Nurturing the Seeds of Conservation

In 2009, the Soil and Water Conservation District commissioners challenged us to teach Iowa’s youth about soil and water. The Conservation Station and Water Rocks! program were our answers. Since that time, we have been to every county in Iowa at least twice, reaching over 100,000 people, inspiring the next generation to be thinking about and talking about conservation issues.

Starting this year, we are reaching out to the next generation in a new way, by getting college students out to our field days and talking to college students who want to farm about water quality and conservation issues.

On August 30th, we held a field day at the Gilmore City Research and Demonstration Site. If you want to learn about conservation and water quality practices that work, this research site is the place to be. A few days before the field day, we sent an email out to all the Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering undergraduates to invite them to attend. Nine students enthusiastically took us up on the offer and joined us for this excellent event (read more about it in Ann’s blog Cover Cropping on the Lobe).

During the actual field day presentations, the college students quietly listened and didn’t say much. However, the faculty and staff who accompanied them said that when they got back into the van, they were filled with so many questions and were nonstop talk about what they were seeing and learning.

It is very likely that each of these students will either farm someday or work in the agricultural industry. We are doing our part to whet their curiosity about conservation practices such as cover crops and wetlands. We are also fertilizing the seeds that will grow into a lifelong conservation ethic. We plan to offer more of these field days with college students – in partnership with both ISU and our many other outstanding colleges/community colleges around the state —  in the months and years to come.

In addition, with the help of a new grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, we are developing and launching an “Emerging Farmers” program. This program takes a proactive approach to address the need for new programming that reaches out to limited resource farmers, emerging farmers and future landowners. We define emerging farmer as someone with ties to agricultural land, not currently farming but would like to return to the farm or have a voice in its management.

In collaboration with ILF farmer partners, Iowa Beef Center, Beginning Farmer Center and Practical Farmers of Iowa, we will produce a series of emerging farmers conservation publications. Partners will collaborate to create a sustainable business plan template for the emerging farmers. We will host workshops across the state, as well as a two-day intensive emerging farmer workshop. In the years to come, we will present emerging farmer seminars to ISU agricultural student groups, as well as to community colleges and colleges across Iowa to reach those individuals with ties to agricultural land, infusing the traditional agricultural curriculum with a strong conservation focus.

The SWCD commissioners challenged us in 2009 and we continue to listen to that challenge as the Iowa Learning Farms adapts to meet the needs in Iowa for conservation education. We cannot succeed if we are not engaging and inspiring our young people. Send me an email if you would like to get involved in these efforts.

Jacqueline Comito

Reducing Soil Erosion with Cover Crops: New Infographic

Iowa Learning Farms is pleased to announce the release of a new infographic publication titled Reducing Soil Erosion with Rye Cover Crops.

This visually engaging document highlights one of the biggest benefits of cover crops — the ability to significantly reduce soil erosion. Based upon long-term cover crop work conducted by Korucu, Shipitalo, and Kaspar, colleagues at the USDA-ARS National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment here in Ames, this study looks specifically at one of Iowa’s most popular cover crops, winter cereal rye.

The USDA-ARS team conducted in-field simulated rainfall studies on plots with and without cereal rye cover crops, and their findings are powerful in terms of quantifying erosion reduction – 68% less sediment in surface runoff water with a rye cover crop. Further, the amount of surface runoff water decreased, while the amount of water infiltrating was found to increase with the cover crop.

This study was conducted in central Iowa, in the heart of the Des Moines Lobe, on land with a 2% slope. Substantial erosion reductions were found here with rye cover crops — consider the benefits of cover crops to reduce erosion on more sloping lands across the state!

The full infographic is available as a free PDF download on the Iowa Learning Farms website. Clicking on the image below will also take you right there.

Ann Staudt

Field Days to Help Participants Improve Profit and Water Quality

Five field days are being offered as part of Iowa State University (ISU) Extension and Outreach’s Nitrogen and Water Week, which runs from June 27-29.

