Tradeoffs Between Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Nitrate Loss, and Soil Health in No-Till and Cover Crop Systems

On Wednesday, we hosted a webinar about research into the connection between soil health and environmental quality at a cover crop and no-till research site. Morgan Davis, Assistant Professor at The University of Missouri School of Natural Resources, and Emily Waring, Graduate Research Assistant in Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering at Iowa State University, measured nitrate leaching, soil health indicators and greenhouse gas emissions to examine the tradeoffs and benefits of stacking cover crop and no-till conservation practices.

How combining reduced tillage and cover crops can improve both soil health and environmental quality (image from Davis & Waring’s presentation)

Cover crops and no-till are common conservation practices in Iowa and they can address concerns with both soil health and environmental quality. By combining these two practices, several resource concerns can be addressed. The research objective was to measure soil properties and environmental losses at a long-term research site and compare conservation treatments.

Research site location and treatments (image from Davis & Waring’s presentation)

Davis and Waring presented results from 2018 and 2019, which were two of the wettest years on record. The distribution of precipitation was also different. There was more rain in late summer to early fall than the historic average, which provides more opportunity for cover crops to improve water quality. Davis and Waring shared water quality, greenhouse gas emission, and soil health results for the study during these two years. The soil health metric discussed during the webinar was bio-available carbon (24 hour CO2 burst). The results are summarized in the bubble plot below.

Bubble plot showing a summary of the data (image from Davis & Waring’s presentation)

The recording of the webinar is now available on our website. While there be sure to check out the other great archived webinars available on our website.

Join us on Wednesday, August 26, for a webinar titled “Evaluating Annual Forages for Beef Cattle: ISU Forage Research Test Plots” with Erika Lundy, Extension Beef Specialist at Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.

Hilary Pierce

August 25 Virtual Field Day: Utilizing No-till as a Moisture Management Tool

Iowa Learning Farms, in partnership with the Iowa Nutrient Research Center, and Conservation Learning Group, is hosting a free virtual no-tillage and moisture management field day on Tuesday, August 25th at 1 p.m. CDT. Join us for a live conversation as we visit long-time no-tiller Doug Gronau’s farm in Crawford County and discuss the benefits of no-tillage, including soil moisture retention during dry conditions, with Jodi DeJong-Hughes, University of Minnesota Regional Extension Educator.

“No-till has been a key to the quality of our crops this year. According to my weather station, this summer we are 6 inches short of rain compared to our average. However, when we went to take a look a week ago in our corn fields, there was still adequate soil moisture available for the crop,” noted Doug Gronau who farms with his son near Vail in Crawford County. For nearly 20 years, they have been planting no-till corn and soybeans to help reduce soil erosion, improve soil health, and manage soil moisture. They have also implemented additional conservation practices live waterways and terraces and used cover crops since 2014 to address soil erosion and help improve water quality.

Jodi Dejong-Hughes has been a Regional Extension Educator with the University of Minnesota Extension for over 23 years. Her area of specialization includes tillage management systems, soil compaction, and soil health management. “Reducing tillage is a great way to build soil structure.  A soil with good structure will have better water infiltration, letting a field capture more of the rainfalls, and also has the ability to hold onto that water for when the crop needs it,” stated DeJong-Hughes.

To participate in the live virtual field day at 1:00 pm CDT on August 25th, click this URL or visit www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/events and click “Join Live Virtual Field Day”.

Or, join from a dial-in phone line:

    Dial: +1 312 626 6799 or +1 646 876 9923

    Meeting ID: 914 1198 4892

The field day will be recorded and archived on the ILF website so that it can be watched at any time. The archive will be available at https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/events.

Participants may be eligible for a Certified Crop Adviser board-approved continuing education unit (CEU). Information about how to apply to receive the credit (if approved) will be provided at the end of the live field day.

Liz Ripley

August 19 Webinar: Tradeoffs Between Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Nitrate Loss, and Soil Health in No-Till and Cover Crop Systems

Iowa Learning Farms will host a webinar on Wednesday, August 19 at noon about the connection between soil health and environmental quality in a cover crop and no-till research site.

