Cover crop planting on the rise, but still used by just a small fraction of Iowa farmers

Iowa farmers planted 600,000 acres of cover crops last year. (flickr/CAFNR)

Katelyn Weisbrod | June 14, 2017

Iowa farmers planted 600,000 acres of cover crops last fall. This is an increase of over 60,000 acres, but covers just 2.6 percent of the 23.4 million acres of corn and soybean crops in the state.

Various state and federal conservation programs provided funding for 353,000 of these acres, including a cost-share program through the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, as part of the Iowa Water Quality Initiative to meet the needs of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

Cover crops provide land with a vegetative cover during the months that crops are not actively growing, between the harvest and replanting. This helps to reduce the amount of nutrients that are washed into Iowa’s water bodies from agricultural lands, ultimately protecting the water quality. According to a report by the Environmental Working Group, cover crops can reduce the amount of nitrates leaching from the soil by 35 percent, and they are the the most effective practice for retaining nitrogen in the soil.

Washington County leads the state with the most acres of cover crops planted, followed by Cedar and Iowa counties, Wallaces Farmer reports.

Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey told Wallaces Farmer that he is encouraged by the increase in the practice.

“It’s obvious with the interest we’ve seen over the past few years that farmers are seeing the benefits that cover crops provide,” Northey said to Wallaces Farmer. “Cover crops are an important tool to help improve water quality and soil health in Iowa, and it is great to see an increasing number of farmers use this practice.”

EnvIowa Podcast: Soybean crops found to contribute to nitrate levels in Iowa’s waterways

Jenna Ladd | November 4, 2016

On episode three of EnvIowa, we sit down with Dr. Chris Jones, IIHR Research Engineer, to discuss his recent research, which looks at the effects of soybean crops on water quality in Iowa. Much of the research over the last 40 years has been focused on corn, given that corn plants require more fertilizer than soybean plants. However, studies in 2009 and 2016, both of which Dr. Jones co-authored, suggest that soybeans play a larger role than previously understood.

Dr. Jones helps us understand why nutrient pollution has increased steadily as more and more farmers have integrated soybeans into crop rotation, replacing smaller grains and cover-crops, and what it will take to turn this science into water quality policies that benefit Iowans.

The EnvIowa podcast can also be found on iTunes and soundclound. For a complete archive of past episodes, click on the EnvIowa Podcast tab at the top of this page.

Soil health field day to honor late farmer

Soil Erosion Shebly
Top soil runoff in Shelby county, Iowa. (USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service Iowa)
Jenna Ladd | June 10, 2016

A cover crop and soil health field day will be held in Solon, Iowa on Thursday June 16th to honor late farmer Tom Wall. A grower for 33 years, Wall practiced no-till agriculture on his corn and soy bean crops. In efforts to improve soil health, Walls also planted turnip and cereal rye cover crops beginning in 2013. Cover crops provide many benefits to the land, including soil erosion protection, reduced nutrient leaching, carbon sequestration, weed suppression, and integrated pest management.

The event will be held at the Timber Frame Lodge off of Lake Macbride Trail. It is hosted by the Iowa Learning Farms, in collaboration with the Rapid Creek Watershed Project and the Iowa Soybean Association. The event includes a complimentary dinner and is free and open to the public.

The field day will feature a discussion about “incorporating small grains and perennial forage into row crop rotations” led by Iowa State Extension and Outreach Agronomist Matt Liebman. Jason Steele, Area Resource Soil Scientist for Iowa Natural Resource Conservation Service, will conduct a demonstration on soil health. Additionally, attendees will have the chance to see the effects of rainfall on various agricultural and urban land use scenarios through a Conservation Station Simulator.

When considering that Iowa has lost over half of its topsoil over the last 100 years, events like these seem to carry a new significance. Beyond the devastating environmental consequences, there are also adverse economic effects of top soil erosion. In Iowa, eroded soil means rented land decreases in value by $6.74 per acre on average.

For more information about this cover crop and soil field day and other conservation education events, visit The Iowa Learning Farm.

Farming conservation techniques catching on in Iowa

A mixture of crimson clover, oats, common vetch, radish and New York style turnip is used as cover crops on this farm in Eastern South Dakota. (USDA NRCS South Dakota/Flickr)
A cover crop mixture of crimson clover, oats, common vetch, radish, and New York style turnip is used on this farm in Eastern South Dakota. (USDA NRCS South Dakota/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | December 5, 2014

A recent study by the international consulting firm Datu Research finds that Iowa farmers are beginning to better utilize cover crops, crop rotation, and no-till practices.

The 53-page report  concluded that 23 percent of Iowa farmers who responded to the survey said they utilized cover crops. Seventy percent were using minimum or conservation tillage while 47 percent said they practiced no-till techniques. The study also found that 80 percent of respondents rotated between corn and soybeans each year.

Practices such as cover crop use, crop rotation, and reduced tillage can help to reduce soil erosion and nutrient runoff which leads to water pollution. These practices also improve soil health and help to manage moisture content while saving farmers money on fertilizer costs. Currently agriculture accounts for over 70 percent of the nitrogen and phosphorus that enters the Gulf of Mexico via the Mississippi River. This has threatened the aquatic ecosystem in one of the nation’s largest and most productive fisheries.

A separate ongoing study by researchers at the University of Illinois suggests that cover crops do not increase crop yields but do “increase the amount of sequestered soil organic carbon.” This study finds that tillage techniques also affect the soil organic carbon content.

The Datu study was conducted on Iowa farmers and landowners in June of 2014. Approximately 1,500 farmers were surveyed and of those 212 were considered eligible respondents.

Cover Crop “Cocktails”

Photo by NRCS Soil Health
Photo by NRCS Soil Health

Mono-culture cover crops have positive effects on the environment in Iowa and elsewhere.

While only 2 percent of the cropland in the Mississippi River Basin are utilizing cover crops, Gabe Brown, a farmer in North Dakota, expects more farmers will soon realize the positive impact of cover crops.

Brown is practicing the latest trend in cover cropping by mixing species. Instead of using just rye, for example, Brown  also plants a brassica, like radish.

By mixing the crops, creating a cover crop “cocktail”, sustainability can increase.

Brown will be participating in the Practical Farmers of Iowa Conference this Thursday and Friday and Iowa State.

To read more about cover crop “cocktails” click here.

On the Radio: Funds for Water Quality Practices

Photo by eutrophication&hypoxia; Flickr

This week’s On the Radio segment covers a statewide, monetary incentive program that will help cut down on the pollution caused by field runoff. Listen to the audio below, or continue reading for the transcript.

Continue reading

Soil erosion problem and more: Leopold shares parting thoughts in Des Moines Register

Richard Leopold

On Sunday, outgoing Iowa DNR director Richard Leopold shared some final thoughts about the state of Iowa’s environment in a Des Moines Register guest column.  There, he lamented about the state’s lack of progress in cleaning its rivers, it’s underfunded state parks, and the politicization of science (“Sadly, many of the scientific “debates” of today are not scientific debates; they are about power and money.”).

Leopold also shared a startling statistic about Iowa’s increasing infertility: Continue reading