Iowa’s Future Begins with Healthy Soils

Today’s guest post is by Marty Adkins, Assistant State Conservationist for Iowa Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), a member of the Iowa Learning Farms Steering Committee.

The quality of Iowa’s soils make this a unique place. How we manage Iowa’s agricultural soils affects just about everything else here. From increasing wildlife to improved water quality to sustainable economic development, our future begins with healthy soils.

Janke-PheasantWildlife – Over 97% of Iowa’s land is privately owned, and a vast majority is a part of farms. Most Iowa wildlife spends some or all of their lives on farms.

The same practices that are good for Iowa soils – no-till farming, cover crops, buffer strips, diverse native plant seeded areas, waterways, diverse crop rotations, well-managed pastures – are good for wildlife. The practices provide cover, food and travel corridors. They protect water sources on which wildlife depends. Practices that protect and build soils are good for wildlife too.

Water Quality – Water bodies reflect the condition of their watersheds. Eroding fields deliver sediment and nutrients to streams and lakes. Soils protected from erosion keep that soil and associated nutrients in fields where they belong.

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Fields protected by cover crops or other vegetation growing throughout the growing season retain nutrients in the root zone that would otherwise find their way into streams or ground water. Practices that protect and build soils are good for water quality

Economic Development – Over one-third of the largest 100 food manufacturers have Iowa operations. These companies are located in Iowa because the commodities they depend on are produced here.

HC-SoilStatistics from 2014 showed that agriculture and related industries contributed $31.6 billion to the Iowa economy and was responsible for 122,764 jobs. They also showed that 37 of Iowa’s counties derived at least one half of their economic output from agriculture and related industries.

The foundation of all of this economic activity, now and into the future, is Iowa’s productive soil.

No matter what issue you care about, you need to be interested in protecting and building Iowa’s soils.

Marty Adkins

Do cover crops reduce phosphorus loss?

Cover crops are proven to reduce nitrate loss and decrease soil erosion on our agricultural landscape, but field scale studies on phosphorus loss are still in their infancy. Drs. Antonio Mallarino, Matt Helmers, Rick Cruse, John Sawyer with Iowa State University and Dan Jaynes with National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment have completed two years of a long-term field study and have released their preliminary results.

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The Hermann farm site south of Ames allowed Mallarino’s team to observe the effects of cover crops on phosphorus in the runoff study funded by the Iowa Nutrient Research Center.

The study is located at south of Ames on Iowa State’s Hermann Farm. The study includes replication on 12 areas ranging from one to three acres in a field that tested very high in soil phosphorus and is managed with a corn and soybean rotation. The study compares the use of winter cereal rye cover crops with and without tillage.

After two years, Dr. Mallarino observed:

“It is confirmed that cover crops reduce soil loss with tillage or no-till but mainly with tillage. Results also show that with tillage a cover crop reduces phosphorus loss. But it is not so clear that with no-tillage management a cover crop reduces phosphorus loss,” Mallarino said. “With no-tillage, there seems to be a small reduction in particulate phosphorus loss, but an increase in dissolved phosphorus loss.”
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Surface runoff at the testing site is evaluated for total solids and several forms of nutrients.

Why the focus on dissolved phosphorus? The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy is a technical, scientific and voluntary approach to reducing the loss of nitrogen and phosphorus to our waterbodies and the Gulf of Mexico that is home of a large hypoxic or dead zone.  Both particulate and dissolved phosphorus are part of the reduction goal, however dissolved phosphorus is responsible for algae blooms and has a visible impact on aquatic ecosystems.

Caution should be taken when drawing conclusions from only two years of data. Environmental factors play a role in nutrient dynamics with surface runoff, and during the two years of the study, major rain events at the test site had been minimal with very low runoff.

“We can’t make a strong conclusion from these two years of data. There needs to additional data collection from this site and better science-based projecting so we can encourage the addition of cover crops for the right reasons,” Mallarino said.

Click here to read the full article and learn more about project.

Questions about the project contact:

Antonio Mallarino, Agronomy, 515-294-6200, apmallar@iastate.edu

 

Liz Juchems

Reducing Nutrient Losses While Building Iowa’s Soils and Economy

Today’s guest post is by Marty Adkins, Assistant State Conservationist for Iowa Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), a member of the Iowa Learning Farms Steering Committee.

Iowa’s soils are globally precious and unique. These soils are the cornerstone of a vibrant and productive farming sector and make Iowa’s overall economy strong.  Protecting and building the productive capacity of Iowa’s soils is essential to Iowa’s future.  Happily, many of the same practices that help protect and build soils also have a positive impact on water quality.  This is especially true of cover crops, crop rotations that include small grains and forages, and no-tillage and strip-tillage planting.

