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

Step 1: Determine Your Goals for Cover Crops

ILFHeader(15-year)At our final event of the year, one underlying theme was mentioned by all our speakers. To be successful with cover crops, the first step is to determine what your goals are. From there you can determine which species, seeding methods and termination plans are best suited for your operation.

Sioux County farmers Micah and Josh Rensink have been using cover crops since 2016 and have seeded them using a Hagie into standing crops, aerially into standing soybeans and drilling after silage harvest for neighbors with livestock.


“Our main goals are to reduce erosion, build organic matter, hold nutrients and reduce our herbicide use,” noted Josh. “We have looked a different mixes and seeding methods to find what will work best for us. While we don’t have livestock in our operation, cover crops provide a wide range of forage options. That is one way to help with the economics side of cover crops.”

IMG_0105Based on their experiences and those they worked with Micah had some great advice, “Be sure to know the seed source and quality before seeding to avoid potential weed contamination and future frustration. Cheaper seed isn’t always a better deal!”

When asked what advice they would give to first time cover crop users they stated, “Start small and start simple. Get cover crops on acres going to soybeans and give it a try. Reach out to those around you trying it. We would be happy to chat with you, too.”

IMG_0117Joel DeJong, ISU Extension Field Agronomist, also had some great tips to share to help align cover crops with producer goals:

  • After September 15 – seed a winter small grain (rye, barley, wheat, triticale).
  • Be sure to check the herbicide labels for grazing restrictions and modify herbicide plans as needed to ensure legal forage use.
  • Utilize resources like the Midwest Cover Crop Council Selector Tool
  • Available cost-share for cover crops ≠ goal – ask yourself “What do I want to get from using cover crops” instead.

Don’t be afraid to think outside the box, like the group of Dordt University students who wanted to experiment with interseeding and built their own custom seeder (below). Look forward to more cover crop trials and results from Dordt University students in the near future!


Liz Juchems

Spreading the word to help cover crops take off


A little rain right before the field day was scheduled to start didn’t scare away a large group of attendees who wanted to learn more about cover crops. Iowa Learning Farms partnered with Indian Creek Soil Health Partnership, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, and Linn County to deliver this cover crop focused field day on August 14th.

After dinner it was time to check out a plane used to aerially seed cover crops, hear cover crop tips from Rebecca Vittetoe, Iowa State University Extension Field Agronomist, see the Iowa Learning Farms rainfall simulator in action and pick the brain of farmer Jason Russell, who is making cover crops work on his farm.


Rebecca Vittetoe discusses cover crops

Vittetoe used the Iowa Learning Farms rainfall simulator to show how cover crops (and no-till) can help reduce surface runoff, prevent soil erosion and encourage more infiltration. She went on to talk about some cover crop basics and share tips for being successful when you’re first starting out using cover crops. She emphasized that it’s important to have a plan when you’re adding cover crops to your operation – you need to think how they are going to fit into your operation and what adjustments you may need to make. The tips she shared were:

  1. Start small
  2. Look for easy entry points (such as planting cover crops after you harvest corn silage or seed corn, or on prevent plant acres)
  3. Be flexible
  4. Have a Plan A, but also be sure to have a Plan B and Plan C

One of the important parts of the cover crop planning process that Vittetoe discussed was deciding how you are going to plant your cover crops. Attendees of the field day got to get up close and personal with a plane used to aerially plant cover crops and hear from pilot John Thompson of Thompson Aero. Thompson was able to answer questions about the technical aspects of aerially applying cover crops and explain the way he seeds cover crops using his plane.


John Thompson with a plane he uses to aerially seed cover crops

The evening wrapped up with the group hearing about Linn County farmer Jason Russell’s personal experiences using cover crops. Russell had some great insight to share since he’s been successfully using cover crops for years. Russell reiterated Vittetoe’s advice to start small. He talked about how he uses a mix of cereal rye and wheat for his cover crops, that since starting to use cover crops he only has to apply nitrogen fertilizer once at the beginning of the season and his termination techniques.


Jason Russell talks about incorporating cover crops into his farming operation

If you want to learn more about incorporating cover crops into your farming operation, join us at a field day near you!

Hilary Pierce


Burnin’ grass at the University of Iowa

CLGHeaderEmily Heaton | Assistant Professor of Agronomy, Iowa State University and co-authors: Collin De Graaf, Valeria Cano, Perla Carmenate, Tyler Donovan, and Danielle Clark

If you have been driving in rural eastern Iowa and noticed a lot of choppers and wagons, you might have been seeing the UI Biomass Fuel Project Miscanthus harvest.

What the what?

Figure 1

Figure 1. Miscanthus harvest in eastern Iowa, where more than 1000 acres are being grown for the University of Iowa power plant. Photo credit: Nicholas Boersma

Miscanthus (Miscanthus × giganteus) is perennial warm-season grass used for energy and products in Europe, and increasingly, in the US. The University of Iowa (UI) has been developing Miscanthus as a replacement for coal in the UI power plant since 2013 as part of the Iowa Biomass Fuel Project (BFP). Using Miscanthus, wood chips, and oat hulls from Quaker oats, the UI plans to be completely off coal by 2025! The Heaton Lab and CLG partner with UI to provide agronomic and extension support to the BFP.

