Iowa’s Future Begins with Healthy Soils

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.

The quality of Iowa’s soils make this a unique place. How we manage Iowa’s agricultural soils affects just about everything else here. From increasing wildlife to improved water quality to sustainable economic development, our future begins with healthy soils.

Janke-PheasantWildlife – Over 97% of Iowa’s land is privately owned, and a vast majority is a part of farms. Most Iowa wildlife spends some or all of their lives on farms.

The same practices that are good for Iowa soils – no-till farming, cover crops, buffer strips, diverse native plant seeded areas, waterways, diverse crop rotations, well-managed pastures – are good for wildlife. The practices provide cover, food and travel corridors. They protect water sources on which wildlife depends. Practices that protect and build soils are good for wildlife too.

Water Quality – Water bodies reflect the condition of their watersheds. Eroding fields deliver sediment and nutrients to streams and lakes. Soils protected from erosion keep that soil and associated nutrients in fields where they belong.

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Fields protected by cover crops or other vegetation growing throughout the growing season retain nutrients in the root zone that would otherwise find their way into streams or ground water. Practices that protect and build soils are good for water quality

Economic Development – Over one-third of the largest 100 food manufacturers have Iowa operations. These companies are located in Iowa because the commodities they depend on are produced here.

HC-SoilStatistics from 2014 showed that agriculture and related industries contributed $31.6 billion to the Iowa economy and was responsible for 122,764 jobs. They also showed that 37 of Iowa’s counties derived at least one half of their economic output from agriculture and related industries.

The foundation of all of this economic activity, now and into the future, is Iowa’s productive soil.

No matter what issue you care about, you need to be interested in protecting and building Iowa’s soils.

Marty Adkins

Reducing Nutrient Losses While Building Iowa’s Soils and Economy

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.

Iowa’s soils are globally precious and unique. These soils are the cornerstone of a vibrant and productive farming sector and make Iowa’s overall economy strong.  Protecting and building the productive capacity of Iowa’s soils is essential to Iowa’s future.  Happily, many of the same practices that help protect and build soils also have a positive impact on water quality.  This is especially true of cover crops, crop rotations that include small grains and forages, and no-tillage and strip-tillage planting.

Marty Adkins and his other passion in life; playing the ukulele.

The widespread adoption of cover crops will require increased availability of seed and seeding equipment.  There are new business opportunities related to the growing, cleaning, transportation, sales and custom planting of cover crop seed.  Iowa’s farm machinery industry can continue to design, build, sell and service equipment needed for cover crop seeding and management, and increased adoption of no-till and strip-till.

There are other farm business opportunities to consider when it comes to conservation farming practices.  Cover crops and extended rotations could provide more grazing for more livestock in more places, with more small-town businesses selling all needed goods and services to livestock farms.

In addition to increased economic activity in the farm and industrial sectors, there are other economic benefits to be gained from conservation practices.  An Iowa countryside that is green nearly all year-round, with the land covered and protected, would be a more attractive landscape for Iowa residents, and could attract visitors and new entrepreneurs.

Economic research shows that cleaner streams and lakes result in increased recreational opportunities (swimming, canoeing, boating, and fishing) and more tourism to towns and cities associated with these amenities.  More dollars stay in Iowa when Iowans vacation and recreate within the state.

The environmental benefits associated with better soil management are well documented.  But improved soil management can also contribute to Iowa’s economic well-being, now and long into the future.

~Marty Adkins

Starting the Conservation Conversation

Land rental relationships can vary, but many face similar challenges of discussing new conservation practices with your tenant or landlord.  To help begin the conversation, Iowa Learning Farms created a new publication series with talking points and relevant research findings about a variety of conservation practices.

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“A large number of Iowa cropland acres are rented every year; nearly 50% according to recent surveys. These rented acres are greatly influenced by the tenant who farms them,” stated Mark Licht, Iowa State University assistant professor of agronomy and Iowa Learning Farms advisor, who cultivated the idea of the series.

“Landowners are integral in the decision-making process: from leasing structure and understanding farming practices, to being considerate of practice costs and profitability.  With emphasis being placed on nutrient loss reduction and practices ranging from in-field to land use changes, it’s imperative for landowners and tenants to have conversations about reaching production, profitability, and environmental goals,” said Licht. “These conversations can lead to improvements of soil health and water quality, along with meeting productivity and profitability goals.”

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Examples of leasing structures that can be used when adding cover crops included in the series.

As land is passed from one generation to another, or is sold, it can lead to uncertainty for tenants and landowners alike.

strip tillage benefits.png“We developed this series in response to questions we heard from landowners. They wanted to understand how conservation practices such as strip-tillage and cover crops would affect both their land and the tenant’s bottom line before asking them to add these practices to their management plans,” explained Jacqueline Comito, Iowa Learning Farms director.

“While the name of the series is ‘Talking to Your Tenant,’ the reverse is also true. We think tenants will find the series also helpful as they educate their landowners on implementing these important practices,” adds Comito.

The series addresses in-field practices like cover crops, no-tillage and strip-tillage, and edge-of-field practices such as denitrifying bioreactors and wetlands.

If you have ideas for future topics for this series, contact Liz Juchems at ilf@iastate.edu or call 515-294-5429.  The four-part series, along with other print and video resources, are available online. Copies will also be available at field days and workshops, or mailed to you upon request.

Liz Juchems

Real Cost Savings with Strip Till + No-Till

One of the common themes we hear from our farmer partners with Iowa Learning Farms is that you do your best thinking and decision-making when prices are low and margins are tight.

