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


Two Field Day Opportunities July 9th – Native Perennial Plantings and Cover Crops, Grazing and Soil Health!

The Iowa Learning Farms team is pulling a double header and hosting two events on Tuesday, July 9th. We’d love to have you join us!

Both include a complimentary meal, so RSVP today to help with the meal planning.

July 9, Native Perennial Planting Workshop
Whiterock Conservancy Burr Oak Visitor’s Center
1436 IA-141
Coon Rapids, IA
Guthrie County
Partner: Iowa State University Extension and Outreach
Press Release
RSVP: 515-294-5429 or ilf@iastate.edu

July 9, Cover Crop and Soil Health Field Day
Ray & Elaine Gaesser Farm
2507 Quince Ave
Corning, IA
Adams County
Partners: Soil Health Partnership, Adams County Farm Bureau, Iowa Corn, Iowa Soybean Association, National Wildlife Federation Cover Crop Champions Program
Press Release
RSVP: 515-294-5429 or ilf@iastate.edu

Liz Juchems

Faces of Conservation: Marty Adkins

This blog post is part of the Faces of Conservation series, highlighting key contributors to Iowa Learning Farms, offering their perspectives on the history and successes of this innovative conservation outreach program.

Martin “Marty” Adkins – Assistant State Conservationist for Partnerships at USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)

What has been your role with Iowa Learning Farms?
My involvement with ILF has evolved over time but can be broken down into three main categories. I’ve provided guidance and advice from my own background in conservation as a member of the ILF Steering Committee, witnessing ILF’s growth and expanding contributions to the conservation landscape here in Iowa. I have also served as a NRCS liaison on ILF projects to which NRCS contributed funding. I’ve also enjoyed a couple of opportunities to contribute musically to the Water Rocks! program.

What was the purpose of ILF during your involvement?
I think the whole idea of building a culture of conservation speaks to the mission of ILF, providing important outreach and education from its base at ISU. Through active partnerships with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship and NRCS, the program has made a lasting impact on the statewide conservation landscape.

The outreach through field days, webinars and workshops extends the value of research and technical development at ISU – taking the information and practices to the stakeholders that can use them most. Programs like ILF have really been an important part of building momentum in education and continuing to push for more sustainable agriculture and improvements in Iowa’s ecosystems.

How has working with ILF changed you?
I think the biggest impact ILF has had on me is providing me the opportunity to work with so many great minds and leaders, to learn from them, and to collaborate on important solutions. In other words, when you hang out with people that know more than you do, you can learn a lot from them. The last 15 years have been an amazing time of change and learning in agriculture. I’m excited about the growing number of people and organizations in all sectors that recognize their responsibility to protect soil, water and other natural resources.

What are your fondest memories of working with ILF?
One event that stands out was a landowner meeting for the Conservation Learning Labs project that Bill Northey (Iowa Secretary of Agriculture at the time) joined. His presence not only signaled the State’s commitment to water quality improvement, but also gave the landowners a chance to share their concerns and thoughts at the highest level.

Attending a workshop with new farmers last summer was also a great experience. Seeing the energy and enthusiasm combined with thirst for information on sustainable practices was fantastic.

The other really fun part of working with ILF was having the opportunity to write and record a couple of songs with the Water Rocks! team.

Why are water quality and conservation outreach important to you and to Iowa?
What makes Iowa really special is the quality of our agricultural soil and landscape. It’s imperative to the future of our state and our larger place in the world for Iowa to be doing a great job in building and conserving our agricultural soils and landscapes. Water bodies are a reflection of the landscape, and if we are not doing a good job taking care of the soil and land, the water bodies are going to reflect that failure.

I am passionate about my family, faith and the sustainable management of soil, water and other natural resources. Being able to make a difference in Iowa has given personal meaning to my career. This is wonderful work that we get to do, and I am delighted to be in a position to help work for the present and future quality of the environment, our state, our economy and our communities.

If you could look 15 years into the future, what one thing would you like to see as a result of ILF activities?
I would like to see a green landscape nine months of the year—green being the dominant color of the landscape when there isn’t snow on the ground. My hope for Iowa is that it will be a green place, not a brown place.

In closing…
Everyone should recognize what a great resource ILF is for the people of Iowa. Any citizen, whether farmer, nonfarmer, city or rural dweller that cares about what kind of world they live in, what kind of landscape we share and what kind of water flows through it, can benefit from the groups like ILF which help to build sustainability for Iowa.