Why Miscanthus?

Miscanthus is a good choice for the UI because it is one of the most productive crops that can be grown in temperate climates like Iowa (producing ~8 tons of dry biomass per acre per year) and it does it without much need for fertilizer or pesticides, making it a very environmentally friendly crop. It has a big root system, like other perennial grasses, so it is great for holding soil and cleaning water, as well as providing a home to critters above and below ground (Figure 2). In addition to energy, Miscanthus is also being used for poultry bedding, mulch, and erosion control.

Figure 2

Figure 2. Miscanthus (left) has been shown to improve water infiltration and protect soil better than annual row crops like corn (right). Photo credit: Emily Heaton

So why is Miscanthus being harvested at the end of winter? A few reasons:

1) it needs to be dry if it is going to be efficiently burned, so the crop dries all winter in the field.
2) Leaving it in the field saves on storage.
3) Letting the plant fully senesce lets the crop to recycle nutrients from the shoots back to the below-ground rhizomes for use the following season.
4) Over the winter Miscanthus slows blowing snow, holds soil and provides shelter for wildlife.

Now that the crop has been harvested, new miscanthus shoots will start emerging when soil temperatures reach 50 ℉, so hopefully any day now!

Harvest Methods

Silage Chopping:A silage harvester can harvest whole plant material after it dries down in the field (Figure 1). Chopped material is blown into carts or traditional trailers similar to corn silage harvesting. If a cart is used, a tractor trailer stationed at the edge of the field can transport the miscanthus to storage or directly to the plant for energy generation (Figure 3). Check out a harvester in action here.

Figure 3

Figure 3. University of Iowa Miscanthus harvest. The fluffy biomass is hauled by truck to storage in plastic silage bags before use. Photo credit Emily Heaton

Mowing and baling: Miscanthus can be baled into round or square bales (Figure 4) similar to corn stalks. Travel and transport can be greatly improved with baling to increase crop density.

Figure 4. Miscanthus in round or square bales. Photo credit: ISU Biomass

Our research indicates a little of these crops can go a long way: replacing consistently low-yielding corn/soy with a perennial grass can meet Iowa’s water goals (reduce N in water by ~40%) while making farmers more money. That’s a refreshing alternative to the billion-dollar price tag we usually hear for improving agriculture’s water quality impact in Iowa! Stay tuned to CLG and @ISUBiomass to learn more about putting perennials like Miscanthus into underperforming row crop fields.

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

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

April 10 – Cover Crop and No-Till Workshop
Steier Ag Aviation
202 190th St
Whittemore, IA 50598
Kossuth County
RSVP: 515-294-5429 or ilf@iastate.edu
Press Release

Liz Juchems


Season’s Greetings

“When I grow up, I want to farm just like you…”


CropOrnamentOne simple, thought-provoking statement in this short video challenges the status quo and gets us thinking about conservation farming practices.

As your family gathers together this holiday season, think about the stories you are sharing with each other and the gifts that don’t come in packages. Does your granddaughter understand how important preventing soil erosion is? Does your grandson understand why there are green cover crops all over the farm? Do your children know that rotational grazing and prairie strips are two ways that you are leaving the land healthier and the water cleaner for them? Do they know that conservation is something you value? If they farm just like you, will they be doing everything they can to protect the land and water resources for generations to come?

It is when we get together with our families and tell stories of our past, we are also CowOrnament
expressing what we hope for the future. Your children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews are listening and watching. What are you teaching them through your words and your deeds?

Wishing you and your family a wonderful holiday season and a new year filled with peace, good will and good stories!

The Iowa Learning Farms Team

Conservation Chat Episode 17 with Paul and Nancy Ackley

Paul AckleyIn Episode 17 of the Iowa Learning Farms Conservation Chat, host Jacqueline Comito sat down with Paul and Nancy Ackley to discuss how their interest in conservation and restoring the health of their farm led to changing how they farmed in Taylor County, Iowa over the past 40 years.  One big driver for the couple was knowing that much of the land in hilly Taylor County was degraded and prone to erosion.  To keep more of that soil in place, Paul and Nancy sought to increase organic matter in the soil through the use of no-till and cover crops.  Now that they have several areas of soils with 4% organic matter and continue to plant cover crops, they are seeing a big change between their fields and other fields in their county.

“One thing for me that’s always resonated . . . when you drive down the road, and we have terraces standing full of water and there’s all green rye above it, and you go by [another] place, they’ve done full-blown tillage and it looks like chocolate malt ran down the hill.  Pretty soon, it begins to click in your mind.”