Marty Adkins and his other passion in life; playing the ukulele.

The widespread adoption of cover crops will require increased availability of seed and seeding equipment.  There are new business opportunities related to the growing, cleaning, transportation, sales and custom planting of cover crop seed.  Iowa’s farm machinery industry can continue to design, build, sell and service equipment needed for cover crop seeding and management, and increased adoption of no-till and strip-till.

There are other farm business opportunities to consider when it comes to conservation farming practices.  Cover crops and extended rotations could provide more grazing for more livestock in more places, with more small-town businesses selling all needed goods and services to livestock farms.

In addition to increased economic activity in the farm and industrial sectors, there are other economic benefits to be gained from conservation practices.  An Iowa countryside that is green nearly all year-round, with the land covered and protected, would be a more attractive landscape for Iowa residents, and could attract visitors and new entrepreneurs.

Economic research shows that cleaner streams and lakes result in increased recreational opportunities (swimming, canoeing, boating, and fishing) and more tourism to towns and cities associated with these amenities.  More dollars stay in Iowa when Iowans vacation and recreate within the state.

The environmental benefits associated with better soil management are well documented.  But improved soil management can also contribute to Iowa’s economic well-being, now and long into the future.

~Marty Adkins

Can Healthy Soil Feed the World?

A recent article written by David Montgomery, Professor of Earth and Space Sciences at University of Washington, shares a provocative argument for why healthy soil is the real key to feeding the world. The article is a quick read, and it provides good food for thought to break through the Monday shuffle.

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Montgomery recently wrote a book called, “Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life” where he traveled the world to interview innovative farmers. These
farmers had one thing in common: they were rebuilding the health of their soil with regenerative practices like no-till, cover crops and diverse crop rotations that brought in high yields while also increasing soil fertility. Seeing the potential in these varied practices, Montgomery wondered if these practices could change the very foundation of agriculture as we know it, both in the Corn Belt and beyond.

“Their experiences, and the results that I saw on their farms in North and South Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Ghana and Costa Rica, offer compelling evidence that the key to sustaining highly productive agriculture lies in rebuilding healthy, fertile soil. This journey also led me to question three pillars of conventional wisdom about today’s industrialized agrochemical agriculture: that it feeds the world, is a more efficient way to produce food and will be necessary to feed the future.”

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2013 Iowa Learning Farms Field Day at the Kent Swanson farm in rural Red Oak

Beyond conventional versus organic, Montgomery posits that our future, and the future of our soil, relies on innovative farmers who are willing to adopt practices that put soil health and prolonged soil fertility first.

Read the article, “Healthy Soil is the Real Key to Feeding the World” and tell us what you think.

Julie Whitson

A Tale of Two Trails of Tillage

Last month Iowa Learning Farms participated in a field day about cover crops in Southeast Iowa. After the field day presentations were finished, we were approached by Don Mathews, a farmer from Danville, Iowa. Don shared with us his personal story of how contrasting practices in land management have impacted his land over the past several decades. Don’s story was full of anecdotal evidence about how dramatically soil quality can be changed when conservation practices are continually utilized, or abandoned, after several years time.

We want to share Don’s story with you. We hope you will find inspiration in Don’s tale about the positive impact of conservation practices on soil health for those who commit to its use for the long haul!

Don Mathews purchased his first eighty acres of land in 1962. In 1975, he purchased an additional eighty acres right across the road. After farming the land for several years, he took on an off-farm job in 1978. Don began to use no-till methods on all of his land in the early 1980s. Soon after, it became difficult to balance farming with his other job and family responsibilities, and so Don made the decision to rent his land out to tenant operators, and transitioned to the role of landowner.

Don rented out each plot of eighty acres to two different neighbors. One neighbor continued to use no-till methods to farm his plot, while the other began discing and chisel tilling his plot of land. So began a tale of two side-by-side plots of land, each consisting of eighty acres. These two pieces of land were once managed identically and contained similar soil compositions. Yet when we fast-forward thirty years to the present, Don tells us, the soil in each has become quite different from one another.

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Don’s 26-year-old son has now taken over all of the original land and is farming it himself. Upon taking over operation of the land, Don and his family began to discover contrasts in soil health between these two plots that had been farmed so differently over the past twenty-five years.

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Speaking about his relationship with the tenant who chose not to continue with the conservation farming practices Mathews had established, Don said, “I wish I could go back to the early 1980s with what I know now. I could have suggested to him renting out some of the work and equipment [for planting into no-till land].”

