Science.  

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I enjoy travelling across the State of Iowa with Water Rocks! and Iowa Learning Farms. The location and events vary, while the field work remains consistent. One of the projects I’ve helped with all summer long is ILF’s cover crop mixtures project. Each week we travel to three of Iowa State University’s research farms to collect water samples from lysimeters located in plots of corn and soybeans.  Each block of plots contains 12 lysimeters placed between rows of corn or soybeans.

Lysimeters measure the movement or storage of water in the ground.  The lysimeters that the ILF team uses are composed of a tube two inches in diameter and two feet (24”) deep.  The bottom of the tube is composed of a porous ceramic cup that allows the movement of water into the lysimeter from the soil around it. Using a vacuum pump, we create suction inside the tube that pulls water inside.  Each week, we extract the water by using a flask that is connected to the vacuum pump on one side and a straw connected to its lid and inserted into the tube to its full depth.  Using the pump and flask, we pull water from the lysimeter into a small bottle, where it will later be analyzed for the amount of nitrates present. Each lysimeter tube is installed so it’s flush with the ground. To protect the lysimeter, a four inch PVC drainage pipe plug and small pipe is placed above it.

Most of our plots are located close to each other, with the exception of the plots at the ISU Northern Research and Demonstration Farm in Kanawha, Iowa. Finding the lysimeters there can be quite an adventure! At the start of the internship, all we could see of corn and soybeans in our plots were little sprouts an inch tall.  In just a couple weeks, the corn grew past our knees to over our heads.  I not only watched this growth, but experienced it firsthand by struggling to carry our devices and tools over and through the corn and soybeans to each lysimeter.

On Friday, June 30, I traveled to Kanawha, Iowa, with Elizabeth to extract water samples from lysimeters there. As I mentioned, the plots here are not located right next to each other, but in completely different fields separated by a grass driveway.  After we collected samples from the soybeans, we entered the corn in search of our small buried lysimeters in the shoulder-height corn.  We walked inside each row looking for our lysimeters … for an hour or so. Our ILF plots happen to be in the middle of a much larger field, and the challenge is that there’s no easy way to flag or label the plots once the corn is this tall! We eventually ventured a bit south of our current location, where we recognized our plots and finally spotted a lysimeter only a short distance away. Small victories!

Friday, July 7, I returned to Kanawha with Kaleb to collect more samples. This time, I knew exactly where to go to find the plot, but not the precise location of the lysimeters. In just one week, the corn had grown from the height of my shoulders to the height of me. I could no longer see over the corn.  As I finished extracting each water sample, Kaleb would move to the next lysimeter.  He may be the tallest of us interns, yet I still could not see him over the corn.  To find him and the next lysimeter, I followed the sound of corn rustling and looked for his bright red shirt through the corn.  If we do not wear bright colored shirts, a game of Marco Polo may be necessary!

After these experiences, I’m now very confident where ILF’s plots at Kanawha are located, plus how to find the other lysimeters and interns in corn taller than me. Each time I take samples from the lysimeters, I have learned a little more about corn and soybean cropping systems, as well as water quality issues in Iowa!

Laura Lacquement