Faces of Conservation: Mark Licht

This blog post is part of the Faces of Conservation series, highlighting key contributors to ILF, offering their perspectives on the history and successes of this innovative conservation outreach program.

Mark Licht has been involved with Iowa Learning Farms from its inception in 2004. As an ISU Extension program specialist, Extension field agronomist and now as faculty, Mark has continued to aid in the mission of ILF to increase awareness and promote conservation practices statewide.

How was Iowa Learning Farms established and what was its mission?
The real seed that grew into ILF was planted during casual conversations between Dr. Mahdi Al-Kaisi and I as we drove across Iowa visiting research sites. ISU Extension was already conducting field demonstrations and researchers were working with farmers and conservationists, but there was a need to knit these activities into a better way to deliver education and put resources in the hands of growers.

Moving from concept to reality took a lot of legwork and cooperation. Engaging partners that could help provide funding and expert advice was an initial step. We were fortunate to be able to work with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Farm Bureau, Soil and Water Conservation Districts, Iowa Department of Natural Resources, and a host of dedicated individuals.

What were the early years at ILF like?
We were already doing field demonstrations through ISU Extension and this continued as ILF was formed. The outreach and education goals were well-formed by March 2004 when we were ready to start working with growers.

We were breaking new ground, and as a result some of the things we did were not as effective as we had hoped. But, we learned and adjusted. A key part of the longstanding success of ILF has been the team’s openness to new ideas about how to best engage audiences to help us achieve desired results. Another fundamental part of ILF’s success has been the comprehensive evaluation and feedback processes from field days and other public interactions. The processes have expanded and matured over time, but the data and results have been invaluable in demonstrating change in farming practices.

What is your role with the organization?
At the start, as an ISU Extension program specialist, I was the only ILF staff member. When Jackie Comito joined the team, she focused on starting the evaluation program and I continued to develop demonstrations and outreach events. In 2006 I left campus and ILF to work as an ISU Extension field agronomist. Upon returning to ISU in 2014 as an Extension cropping systems specialist, I re-engaged with ILF as a collaborator and adviser.

How did you change the program, and how did it change you?
I was there at the start, so I was deeply involved in helping ILF get off the ground. We worked through the organizational details and established our mission to build a Culture of Conservation for Iowa. But to be successful I knew it was crucial to get farmers deeply involved, and particularly to have them share how and what they were doing, with ILF and other farmers.

The visual element is something that I pushed the organization to embrace in all interactions. Academics seem to like hefty detailed reports, but infographics and other visual media are much more effective in capturing interest and delivering messages to non-academic audiences. The first rainfall simulator was also key for demonstrating visually what is hard to see in the field.

On a professional level, as a corn and soybean production specialist I’m focused on efficiency and yield. Collaborating with ILF helps me think through the ramifications of production side decisions and balancing them with a nutrient reduction and conservation point of view.

What are your fondest memories of working with ILF?
One of my favorite things from the early years was working with the rainfall simulator. Watching the evolution from humble beginnings of a basic rainfall simulator trailer to the comprehensive Conservation Stations has been amazing and rewarding. What we have out around Iowa today is much more powerful and influential than I imagined when we started.

I also love working with the cooperating farmers. They have a passion for conservation and maintaining water quality. Their instantaneous and frank feedback really grounds what we are doing.

Why are water quality and conservation outreach important to you and to Iowa?
For me, conservation is important for the same reasons it’s important for Iowa. I enjoy our natural resources for recreation such as spending time on a lake or fishing. These resources are threatened, and we need to pay attention to them for everyone’s sake.

For Iowa, we must look at how much of the state’s economy is tied to agriculture and understand that as we improve our soil and water health, we can continue to drive our agricultural economic growth. It does take years to turn around, but there is progress.

In closing…
ILF is a wonderful group and a great resource for Iowa. I hope they will continue to make an impact in Iowa for the next 15 years and beyond.


Faces of Conservation

Iowa Learning Farms (ILF) celebrates 15 years of service to Iowa in 2019. Building a Culture of Conservation is a team effort—farmers, landowners, researchers, and agency partners all working together to identify and implement best management practices that improve water quality and soil health while remaining profitable.

As part of this year of celebration, we are launching a new Faces of Conservation blog series. Tune in on Tuesdays, when we will be sharing stories and profiles of key contributors to ILF over the years, offering their perspectives on the history and successes of this innovative conservation outreach program.

The series kicks off tomorrow with a profile of our own cropping systems specialist Mark Licht.

Do you have “cottage cheese” soil?


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

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