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

Iowa CREP Wetlands

Today’s guest post is by Jake Hansen, Chief of the Water Resources Bureau Division of Soil Conservation & Water Quality at Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS). 

The Iowa Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) is a joint effort of the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) and USDA’s Farm Service Agency, in cooperation with local soil and water conservation districts (SWCDs). The program provides incentives to landowners to voluntarily restore shallow, semi-permanent wetlands in the heavily tile-drained regions of Iowa to improve surface water quality while providing valuable wildlife habitat and increased recreational opportunities.


The goal of the program is to reduce nitrogen loads and the movement of other agricultural chemicals from croplands to streams and rivers by targeting wetland restorations to “sweet spots” on the landscape that provide the greatest water quality benefits. CREP wetlands are positioned to receive tile drainage by gravity flow; they remove nitrate and herbicides from the water before it enters streams and rivers. Excess nitrogen not only affects Iowa’s waters but is also one of the leading causes of hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico. CREP wetlands are one strategy to help reduce nitrogen loading to those waters.

Targeted results. To ensure that wetlands are sited in the most advantageous locations, IDALS uses advanced geographic information system (GIS) analyses to find locations that are properly sized and situated to provide large nitrogen removal benefits. The CREP wetland criteria are based on over two decades of research and monitoring conducted by Iowa State University.

This research and monitoring has demonstrated that strategically sited and designed CREP wetlands remove 40 to 70 percent of nitrates and over 90 percent of herbicides from cropland drainage waters. Nitrogen reduction is achieved primarily through the denitrifying bacteria that occur naturally in wetlands. Through denitrification, the bacteria remove nitrate from the water and release it into the air as nitrogen gas (N2), an innocuous end product.


The highly targeted nature of this program has led to 83 wetlands currently restored and another 12 under development. During their lifetimes, these wetlands are expected to remove more than 100,000 tons of nitrogen from 122,350 acres of cropland. In 2016 the number of restored wetlands reached an annual capacity of removing over 1,300,000 lbs of nitrogen. These 95 targeted restorations total more than 891 acres of wetlands and 3,100 acres of surrounding buffers planted to native prairie vegetation.

More than nitrogen removal. Even with the impressive results so far, Iowa continues to explore and develop new technologies to optimize wetland performance by incorporating additional considerations for habitat, hydraulic efficiency, and temporary flood storage benefits. CREP wetlands are already providing high-quality wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities in addition to water quality benefits. Studies conducted by USGS have shown dramatic increases in the presence of several frog species at CREP wetland sites. The high-quality buffers, in conjunction with the shallow wetland habitats, have proven to be a tremendous boon to a multitude of wildlife species commonly found in these areas. Populated by birds ranging from trumpeter swans to shorebirds, these areas have shown that targeting wetland restoration for water quality benefits does not come at the expense of mutual habitat and recreational benefits.

To see additional photographs of CREP wetlands across Iowa and to read more about the program, click here (http://www.iowacrep.org).

Jake Hansen

Lessons Learned from Farmer Interviews of the Lyons Creek Watershed Project

Today’s guest post was provided by Steve Hopkins, Nonpoint Source Coordinator with the Iowa DNR’s Watershed Improvement Section.

The University of Northern Iowa’s Center for Social and Behavioral Research recently completed a study of farmers and stakeholders involved with the Lyons Creek Watershed Project about the farmers’ participation in the project and their attitudes toward adopting conservation practices.  The study was a post-project evaluation done at the end of the Lyons Creek Watershed Project, administered through the Hamilton County SWCD in north central Iowa.

The primary goal of the watershed project was to reduce nitrate levels in Lyons Creek, which has the highest nitrate levels of all of the tributaries of the Boone River.  The Boone River is a tributary of the Des Moines River, which is a source of drinking water for the city of Des Moines.


Despite the fact that the primary goal of the project was to reduce nitrate levels, and that the project coincided with the release of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, the project fell short of its goals due to a lack farmer participation and adoption of nitrate-reducing practices.  The purpose of the study was to find out why.