Don’s son, who is using strip-tillage on his field corn and no-tillage on the soybeans, is working with his father on plans to incorporate cover crops onto their fields. Finding themselves in a phase of transition as they attempt to get the land back to where they’d like it to be, the Mathews family planted some cover crops this past year, and have plans to add a lot more in the coming years. They also plan to graze their cover crops, to get the added benefit of manure on the land. Don and his son feel strongly about doing what they can to bring the tilled soils on their land back to the same quality of health as the non-tilled soils.

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When asked if he has advice for other farmers wanting to change the way their land is managed to incorporate more conservation practices, Don says this:

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Thank you to Don for sharing with us his “tillage tale.” Do you have a story you’d like to share with Iowa Learning Farms about implementing conservation practices? We invite you to share your stories with us by emailing them to Brandy at casehaub@iastate.edu.

Brandy Case Haub

Starting the Conservation Conversation

Land rental relationships can vary, but many face similar challenges of discussing new conservation practices with your tenant or landlord.  To help begin the conversation, Iowa Learning Farms created a new publication series with talking points and relevant research findings about a variety of conservation practices.

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“A large number of Iowa cropland acres are rented every year; nearly 50% according to recent surveys. These rented acres are greatly influenced by the tenant who farms them,” stated Mark Licht, Iowa State University assistant professor of agronomy and Iowa Learning Farms advisor, who cultivated the idea of the series.

“Landowners are integral in the decision-making process: from leasing structure and understanding farming practices, to being considerate of practice costs and profitability.  With emphasis being placed on nutrient loss reduction and practices ranging from in-field to land use changes, it’s imperative for landowners and tenants to have conversations about reaching production, profitability, and environmental goals,” said Licht. “These conversations can lead to improvements of soil health and water quality, along with meeting productivity and profitability goals.”

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Examples of leasing structures that can be used when adding cover crops included in the series.

As land is passed from one generation to another, or is sold, it can lead to uncertainty for tenants and landowners alike.

strip tillage benefits.png“We developed this series in response to questions we heard from landowners. They wanted to understand how conservation practices such as strip-tillage and cover crops would affect both their land and the tenant’s bottom line before asking them to add these practices to their management plans,” explained Jacqueline Comito, Iowa Learning Farms director.

“While the name of the series is ‘Talking to Your Tenant,’ the reverse is also true. We think tenants will find the series also helpful as they educate their landowners on implementing these important practices,” adds Comito.

The series addresses in-field practices like cover crops, no-tillage and strip-tillage, and edge-of-field practices such as denitrifying bioreactors and wetlands.

If you have ideas for future topics for this series, contact Liz Juchems at ilf@iastate.edu or call 515-294-5429.  The four-part series, along with other print and video resources, are available online. Copies will also be available at field days and workshops, or mailed to you upon request.

Liz Juchems

A Paddler’s Perspective

NOTE: Today’s guest blog post was written by water resources intern Sam Phillips. He is starting his junior year at Iowa State University in Agricultural Engineering (Land and Water Resources option). Originally from the Manchester area, Phillips is an avid and active outdoorsman!

My whole life I have had a passion for being outdoors and exploring new places. One of my favorite ways of doing this is by paddling and fishing Iowa’s rivers. This past weekend I had the opportunity to float one of my favorites, a stretch of the Yellow River starting in Volney, Iowa.

MeetTheInterns-SamIt had recently rained and when we arrived at the put-in we could tell immediately. According to the USGS it was flowing at around 425 cubic feet per second, nearly three times faster than usual this time of year. This huge influx of water had torn massive amounts of sediment from its usual place and brought it into the river. The normally clear stream now looked murky brown.

In my classes at Iowa State and over the course of this internship I have learned about sediment being the number one pollutant in Iowa’s rivers and lakes. While Iowa is rightfully known for its world class soils, that resource becomes a hindrance when it gets misplaced into our waterways.  I’ve also learned about the countless conservation practices being used by farmers and other landowners. Some I knew about before, but I never really took notice until I started thinking about their functions.

YellowRiverWhile going down the Yellow I paid much closer attention to these practices. Along the banks there was riprap (essentially large rocks) to keep water from eroding away the land and buffer strips to filter out runoff. I got out at a sandbar and looked at nearby fields. There was lots of no till and conservation till to protect topsoil from rainfall. On hills in the distance there were beautiful terraces. While these couldn’t stop the river from getting dirty temporarily, they surely will help it return to its normal clarity sooner.

A single one of these practices would not be able to stop sediment from reaching the Yellow River. However, a strong combination of conservation practices from in-field to edge-of-field all the way to the riverbank can make a huge difference.

Even though the high water prevented me from catching the fish I came for, I enjoyed seeing the trip from a new perspective!

Sam Phillips