ICYMI – Can Cover Crops Clean the Corn Belt?

There are many news headlines competing for our attention every day and while some fade into the background, water quality and conservation practices remain in the forefront as we work to meet the goals of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.  A recent article written by Laura Sayre for New Food Economy asks the question: Can Cover Crops Clean the Corn Belt? and I strongly encourage you to check it out!

Cover crops provide a multitude of benefits including: helping improve water quality by reducing the losses of both nitrates and phosphorus, minimizing soil erosion, improving soil health and mimicking diversified crop rotation benefits by keeping the fields green in the winter.
Tobin Rye 2017

Biomass sampling cereal rye in Taylor County spring 2017

A key practice in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy toolbox, cover crops are able to help reduce both nitrogen and phosphorus leaving the field and entering water bodies.  In addition to practices like wetlands, bioreactors and nutrient management, one of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy scenarios calls for 65% of Iowa row crop acres (about 15 million acres) to be seeded with cover crops.  At just over 600,000 acres seeded in 2016, we still have a long way to go to reach that level of adoption. However, there are a variety of economic opportunities that accompany that goal including cover crop seed growers and dealers, co-op, and equipment manufacturers.

Whether or not cover crops can indeed help clean the Corn Belt is up to all Iowans.  This includes, but not limited to those mentioned in the article: researchers like Dr. Matt Liebman with Iowa State University, farmers and landowners like ILF farmer partner Tim Smith, non-profit organizations like Practical Farmers of Iowa, our state agency partners, and urban residents, like myself, all doing our part to help keep the water clean and supporting the efforts of others working towards meeting the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy goals.

Liz Juchems

Cover Crops: One Piece of the Puzzle in CLL Project

Cover crops are an important tool for helping keep soil, nitrogen and phosphorus in the field – instead of our water bodies. Because they grow outside the typical corn/soybean growing season, cover crops help reduce soil erosion and take up nutrients that could otherwise leave the field. It is also the most popular practice among our Conservation Learning Lab (CLL) farmer partners.

The CLL project is studying the impact of conservation practices implementation at the watershed scale in Floyd and Story County.  The conservation planning process within the watersheds has yielded cover crop contract enrollment of 675 acres and 1,081 acres, respectively, starting this fall covering 50-68% of the crop acres within the watershed.

Cover_crop_April_Berger_FarmThe farmer partners chose to seed either winter cereal rye and oats.  These grass species are easy to establish, relatively inexpensive and are the leading biomass producers in our cover crop research projects – keeping that soil covered (reducing the loss of phosphorus) and taking up nitrogen.

The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy team reviewed cover crop research results from across Iowa and the Midwest and found that cereal rye and oats reduced nitrogen loss by 31% and 29%, respectively.  Similarly, the reduction of phosphorus when adding cereal rye is about 29%, primarily as a result of reduced soil erosion. According to our RUSLE2 calculations, a cereal rye cover crop added to a no-till system can reduce soil erosion by 30-80% and can be even larger when transitioning from a conservation tillage system.

Be sure to keep checking back as we will be providing updates as the cover crops are seeded this fall!

The project is funded by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) and the United States Department of Agriculture – Natural Resources Conservation Services (USDA-NRCS) of Iowa.

Iowa CREP Wetlands

Today’s guest post is by Jake Hansen, Chief of the Water Resources Bureau Division of Soil Conservation & Water Quality at Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS). 

The Iowa Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) is a joint effort of the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) and USDA’s Farm Service Agency, in cooperation with local soil and water conservation districts (SWCDs). The program provides incentives to landowners to voluntarily restore shallow, semi-permanent wetlands in the heavily tile-drained regions of Iowa to improve surface water quality while providing valuable wildlife habitat and increased recreational opportunities.

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The goal of the program is to reduce nitrogen loads and the movement of other agricultural chemicals from croplands to streams and rivers by targeting wetland restorations to “sweet spots” on the landscape that provide the greatest water quality benefits. CREP wetlands are positioned to receive tile drainage by gravity flow; they remove nitrate and herbicides from the water before it enters streams and rivers. Excess nitrogen not only affects Iowa’s waters but is also one of the leading causes of hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico. CREP wetlands are one strategy to help reduce nitrogen loading to those waters.

Targeted results. To ensure that wetlands are sited in the most advantageous locations, IDALS uses advanced geographic information system (GIS) analyses to find locations that are properly sized and situated to provide large nitrogen removal benefits. The CREP wetland criteria are based on over two decades of research and monitoring conducted by Iowa State University.

This research and monitoring has demonstrated that strategically sited and designed CREP wetlands remove 40 to 70 percent of nitrates and over 90 percent of herbicides from cropland drainage waters. Nitrogen reduction is achieved primarily through the denitrifying bacteria that occur naturally in wetlands. Through denitrification, the bacteria remove nitrate from the water and release it into the air as nitrogen gas (N2), an innocuous end product.

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The highly targeted nature of this program has led to 83 wetlands currently restored and another 12 under development. During their lifetimes, these wetlands are expected to remove more than 100,000 tons of nitrogen from 122,350 acres of cropland. In 2016 the number of restored wetlands reached an annual capacity of removing over 1,300,000 lbs of nitrogen. These 95 targeted restorations total more than 891 acres of wetlands and 3,100 acres of surrounding buffers planted to native prairie vegetation.