June_FieldDay140The purpose of these field days is for farmers and their consultants to learn the research related to profitable nitrogen management and water quality. They will also allow participants to visit the sites where research is occurring relating to nitrogen management and water quality.

The field days will be held throughout the state at ISU Research and Demonstration Farms, providing an opportunity to learn about the university’s research facilities that evaluate nitrate loss. A tour of plots where ISU researchers study the effects of fall application, cover crops and nitrification inhibitors is included in the event. The field days will also provide an opportunity to learn about factors that are used to make nitrogen fertilizer recommendations and nitrogen deficiency in corn and how to correct it.

Participants will leave the field day with a better understanding of research and the breadth of projects and practices that they are evaluating. They will also receive a better understanding of tools that are available to them like the N Rate Calculator and how they can help farmers be more profitable while minimizing impact on water quality.

Each field day will provide the same format and program, with ISU Extension and Outreach field agronomists and agricultural engineering specialists providing instruction. Registration at the research farm meeting room begins at 9:15 on the day of the event, with the program beginning at 9:45. The program concludes at 12:15 p.m. with lunch following.

The format provides for four 30-minute sessions during the field day, discussing how a water quality research site works, what practices are being studied, how effective the various management practices are in reducing nitrogen loss, and the impact of those practices on farm profitability.

2017 Nitrogen and Water Week Field Days

There is a $25 registration fee for the program that includes lunch, refreshments, and course materials and publications. Attendees are asked to pre-register to assist with facility and meal planning. For additional information or to register online visit www.aep.iastate.edu/nitrogen.

Jamie Benning

Jamie Benning is an Iowa Learning Farms team member and Water Quality Program Manager at Iowa State University.

Cover crop researcher Tom Kaspar receives Spencer Award

Congratulations to our friend and collaborator, Dr. Tom Kaspar, on receiving the Spencer Award for Sustainable Agriculture yesterday!

Long regarded as the grandfather of cover crops here in the state of Iowa, USDA-ARS plant physiologist Tom Kaspar is certainly one of the leading voices on cover crops across the Midwest.  He was one of the “founding fathers” of the Midwest Cover Crops Council, and his collaborative work over the years has investigated and documented the benefits and challenges of cover crops in corn and soybean cropping systems, ranging from impacts on water quality, soil health, nutrient cycling, and more.

We are grateful to Tom for serving as a guest speaker at countless Iowa Learning Farms field days and workshops over the years, sharing his findings with farmers, landowners, and other ag partners across the state. We are also grateful for his efforts in guiding the work of the Iowa Cover Crop Working Group, including our long-term on-farm rye study and our study of earthworms and cover crops.

Kaspar has amassed years of experience investigating not only soil health and cover crops, but also connections with no till, minimum tillage, climatic variations, disease, pathogens, and more. To hear some great perspectives from the man himself, check out Episode 6 of the Conservation Chat podcast, in which host Jackie Comito talks cover crops with Dr. Tom Kaspar.

Kaspar was also featured in our August 2015 Iowa Learning Farms webinar, presenting on Reaching the Full Potential of Cover Crops in Iowa.  Stay tuned to the blog, as well — we’ll be highlighting some of Kaspar’s cover crop findings here in the next week or so.

In the meantime, congratulations to Tom for an honor that is very well deserved!

Ann Staudt

 

5 Lessons Learned with Rye Cover Crops

Here at Iowa Learning Farms, we’ve been working with cereal rye cover crops since 2008. That’s not nearly as long as our good friend and colleague Tom Kaspar with USDA-ARS, but we can certainly say that, with our partners in the Iowa Cover Crop Working Group, we’ve been exploring and promoting cover crops long before they were cool!

