Developing BMPs through In-Field Conservation Practices Summits

CLGHeader

Mark Licht | Assistant Professor of Agronomy and Extension Cropping Systems Specialist, Iowa State University

This past winter I coordinated a series of summits to develop best management practices (BMPs) for three in-field conservation practices. The summits focused on cover crops, no-tillage/strip-tillage, and diverse rotations. Our charge was to develop BMPs that would allow farmers who had no prior experience with the practices to successfully adopt the practices. This was a tall order for a group of people passionate about conservation and the desire to help farmers make the best decisions possible.

These three conservation practices are imperative to the successfully addressing Iowa’s water quality concerns. They also have the ability to address other resource concerns such as soil and wind erosion. Providing a clear message on strategies leading to successful adoption of conservation practices will lead to greater and continued adoption of these practices.

Like adoption of most things, there is the need to learn as much up front as possible. Extension specialists, crop advisers and neighboring farmers are great resources to learn tips and tricks for adopting a new practice. The next aspect is to start with a single field or portion of a field. This builds a comfort level with the new practice and allows more attention to be placed on fine-tuning the new system.

Often times, development of BMPs are straightforward at a broad level but are often dependent on the individualized aspects of each farm operation. There are many considerations that come into play for a recommendation to match the management practice of an individual farmer or field. This made it hard to develop BMPs that were definitive enough to provide guidance that still allowed flexibility. Our approach, where needed, was to discuss some of the considerations that must go into the decisions being made to help guide a management decision rather than prescribe how practices are implemented.

In many cases, there was agreement amongst participants as to what the BMPs were. However, there was nuance as to the details behind the BMPs being developed. This stands to reason because of the complexity that exists within cropping systems and the interaction between management practices, crop productivity, and environmental consequences.

Without going into too much detail, here are some of the main take away points;

  • Cereal rye and oats are the preferred cover crops
  • Corn and soybean management ahead of the cover crop does not need to be altered
  • Aerial overseeding of cover crops should be targeted for August 20 to September 10
  • Glyphosate is the preferred spring termination method for overwintering cover crops
  • No-tillage is recommended ahead of soybean regardless of location, slope, or drainage
  • Strip-tillage ahead of corn is recommended for poorly drained, low slope fields
  • Small grains should follow soybean in diverse and an overwintering cover crop should be used
  • Where markets are available, consider adding alfalfa or forage species into the traditional corn-soybean rotation

The BMPs from these summits are being fine-tuned through this summer and will be rolled out for public review and use in the fall.

In-Field Conservation Practices Summit participants represented Iowa Learning Farms, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, Practical Farmers of Iowa, Iowa Agricultural Water Alliance, Iowa Soybean Association, National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment, and Natural Resources Conservation Service. The project was funded by USDA-NRCS in Iowa.

Mark Licht

Why Improving the Soil Will Pay Dividends

ILFHeader(15-year)

What does it take to weather-proof a cropping system? Yesterday, during an Iowa Learning Farms webinar, Dr. Jerry L. Hatfield suggested that the answer to that question lies in our soil. He shared research findings that show the importance of soil quality in rain-fed agricultural systems to reduce variation in crop yield and increase yield overall.

hatfield4

Dr. Jerry L. Hatfield

Hatfield, who is Laboratory Director and Supervisory Plant Physiologist at the USDA National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment in Ames, IA, conducts research that focuses on understanding the dynamics of the G x E x M (genetics x environment x management) complex to evaluate the role of soil, with the changing weather, on crop performance. 