The study, based on in-depth interviews with farmers and project stakeholders, found both positive and negative factors related to farmer participation in the watershed project:



The study included recommendations for future watershed projects, including providing funding for a full-time project coordinator, involving farmers early on in project planning, and making project goals clearer.

UNI will be presenting the results of the study at the 2017 Iowa Water Conference in March.

This study, funded by Iowa DNR with EPA Section 319 funds, is available on the DNR Watershed Improvement webpage under “Watershed News” at  http://www.iowadnr.gov/Environmental-Protection/Water-Quality/Watershed-Improvement.

Steve Hopkins


Q & A with Matt Helmers on Nitrate Reduction and Drainage

By popular demand Dr. Matt Helmers set out to address some of the common questions, and sometimes misconceptions, about nitrate loss and drainage in this month’s Iowa Learning Farms webinar.  Helmers is the Dean’s Professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Professor in the Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering at Iowa State University.

Although the questions are straightforward, the answers are not as simple as yes or no.  Helmers uses research from his team, as well as other researchers in the Midwest, to provide the best available answers to the very complex questions of water quality. Watch the full archived webinar on the Iowa Learning Farms website.

Here is a sampling of the questions (and summarized answers):

 Q. Is Elevated Nitrate Primarily a Nitrogen Rate Problem?

A. Nitrogen rate management is the first place to start, but it is not enough on its own to reach our goals established by the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.  Moving from 150lb N to the Maximum Return to Nitrogen (MRTN), or economic efficiency of nitrogen, results in about a 9% reduction in nitrate loss. A necessary step on the path of meeting our goals of 41% from non-point sources!

Q. How Does Nitrate Leaching Vary From Year to Year?

A. Precipitation plays a large role in how water moves through the soil profile and the loss of nitrates. Under consistent N-rates, research data shows in years with lower precipitation a higher concentration of nitrates (which is the measurement used to determine water quality e.g. 10 mg/L is the standard for drinking water).ilf-webinar-10-16

Q. Do Cover Crops Really Reduce Nitrate Loss?

A. Yes – 34-36% reductions were observed when a cereal rye cover crop was drilled following crop harvest near Gilmore City in North Central Iowa.  This reduction is a conservative estimate as the nitrate loss reduction has been shown to improve with more cover crop growth (achieved with an earlier planting date).

Q. How Do We Reach Our Goals?

A. We need it all – nitrogen management, cropping practices and landuse changes, and edge of field practices like wetlands, bioreactors and more!


Credit: TransformingDrainage.org, USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture

Q. What’s New on Drainage?

A. Keep an eye out for the new practice – drainage water recycling.  The practice looks to store spring drainage water for use later in the growing season and has the potential to also aid in nitrate reduction.

Be sure to watch the full webinar on our Webinar Archives page to check out remaining questions and more information on the hydrologic impacts of drainage on our landscape.

Tune in next month…
The next Iowa Learning Farms webinar will be Wednesday, November 16 at 1:00 p.m., featuring our own Ann Staudt digging into our newest cover crop project – earthworms!

Liz Juchems

Working Together – Nutrient Reduction Practices and Tax Implications

A recent post by the Center for Agricultural Law and Taxation shed some light on the tax implications of various water quality measures including those addressing nitrogen reduction. Read the original version here.

Using the Iowa State University Publication, Reducing Nutrient Loss: Science Shows What Works as a guide, they reviewed a few common practices for their tax consequences and provided the general overview below.

Cover Crops
Cover_crop_April_Berger_FarmOne of the key strategies for reducing nitrate concentration in row crop farm ground is to plant cover crops. If a farm operator plants cover crops, they may deduct the cost of the seed and/or fertilizer as a trade or business expense in the year they plants the cover crop.[i]

            Cost Share: Often, cost sharing programs are available to fund these practices. If a farmer receives an EQIP payment, for example, to cover the cost of the cover crops, that payment would be treated as ordinary income, subject to self-employment tax. Cost-sharing payments are only eligible for income exclusion under the tax code if the payment is not associated with a deductible expense.[ii]

Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)
Another option for improving water quality is to enroll targeted lands in CRP. Under this program, farm operators or landowners receive annual payments for contractually agreeing to keep enrolled acres out of production. CRP payments are typically reported as Schedule F Income, subject to self-employment tax. (more information)

             Cost Share: Cost-share payments received under the CRP may be eligible for income exclusion to the extent permitted under IRC §126 (see full article).