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Davis & Waring soil sampling

This research connects many important topics in the environment and agriculture: soil health, greenhouse gas emissions, and water quality. It is important to know how a given conservation practice impacts all three of these measures of sustainability.

Morgan Davis, Assistant Professor at The University of Missouri School of Natural Resources, and Emily Waring, Graduate Research Assistant in Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering at Iowa State University, utilized a long-term cover crop and no-tillage research site to examine these connections between soil health and environmental quality. They measured nitrate leaching, soil health indicators, and greenhouse gas emissions to examine the tradeoffs and benefits of stacking cover crop and no-till conservation practices.

“Cover crops and no-tillage are multi-beneficial, improving water quality and soil health metrics,” said Davis and Waring about the results of their research. Davis is a soil biogeochemist who studies nutrient and energy cycling in the context of ecological sustainability. Waring’s research evaluates conservation practices and their impact on subsurface (tile) drainage water quality.

To participate in the live webinar, shortly before 12:00 pm CDT on August 19:

Click this URL, or type this web address into your internet browser: https://iastate.zoom.us/j/364284172

    Or, go to https://iastate.zoom.us/join and enter meeting ID: 364 284 172 

Or, join from a dial-in phone line:

    Dial: +1 312 626 6799 or +1 646 876 9923

    Meeting ID: 364 284 172

The webinar will also be recorded and archived on the ILF website, so that it can be watched at any time. Archived webinars are available at https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars.

A Certified Crop Adviser board-approved continuing education unit (CEU) has been approved, for those who are able to participate in the live webinar. Information about how to apply to receive the credit will be provided at the end of the live webinar.

Hilary Pierce

June 17 Webinar: A Resource for Successful Adoption of Conservation Practices

Iowa Learning Farms will host a webinar on Wednesday, June 17 at noon about the “Whole Farm Conservation Best Practices Manual”.   

The “Whole Farm Conservation Best Practices Manual” brought together many experts with the sole purpose of developing best management practices for the successful adoption of cover crops, no-/strip-tillage, diverse rotations, and edge-of-field practices.

This manual is designed to be a useful tool for farmers and crop advisers. It includes decision tools that will guide operators, landowners and/or conservation professionals through the decision-making process for adopting and implementing conservation practices. Mark Licht, Assistant Professor and Extension Cropping Systems Specialist at Iowa State University, will discuss the manual and how it can be used to guide adoption of conservation practices.

“It is my intention that participants will gain an understanding of what is included in the manual, but also how to use the manual to increase and improve that adoption rate of conservation practices,” said Licht, whose research an extension program are focused on corn and soybean management practices, particularly developing practices for the successful adoption of cover crops.  

The full manual is available as a free download from the ISU Extension Store, or our website https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/. We will welcome your ideas and feedback on the manual during the webinar, so we hope that you download the manual before the webinar.

To participate in the live webinar, shortly before 12:00 pm CDT on June 17:

Click this URL, or type this web address into your internet browser: https://iastate.zoom.us/j/364284172

    Or, go to https://iastate.zoom.us/join and enter meeting ID: 364 284 172 

Or, join from a dial-in phone line:

    Dial: +1 312 626 6799 or +1 646 876 9923

    Meeting ID: 364 284 172

The webinar will also be recorded and archived on the ILF website, so that it can be watched at any time. Archived webinars are available at https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars.

A Certified Crop Adviser board-approved continuing education unit (CEU) has been approved for those who are able to participate in the live webinar. Information about how to apply to receive the credit will be provided at the end of the live webinar.

Hilary Pierce

Iowa’s Water Quality Challenge

On Wednesday, Iowa Learning Farms hosted a webinar about the efforts and progress being made toward reducing agricultural losses of nitrogen and phosphorus.

Laurie Nowatzke, Measurement Coordinator for the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy at Iowa State University, explained:

  1. How does nutrient loss occur in Iowa agriculture?
  2. Which practices reduce nutrient loss?
  3. Are these practices being adopted?

Nowatzke explained that agricultural losses of nitrogen and phosphorus mainly occur in two different ways: soil and phosphorus loss through erosion from surface runoff and loss of nitrate-nitrogen and some dissolved phosphorus through subsurface drainage. In-field and edge-of-field practices have been designed and are being adopted by farmers and landowners to reduce these losses.

