Articles from different North American regions offer same advice for soil health

Two articles from publications in vastly different agricultural regions—Canada and Mississippi—discuss the same issues that we face here, in between these geographical areas. Both articles contain excellent reasons why conservation practices are worth doing no matter where you live.

Up North

ILF Juchems 068In the article “Where Water Leaves the Farm,” published in Country Guide (“Canada’s oldest farm publication”), retired farmer Don Lobb offers his point of view on agricultural drainage. This story has a lot of data for the Lake Erie area, but the information on the science of soil health is the same for Iowa—everywhere actually.

“The modern role of subsurface cropland drainage (tile drainage) is much different,” says Lobb. “It’s root-zone soil moisture management. We want a favourable balance of air and water in the root zone, while also maintaining water at the base of the root zone to supply water during dry periods.”

Lobb also gives great reasons how tillage damages soil quality:

“Tilled soils have little or no soil aggregation, and clay soils are almost always compacted,” says Lobb. “With these conditions, subsurface drains can then contribute little to reduce run-off of water sediment and contaminants,” he continues. “When tillage-degraded soil cracks, water easily reaches subsurface drains. This does lead to water degradation in drains and outlet channels, and is really the outcome of bad soil management, not the use of subsurface drains.”

Down South

In the article “Improving Water Use Efficiency Starts With Caring for the Soil,” published in Delta Farm Press, the scarcity of water to nourish crops in Mississippi magnifies the issue of water quality.

“Here in the Mississippi Hills we have to make the most of the water we receive as rainfall during the winter months as well as during the growing season. Very few of the farmers in this region have the capability to provide supplemental water to their crops, so our efforts to increase water use efficiency are not optional but necessary.”

Again, healthy soil is of highest importance for success:

“…we have been forced to learn every practice that can allow our soils to store as much water as possible and that will allow our crops to extract and use as much of that stored water as possible. The strategies involved in this program begin with the soil and include the standard practices of soil fertility, such as liming and fertilizing according to current soil tests, and improving the quality of the soil to raise organic matter levels and increase the activity of beneficial soil organisms such as mycorrhizae and earthworms.”

DSCN9201The two articles have great points, written in plain English, on improving soil health through no-till, cover crops, and allowing time for these practices to take effect.

Although they focus on land far from us, there are many points that we can apply to Iowa farmland.

— Carol Brown

No-till & crop residue benefits flow chart

On yesterday’s No-Till Farmer website, editor Frank Lessiter posted a flow chart showing the benefits of no-till and crop residue. The chart sums up the numerous benefits in few words and little space.


Read the complete story here: Check out the many benefits of retaining crop residue in a no-till system

Carol Brown

A Cover Crop Snapshot

In the last two weeks, Iowa Learning Farms team members have visited five of our cover crop demonstration sites located on ISU Research Farms to check on spring cover crop growth and prepare our suction lysimeters for water monitoring this spring.

I posted photos from my trip to the Armstrong Research Farm on March 27, but now that we’ve been to each site, I thought it would be interesting to see a snapshot of how our cover crops (specifically, the over-wintering cereal rye) are doing across the state.

Here are the pics in chronological order of our visits:






How are your cover crops doing this spring?  We’d love to see your spring cover crops photos… share with us on Facebook, Twitter, or send via email to

Ann Staudt

Top 10 Webinars #6: Biochar’s Contribution to Sustainable Bioenergy Production

March 2012 Screenshot

Today, the Top 10 Most-Watched Webinars series presents “Biochar’s Contribution to Sustainable Bioenergy Production,” hosted by David Laird, a professor in the agronomy department at Iowa State University. Here’s my preview:

1. When farmers harvest residue for biofuel production, they are promised short-term gains (sales, temporary yield increases), but they also face the prospect of long-term losses (degraded soil quality, reduced agricultural productivity).

