Thousands of Steps, Millions of Seeds

Labor Day often marks the end of summer, but for the Iowa Learning Farms team it’s the start of cover crops season! Last week we traveled across the state to seed our cover crop mixture project sites. The project began in 2013 with hand broadcasting seeding cover crops at six Iowa State University Research and Demonstration Farms.  In 2016, we continued the project at four sites and this fall marked the fifth and final year of seeding.

As we traveled across the state, I began to wonder just how many miles I had walked seeding each row of the plots…

20150901_111602But first some background – to seed the research plots we prepared individually weighed seed packets to help achieve an even seeding rate of roughly one million seeds per acre. These are labeled, bundled and packaged by site to maximize efficiency in the field while seeding.

IMG_3325Once we arrive at the research farm, we carefully double check the map and add orange stakes to mark the first row of each plot. I then load up my nail apron with the packets for one of the plots and prepare to seed.  A teammate holds the end of our tape measure and I grab a hold of the other end. I then tear open a corner of the packet and walk backwards shaking out the seed.  Once the nail apron is empty, we check the map and move to the next plot.

Here’s a peek at seeding into corn at the Lewis Research Farm in southwest Iowa.

So how many miles did I cover walking backwards while seeding?

Each site had 16 cover crops plots that were 50 feet in length.  The width ranged from 6-12 rows.  All told, in the last five years I have walked 30.6 miles or 61,200 steps backwards seeding cover crops. In the span of four days last week, our team traveled 975 miles to seed the cover crops and collect the lysimeter water samples.

This year offered incredible weather to get the cover crops seeded and it was bittersweet to shake out the last packet of seed – oats – into the soybeans at Kanawha. I am also pleased to announce that I did not fall into the badger holes at our site in southwest Iowa – fifth year is the charm!

To everyone who helped establish the plots, the farm managers at the research farms and farmer partners for collecting biomass samples, yield data and management information, the pilots that flew on the cover crops, our outstanding summer interns and the team at Iowa Learning Farms – Thank You!

Stay tuned for an upcoming project report summarizing the great information this project has yielded.

Liz Juchems

Exploring whether cover crop mixtures make sense on Iowa farmland

Last week I had the opportunity to attend the Soil and Water Conservation Society’s 72nd Annual Conference in Madison, Wisconsin.  In addition to attending some great sessions, meeting fellow conservationists, and exploring Madison, I participated in the Conservation Innovation Grant Showcase poster exhibition.  On display were early results from our cover crops mixtures project that began in 2013.

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 Some preliminary observations from the study: 

  • Achieved more biomass from the single species (oats or rye) than mixtures
  • Oats and rye resulted in the majority of biomass from the mixtures
  • Cereal rye was the only species to over-winter consistently
  • Generally lower pore water nitrate concentrations following rye and mixture of rye, radish and rapeseed

As we continue to analyze the data collected, the project indicates:

  • Cereal rye and oats establish readily and provide the most biomass growth when seeded on their own.
  • Cover crops can offer some water quality benefits, reducing nitrate concentration in pore water.
  • Rye and oats provide the best biomass return on seed investment! Single Species are the way to go in Iowa for corn and soybean producers.

Be sure to subscribe to our blog and check back for updates on the project, including analysis on crop yields.

Liz Juchems

 

 

The weather outside is frightful… but the cover crops are oh SO delightful!

 

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If there was ever a picture perfect fall season for cover crops, 2015 would absolutely be it! Rainfall was timely – there was sufficient precipitation in August and September – to help the freshly seeded cover crops germinate and kick start their fall growth. Beyond that, we’ve had beautifully mild temperatures for the majority of October and November.

While many parts of the state experienced freezing conditions back in October, cover crops are quite hardy – just one cold night that drops below the freezing point is not enough to knock them out! So as the fall marched on, the cover crops grew and grew…

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However, winter-like weather has arrived this week, which meant it was high time for the Iowa Learning Farms team to get out there and take care of our fall field work responsibilities. As part of our National Conservation Innovation Grant/Cover Crop Mixtures demonstration project, we were collecting fall cover crop biomass at each of our demonstration sites across the state. In order to obtain the most accurate cover crop growth data, the collection of cover crop biomass is ideally done as close as possible to the time of an extended hard freeze – which is now looming very near. So Iowa Learning Farms team members have been “on the clock” this week trying to complete all of our fall field work and sampling before the cold is here to stay!

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Included below are a number of photographs from our cover crop mixture plots at the ISU Armstrong Research Farm near Lewis in southwest Iowa. These photographs were all taken on Wednesday, November 18. We hadn’t been back to the Armstrong Farm since the cover crops were seeded in early September, so it was thrilling to see the beautiful growth that has been achieved!

In the plots that had soybeans in ‘15 (going to corn in ’16), the cover crop treatments included:

Single species cover crop (oats)

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Cover crop mixture (oats, hairy vetch, and radish)

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Now in the third year of this project, this is the first time that we really definitively saw strong growth of all species in the mixture!

While there is no denying the amount of intrigue in using radishes as a cover crop, we typically have not seen as much success with it in Iowa when compared to other states, due to our shorter window of opportunity for fall growth. This year is turning out to be a good year for the radish, as well. Healthy radish growth was found throughout our mixture plots, with many radishes forming tubers around 1/2” in diameter. However, there were a few big boys that just went crazy…

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Moving across the farm to our corn plots (going to beans in ’16), the cover crop treatments included:

Single species cover crop (cereal rye)

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Cover crop mixture (rye, rapeseed, and radish)

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While the dates of cover crop planting and growing conditions (temperature, precipitation, sunlight – as related to leaf drop/canopy opening with the cash crop) certainly vary across the state, it is exciting to see such vibrant cover crop growth this fall.

How are the cover crops looking in your area? We’d love to see any photographs that you may have. Send them to us at ilf@iastate.edu, or share with Iowa Learning Farms on social media (we’re on Facebook and Twitter).

Ann Staudt

Friday Photos: Cover Crops Thriving!

ILF staff visited the Armstrong Research and Demonstration Farm in Southwest Iowa earlier today, and we were pleased to find some good growth in our recently-seeded cover crop plots.   As part of a National Conservation Innovation Grant looking at cover crop mixtures, these plots involve an investigation of three different cover crop treatments:

Treatment #1: Single Species Cover Crop (rye pictured here in corn plots)

Treatment #1: Single Species Cover Crop (Rye in corn plots, 9/26/2014)

Treatment #2: Cover Crop Mixture (Blend of rye, radish, and rapeseed shown here in corn plots)

Treatment #2: Cover Crop Mixture (Blend of rye, radish, and rapeseed in corn plots, 9/26/2014)

Treatment #3: No Cover Crop (in some very nice looking no-till!)

Treatment #3: No Cover Crop (in some very nice looking no-till, 9/26/2014)

 

The crops are looking great in SW Iowa, as are the cover crops.  However, when walking through the plots, beware of badger holes!

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One very ambitious badger makes its home in our corn plots at the Armstrong (SW) Research and Demonstration Farm.

The cover crop species in our plots are different based on whether they are planted into standing corn or soybeans.  The above images all come from standing corn.   Here’s a view from the soybean plots, as well:

Cover Crop Mixture used in Soybeans (Blend of oats, radish, and hairy vetch)

Cover Crop Mixture used in Soybeans (Blend of oats, radish, and hairy vetch, 9/26/2014)

How are your cover crops looking this fall?  We’d love to see any photographs you may have, and will share them in future blog posts. Send them to us at ilf@iastate.edu.

Ann Staudt