These practices can be used to meet the nutrient reduction goals set forth in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. The Strategy lays out several different scenarios in which the goals can be reached through different combinations of practices and the necessary adoption rate for each scenario. One of these scenarios is shown in the figure below, with the current estimated adoption rate also shown.

More widespread adoption of these practices (in this combination of practices or in the other scenarios) will be needed to reach the nutrient reduction goals of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

Nowatzke shared the following resources for more information:

More information about the progress toward Iowa’s water quality goals can be found in the forthcoming 2018-19 Annual Progress Report of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Last year’s report can be found here.

Watch the full webinar here!

Be sure to join us next week, on May 6, when  Ross Evelsizer, Watershed Planner & GIS Specialist at Northeast Iowa RC&D, will present a webinar titled: “Multi-Cropping as a Profitable Soil Health Solution“.

Hilary Pierce

Succeeding with Cover Crops & No-Till: A Guide for Spring 2020

On Wednesday Iowa Learning Farms hosted a webinar about cover crops and no-till, with advice for operators who are using or interested in using these practices.

Liz Ripley, Conservation & Cover Crop Outreach Specialist, began by discussing cover crops and the data on their use collected by ILF through their field day participants. While the number of acres with cover crops has grown over recent years in Iowa, more adoption of the practice will be needed to meet the goals set forth in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Ripley shared the results of a long term rye study and a study looking at the impacts of individual species and mixtures of species on water quality and crop yield. She also provided keys to success with cover crops:

Mark Licht, Assistant Professor & Extension Cropping Systems Specialist, then shared information about switching to no-till and the associated benefits. A study done at Iowa State University found that no-till had lower input costs and yielded higher economic return, when compared to conventional tillage. Mark’s tips for success when switching to no-till:

More information on these practices can also be found in the Whole Farm Conservation Best Practices Manual, available for free from the ISU Extension Store.

Watch the full webinar! We also have many other great archived webinars available here: https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars.

Join us next week, at noon on April 15, when Adam Janke will present: “Finding Mutual Opportunities for Soil, Water, and Wildlife by Redefining the Field Edge”.

Hilary Pierce

Which conservation tillage management system is right for my farm?

Iowa farmers constantly seek to lower production costs, protect the environment, and conserve natural resources. Adopting conservation practices works hand in hand with paying attention to the basics of production efficiency to achieve all three of these goals.

This post focuses on the first of three in-field conservation practices covered in the manualtillage management.

First things first, let’s define no-tillage and strip-tillage as we have used them in the manual.

No-tillage: Agricultural practice where crops are grown in undisturbed soil and plant residue at the surface.

Strip-tillage: A system with less than one-third of the row width tilled to create a seedbed. The strip- tillage system leaves more than two-thirds of the row width undisturbed between tillage zones.

Together these systems help better protect the soil from erosion by minimize soil surface disturbance.

Tips for success when using these conservation practices

How do you know which system will work best for your fields? Check out the tips and easy to use decision trees below as a starting point. Don’t forget to check out the manual for more great tips on adding no-tillage and strip-tillage to your farm.

Tillage Residue Management at a Glance

Success with tillage residue management is defined by your ability to meet both row crop production and conservation goals. The table below summarizes tillage management methods for corn and soybean rotations and assigns a relative success rate along with a level of confidence based on published research. There are links to additional resources on pages 58-61 of the manual.

Be sure to check out our YouTube video series on Converting Your Planter for No-Till Operation and our recent webinar – Succeeding with Cover Crops & No-Till: A Guide for Spring 2020​​​​​​​ for more great information.

-Liz (Juchems) Ripley

April 8 Webinar: Succeeding with Cover Crops & No-Till: A Guide for Spring 2020

Iowa Learning Farms will host a webinar on Wednesday, April 8 at noon. Due to the necessary postponement of our spring field days, this webinar will provide information on how to succeed with cover crops and no-till for spring 2020.