Conservation Easements
Conservation easements can be an effective method of enhancing or maintaining water quality. These binding agreements implementing permanent land use restrictions can be purchased or donated or they may be implemented through a combination of both.

A purchased easement would include a Wetland Reserve Easement purchased by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Permanent and 30-year easements are treated for tax purposes like a sale of the property.

  • The landowner would reduce his or her basis in the property in the amount of the purchase price of the easement.
  • Any amount below zero would be IRC § 1231 gain reported on Form 4797. It is taxed at long-term capital gains rates as long as the property was owned for more than one year.
  • Easement payments offered for easements in place less than 30 years are taxed as ordinary income.
  • Easement payments are not subject to self-employment tax.
  • Easements granted for 30 years or more can qualify for like-kind exchange treatment under IRC § 1031.

Landowners can also donate conservation easements for the purpose of improving water quality. Such an easement, for example, might allow for the implementation of a wetland on a portion of current crop ground.  If tax code requirements are met, the landowner can claim the deduction as a charitable contribution and recognize significant tax savings. This is a complex area of tax law that requires the assistance of an experienced tax practitioner.

Saturated Buffers, Diversion Ditches, Filter Strips, Grade Stabilization, TerracesDSCN9206
Active farmers may be able to presently deduct the cost of conservation practices implemented as part of an NRCS (or comparable state)-approved plan.

Farmer Landowners:
The IRC § 175 soil and water conservation deduction (which is taken in the year the improvements are made) can be elected for conservation expenditures in an amount up to 25 percent of the farmer’s gross income from farming. The deduction can only be taken for improvements made on “land used for farming.” Excess amounts may be carried forward to future tax years.[ix]

Non-farming landowners:
Those who cash rent their ground) must capitalize these expenses (add the cost of the improvement to the basis of the property) because the IRC § 175 deduction only applies to taxpayers “engaged in the business of farming.”

           Cost share: Cost sharing or incentive payments received to implement these conservation programs would be taxed as ordinary income.

Drainage Water Management
Drainage tile modifications or installations are generally depreciable over a 15-year period. This should include the cost of most water control structures that are part of the system and the cost of the installation. Farming operators would also be eligible for IRC § 179 expensing and 50 percent bonus depreciation for the cost of new tile installation. Non-farming landowners could also depreciate the cost of the drainage tile improvements over a 15-year period. Although they would not be eligible for IRC § 179 expensing (since they are not in the business of farming), they would be eligible for 50 percent bonus depreciation for the cost of new tile.

            Cost share: Cost sharing or incentive payments would be taxed as ordinary income, unless determined to be excluded from income under IRC § 126. This might be especially useful for non-farming landowners not eligible for IRC § 179 expensing.

Stout bioreactor_installationBioreactors have become a very popular tool for removing significant amounts of nitrates from water passing out of a drainage tile system. These structures can cost thousands of dollars and don’t increase production or otherwise improve the bottom line of a farming operation. As such, economic incentives to implement bioreactors are particularly important.

A bioreactor does not show up on any MACRS table. It would likely be depreciated over a seven-year period. Materially participating producers installing a bioreactor would be eligible for Section 179 and 50 percent bonus depreciation. Non-farming landowners could likely depreciate the cost of the bioreactor over a 7-year period (as equipment) and would be eligible for 50-percent bonus depreciation.

           Cost share: Cost sharing or incentive payments could likely be excluded under IRC §126.This might be especially useful for non-farming landowners not eligible for IRC § 179 expensing.

To read the full article visit https://www.calt.iastate.edu/taxplace/tax-treatment-water-quality-measures-farm-operators-and-landowners. For questions, contact the author Kristine Tidgren at 515-294-6365 or ktidgren@iastate.edu.

