Finding the right seeding method – which option is best for you?

ILFHeaderJust ask Clayton County farmers Mark Glawe, Dan Keehner and Brian Keehner! Each have explored different seeding methods and shared their tips for successful cover crop management at our field day on November 29th in Luana. Although their soil types, crop rotations and seeding method vary, they share similar goals for using cover crops in their operations – improved soil health and reduced nutrient losses.

IMG_0107

Left to Right: Farmer Panelists Dan Keehner, Brian Keehner, Mark Glawe, and Eric Palas, Clayton County SWCD Project Coordinator

Mark Glawe began using cover crops in his no-till system near Elkport in 2006 to address soil erosion concerns on his steep slopes. In early September, he seeded about 2/3 of his acres aerially with oats, rye, radishes and rapeseed. These acres are grazed by his cattle herd following harvest and again in the spring. This year, Mark turned his cattle out in October and estimates his additional forage value at $35/acre. In addition to the aerially seeded acres, Mark’s son follows the combine on the remaining acres to drill cereal rye to keep the steep slopes covered between crop seasons.


Dan Keehner first started with aerially seeded cover crops in 2013 on his ground near Monona. Noting disappointment with the consistency of the stand, he hired the cereal rye cover crop to be drilled after harvest in 2014. Similar to this fall, harvest was delayed and the drilling wasn’t completed until mid-November. With limited fall growth but more consistent stand, Dan decided to set up his own cover crop seeding rig for 2015.

Using his vertical tillage implement, Dan mounted an air seeder to seed the cover crop himself following harvest and has covered all of his acres with a cover crop since 2016. He uses both cereal rye and winter wheat to keep the ground covered until planting of his cash crop in the spring.

“I love seeing one crop (cover crop) go down and another (corn/soybeans) come up. You know when you get the rains, that soil is protected,” stated Dan.


Similar to his cousin, Brian Keehner has tried multiple seeding methods but wasn’t satisfied with the results. Through custom innovation, and discussion with a cover crop user in Indiana, Brian has modified his combine with an air delivery system on his corn and soybean heads to seed the cover crops while harvesting. This method fits the needs of his operation by saving time, labor and fuel by combining passes. His next goal for the system is to increase his seed carrying compacity to reduce the number of refill stops.

Regardless of how they seeded their cover crops, all three producers reported 0.5-1.2% increases in their soil organic matter over a five year time-frame. The combination of no-till and cover crops has led to the retention and building of soil organic matter on their lands. The building of organic matter helps improve water holding capacity and retention of soil micro-nutrients needed for crop production. With healthier soils, we have healthier crops and water!

Liz Juchems

A Legacy of Conservation

Conservation is a legacy that runs generations deep with the Whitaker family. Go back 165 years, and there were Whitakers farming this same ground, now recognized as a Heritage Farm, in southeast Iowa.

As nearly 50 farmers and landowners gathered in Hillsboro earlier this week for a conservation field day, area farmer Clark Whitaker shared the importance of conservation to the family over the years, and how that has carried through to their farming operation today. His father had been a district conservationist with the Soil Conservation Service in the 1970s, brother John has been actively involved with conservation through USDA-FSA and Conservation Districts of Iowa, and today Clark is the “boots on the ground” guy making conservation happen on their land.

Clark commented, “The land needs to be cared for and maintained.  Part of that care is trying to keep the soil on the farm instead of road ditches and waterways.”

Back in the 1970s, that meant installing broadbase terraces. In the 1980s, the Whitakers’ conservation focus transitioned to no-till. Today, the Whitakers’ approach to conservation includes variable rate technology, prescription planting, cover crops, and they have also recently installed a saturated buffer to help reduce nitrate levels in drainage water.

Cover crops were the main focus at the Hillsboro field day, where Clark shared that his goals in using cover crops are two-fold: keeping the soil in place, while also raising levels of organic matter in their soils. He has experimented with cereal rye, oats, and radishes thus far.

For best results with cover crops, Clark made several recommendations to the group based on his experience in southeast Iowa:

To learn more about cover crops and how to integrate them into your farming operation, check out Cover Crop Videos and Cover Crop Resources on the Iowa Learning Farms website.

Ann Staudt

This field day was a partnership of Iowa Learning Farms, Lower Skunk Water Quality and Soil Health Initiative, and Henry County Soil and Water Conservation District.