Hatfield’s research has found that in rain-fed systems, better soil means a better crop yield, when looking at counties in three Midwestern states. Nebraskan counties, which all used irrigation, were an outlier in the data showing that if you can control the water, the quality of soil is less important. In rain-fed agricultural systems, like we have here in Iowa, the soil quality is very important since the water cannot be controlled—having higher quality soil will lead to higher yield amounts and less variation in yield.

hatfield-good-soil-good-yields.jpg

A figure from Hatfield’s presentation, “Good Soils = Good Yields”, showing soybean yields across Iowa, Kentucky and Nebraska counties. (NCCPI = National Commodity Crop Productivity Index)

How can you improve your soil quality? Hatfield suggested the use of strip-till or no-till in the place of traditional tillage. Crop residue on the surface has benefits for the soil—providing food for the complex soil biology and stabilizing the soil micro-climate. Cover crops are another way to improve soil health and further research is being conducted on the benefits of different types and combinations of cover crops. In addition to the benefits to soil quality that no-till and cover crops can provide, they can also sequester carbon, reducing the amount that is released to the atmosphere.

To learn more about how improved soil quality can weather-proof your cropping system, and the use of no-till and cover crops to improve soil quality and reduce carbon loss to the atmosphere, watch the full webinar here.

Tune in next month, on Wednesday May 15 at noon, when Emily Waring, Graduate Research Assistant at Iowa State University, will present an Iowa Learning Farms webinar titled “Cover Crop Impact on Crop Yield and Water Quality: Single Species vs. Mixtures”.

Hilary Pierce

Cover Crops Taking Flight

Nate Voss started out a cover crop skeptic. He’ll openly admit that.

“I’ll be honest with you, I really wasn’t sure about this whole [cover crop] thing startin’ out 6 years ago. Now we’re getting a lot better at it!”

After 6 years of cover crop experience, I think it’s safe to say he’s now a believer, sharing his cover cropping experience at an Iowa Learning Farms field day yesterday hosted by Steier Ag Aviation near Whittemore. Voss farms near LuVerne in north central Iowa and also works with Steier Ag Aviation.

Voss’s experience with cover crops includes flying on oats, and some radish, into standing crops in late August/early September.  He is also just starting to get his feet wet with cereal rye.  One of the first things he noticed with the integration of a cover crop was at harvest – “it gives you great field conditions combining into beans.”


Voss goes on to share with field day attendees all the benefits he has observed with using cover crops as part of his cropping system.

“There’s lots of different angles you can take with cover crops:

  • A lot of guys like it for erosion, keeping soil in place. In the winter when I’m driving around, my ditches are not filled with dirt like a lot of them are.
  • I personally like cover crops for holding nitrogen in place, not sending it down the creek. Maybe I can do something about the water quality challenges we face—I’d rather be proactive, get a head start on this thing.
  • After 6 years, I’m really starting to see improvements with soil structure. My soil microbiology is really firing back up!
  • Some folks also are going into cover crops for grazing.
  • My ultimate goal is I want to have something living out there all year round.”


For Voss, the integration of cover crops also served as a springboard into strip till:

“I get bored pretty easy and the wheels start turnin’… a couple beers and some pizza later [with a neighbor who was a long-time strip-tiller], and we were pulling strips out in the field.

“I think we can all acknowledge that last fall was not great.  But my best yielding corn was in the field with strip till and 5 years of cover crops.

“I loved it so much, I called my banker to buy a strip till bar!”


On the fence about taking the plunge and trying out cover crops or strip till?   Consider Voss’s top tips for success along the way:

  • Go to field days and workshops to learn. You’ve taken the first step just by being here today—opening your mind to something new.
  • Be willing to get outside your comfort zone and give it a shot. [My grandfather is my biggest critic. Now I just like to get out there and prove him wrong!]
  • Ask questions.
  • Talk to others that are also givin’ it a try. Get together over coffee. Or pizza and beers. Talk to them about their failures so you don’t make the same ones.
  • Sometimes you’re gonna question yourself along the way.
  • There are tons of great resources out there for everyone—the big guys down to little peons like me.
  • Head in to your NRCS office to learn about cost share options.
  • Weather is always an uncertainty. Think about how you can best work with Mother Nature.

