Developing BMPs through In-Field Conservation Practices Summits

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Mark Licht | Assistant Professor of Agronomy and Extension Cropping Systems Specialist, Iowa State University

This past winter I coordinated a series of summits to develop best management practices (BMPs) for three in-field conservation practices. The summits focused on cover crops, no-tillage/strip-tillage, and diverse rotations. Our charge was to develop BMPs that would allow farmers who had no prior experience with the practices to successfully adopt the practices. This was a tall order for a group of people passionate about conservation and the desire to help farmers make the best decisions possible.

These three conservation practices are imperative to the successfully addressing Iowa’s water quality concerns. They also have the ability to address other resource concerns such as soil and wind erosion. Providing a clear message on strategies leading to successful adoption of conservation practices will lead to greater and continued adoption of these practices.

Like adoption of most things, there is the need to learn as much up front as possible. Extension specialists, crop advisers and neighboring farmers are great resources to learn tips and tricks for adopting a new practice. The next aspect is to start with a single field or portion of a field. This builds a comfort level with the new practice and allows more attention to be placed on fine-tuning the new system.

Often times, development of BMPs are straightforward at a broad level but are often dependent on the individualized aspects of each farm operation. There are many considerations that come into play for a recommendation to match the management practice of an individual farmer or field. This made it hard to develop BMPs that were definitive enough to provide guidance that still allowed flexibility. Our approach, where needed, was to discuss some of the considerations that must go into the decisions being made to help guide a management decision rather than prescribe how practices are implemented.

In many cases, there was agreement amongst participants as to what the BMPs were. However, there was nuance as to the details behind the BMPs being developed. This stands to reason because of the complexity that exists within cropping systems and the interaction between management practices, crop productivity, and environmental consequences.

Without going into too much detail, here are some of the main take away points;

  • Cereal rye and oats are the preferred cover crops
  • Corn and soybean management ahead of the cover crop does not need to be altered
  • Aerial overseeding of cover crops should be targeted for August 20 to September 10
  • Glyphosate is the preferred spring termination method for overwintering cover crops
  • No-tillage is recommended ahead of soybean regardless of location, slope, or drainage
  • Strip-tillage ahead of corn is recommended for poorly drained, low slope fields
  • Small grains should follow soybean in diverse and an overwintering cover crop should be used
  • Where markets are available, consider adding alfalfa or forage species into the traditional corn-soybean rotation

The BMPs from these summits are being fine-tuned through this summer and will be rolled out for public review and use in the fall.

In-Field Conservation Practices Summit participants represented Iowa Learning Farms, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, Practical Farmers of Iowa, Iowa Agricultural Water Alliance, Iowa Soybean Association, National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment, and Natural Resources Conservation Service. The project was funded by USDA-NRCS in Iowa.

Mark Licht

Why Improving the Soil Will Pay Dividends

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What does it take to weather-proof a cropping system? Yesterday, during an Iowa Learning Farms webinar, Dr. Jerry L. Hatfield suggested that the answer to that question lies in our soil. He shared research findings that show the importance of soil quality in rain-fed agricultural systems to reduce variation in crop yield and increase yield overall.

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Dr. Jerry L. Hatfield

Hatfield, who is Laboratory Director and Supervisory Plant Physiologist at the USDA National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment in Ames, IA, conducts research that focuses on understanding the dynamics of the G x E x M (genetics x environment x management) complex to evaluate the role of soil, with the changing weather, on crop performance. 

Hatfield’s research has found that in rain-fed systems, better soil means a better crop yield, when looking at counties in three Midwestern states. Nebraskan counties, which all used irrigation, were an outlier in the data showing that if you can control the water, the quality of soil is less important. In rain-fed agricultural systems, like we have here in Iowa, the soil quality is very important since the water cannot be controlled—having higher quality soil will lead to higher yield amounts and less variation in yield.

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A figure from Hatfield’s presentation, “Good Soils = Good Yields”, showing soybean yields across Iowa, Kentucky and Nebraska counties. (NCCPI = National Commodity Crop Productivity Index)

How can you improve your soil quality? Hatfield suggested the use of strip-till or no-till in the place of traditional tillage. Crop residue on the surface has benefits for the soil—providing food for the complex soil biology and stabilizing the soil micro-climate. Cover crops are another way to improve soil health and further research is being conducted on the benefits of different types and combinations of cover crops. In addition to the benefits to soil quality that no-till and cover crops can provide, they can also sequester carbon, reducing the amount that is released to the atmosphere.

To learn more about how improved soil quality can weather-proof your cropping system, and the use of no-till and cover crops to improve soil quality and reduce carbon loss to the atmosphere, watch the full webinar here.

Tune in next month, on Wednesday May 15 at noon, when Emily Waring, Graduate Research Assistant at Iowa State University, will present an Iowa Learning Farms webinar titled “Cover Crop Impact on Crop Yield and Water Quality: Single Species vs. Mixtures”.

Hilary Pierce

Do you have “cottage cheese” soil?