2. If residue is harvested, biochar can help maintain soil quality by putting lost nutrients back in.

3. So, the pyrolysis-biochar platform may help make residue harvesting more sustainable.

Watch the full webinar here.

– Alex Kirstukas

Spring Cover Crop Biomass Sampling

As part of the ILF cover crops research, we have been busy installing lysimeters and we have also been collecting cover crop biomass samples. Given the harsh winter weather and cool spring, the cover crop growth was spotty across the state this spring.  Where the cover crops managed to survive, the cereal rye is the only one to successfully overwinter this year within the mixture plots.

Below are some photos taken during the biomass sampling process Friday, May 9th at the Sutherland Research Farm in Northwest Iowa.

20140509_121659Cereal rye overwintered as part of a three species mixture: rye, rapeseed, and radish

20140509_121707Single species plot – cereal rye

20140509_124046Step 1: Biomass sampling frame is tossed at random within the plot and using scissors, the rye biomass (plant material) is clipped close to the ground and placed in a paper bag.
This is done twice per plot.

20140509_124531Step 2:  The two sample bags per plot are then used to estimate the pounds per acre biomass of the cover crop for the entire plot.
Step 3: Back in the lab, the rye is dried and weighed to calculate the pounds per acre.

The aboveground biomass is as important as what’s growing underneath the surface. The rye (or other cover crop) covering the soil reduces the impact of energy when a raindrop falls on the land. By hitting the biomass first, the force of the rain is lessened and allows the water to infiltrate the soil gently.

Liz Juchems

Two stories offer perspectives on residue management

The article “Tips for Making No-Tilled Corn-on-Corn Successful” was published recently on the No-Till Farmer website. Author Laura Allen includes quotes from farmers from all over the central midwest and also Iowa State University Agricultural Engineer Mark Hanna, faculty advisor for Iowa Learning Farms. The farmers and experts offer advice on all stages of the corn-on-corn growing process from fall harvest through spring planting. Part of the article talks about soil health and residue breakdown.

“Once residue is present in the field, the soil microbes get to work decomposing the residue, says Doug Miller, vice president of Midwest Bio-Tech, a company that distributes liquid biological and enzyme treatment products for crops and crop residue. ‘As soon as you’ve got residue in the field, it’s more or less like opening up the buffet line for the microbes. They’re going to multiply very rapidly and start to work in seeking out carbon, which is their main fuel source,’ Miller says.”

“Myths and Facts About Residue Breakdown” is in today’s Integrated Crop Management News. ISU agronomy professor and former ILF leader Mahdi Al-Kaisi explains the results of his research study on the effects of residue breakdown through tillage and nitrogen application.

“There were no differences in the rate of residue decomposition as a result of N application of different N rates.  These results show that applying N fertilizer to facilitate residue decomposition is not effective.”

“Environmentally, both tillage and N application are not very sustainable practices; tillage can contribute to soil health and water quality deterioration by increasing soil erosion potential, sediment loss and water quality degradation, as do N applications, where no growing plant can utilize it.” – Al Kaisi


Strip-tillage considerations

vandiest_farm_springAgri-View recently published an article “Time to Take Advantage of Strip-Tillage This Season?” The article makes a great companion to the ILF-produced DVD “Strip-tillage Crop Management.”

The author of the article Jane Fyksen says, “Strip-tillage is completed after harvest or in early spring before planting. It’s a system that requires a higher level of management, especially monitoring soil moisture conditions, as well as the conditions of the berms being created. Clods and compaction can still result.”

You can read the story here.

Fyksen cites ILF experts throughout the article as well as Iowa State University Extension agronomist Mahdi Al-Kaisi.

“Recently it was found that removing residue or strip-tilling to create a residue-free zone improves corn germination due to increased soil temperature at the top two inches,” says Al-Kaisi.

If you would like a free copy of the ILF strip-till DVD “Strip-tillage Crop Management,” contact ILF via email:

-Carol Brown