That change didn’t come easily.  No-till farming went against what Nancy’s parents had done and what Paul’s professors at Iowa State had taught him in the 1960s.  The Ackleys talk about the mindset that many farmers have about tilling, and how some farmers find it hard to get past their desire to see the dark soil and smell the overturned earth after tilling.  The Ackleys, however, don’t like to see the dark soil in their ditches.

Paul described how he views erosion and soil degradation as a metaphor for dollars flowing directly off of their farm:

“There’s an amazing amount of dollar value in a 1% increase in organic matter.  I doubt that there are very many farmers who don’t go over their bank statements . . . If there was a withdrawal and there’s no explanation, which is what erosion is . . . that’s our main issue with soil degradation.  If we think about it like that, then it becomes easier.”

Visit the Conservation Chat Website to hear Paul and Nancy’s journey through 40 years of farming in southwest Iowa, and their advice for first-time no-tillers and first-time cover croppers.  You can find many more episodes of the Conservation Chat podcast, including interviews with Dr. John Lawrence, Dr. Rick Cruse, and more.

Julie Whitson

Cover Crops Add Value through Soil Protection

The interest in cover crops among farmers and landowners continues to increase each year due to the water quality and soil health benefits cover crops provide. Cover crops are an important tool in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy for their ability to reduce nitrate leaching and phosphorus loss through erosion.  To increase cover crop adoption and reach the conservative NRS goal of cover crops on 20% of row crops acres (about four million acres), the economic value of retaining soil and soil nutrients also needs to be considered.Cover_Crops_economics_4pp_Page_1

A recent study conducted by the Iowa Cover Crop Working Group explored the economic benefit of cover crops in retaining soil, soil nutrients and overall land value to the landowner.  The study used RUSLE2 to generate soil loss estimates for 20 Iowa counties with and without cover crops.  The results were then combined with cost of soil erosion to the landowner and nutrient value estimates.

Adding together the average value of soil loss due to erosion ($0.49) and the lost nutrient value ($5.57), the estimate per ton of soil is $6.06. For each ton of soil that is kept in place through conservation practices such as cover crops, $6.06 can be credited to that practice and help offset the cost of implementation.

The study was funded by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship- State Soil Conservation Committee and the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture in partnership with the Iowa Learning Farms, Iowa State University, and Practical Farmers of Iowa.

The full publication is now available online here. Be sure to check out the wide variety of conservation and cover crop resources on our website, including print materials and videos.

Liz Juchems

New! Iowa Cover Crop Research and Demonstration Directory Now Online

Cover crops are an important tool in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy that can help meet the goals of reduced nutrient loss from the state.  From the ability to protect the soil from erosion when the fields are typically brown to cycling nutrients and improving soil, cover crops can provide many benefits.


Cover crop mixture demonstration site in Madison County fall 2015. Photo credit: Anna MacDonald

However, there are still many questions that come into the Iowa Learning Farms about cover crops.  Most asked questions include: what kinds of plants can be used, when and how to seed and when and how to terminate. With help from fellow Iowa State University, Practical Farmers of Iowa, USDA-ARS-National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment researchers, ILF strives to help farmers, and other interested people, find the answers to these questions and more through ongoing cover crop research and demonstration projects.

Now available on the ILF webpage is a directory of 60+ cover crop projects led by ISU and colleagues.  This sortable file contains brief descriptions of the projects, as well as contact information to learn more about each one.   Also available, is a list of cover crop research and demonstration projects in Iowa compiled by Clean Water Iowa through the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Liz Juchems

Crop Insurance Considerations for Prevented Planting

IMG_2431For some areas of Iowa, frequent rains this spring/summer created prevented plant acres that are a great opportunity to seed cover crops.  If you were unable to get your corn planted by May 31 or soybeans by June 15, you may be eligible for prevented planting payments.  Contact your local FSA office and crop insurance agent before making decisions about prevented planting acres to determine your payment eligibility.

What choices do producers have if they are prevented from planting by the final planting date?

  • Plant the insured crop during the late planting period, if applicable. The late planting period is generally 25 days after the final planting date but varies by crop and area, as specified in the policy. For most crops, the timely planted production guarantee is reduced 1 percent per day for each day planting is delayed after the final planting date.
  • Plant the insured crop after the late planting period, in which case the insurance guarantee will be the same as the insurance guarantee provided for prevented planting coverage.
  • Plant a cover crop and receive a full prevented planting payment (but do not hay or graze this cover crop before November 1 and do not harvest it at any time).
  • Plant a cover crop after the late planting period and hay or graze it before November 1 and receive 35 percent of the prevented planting payment for your first crop.
  • Plant a second crop after the late planting period or hay/graze a cover crop after the end of the late planting period but before November 1 and receive a prevented planting payment equal to 35 percent of the prevented planting guarantee.
  • Leave the acreage idle (black dirt) and receive a full prevented planting payment. Conservation improvements are allowed.

For more information on Prevented Planting, check out the 2015 USDA Risk Management Agency Fact Sheet for Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

Liz Juchems