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It was a beautiful evening yesterday to spend learning about the benefits of cover crops and no-till at Rob Stout’s farm in Washington County.

Rob Stout talking to a group of people in a field with cover crops growing

Rob Stout discusses cover crops at the field day

“There’s a learning curve. You just need to step up your management a little bit,” Stout explained, when discussing implementing cover crops for the first time.

He went on to talk about the benefits he has seen on his farm: an increase in earthworms and microbes, erosion control, water quality benefits and improved soil health.

A close up of no-till residue with rye growing

Cover crops and no-till on one of Rob Stout’s fields

“Rye is my go-to – I like it best,” said Stout, “Where we have the rye we don’t have any winter annual weeds. There’s no Marestail on any of these fields with the cover crop.”

Hands holding a clump of soil with green rye growing over a shovel

Soil structure under the cover crops

Attendees also heard from Jason Steele from the NRCS. Steele described the soil health benefits of implementing no-till or cover crops.

“If it looks like cottage cheese or Grape Nuts cereal, that’s what we want our soil to look like,” Steele said, “We want that granular structure. We don’t want it looking like concrete – if you do too much tillage it starts to look like concrete.”

Steele went on to say that despite the very wet fall we had last year, there were no ruts visible in Stout’s fields due to the fact that the fields were not tilled. The combination of no-till and cover crops reduced compaction and kept the top two inches of soil light and fluffy, with good soil structure and infiltration and the most biological activity.

Rounding out the program were Liz Juchems from Iowa Learning Farms, who shared research updates; Tony Maxwell from the NRCS, who talked about cost share; and Matt McAndrew and Paul Brandt from MB Water, who discussed testing water quality in tile drains.

Check out the events page of our website to find out about upcoming field days and workshops in your area!

Hilary Pierce

Protecting our soil – a finite resource

ILFHeader(15-year)Why bother changing your tillage system?

That’s the exact question Brent Larson and his family asked themselves about 10 years ago as they considered using a no-till and strip-till system in their Webster County farming operation.

IMG_0048Answer: Fertile topsoil is a finite resources!

“Recreational tillage, especially ahead of soybeans, is depleting our topsoil and organic matter,” stated Larson. “We realized tilling wasn’t helping or necessary. So we switched to no-till soybeans and strip-till for corn about 10 years ago and added cover crops about 8 years ago.”

By reducing their tillage, Larson and his family were able to save time and reduce input costs like fuel, labor and equipment costs. This ultimately has increased net income and puts less money on the line each year.

An additional benefit of their system is the protection from soil erosion, improved soil structure and drainage.

LichtBlog-01“We want to grow our soil – saving the soil from erosion is the first step. We want to make sure that not only can we farm this land for the next 40+ years, but so can future generations to come. Soil erosion is insidious! It is can be difficult to see, making it easy to ignore in the short term,” commented Larson.

Larson also works as a farm manager for Sunderman Farm Management and shared some parting advice to farmers and landowners, alike.

“Surround yourself with can-do people, not can’t do people. Communication between landowners and tenant is key to protect the soil and implement conservation. Take that first step and bring the topic up in your next conversation. Determine your goals and make a plan to achieve them!”


If you weren’t able to attend this event, there are more opportunities to attend one of our upcoming field days!

April 9 – Cover Crop and Water Quality Field Day
5:00-7:00PM

Rob Stout Farm
2449 Hemlock Ave
Washington, IA 52353
Washington County
RSVP: 515-294-5429 or ilf@iastate.edu
Press Release
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April 10 – Cover Crop and No-Till Workshop
12:00-2:00pm
Steier Ag Aviation
202 190th St
Whittemore, IA 50598
Kossuth County
RSVP: 515-294-5429 or ilf@iastate.edu
Press Release
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Liz Juchems

 

Spring Field Day Season Has Arrived!

ILFHeader(15-year)The 2019 Iowa Learning Farms field day season begins on March 26th and includes a series of five cover crop, no-till and grazing workshops and field days. Please plan to join us at one near you!

March 26 – Cover Crop and No-Till Workshop
12:00-2:00PM

Greene County Extension Office
104 West Washington St
Jefferson, IA 50129
Greene County
RSVP: 515-294-5429 or ilf@iastate.edu
Press Release
Flyer

March 27 – Cover Crop and Grazing Workshop
12:00-2:00PM

McNay Research Farm
45249 170th Ave
Chariton, IA 50049
Lucas County
RSVP: 515-294-5429 or ilf@iastate.edu
Press Release
Flyer

March 28 – Cover Crop and No-Till Workshop
12:00-2:00PM

Titan Machinery
3093 220th St.
Williams, IA 50271
Hamilton County
RSVP: 515-294-5429 or ilf@iastate.edu
Press Release
Flyer

April 9 – Cover Crop and Water Quality Field Day
5:00-7:00PM

Rob Stout Farm
2449 Hemlock Ave
Washington, IA 52353
Washington County
RSVP: 515-294-5429 or ilf@iastate.edu

April 10 – Cover Crop and No-Till Workshop
12:00-2:00PM

Steier Ag Aviation
202 190th St
Whittemore, IA 50598
Kossuth County
RSVP: 515-294-5429 or ilf@iastate.edu

See you there!