Now is the time to be planning ahead for cover crop seeding this coming fall!   Check out our Iowa Learning Farms Cover Crop Resources page and YouTube channel to learn more, along with reaching out to your local ISU Extension and Outreach field agronomist and USDA-NRCS staff—they are the local “boots on the ground” ready to help you out with making conservation practices happen!

Ann Staudt

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
5:00-7:00PM

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

April 10 – Cover Crop and No-Till Workshop
12:00-2:00pm
Steier Ag Aviation
202 190th St
Whittemore, IA 50598
Kossuth County
RSVP: 515-294-5429 or ilf@iastate.edu
Press Release
Flyer

Liz Juchems

 

A Huge Thank You!

ILFHeaderOn behalf of the Iowa Learning Farms team, I would like to thank all of our hosts, speakers and partners for an awesome 2018 Field Day season. This year our 24 field days and workshops were attended by 1,134 farmers, landowners, government employees, students and educators, media and agribusiness staff. The topics covered included: cover crops, grazing cover crops, soil health, strip-till/no-till, bioreactors and other edge of field practices, water quality, Emerging Farmers and events for women landowners.  Implementing these practices on our landscape is so important in helping us reach our Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy goals.

Keep an eye out for mail from us this January! We will be mailing a brief survey to all farmers/operators and landowners who attended an ILF-sponsored field day or workshop.

Be sure to check out our events page on our website to attend a 2019 event near you.

Hilary Pierce

 

Cover Crops Served with a Side of Comedy

If you enjoy cover crops with a side of comedy, then you missed out on a good one.

The Iowa Learning Farms, along with Iowa Seed Corn Cover Crop InitiativeIowa Corn, and USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service, hosted a cover crop and conservation tillage field day at the Kossuth County Museum in Algona.

Kossuth County farmers Matt and Nancy Bormann share their experience with cover crops.

Liz Juchems kicked things off with talk of cover crops, species selection and the farmer’s best friend, the Lumbricus terrestris or earthworm. “We have found a 40% increase in earthworm middens in fields with cover crops,” stated Juchems. Turns out that cover crops are the earthworms best friend.

Doug Adams, a farmer and NRCS Soil Conservation Technician gave a play-by-play of his progression from conventional tillage to strip-till and no-till with cover crops.

Kossuth County farmers Matt and Nancy Bormann gave a great presentation on their farming history and offered some real gems. 

Of course, Matt did offer some more conventional advice. “Switching to strip-till helped us cut out a quarter million in equipment. My tip is to try something different on 40 acres…you have to get out of your comfort zone.”

Comedy is clearly not out of Matt’s comfort zone because he had the whole room laughing.

Reminder: If you missed this field day, be sure to tune in to our webinar December 12th at Noon to learn how #NotillB4Beans and #CoverYourBeans can help save time and money.

~Nathan Stevenson

 

Scaling Up Conservation Implementation: An Investment in Practices AND People

CLLHeaderDr. Matt Helmers, Professor Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering and Director of the Iowa Nutrient Research Center presented our November webinar and discussed the innovative Conservation Learning Lab (CLL) project that is key to understanding impacts of in-field conservation practices beyond the research plot scale.

Floyd Co CLLHow does watershed delivery scale compare to a research plot? Plots are kept relatively small (e.g. 6 rows wide by 50 feet long) for easy replication at a research site. Whereas for this project, watershed delivery scale is capturing both surface and subsurface delivery of water from a small watershed (540-1,300 acres) of row crop production agriculture.  The goal is to assess the performance of conservation practices, specifically cover crops and strip-tillage, as the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy calls for large scale adoption of these practices.

Although scaling up requires investments in the practices, by the producer and taxpayers through cost-share, this project has highlighted also the importance of investing in the people that are helping make the implementation possible.

On average it took 12 hours per completed plan – from initial contact to signed contract. If the goal is 50% implementation in a HUC-12 watershed, it can take an estimated 47 weeks to complete the planning process!

Be sure to tune into the archived version of the webinar to see the preliminary water quality monitoring results and the next steps of the project.

Liz Juchems