Cover Crops: One Piece of the Puzzle in CLL Project

Cover crops are an important tool for helping keep soil, nitrogen and phosphorus in the field – instead of our water bodies. Because they grow outside the typical corn/soybean growing season, cover crops help reduce soil erosion and take up nutrients that could otherwise leave the field. It is also the most popular practice among our Conservation Learning Lab (CLL) farmer partners.

The CLL project is studying the impact of conservation practices implementation at the watershed scale in Floyd and Story County.  The conservation planning process within the watersheds has yielded cover crop contract enrollment of 675 acres and 1,081 acres, respectively, starting this fall covering 50-68% of the crop acres within the watershed.

Cover_crop_April_Berger_FarmThe farmer partners chose to seed either winter cereal rye and oats.  These grass species are easy to establish, relatively inexpensive and are the leading biomass producers in our cover crop research projects – keeping that soil covered (reducing the loss of phosphorus) and taking up nitrogen.

The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy team reviewed cover crop research results from across Iowa and the Midwest and found that cereal rye and oats reduced nitrogen loss by 31% and 29%, respectively.  Similarly, the reduction of phosphorus when adding cereal rye is about 29%, primarily as a result of reduced soil erosion. According to our RUSLE2 calculations, a cereal rye cover crop added to a no-till system can reduce soil erosion by 30-80% and can be even larger when transitioning from a conservation tillage system.

Be sure to keep checking back as we will be providing updates as the cover crops are seeded this fall!

The project is funded by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) and the United States Department of Agriculture – Natural Resources Conservation Services (USDA-NRCS) of Iowa.

Iowa Climate Outlook for Spring: Wetter in the North; Drier in Southeast

Today’s guest post is by Dr. Dennis Todey, USDA Midwest Climate Hub Director, with timely climate information as we prepare for crop year 2017.

Planting season is quickly approaching, with field prep work and crop insurance dates for corn only days away.  Initial season concerns include the early spring progression from late winter warmth and its impact on alfalfa and soil N levels. The warm and wet conditions allow soil nitrogen to convert to nitrate, which can be easily lost. A late spring nitrate test would help determine if additional nitrogen is needed to meet crop demands.

As crop year 2017 begins, key factors to consider include:

Current Soil Conditions

Background precipitation issues for Iowa differ for northern versus southern Iowa.  Heavier rain fell across northern Iowa last fall producing wetter harvest conditions.  Some soil wetness issues are likely to carry over into the spring.  In contrast chunks of southern Iowa were much drier – not only in the fall but through the summer.  National soil moisture models currently support this difference in soil conditions indicating overall wetter north and drier in the far southeast.

Precipitation Outlook

While several current storms have produced more rain in southern Iowa, the focus on precipitation should again switch to northern Iowa.  The current 30 day April outlook and spring (April-June) outlook from NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center has better chances for above average precipitation in northern Iowa.  Combining this rainfall potential with the carry-over wetness from the fall creates the highest risk for wetter planting conditions across the north.Precip Outlook 2017

Growing Season Outlook

Looking ahead to the rest of the growing season utilizes a few tools including the status of El Niño conditions and computer-based outlooks.  The current El Niño situation is neutral, but hinting toward El Niño conditions by late summer.  The switch to El Niño would reduce the risk of a poor growing season, but seems unlikely to start in time to affect the growing season.  The progress will be monitored through the season.

Drought Risk

Computer outlooks lean toward less chance of dry conditions across most of the state.  Thus, the overall drought risk seems fairly small at this point.  It should be noted that longer range precipitation outlooks are more difficult to assess.

Temperature Outlook

Temperature outlooks Iowa and the whole Midwest are likely warmer than average.  This is based mostly on recent trends of warmth in the summer, which has been driven by warmer overnight temperatures.  The risk of excessively high day temperatures seems lower at this point. 2017 Temp Outlook

Severe Weather Risk

Overall storminess would likely be increased along with more precipitation.  But the chances of severe weather currently are similar to climatology at this point.

From the Director: The Best-Kept Secret in Iowa

You know what I learned from the 207 people who attended one of our five  Iowa Learning Farms regional workshops this winter? Wetlands are one of the best-kept secrets in Iowa in terms of their benefits! Not one single person mentioned them in response to the question “What are the practices that are most effective for improving water quality in your area?”

Matt Helmers said to me after we were leaving the third of five meetings, “Golly, we still have a lot of education and outreach to do about wetlands.”