Our longest ongoing study involves the use of cereal rye as a winter cover crop in on-farm trials within corn/soybean cropping systems across the state of Iowa. Over the years, twelve farmers have participated as partners in this project, with each demonstration site featuring field-length replicated strips with a cereal rye cover crop as well as replicated strips without a cereal rye cover crop.

projectsitesmaterialsmethods

In our eight years of on-farm cover crop demonstrations, what have we learned?  Here are our Top 5 takeaways regarding cereal rye cover crops:

1. Rye cover crops are largely yield neutral.
In the vast majority of this study (55 of 59 site-years), farmers found that a properly managed cereal rye cover crop had little to no negative effect on corn and soybean yields. Soybean yield actually increased in 7 site-years and corn yield increased in 2 site-years. There can be a learning curve up front, but in the long run, this study’s findings dispel the myth that rye negatively impacts crop yields (especially corn yields) in the following season.
yieldimpacts

2. Cover crops require active management.
Additional considerations/management factors when using a rye cover crop include seeding rate and method in the fall, and then cover crop termination and adjusting planter settings to accommodate additional residue in the spring. In the few cases of this study where crop yields were negatively impacted, farmers identified insufficient cover crop termination and improper planter settings as reasons for the few years where there were crop yield reductions.

3. Spring growth is key to realizing rye’s benefits.
Unlike winter wheat, oats, radishes and turnips, cereal rye survives over winter and continues its growth into the spring months. Large amounts of spring over crop biomass can be produced – variable to location and termination date.
springbiomass

4. Soil health is hard to define and even harder to measure.
Five years into the study, we found no measurable differences in soil health variables (soil organic matter, total carbon, total nitrogen, pH, infiltration and runoff) between the strips with and without the cereal rye cover crop at individual locations. A much greater intensity of sampling and additional time (years) may be required to quantify significant changes. Plus many of Iowa’s soils have relatively high levels of organic matter to begin with, so detecting very small changes can be challenging.

5. Earthworm numbers have increased with a cereal rye cover crop. Looking at the common nightcrawler (Lumbricus terrestris), our 2016 midden count data indicate a statistically significant difference of 38% more earthworms with a cereal rye cover crop. Earthworms can serve as tangible, early biological indicators of soil health.
earthworms

These findings and more will be highlighted at ISU’s Soil Health Conference coming up later this week. Stop by and see our poster, and let’s talk cover crops – we hope to see you there!

Ann Staudt

 

Additional information on our work with rye cover crops:

ILF Cover Crop Research webpage
Additional ILF Cover Crop Resources
Earthworms, Cover Crops and Soil Health

The Iowa Cover Crop Working Group is a collaboration of Iowa Learning Farms and the following organizations:

  • Practical Farmers of Iowa
  • Iowa State University Extension and Outreach
  • Iowa Dept. of Agriculture and Land Stewardship
  • USDA-Agricultural Research Service, National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment
  • USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service
  • Midwest Cover Crops Council

Funding for this demonstration project has been provided by Iowa’s State Soil Conservation Committee, Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Iowa State University Extension Water Quality Program, and NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant 69-6114-15-005.

Eight-year on-farm study reports improved yields following cereal rye

cover_crops_and_withoutCereal rye cover crops added to a corn-soybean rotation have little to no negative effect on yield and actually increased soybean yields in seven site-years and corn yield in two-sites years, according to an eight-year study conducted by the Iowa Learning Farms (ILF) and Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI).

 In 2008 and 2009, 12 farmers across Iowa established replicated strips of winter cereal rye cover crop and strips with no cover crop within their corn and soybean rotation. The cover crop was either drilled after harvest or aerially seeded into standing crops each fall. At each site, the cover crop was terminated the following spring by herbicide one to two weeks before planting. corn-yields-2016

soybean-yields-2016

When the project began, the farmers were concerned that the winter cereal rye would impact their corn or soybean yields negatively. But after harvest was completed each year, the farmers reported that this was not the case. When properly managed, cover crops had little to no negative effect and, in some cases, actually improved yields. 

“Over the past eight years, my initial concerns have been proven wrong with stronger yields and better soil quality,” says Butler County farmer Rick Juchems of his experiences in the project. “A new benefit I’m now seeing is the suppression of weeds, especially ahead of soybeans when the rye is terminated later in the spring.” Juchems’ corn yields have remained steady and he has seen a slight improvement in soybean yields.  