Significant cost savings in your farming operation can be realized in the form of reduced tillage. Every pass you make across the field with a tillage tool costs money in terms of labor, fuel, and wear-and-tear on equipment. A recent article in Successful Farming, titled Slash Tillage: Reducing the amount of tillage you do can cut costs, boost yields, and benefit the environment, highlights several farmers from across the Corn Belt who have recently adopted no-till or strip-till into their farming practices and yielded some very positive benefits.

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One thing that really stood out to me was the cost savings with strip till. Farmer Dave Delhotal of West Brooklyn, Illinois, noted:

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A few additional highlights from the story and words of wisdom:

If you’re thinking of switching to NO-TILL, start with soybeans. Mark Hanna, ISU Agricultural Engineer, notes that tilling ahead of soybeans can be difficult to justify:

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No-tilling in corn can be more challenging, admits Hanna. Additional management considerations are a must, which can include installing tiles, adjusting combine settings, changing planter setup, and making shifts in weed control and fertilizer application.

Looking for a middle ground?

STRIP TILL provides the best of both worlds: a 6-12” strip of full tillage within the row to give each seed an ideal seedbed and no-till across the rest of the field. Producers have noted many benefits:

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Nutrient management and strip till can also work very well in concert.

Travis Harrison of Wayne, Ohio, uses yield data and soil test results to determine his nutrient application rates and this in integrated right into his strip till operation:

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Check out the full story at Slash Tillage: Reducing the amount of tillage you do can cut costs, boost yields, and benefit the environment.

Iowa Learning Farms also offers a number of different resources related to strip till and no-till:

Strip-Tillage Crop Management fact sheet
Strip-Tillage Crop Management video series

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Transition to No-Till fact sheet
Converting Your Planter for No-Till Operation video series

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Ann Staudt

Farmer Tim Smith on The Chat

Farmer Tim Smith took time to sit down with Jacqueline Comito to discuss his whole farm approach to soil health and water quality in this engaging episode of Conservation Chat.

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Cover crops showing off their true colors in Tim’s soybean field.

Tim started farming in his early 20’s and had always thought that he was doing what was necessary towards protecting his soil and nearby water bodies by minimizing his tillage passes and by installing filter strips along the stream bank. It wasn’t until he tested his tile lines for nitrates that he made a farm-changing discovery. “Even though I was doing the best that I could, it was still not solving the problem, and I was part of the problem.” Tim said.

This realization led Tim to add a suite of conservation practices on his 800-acre corn and soybean operation.

Click here to find out what else Tim has done on his farm, his future plans, and how he successfully reduced his nitrate levels to below the 10 parts per million EPA guideline for safe drinking water.

~ Nathan Stevenson

Great turnout for the first of ILF fall field days

IMG_3206On Tuesday, August 19, over 100 area farmers attended an Iowa Learning Farms field day near Klemme.  Host Dean Stromer, and his son Will, spoke about their motivation for using strip-till and other conservation practices.

“My grandson here and my other grandchildren, who had their first day of school today, are one of the important reasons why I want to take care of my land.”  Stromer understands the importance of protecting the soil not only for his continued use, but for the use of future generations who may continue the tradition of farming.

Also speaking at the field day were Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey, and Butler County farmer and ILF farmer partner Rick Juchems.  The Iowa Farm Bureau and Iowa Soybean Association helped sponsor the wonderful meal.

Local news station KIMT was also in attendance and has a great story about the field day, available here.

There are four upcoming field days in September, be sure to check them out.

Tuesday, September 9: Cover Crops and Prairie Strips, Seth Watkins Farm, Taylor County, 5-7pm

Wednesday, September 10: Biomass Production for Biorenewable Energy with the University Of Iowa, Dan Black Farm, Johnson County, 5:30-7:30pm

Friday, September 12: Cover Crops with Iowa Farm Bureau, Titan Machinery at Williams, Hamilton County, 10:30am-12:30pm

Wednesday, September 17: Cover Crop and No-till Alfalfa Following Winter Wheat, Dennis Lundy Farm, Adair County, 12-2pm

Liz Juchems

Strip-Tillage Field Day Draws Good Crowd

The rain may have chased us indoors, but it did not chase away those wanting to learn more about strip-tillage and cover crops on Tuesday.  About 40 people attended the field day to hear from local farmer Mark Thompson and Iowa NRCS State Agronomist Barb Stewart.

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Thompson has been strip-tilling for the last 12 years and has experienced many benefits from reducing the amount of tillage done on his land.  What began as a purely economic goal of reducing trips across the field and fuel consumption, soon began to show other benefits through soil conservation and residue management.  Thompson uses RTK/GPS to put in the strips each spring, but does not rely on them for planting since the planter is able to stay within the strips efficiently. Through some equipment modification, Thompson and his partners have constructed a strip-tillage bar that fits well into their operation, even in continuous corn.  By applying fertilizer directly into the strips, the number of trips he makes through the field was reduced again, limiting soil compaction.

Although new to cover crops, Thompson has seen the benefits of keeping the soil covered during the brown months of the year.  He had 600 acres of preventative planting last year and used a mixture of winter-kill cover crops: oats, cowpeas, radish, and sugar beets.  Due to the early planting of the mixture, he was able to see significant growth from the different species before the frost came.

vandiest_farm_springStewart provided great technical support about strip-tillage and cover crops.  She discussed many benefits including reducing water and wind erosion by leaving some of the residue undisturbed, improving soil organic matter, and the conservation of fuel resources. Stewart also shared her experiences as a landowner working with beginning farmers who utilize strip-tillage and cover crops on her land.

For more information on strip-tillage check out our Strip-Tillage Crop Management Handout and Strip-Tillage Videos and the NRCS Strip-Till Job Sheet.

You know what they say about all work and no play… So on the way home the ILF staff stopped at the local mini-golf course and had a great time playing a competitive round!

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Liz Juchems and Tiffany Eberhard prepare to dominate the course. 

Liz Juchems