I would agree. Wetlands play a key role of reducing nitrogen in Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Strategically designed and sited wetlands can reduce nitrate loads to downstream water bodies by 40-70%. Currently we have around 80 of the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) wetlands in the state. The NRS calls for 7,600 of them if we hope meet its goal. To read more about the importance of wetlands, check out Ann’s blog Wetlands and Water Quality.

That calls for a HUGE amount of human and financial capital. It also opens amazing economic and job creating opportunity for us. As Matt told me, “I would love to be training our ISU students to be out there designing and building CREP wetlands throughout the state.”

Beyond the water quality benefits and the job opportunities from siting 7,000 wetlands in our state, wetlands and the lands surrounding them will help bring needed pollinators and other biodiversity to our state.

Finally, as Matt argues in his blog earlier this week about returning to pasturelands, wetlands add beauty to our landscape. If you don’t believe me, screen our award-winning documentary Incredible Wetlands.

Keep your eye on our blog to hear more of what we learned from participants during the regional workshops. We hope to create a more positive learning experience through a Rapid Needs Assessment and Response (RNR) technique. To read more about our unique approach, check out Brandy’s blog RNR is a Favorite for Conservation Workshops.

Jacqueline Comito

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!

drainage-water-recycling

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

Cover crops key to N retention + soil health, especially before soybeans

How can we increase nitrogen retention and soil health in Iowa’s corn and soybean cropping systems? There is not just one single quick fix, but Dr. Mike Castellano, William T. Frankenberger Professor of Soil Science and Associate Professor in the Department of Agronomy at Iowa State University, made the strong case for cover crops in last week’s Iowa Learning Farms webinar.

Castellano framed the webinar with a discussion of nitrogen budgets. As he put it, we don’t typically think about financial management without a budget – nutrient management is the same way! He then explored the potential of cover crops, especially cereal rye, to aid farmers in retaining nitrogen (via the cover crop plant biomass) and building soil organic matter. Watch the full archived webinar on the Iowa Learning Farms website: https://connect.extension.iastate.edu/p6kfk1qr4te/.

OR, if you’d like the CliffsNotes version, here are the Top 5 key take home points that jumped out at me…

cc-top5takehomepoints-iiAgain, you can check out the full presentation on the Webinar Archives page of the Iowa Learning Farms website.

Save the date…
The next Iowa Learning Farms webinar will be Wednesday, October 19 at 1:00 p.m., featuring our own Dr. Matt Helmers. He will be addressing common questions and misconceptions regarding cover crops, drainage, and more … think Mythbusters meets water quality! It’s sure to be a lively conversation.

Ann Staudt

 

Getting Dirty and Getting Samples

My name is Mary and I am a high school intern with Water Rocks! this summer. I have always been interested in natural resources, and I will be pursuing a degree in Natural Resources and Environment Science with a concentration on Resource Conservation and Restoration Ecology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign this fall.

MeetTheInterns-Mary

I have had so many great opportunities and experiences with Water Rocks! this summer. I have been able to participate in multiple outreach events at county fairs and farmers markets across Iowa.  I have also had the opportunity to attend a farmer field day discussing everything anyone would want to know about cover crops.

Mary-ConservationStationMost recently I was able to go up to Nashua and collect water samples from lysimeters at the Northeast Research Farm. Our lysimeters are buried 24” deep and collect water from the surrounding soil.  The water samples are then tested to see the nitrate levels in the water at different times during the year and under different cover crop treatments. This research is very important in helping us better understand cover crops – they are one of the key practices in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, where the goal is to try and reduce the nitrogen and phosphorus loads in Iowa waters by 45%.

The plots from which we collected water samples were each 6 rows wide – and we have plots that are in both corn and soybeans (rotated every other year). The entrance to the research farm is a couple of buildings, and then it moves straight into the research plots.  We had to drive a little ways to reach our lysimeter plots. There are many other research plots around our lysimeter plots. All of our fields were no till fields – some of them had cover crops in the spring (single species/mixtures) and some did not. We started collecting samples from the soybeans first, and then moved to the corn.

Lysimeters-InGroundCollecting water samples is quite simple, but finding the lysimeters when the crops are large isn’t always a piece of cake!  The lysimeters are buried underground, so all we can see is the PVC cap protecting it … and sometimes they get covered with soil or are hidden by residue.

Lysimeters-SuppliesOnce we have found the lysimeters, we grabbed our equipment which included a plastic beaker with a rubber stopper on top and a long thin tube attached, an air pump, plastic bottles to pour collected samples into, and a clipboard with labels to mark the samples.

