Iowa farmers implement sustainable practices


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Tyler Chalfant | October 17th, 2019

Iowa farmers are implementing practices to increase sustainability and reduce environmental threats to public health, including crop rotation, use of cover crops, eliminating pesticides, and using alternatives to chemical weeding. One group called Practical Farmers of Iowa organized a series of educational field days over the summer, providing opportunities across the state for farmers to share and discuss these practices. One of the environmental threats in the state comes from nutrient runoff from agricultural fertilizers, which recently have contributed to the growth of toxic microcystins in some Iowa bodies of water, making sustainable farming not just an environmental issue, but a public health concern as well. 

Research published last month from Iowa State University scientists found that the widely-used practice of crop rotation helps to reduce pollution, but also depletes organic matter in soil over time. Rotating between corn and soybeans requires less nitrogen fertilizer than continuous corn production, as soybeans leave behind a nitrogen-rich residue in the soil. This allows farmers to save on costs and reduce nitrogen runoff into freshwater lakes and streams. However the abundance of nitrogen contributes to the growth of microbes which, on years when corn is planted, consume nutrients needed for corn production, depleting this organic material in the long run.

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


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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.

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.