More than nitrogen removal. Even with the impressive results so far, Iowa continues to explore and develop new technologies to optimize wetland performance by incorporating additional considerations for habitat, hydraulic efficiency, and temporary flood storage benefits. CREP wetlands are already providing high-quality wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities in addition to water quality benefits. Studies conducted by USGS have shown dramatic increases in the presence of several frog species at CREP wetland sites. The high-quality buffers, in conjunction with the shallow wetland habitats, have proven to be a tremendous boon to a multitude of wildlife species commonly found in these areas. Populated by birds ranging from trumpeter swans to shorebirds, these areas have shown that targeting wetland restoration for water quality benefits does not come at the expense of mutual habitat and recreational benefits.

To see additional photographs of CREP wetlands across Iowa and to read more about the program, click here (http://www.iowacrep.org).

Jake Hansen

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

Cover crop researcher Tom Kaspar receives Spencer Award

Congratulations to our friend and collaborator, Dr. Tom Kaspar, on receiving the Spencer Award for Sustainable Agriculture yesterday!

Long regarded as the grandfather of cover crops here in the state of Iowa, USDA-ARS plant physiologist Tom Kaspar is certainly one of the leading voices on cover crops across the Midwest.  He was one of the “founding fathers” of the Midwest Cover Crops Council, and his collaborative work over the years has investigated and documented the benefits and challenges of cover crops in corn and soybean cropping systems, ranging from impacts on water quality, soil health, nutrient cycling, and more.

We are grateful to Tom for serving as a guest speaker at countless Iowa Learning Farms field days and workshops over the years, sharing his findings with farmers, landowners, and other ag partners across the state. We are also grateful for his efforts in guiding the work of the Iowa Cover Crop Working Group, including our long-term on-farm rye study and our study of earthworms and cover crops.

Kaspar has amassed years of experience investigating not only soil health and cover crops, but also connections with no till, minimum tillage, climatic variations, disease, pathogens, and more. To hear some great perspectives from the man himself, check out Episode 6 of the Conservation Chat podcast, in which host Jackie Comito talks cover crops with Dr. Tom Kaspar.

Kaspar was also featured in our August 2015 Iowa Learning Farms webinar, presenting on Reaching the Full Potential of Cover Crops in Iowa.  Stay tuned to the blog, as well — we’ll be highlighting some of Kaspar’s cover crop findings here in the next week or so.

In the meantime, congratulations to Tom for an honor that is very well deserved!

Ann Staudt

 

Happy World Water Day!

Today is World Water Day! Each year, World Water Day gives us an opportunity to learn more about water and how we can improve our water quality and conserve the water we have throughout the world. This year’s theme focuses on wastewater, and specifically, how we can reduce and reuse wastewater.

In cities and towns throughout Iowa, we are fortunate to have wastewater treatment plants that exist for one sole purpose: to treat the water that we send down the drain when we take showers, wash our dishes, brush our teeth and flush our toilets. The water we use for those purposes goes down the drain and to your local wastewater treatment plant, where it is treated and then released to a nearby water body in accordance with state  and federal permitting processes. In fact, wastewater treatment facilities are so important to clean water that we created a song, “Salute to Wastewater,” that is perfect for this year’s World Water Day.

At Iowa Learning Farms, it’s our job every day to think about water. I’m sure many of you also think about water as part of your job, your health and how water might impact your future and even your children’s future. For World Water Day, I challenge you to think about how you use water in a day. Think about your daily habits, and then change one habit at home for a week. Remember, regardless of where you live in the state or country, we’re all connected through our water resources!

Julie Whitson

From the Director: The Best-Kept Secret in Iowa

You know what I learned from the 207 people who attended one of our five  Iowa Learning Farms regional workshops this winter? Wetlands are one of the best-kept secrets in Iowa in terms of their benefits! Not one single person mentioned them in response to the question “What are the practices that are most effective for improving water quality in your area?”

Matt Helmers said to me after we were leaving the third of five meetings, “Golly, we still have a lot of education and outreach to do about wetlands.”

I would agree. Wetlands play a key role of reducing nitrogen in Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Strategically designed and sited wetlands can reduce nitrate loads to downstream water bodies by 40-70%. Currently we have around 80 of the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) wetlands in the state. The NRS calls for 7,600 of them if we hope meet its goal. To read more about the importance of wetlands, check out Ann’s blog Wetlands and Water Quality.

That calls for a HUGE amount of human and financial capital. It also opens amazing economic and job creating opportunity for us. As Matt told me, “I would love to be training our ISU students to be out there designing and building CREP wetlands throughout the state.”

Beyond the water quality benefits and the job opportunities from siting 7,000 wetlands in our state, wetlands and the lands surrounding them will help bring needed pollinators and other biodiversity to our state.

Finally, as Matt argues in his blog earlier this week about returning to pasturelands, wetlands add beauty to our landscape. If you don’t believe me, screen our award-winning documentary Incredible Wetlands.

Keep your eye on our blog to hear more of what we learned from participants during the regional workshops. We hope to create a more positive learning experience through a Rapid Needs Assessment and Response (RNR) technique. To read more about our unique approach, check out Brandy’s blog RNR is a Favorite for Conservation Workshops.

Jacqueline Comito