Iowa Learning Farms Webinar to Explore Lessons Learned from Using Cover Crops to Reduce Nitrate Losses

DSCN0571Even with excellent nutrient management, nitrate losses from corn and soybean fields can occur because these cash crops only grow and take up nitrate and water for five months of the year. Cover crops like winter rye can be an effective strategy for reducing nitrate losses to groundwater or tile drainage because they can take up water and nitrate during the period between harvest and planting of the next year’s crop.

Dr. Tom Kaspar, Plant Physiologist at the USDA-ARS National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment, will share his lessons learned over his storied career researching the use of cover crops and no-till to improve water quality and soil health in corn and soybean production systems.

DATE: Wednesday, December 13, 2017
TIME: 12:00 noon
HOW TO PARTICIPATE: Log on as a guest shortly before 12:00 p.m.:
https://connect.extension.iastate.edu/ilf/

More information about this webinar is available at our website. If you can’t watch the webinar live, an archived version will be available on our website: https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars.

Julie Winter

Time for your Soil Health Check Up!

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.

I had my yearly medical check-up last week.  It was a routine visit, time to have prescriptions refilled and get my flu shot.  It was also a good time to chat with my doctor about my overall health and to ask questions.

Check up clip boardAs we round the corner from one crop year to the next, it’s a good opportunity to conduct a “check-up” of soil health, too.  Only living things can have health, and soils are amazing, complex living ecosystems.  Soils are home to organisms that cycle nutrients, build water-holding capacity and help make soils “spongy” to capture precipitation.  And remember, the health of the soil on your farm will affect the health of your bank account, now and in the future.

The Iowa Soil Health Assessment Card is a helpful tool for assessing soil health. Soil Health Assessment Card

Use the Card, and a spade, to check on some key soil health indicators this fall:

  • Root growth – Are roots growing vertically and penetrating into the soil with lots of fine roots?  That’s a good sign.  Roots traveling horizontally signal soil compaction which limits root growth and crop yields.
  • Soil structure – Does your soil have the look of cottage cheese, with stable aggregates and lots of pore space?  If so, great!  On the other hand, hard, massive clods indicate your soil structure needs attention.
  • Water holding capacity – Did water soak in or run off this past year?  Did you have fields that experienced drought stress earlier than expected?  If so, it’s likely time to re-think tillage practices that burn off water-storing organic matter.

To build soil health, keep in mind the following principles:

  • Minimize soil disturbance – Over time, tillage reduces soil’s ability to soak in and hold water.  It also leaves soil susceptible to erosion and nutrient loss.
  • Maintain plant diversity – through crop rotations and cover crops.  Plant diversity leads to more diversity in soil microorganisms, and also helps break up disease and pest cycles.
  • Living roots growing throughout the year – to feed soil microorganisms and keep nitrates in the root zone where they can be used in the next crop.
  • Keep the soil covered to help prevent erosion and to moderate root zone temperatures.  Crop residues left on the soil surface will decompose in place, helping to build soil organic matter.

Check-ups aren’t just for people.  Monitoring and working to improve soil health is important for your farm, too.

Marty Adkins

On-the-Ground Experience with Cover Crops

“What’s building organic matter worth to you?”

For Prairie City, IA farmer Gordon Wassenaar and tenant farmer Will Cannon, it’s worth using no-till and cover crops on every single one of their 1300 acres of cropland.  In a field day hosted by Iowa Learning Farms, Jasper Co. NRCS and SWCD, Wassenaar and Cannon shared their perspectives on cover crops and how they can be very successfully integrated into corn and soybean cropping systems.

Wassenaar, who has farmed for over 50 years, stated that he first got into cover crops for the purpose of protecting the soil from erosion. He started with cereal rye, broadcast seeded from an airplane.

As time has gone on, Wassenaar’s reasons for using cover crops have evolved from simply erosion control, to improving the structure and functioning of the soil — raising soil organic matter, aggregate stability, and water holding capacity. Cannon commented that on top of that, another big benefit is feeding the biodiversity of the soil, like the beneficial mycorrhizal fungi, all while growing a healthy crop.

Timing and seed-soil contact are two big factors with establishing successful cover crop stands, and it’s a balancing act between the two. Aerial broadcast seeding (or interseeding with a high clearance vehicle) allows for a larger window of time for fall growth, while drilling provides greater seed-soil contact. Today, Wassenaar and Cannon have moved to drilling all of their cover crops, ideally getting them in the ground 24 hours or less behind the combine.

When asked about the financial considerations of cover crops, Cannon responded, “We’ve got to be willing to be a little creative and inventive to make it work.”  And they certainly are.

Cannon outlined several approaches they are taking to minimize costs and improve efficiencies in their operation:

  1. Shop around for cover crop seed.
    Compare prices with different cover crop seed houses in order to get the best bang for your buck. Wassenaar and Cannon are even considering growing their own cover crop seed down the road.
  2. Consider your seeding techniques.
    Aerial broadcast seeding and custom planting carry a significant cost.  Cannon explained that they have moved to seeding all of their acres now with a drill, which has provided greater seed-soil contact, and thus improved the seeding efficiency in terms of the number of seeds that actually grow (they’ve subsequently optimized/reduced seeding rates accordingly).  They are also saving dollars through the use of a smaller 120hp tractor and a cover crop drill that was bought used.
  3. There are a lot of good programs out there that can help.
    Take a look at the conservation programs and personnel on the federal, state, and local levels that can help out.

With years of experience implementing conservation practices of no-till and cover crops, Wassenaar reflected on how much the technology advances make conservation readily doable today.