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Liz Juchems

A Conservation Chat with Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig

ILFHeader(15-year)Jacqueline Comito| Iowa Learning Farms Program Director

naig_comito_frame_webIowa’s Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig joined me for a live Conservation Chat as a part of the monthly Iowa Learning Farms (ILF) webinar on January 16. Secretary Naig was elected to office in November 2018, but has been in the role since spring of 2018 when he was appointed to fill the post when Bill Northey was confirmed as the U.S. undersecretary for farm production and conservation.

Mike joined the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship five years ago as deputy secretary. He noted that the opportunity to get involved in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy from inception was one of the key reasons he moved from the private sector into government.

Mike grew up on a farm in Palo Alto county during the 1980s and saw the farm crisis firsthand. His parents and other farmers of their generation encouraged their children to find careers off the farm – so they would not have to experience the same challenges later in life. Mike took these sentiments to heart and continues to work to help ensure farmers in Iowa have the resources and opportunities to build successful and sustainable businesses.

When asked about his connection to the land, he expressed delight in the broad diversity of landscapes and natural settings across Iowa. He and his family love to explore the outdoors and enjoy everything Iowa has to offer. It also provides an opportunity to teach his three young sons about the importance of our natural resources and conservation.

Mike made it clear that it was time to significantly scale up implementation of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy. He noted “We are five years into implementation of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy. I am proud of what we’ve accomplished, but if we only do the same for the next five years, we will be seriously behind. This is the time to start scaling successful approaches so we can protect, preserve, and promote Iowa’s productivity and its most abundant natural resource – Texas has oil, Iowa has soil.”

We talked about urban and rural mindsets and how to bridge the understanding gap. “Pointing fingers and assigning blame does not move anyone in the right direction. Fostering mutual understanding of the impact any individual can have, regardless of whether they own a quarter acre lot in Ames or a quarter-section plot in northwest Iowa, is crucial to building a culture of conservation statewide.”

With new funding in the current budget year, the Department of Agriculture has hired additional employees to address conservation practices in several major watershed areas. They are also working with private-sector organizations and partners to expand conservation efforts, outreach and education. Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks! are examples of partners in conservation and education that help deliver these messages. “We partner and contract with organizations such as Iowa State University to take advantage of the innovation, skilled minds, and advanced research that isn’t available elsewhere. The allow us to do the most with what we have and continue to move toward our goals.”

Mike stressed that farmers needed to look at conservation practices with a broad lens. “You can’t just look at cover crops or tiling or bioreactors and saturated buffers as individual things, you must look at the full scope of improving soil health, employing edge of field practices in combination with tile, and ultimately maintaining or improving productivity and water quality.”

I noted that he had appropriated ILF’s Culture of Conservation tagline during his campaign and asked what that means to him. “It means thinking about conservation as priority. If Iowa wants to continue to be a global production leader, it’s crucial to protect and conserve what makes that leadership possible. And to do it through conservation, not regulation.” Mike agreed that youth education is an important piece of the culture of conservation puzzle, and changing the mindset and approach in Iowa will take a long time and must become inherent to the thinking of current and future generations. “You’re not going to reach everyone right away, just like in marketing any idea or product, there will be early adopters through late adopters. Our challenge is to build out a message to entice and encourage adoption of a lasting change over time.”

More Conservation Chats

Be sure to view the archive visit with Mike Naig on our website.

Our conversation will also be released as a Conservation Chat podcast available at the Conservation Chat website and here on iTunes. New Conservation Chat podcasts will be released every month. February’s Chat will be a conversation with Dr. Matt Helmers, Director of the Iowa Nutrient Research Center and Jamie Benning, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach water quality program manager.

Please join us live for next Iowa Learning Farms Webinar February 20 at 12:00 PM with Dr. Amy Kaleita, Iowa State University professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering. The topic will be: Farmed Prairie Potholes – Consequences and Management Options.

Jacqueline

A Huge Thank You!

ILFHeaderOn behalf of the Iowa Learning Farms team, I would like to thank all of our hosts, speakers and partners for an awesome 2018 Field Day season. This year our 24 field days and workshops were attended by 1,134 farmers, landowners, government employees, students and educators, media and agribusiness staff. The topics covered included: cover crops, grazing cover crops, soil health, strip-till/no-till, bioreactors and other edge of field practices, water quality, Emerging Farmers and events for women landowners.  Implementing these practices on our landscape is so important in helping us reach our Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy goals.

Keep an eye out for mail from us this January! We will be mailing a brief survey to all farmers/operators and landowners who attended an ILF-sponsored field day or workshop.

Be sure to check out our events page on our website to attend a 2019 event near you.

Hilary Pierce