Proper management is key when incorporating cover crops into a corn-soybean rotation. Knowing what cover crop to use, when to plant and how and when to terminate are the main components to successful implementation. Effective termination with herbicide requires an actively growing plant. Planter settings may also need to be adjusted to handle increased residue. 

There are many resources to help farmers with answers to these management details online and in print, as well as contacting a cover crop farmer in your area through the ILF or PFI network, local Extension field agronomist or NRCS field specialist. 

Cover crops provide numerous benefits to farm fields. They reduce erosion by holding soil in place and improve soil health through increased soil microbial activity, nutrient cycling and soil organic matter. The biomass from the plant can add value through grazing or forage and potentially suppress winter annual and early season weeds.  

The farmers in this study include: Bill Buman, Harlan; Randy Caviness, Greenfield; Jim Funcke, Jefferson; Devan Green, Conrad; Rick Juchems, Plainfield; Whiterock Conservancy, Coon Rapids; Mark Pokorny, Clutier; George Schaefer, Kalona; Jerry Sindt, Holstein; Rob Stout, West Chester; Gary and Dave Nelson, Fort Dodge; and Kelly Tobin, New Market. 

The year eight update for this study is available online at the ILF website.

Liz Juchems

 

It’s a Wrap on Field Work 2016!

Friday, December 9th marked the end of the Iowa Learning Farms 2016 field work season. Throughout the year we have collected water samples, cover crop biomass samples, spring nitrate soil samples, and seeded our cover crop plots.  Following harvest, with help from Carl Pederson and a Giddings Rig, we collected bulk density soil samples for our Conservation Learning Labs project.

Bulk density is the weight of soil in a given volume and can be used to evaluate the level of soil compaction. Bulk density values increase with compaction and tend to increase with depth.  Soils with high bulk density restrict root growth and can results in lower crop yields. Our samples will also be analyzed for nutrient contents in our soil processing lab.

The samples were collected prior to adding a cover crop and reducing tillage to gather baseline measurements within our two watersheds.  The sample cores are three inches in diameter by twelve inches in length and due to their size, we enlisted the Giddings Rig probe.

Check out the photos series below for a glimpse into the sampling process! img_0172

For each field, we collected three samples per soil type that made up 10% or more of the field.  This ranged from 6-15 samples per field.  Before heading to the field, each sampling site was randomly selected within the soil type and GPS points assigned.  The points were uploaded to our handheld GPS unit for easy site locating in the field. img_0171With temperatures in the low 20’s and 30’s, we used the truck dashboard to keep the plastic caps flexible.  To help remember which way is up, the red caps (aka the sun) = top and black caps (aka the earth) = bottom.  A simple, but necessary step for processing back in the lab! img_20161202_115557111_hdr

When we reached the GPS point, we loaded up a plastic core and aligned the rig in place.  The hydraulic system slowly pushed into the soil to minimize collection compaction.  With the frost setting in, there were times the rig really had to work to get the full sample.

Once the sample is out of the ground, the plastic tube was removed and caps placed on the ends to keep the soil secured.  The samples were labeled and placed in a 5-gallon bucket for storage and transport.img_20161202_121316924The sampler is cleaned using a wire brush and putty knife to prepare it for the next location.  We then hopped back in the truck and travel to the next point in the GPS.

In three days, we collected 108 samples from 12 fields in Floyd and Story County.  Traveling across the tilled fields provided a bumpy ride for us and the rig.  We managed to shear a bolt at the end of day two, but Carl was able to get it fixed in record time and we were back at it again!

 

Despite the cold weather, I enjoyed collecting the samples. I have collected a lot of different samples during my time as an undergraduate intern and staff at the Iowa Learning Farms, but this was my first time collecting bulk density samples with the Giddings Rig. I look forward to keeping you updated on the processing and measurement process as I keep learning.

 

Liz Juchems