Liz Juchems


2016 Crop Advantage Series kicks off today


Today marks the start of the 2016 Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Crop Advantage Series — these workshops are offered across the state, delivering the latest research, knowledge, and expertise related to crop production.  Topics range from crop weather outlooks for 2016, to soil fertility management, to weed and pest management, conservation practices, and much more!

Several Iowa Learning Farms team members and collaborators will be presenting at select upcoming Crop Advantage Series meetings:

  • Economic benefits of cover crops – Jamie Benning and Liz Juchems
  • Reducing nitrate loss: Scale of practice implementation needed – Matt Helmers and Ann Staudt
  • Genetic selection and seeding rate considerations for tight margins – Mark Licht
  • Spray application strategies beyond glyphosate – Mark Hanna

This year, the Crop Advantage Series meetings are being offered at 14 different locations – 13 across the state of Iowa, plus one in Moline, IL. Check out the map to see which location(s) and date(s) work best for you!

CropAdvantageMapEach Crop Advantage workshop is approved for recertification for Iowa private pesticide applicators, as well as continuing education credits for Certified Crop Advisers (CCAs).

Full registration for each workshop is $60 at the door, with lunch and refreshments included. Many sites still have early registration available online, through the Ag & Natural Resources Extension online portal, for the discounted rate of $50. On the webpage, select the specific meeting location you’re interesting in for additional details and online registration.

Hope to see you there!

Ann Staudt

Save the Dates! Great Learning Opportunities Available in 2016

Practical Farmers of Iowa Annual Conference Jan. 22-23, Ames

PFI logo.stacked.tag.4c.outThe two-day conference at the Iowa State Center in Ames is a opportunity for farmer-to-farmer learning, networking and grassroots solutions to on-farm challenges for a more diverse, sustainable agricultural landscape.  The conference is open to everyone and attracts farmers of all sorts, sizes, systems and enterprises, as well as non-farmers interested in knowing more about how their food is grown and building relationships between those who work the land and those who rely on their labors.

Be sure to check out the two ILF-sponsored sessions on Sat. January 23:

Nitrogen – important soil nutrient or water quality challenge?

To help better understand the movement of nitrogen, Mike Castellano will discuss the soil nitrogen cycle.  Matt Helmers will also highlight ongoing agricultural drainage and nitrate loss studies.  Washington County farmer, Rob Stout will share information about his use of cover crops and bioreactor to manage nitrates on his farm.

Top 10 Cover Crop Species for Iowa – 2016 Edition

There are a lot of factors that go into cover crop species selection and many species options to choose from. A panel of Iowa farmers and researchers will discuss the “Top 10 Iowa Cover Crops – 2016 Edition” and share their experiences of which ones they recommend and which they would avoid.  Panelists include: Meaghan Anderson (ISUEO Field Agronomist), Ajay Nair (ISUEO Horticulture Specialist), Paul Ackley (Taylor County crop and livestock farmer), and Laura Krouse (Linn County vegetable farmer)

Watch for registration information and additional details here!

Soil Health Conference Feb. 2-3, Ames

Understanding soil health is essential for enhancing food security, providing resiliency to climate variability, protecting environmental quality, and preventing soil degradation for soil security.

During the two-day conference, you will be provided with research-based information by well-known and established scientists from Land-grant Universities, the USDA, and industry. Conference topics will cover a wide range of interests to farmers, agronomist, students, policy makers and the general public. Information provided by speakers during this conference will be useful decision-making resources on how to best manage our soils to build healthy soil for healthy landscapes, communities and economies.

The goal of this conference is to increase awareness and understanding of soil health as pivotal to sustainable agriculture and environmental quality in Iowa and the Midwest. Healthy soils create healthy landscapes, which support healthy communities. This conference is a collaborative effort between Iowa State University Extension and the USDA, Natural Resource Conservation Service.

We hope to see you at the Scheman Building in Ames for this great conference February 2-3, 2016.

Click the image below to learn more and get registered today!Soil Health Confernce-Save this Date_blog

Liz Juchems