Liz Ripley, Conservation & Cover Crop Outreach Specialist, and Mark Licht, Assistant Professor & Extension Cropping Systems Specialist, will share results from a variety of cover crop projects. These projects include a 10-year cereal rye cover crop study, species selection information, water quality impacts, and tips for spring termination.

Cover crops continue to grow in popularity in Iowa due to their many benefits: reduced soil erosion, weed suppression potential, reduced nitrogen and phosphorus loads entering water bodies, and increased soil organic matter. “Fall 2019 was another difficult harvest season with limited time to complete fall tillage. Cover crops and no-tillage work together to help increase water infiltration and reduce erosion during heavy rain events,” said Ripley and Licht.

Don’t miss this webinar!

DATE: Wednesday, April 8, 2020

TIME: 12:00 pm

HOW TO PARTICIPATE: shortly before 12:00 pm on April 8th:

Click this URL, or type this web address into your internet browser: https://iastate.zoom.us/j/364284172

    Or, go to https://iastate.zoom.us/join and enter meeting ID: 364 284 172 

Or, join from a dial-in phone line:

    Dial: +1 312 626 6799 or +1 646 876 9923

    Meeting ID: 364 284 172

The webinar will also be recorded and archived on the ILF website, so that it can be watched at any time. Archived webinars are available at https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars.

A Certified Crop Adviser board-approved continuing education unit (CEU) has been applied for, for those who are able to participate in the live webinar. Information about how to apply to receive the credit (if approved) will be provided at the end of the live webinar.

Hilary Pierce

Conservation Best Practices Manual Available for Free Download

The Conservation Learning Group has published the Whole Farm Conservation Best Practices Manual to aid farmers in selecting conservation measures appropriate for their farms.

Designed primarily for farmers just starting out through three years of adopting conservation practices, the manual provides a broad range of information that could be beneficial to any producer. The manual is available for free download or in hard copy from the ISU Extension Store.

Covering in-field topics including tillage management, cover crops and diverse rotations, and edge-of-field practices such as wetlands, bioreactors, saturated buffers, controlled drainage and prairie strips, the manual provides detailed information regarding implementation and expected outcomes.

In addition, it includes comprehensive graphical decision tools to aid farmers in determining the best approaches for each area on their farm.

“A primary goal in producing this manual is to help farmers succeed with conservation practices based on the vast array of ongoing research and field studies conducted at Iowa State and beyond. We’ve heard from farmers across the state that sometimes it’s difficult to navigate discrepancies between different research reports and recommendations regarding conservation and water quality practices. With this manual, we’ve pulled together the most important parts from the rich sets of research on cover crops and other conservation efforts in Iowa and presented them using consistent language in an easy-to-use graphical format.”

Mark Licht, assistant professor and extension cropping systems specialist at Iowa State and CLG member

The manual was developed based on numerous meetings and working groups among stakeholders, researchers, agency representatives and communications specialists, who worked together to provide a comprehensive resource for farmers. The content was also presented to farmers at multiple events, prior to public release, to gather feedback on usability and the graphical decision tools included.

“This manual will be an excellent tool for our conservation planners to utilize as they work with farmers to adopt these management practices. I was involved in the working groups which discussed the best strategies for farmers who are new to these practices. It’s our hope with this advice that they will be successful early in the adoption of these practices both agronomically and from a conservation standpoint.”

Kevin Kuhn, resource conservationist for the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service

Conservation Learning Group will continue to evaluate responses to the manual and update it with emerging information and data from research projects.

“This is not meant to be a static guide. As our experiences and knowledge base grow, we will continue to communicate with producers and provide the best advice we can to maximize their successes with conservation practices.”

Mark Licht

The manual was developed in cooperation with the Iowa Soybean Association, Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance and Practical Farmers of Iowa, and with the support and input from multiple local, state and federal organizations.

This manual is a joint publication of Iowa State University and USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service, supported by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, under number 6000004181.


Liz (Juchems) Ripley

Iowa Learning Farms Weekly Webinars

Iowa Learning Farms will be hosting weekly webinars every Wednesday at noon. For those who can’t join us live, the webinars will be recorded and archived on our website!

Join us today at noon to learn more about carbonate with Mark Rasmussen and check out the full schedule (through the end of April) below.

Hilary Pierce