Conservation: Investing in the Land for Years to Come

Farmers and landowners pulled in to West Iowa Bank in Laurens earlier this week for a cover crop + conservation field day.  Wait, a field day at a bank?!  That’s not a typo.

A regular trip to the bank might involve a deposit transaction, reflecting how we invest our money.

This trip to the bank was all about how we invest in the future of our land—reflecting how conservation practices are an investment in our land and our water for generations to come.

Cover crops and no-till, in particular, were at the heart of the conversation during the field day. Out in the field, after lunch, we saw some nice fall growth of cereal rye, thanks to host farmer Dick Lund.

 

Back to thinking in terms of investments, that theme ran deep as area farmers shared the following thoughts in the farmer discussion panel:

 

Investing in conservation practices like no-till can mean saving money, too:

This field day was a collaboration of Soil Health Partnership, Practical Farmers of Iowa, Iowa Farmers Union, Iowa Seed Association, Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship Clean Water Initiative, Iowa Corn, Iowa Soybean Association, Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance, and Iowa Learning Farms.

Iowa Learning Farms has a handful of additional field days still coming up this month, now that harvest is just about wrapped up. Visit our events page to find one near you and RSVP today!

Ann Staudt

Water Rocks! Amps Up Conservation Conversation with Rap Music Videos

New videos pop to the top of the Water Rocks! charts enabling audiences to learn about conservation while having fun!

Water Rocks! has released a series of new rap music videos created to engage audiences with music and messages about conservation topics ranging from soil health (“Royal Soil”) to understanding watersheds (“Watershed Rap”). The videos are available to view and enjoy on www.waterrocks.org.

Through classroom visits and school assembly programs, Water Rocks! uses a combination of science, music, games, audience interaction, and videos to deliver information, engage with students, and teach the upcoming generation about the importance of our natural resources and ways to improve the environment. Topics include biodiversity, land management, water quality, the importance of pollinators, and things every person can do to contribute to a cleaner and more sustainable ecosystem.

“Music is a powerful teaching tool that helps us learn faster and remember more. Through song, students learn key vocabulary and get a solid grasp of environmental issues,” said Ann Staudt, Water Rocks! director. “Our creative team had fun writing and producing these quirky videos which are designed to appeal to an upper elementary and middle school audience, but we know everyone will enjoy them. We wanted them to be fun and we wanted the science to be solid.”

The rap video series includes “Royal Soil,” “Wetlands,” “Watershed Rap,” “Monarch Milkweed Magic,” “Biodiversity Rap,” and “When We Waste Food.” These six new clips join some eighty-plus Water Rocks! video selections available on www.waterrocks.org. Video content from Water Rocks! ranges from short animation clips to full-length documentaries, offering science-based education for audiences ranging from kindergarten students to adults.

Iowa City videographer Andrew Bentler directed and edited the rap series. Bentler has worked on national television programs such as Z Nation and Mountain Men. The songs featured in the videos are also performed live during Water Rocks! assemblies at schools across Iowa.

To inquire about bringing Water Rocks! and its music-driven conservation education to your school, please visit www.waterrocks.org/wr-school-assemblies

Every practice has its place

As we consider water quality and land use across our state, every practice has its place. Which conservation practices and land use changes make the most sense where in terms of keeping soil in place? In terms of reducing nutrient export? In terms of building wildlife habitat?

The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy’s goals of 45% nitrogen and phosphorus load reductions will only be achieved through a broad suite of practices – including in-field management (reduced tillage, cover crops, and fine-tuned nutrient management) AND edge-of-field conservation practices.  It’s an AND, not an OR!

Farmers and landowners from Dallas and Polk Counties got to see and learn about edge-of-field conservation practices firsthand at last evening’s Iowa Learning Farms field day hosted by Dallas Center farmer Tim Minton. Located in the Walnut Creek Watershed, this area faces unique challenges being at the interface of productive agricultural lands and urban expansion. Walnut Creek Watershed is losing 430 acres of farmland each year to urban development, while clean, healthy waters are needed for an ever-growing population base.