Lysimeters-SamplingInProgressWe collected the sample by inserting the thin tube down into the lysimeter, attaching the beaker to the air pump, and applying vacuum to the lysimeter so the water would be sucked out.  After the sample was collected, we would have to apply vaccum to the lysimeter again (60 psi) so it could collect the next batch of samples.

Collecting clean samples is a key component.  If there was soil in the water sample, how would we know that the nitrates in the water weren’t from the soil?  I was out collecting samples the day after a big rainstorm, and of course it was really muddy out, so we had to be extra careful to keep the soil and mud off of the equipment used to collect the samples.  If we collected a dirty sample, then it would have to be filtered in the lab before the nitrate test could be done accurately.  Also, after every sample is collected, the plastic collection beaker must be rinsed out with DI Water (deionized water), so the next sample wouldn’t be contaminated by the previous sample.

Seeing the lysimeters and collecting water samples was very educational for me, and I was glad that I had an opportunity to see what research is being done and how it is done.  I learned how thorough you have to be when conducting research – there can be lots of variables in the field so quality control is really important.  I was also surprised by how dirty I was on the way home after collecting all of the samples!

So now we’ve collected water samples… next they go to the lab for nitrate testing. After that, there are lots of water quality data to analyze. Stay tuned to the blog as Emily, another high school intern, will tell us more about that process!

Mary-ShowingPigsBooneCoAs a fun side note, I wanted to share another one of my projects for this summer. In addition to this internship, I am a member of the Gilbert FFA Chapter and I recently showed pigs at the Boone County Fair (I’m number 344 in the blue shirt). That pig in the picture will be making an appearance at the Iowa State Fair – the show is on August 12th if you’d like to stop by and watch after you visit Farm Bureau Park and check out the Conservation Station!

Mary Marsh

 

Dirty Hands, Fertile Land: Late Spring Nitrate Testing

My name is Hannah Corey, and I am a sophomore in Agronomy at Iowa State. I was raised on a farm near Lake City, Iowa along with my brothers, some cattle, and a whole lot of corn and soybeans.

MeetTheInterns-HannahI am a soils nerd. I like to read about it, talk about it, and think about it, but most of all I like to get my hands dirty and work with the soil. Thankfully, as an intern for Water Rocks! and the Iowa Learning Farms, I get to do all four! I spent this past week traveling to the Iowa State University Research Farms and collecting soil samples for the Late Spring Nitrate Test. Here’s what I learned…

The Late Spring Nitrate Test is used to determine the amount of nitrate in the soil available to corn plants in late spring when the corn is 6-12 inches tall (we sampled statewide this past week, June 6-10). It’s a straightforward process designed so that farmers can do it in their own fields without much hassle.

The tools of the trade are simple: a soil probe, a clean bucket, and a bag to put the sample in.

Our plots on the research farms are no-till and alternate between single-species cover crop, mixed-species cover crop, and no cover crops. In each plot we pull eight different soil cores and mix them together to form one composite sample. Each core is a standard 12 inches deep and ¾ inch in diameter. We pull cores in a diagonal line across the plot to get a sample that accurately represents the area.

LSNT-InField

Added bonus: it’s also a great arm workout!

After the samples are bagged and labeled, they are sent to the lab to be analyzed for the nitrate content of the soil. The Iowa Learning Farms team uses this data for research, but with data from their own fields, farmers can also use the Late Spring Nitrate Test in their operations.

HC-04

A composite sample from the Nashua Research Farm bagged, labeled, and ready to go!

A Late Spring Nitrate Test can tell a farmer how much nitrate is available to their corn, and whether or not they need to apply additional nitrogen fertilizer. If the soil is low on nitrate, farmers can help their corn by supplying the additional nitrogen it needs to grow. If the soil has adequate or high nitrate levels, they can save money and keep nitrates out of the water by refraining from adding excess fertilizer.

To me, the Late Spring Nitrate Test is a win-win-win situation. Proper use of the data collected can help boost corn growth, save money, and improve water quality.

HC-SoilSo dig in, get your hands dirty, and learn about your soil. The more we know about our soil, the more we can do to improve its fertility. After you’ve dug in and your hands are covered in soil, remember, “Dirty hands, fertile land!”

Follow our new #dirtyhandsfertileland series on Facebook and Twitter throughout the summer to learn more about what you can do to improve soil health and fertility!

Interested in learning more about the Late Spring Nitrate Test or having your soil tested? Click on these links to learn more…

Nitrogen Fertilizer Recommendations for Corn in Iowa
(free PDF download from ISU Extension Store)
ISU Extension Specialist Suggests Late Spring N Test For Corn
ISU Soil and Plant Analysis Laboratory

Hannah Corey