“Back in the day, we plowed because we didn’t have planters that could plant into high residue. The equipment is so good today, that now we can plant into just about any residue.  … With cover crops out there, it’s almost like planting onto a mattress.”

Wassenaar is clearly passionate about conservation, and left field day attendees with the following thoughts:

“I don’t know any other way you can farm and save your soil than with no-till and cover crops.  … I’m convinced that if Iowans take care of their soil, the soil will take care of Iowa.”

Ann Staudt

Watershed Academy: Training the Boots on the Ground in Iowa Watersheds

Last month, over 30 watershed coordinators from across the state came together to learn skills and share best practices about the science of watershed improvement and what it takes to get conservation practices on the ground where they work. Participants who attended the two-day training heard from agency representatives, university researchers and industry experts on a variety of topics.


Data Collection and Tools

Watershed coordinators perform many duties for their watershed projects. They are responsible for compiling and assessing data on water quality, land use, hydrology, stream bank conditions and more. Coordinators work with partners across the state as they assess available data and make decisions on how to best prioritize cost-share dollars in the watershed. The Watershed Academy provided coordinators with in-depth information on conservation planning, watershed planning, social assessments and available tools for data collection.

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Messaging and Communication

Coordinators are the boots on the ground in a watershed project area. They are responsible for building relationships with producers and becoming a trusted source of information in their watershed. Trainings like these are great places for coordinators to share their approach, messages and tools that they’ve used to get the job done. Speakers presented on the One Water approach, ArcGIS Story Maps, conservation sales and the newly-unveiled Conservation Station On the Edge trailer.

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Trends and Topics

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Stefan Gailans of Practical Farmers of Iowa shares research on using tea bags to measure indicators of soil health.

Coordinators need a well-rounded understanding of emerging trends and the latest research in the state. Speakers presented on cover crop acre trends in Iowa, measuring soil health using tea bags, sourcewater protection and the conservation infrastructure that will be needed to reach the goals of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

On behalf of the Watershed Academy planning committee, I would like to thank all of our participants, presenters and sponsors! To view presentations and additional resources from the 2017 Fall Iowa Watershed Academy, visit the Watershed Academy website. If you are a watershed coordinator or a person who works directly on similar projects, please join us for the next Watershed Academy!

Julie Whitson and Jamie Benning

For more information about the Watershed Academy, contact Jamie Benning, Iowa State University Extension Water Quality Program Manager.

The Watershed Academy was sponsored by the Iowa Natural Resources Conservation Service, Soil and Water Conservation Society, Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance, Conservation Districts of Iowa, Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach and the Iowa Watershed Approach.

Insect Armageddon: Are Insect Populations Declining?

30mon2-master768Recently, the New York Times published an interesting opinion article about new research from the University of Sussex. Researchers found a 76% decrease in flying insects over a 25 year period. The study collected flying insect biomass in nature preserves in Germany in order to identify the decline. Researchers, however, are uncertain about factors that may be causing the decline:

“The reasons for the decline are not entirely clear — and only flying insects were collected, so the fate of crawling insects, for example, is not known — but the scientists suspect two main culprits: the use of pesticides and a lack of habitat in surrounding farmland.”

The article provides interesting food for thought: are insects on the decline in other parts of the world? Other studies in recent years report insect populations in other parts of the world also declining. More research is needed to better understand the extent and potential causes of the problem. What do you think?

Julie Whitson

Post-Harvest Field Day Series Heading Your Way!

As the crop year is coming to an end, cover crop season 2017 is starting to take root! This fall Iowa Learning Farms is co-sponsoring nine cover crop workshops.  Be sure to mark your calendars and plan to attend one near you.

IowamapFieldDays(Nov)

November 7, Gordon Wassenaar Cover Crop Field Day
3:30-5:30pm

8718 West 109th St S
Prairie City, IA
Jasper County
Press Release
Flyer
RSVP to Jasper SWCD:641-792-4116 Ext. 3 or jessica.rutter@ia.nacdnet.net

November 8, Jim Lindaman Cover Crop and Soil Conservation Field Day
12:00-2:00pm

16969 310th St
Aplington, IA
Butler County
Press Release
Flyer
RSVP to 515-294-5429 or ilf@iastate.edu

November 15, Lucas Bayer Cover Crop Field Day
4:00-6:00pm

2310 430th Ave
Guernsey, IA
Poweshiek County
Press Release
Flyer
RSVP to 515-294-5429 or ilf@iastate.edu

November 16, Ben and Andy Johnson Cover Crop and Strip-Tillage Field Day
10:00am-12:00pm
1170 Hwy 218
Floyd, IA
Floyd County
Press Release
Flyer
RSVP to 515-294-5429 or ilf@iastate.edu

November 21, Jacob Groth Cover Crop Field Day
12:30-2:30pm
Winneshiek County NRCS Office
2296 Oil Well Rd
Decorah, IA
Winneshiek County
RSVP to 563-382-8777 ext 3 or Matt.Frana@ia.nacdnet.net

November 28, Walnut Creek Watershed Cover Crop Field Day
TBD
Montgomery County

November 30, Conservation Learning Lab Cover Crop Field Day
5:30-7:30pm

Roland Area Community Center
208 Main St
Roland, IA
Story County
RSVP to 515-294-5429 or ilf@iastate.edu

December 6, Elk Run Watershed Cover Crop and Soil Health Workshop
TBD
Sac County

December 13, Cover Crop Workshop
TBD
East Pottawattamie County

Liz Juchems

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