At the end of the day, it’s all about being good stewards out here. How well can we keep that soil in place?  How can we keep the water resources clean?  I’m really taking the long view here – What’s it going to do next year? 5 years down the road? 10 years? 20 years? When it’s in my kids’ hands?  It’s definitely a long-term approach. Tim Minton, Farmer

If you want to protect your investment, you’re got to put money back into it. Working with partners (NRCS and state) is a great way to do that. They want it to be win-win – ease of use and ease of execution. They can help you think outside the box, plus use their resources and expertise to help you do these things you want to do! Practices like these [saturated buffer and wetland] are in our best interest, AND in the best interest of society. Tim Minton, Farmer

I’ve been on this neighboring land for over 70 years. Back in the 1940s-50s, we would go down to the creek and it was always muddy. There were no minnows. You couldn’t see anything – didn’t matter if there had just been a heavy rain or no rain at all. When this [wetland] got put in, right away, it looked just like tap water. – Neighbor Jim

It’s all about finding the right practice for the right place. At just a 40% nitrate removal efficiency, this 5.7 ac wetland is equivalent to taking 567 acres of cropland out of production. PLUS the grasses and emergent vegetation provide wildlife habitat – it’s a definite magnet for waterfowl. It’s really beneficial for the ecology of the whole system!
– Brandon Dittman, IDALS

Every practice has its place, and we’ll continue showcasing these practices at field days and workshops across the state. Contact Iowa Learning Farms if you’re interested in talking about edge-of-field conservation practices on your land!

Nathan Stevenson and Ann Staudt

Tea Bags Tell Story of Soil Health

Soil health is trending, there’s no doubt about that! But perhaps expensive soil tests aren’t your cup of tea.

Look no further than the Soil Decomposition Index: a simple, straightforward, citizen science approach to evaluating soil health that utilizes buried tea bags. Learn more about this novel approach to soil health from Dr. Marshall McDaniel, assistant professor of agronomy at Iowa State University, in his recent Iowa Learning Farms webinar titled Burying Tea to Dig Up Soil Health.

Microbes are the engines that drive the biology of our soils, especially the cycling of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur. Under the umbrella of soil health, McDaniel points out that biological indicators are the most sensitive to changing management practices, so this tea bag concept is built upon evaluating one aspect of the biology going on right beneath our feet.

The tea serves as food for the smallest soil microorganisms, including bacteria, actinomycetes, and fungi, that are able to squeeze through the tiny openings in the mesh tea bag. As the tea is consumed over time, the bags are dug up and weighed, providing an indication of the biological activity within the soil, particularly the decomposition activity of the smallest soil organisms.

In each field, McDaniel’s team is comparing two types of teas side-by-side: green tea, which simulates a high quality (low C:N) residue, and rooibos tea, which simulates a lower quality (high C:N, nitrogen-limited) residue. Based on how much of each tea is remaining, you can calculate a Soil Decomposition Index value.  Values range from 0 to 1, and the closer to 1, the healthier the soil is! Using two teas side-by-side lets you calculate a standardized Soil Decomposition Index value which accounts for temperature and soil moisture variability, as well as allowing results to be readily compared between different sites – so you can compare apples to apples.

Check out the full webinar, Burying Tea to Dig Up Soil Health, on the Iowa Learning Farms webinars page, to hear more details of this novel soil health test and preliminary results from on-farm studies evaluating the Soil Decomposition Index with cover crops.

For those active on Twitter, you can follow the McDaniel lab, @ Soil_Plant_IXNs, as they continue to evaluate this unique tea bag concept and many other aspects related to soil-plant interactions and agricultural sustainability.

Ann Staudt

August Webinar – Exploring Soil Health Through Tea Decomposition

On Wednesday, August 15th at noon Dr. Marshall McDaniel, assistant professor in soil-plant interactions at Iowa State University, will explore the decomposition of tea as a low-cost, scientifically-robust soil health indicator.

tea bag soil health studyThe term ‘Soil Health’ has recently become popular due, in large part, to the increased awareness of the importance of soil biology.  However, current biological soil health tests are expensive, highly variable, and difficult to interpret. Dr. McDaniel studies the relationship between soils and plants, and how this relationship is affected by management and the environment. The McDaniel Research Group’s ultimate goal is to understand what enhances soil-plant synergy, soil health, and agroecosystem sustainability.  One thrust of the research is using decomposition of tea bags as an inexpensive, yet scientifically-robust, indicator of soil health.

“Increasing soil health is not only good for the environment, but also for the bottom line through increased yields and decreased money spent on farm inputs,” commented Dr. McDaniel. “Citizen Science is a great way to educate and engage farmers in measuring their own soil health, and also help to inform professional scientists’ understanding of soil health.”

DATE: Wednesday, August 15
TIME: 12:00 p.m.
HOW TO PARTICIPATE: www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars and click the link to join the webinar

Don’t miss this webinar! 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.

Liz Juchems