New Study Highlights Environmental and Financial Benefits of Diversifying Crop Rotations

Graphic of an Iowa corn field
Via Flickr

Nicole Welle | September 3, 2020

A new study from researchers at Iowa State University and the University of Minnesota found that diversifying crop rotations keep farms profitable while greatly reducing the negative environmental and health impacts of farming.

Farmers have practiced corn and soybean crop rotation for a long time. However, this new research found that adding more crops, like oat and alfalfa, to the rotation can improve soil quality and the productivity of farmland. It also benefits the environment and human health by reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers.

The study used data from a long-term field experiment at Iowa State University’s Marsden Farm. This experiment began in 2001 and compared performance characteristics of a two-year corn-soy rotation with a three-year corn-soy-oat rotation and a four-year corn-soy-oat-alfalfa rotation. They used this information to better understand the amount of pollution and fossil fuel use associated with each cropping system, according to a article.

By looking at pollution from both farming and the supply chain, researchers found that the production of synthetic fertilizer requires a lot of fossil fuel. Its application also produces poor air quality by emitting greenhouse gases and pollution. Less fertilizer is required when small grains and forages are added into rotations, and the addition of just one small grain crop can reduce fossil fuel use and pollution by half, according to the study.

While it may take time for farmers to further diversify their crop rotations, this information could provide long-term success for farmers, the public and the environment.

Journal features ISU research on agriculture and climate change

This farmer utilizes contour farming and conservation tillage techniques on his Warren County farm in 2011. (Wikimedia)
This farmer utilizes contour farming and conservation tillage techniques on his Warren County farm in 2011. (Wikimedia)

Nick Fetty | December 11, 2014

The most recent issue of the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation includes several articles by Iowa State University researchers focused on ways that climate change is affecting agriculture.

Researchers and graduate students in from Climate and Corn-based Cropping Systems Coordinated Agricultural Project contributed to most of the articles in the recent issue. The project, known simply as the Sustainable Corn Project, is based at Iowa State University and is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Of the 20 reports in the recent journal issue, 14 were authored by researchers with the Sustainable Corn Project.

One of the reports analyzed the effects cover crops have on nitrous oxide emissions, concluding that cover crops increased nitorus oxide levels in 60 percent of published observations. The authors point out that certain variables could have affected the reaction between the cover crops and nitrous oxide emissions including “fertilizer N(itrogen) rate, soil incorporation, and the period of measurement and rainfall.”

The Sustainable Corn Project is a collaboration between 10 Midwestwen land-grant universities: Iowa State University, Lincoln University (MO), Michigan State University, Ohio State University, Purdue University, South Dakota State University, University of Illinois,  University of Minnesota, University of Missouri, and University of Wisconsin. Roughly 160 scientists, engineers, educators, and students work with more than 200 farmers on this project.

Researchers from two Big Ten universities working on environmentally-friendly lawns

Nick Fetty | September 5, 2014

A house in Gossau, Canton of Zurich, Switzerlan. (Flickr)
A house in Gossau, Canton of Zurich, Switzerlan. (Flickr)

The college football season is underway as the Hawkeyes, Cyclones, and hundreds of other teams from all across the country take to the field for the more than century-old tradition. However, scientists from two Big Ten universities are putting their differences aside and teaming up to develop more environmentally friendly lawns.

Researchers from Rutgers University and the University of Minnesota – both members of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation – will work together on a five-year study to develop a strain of grass unaffected by disease and drought while remaining affordable for consumers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture granted the researchers $2.1 million to further develop a strain of grass known as fine fescue. These grasses are known not only for their drought resistance but also their shade tolerance enabling them to survive varying conditions.

Fine fecues are divided into five species and subspecies: Hard fescue, Chewings fescue, (blue) sheep fescue, creeping red fescue and slender creeping red fescue. The grass is native to Europe where it was traditionally used for grazing pastures as well as ornamental landscaping and home lawns. It is ideal for lawns because it grows slowly and requires little to no fertilizer. Lawn fertilizers, pesticides, and other chemicals can lead to a range of health complications from rashes and headaches to birth defects and even cancer. Children and pets are even more susceptible to these adverse health effects. Use of these chemicals also leads to waterway pollution.

Horticulturalists with the Iowa State University Extension and Reiman Gardens in Ames suggest different grass blends depending on conditions in various parts of Iowa.

University of Iowa hosts international conference about environmental contamination

Nick Fetty | August 19, 2014

Water pollution in China. (Bert van Dijk/Flickr)
Water contamination in China. (Bert van Dijk/Flickr)

Beginning today and continuing through Friday, the University of Iowa is hosting a conference to discuss emerging contaminants and their effect on the environment.

EmCon 2014: Fourth International Conference on Occurrence, Fate, Effects & Analysis of Emerging Contaminants in the Environment will feature speakers from all across the world, including a keynote speech from University of Iowa engineering professor and CGRER co-director Jerry Schnoor. Representatives from various Big Ten schools (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Purdue, Wisconsin) as well as Iowa State, Stanford and several other educational and governmental entities are scheduled to give speeches or other presentations. The event “will focus on the most recent developments and findings concerning the source, occurrence, fate, effects, and analysis of emerging contaminants in the environment, providing an ideal venue for exchange of cutting-edge ideas and information in this rapidly evolving research area.”

The first conference, EmCon 2007, was held in York, United Kingdom and brought in more than 100 attendees from all around the world. EmCon 2009 was in Fort Collins, Colorado and EmCon 2011 was in Copenhagen, Denmark.

The National Hydraulic Engineering Conference 2014 is also taking place in Iowa City this week. This event will focus on “sustainability in the design of infrastructure in a rapidly changing environment.”

EmCon 2014 begins at 4 p.m. today and the full schedule of events is available here.

University of Minnesota research shows grassland-to-cropland conversion is contributing to groundwater contamination

Nick Fetty | August 14, 2014

A southern Minnesota farm just before harvest. (keeva999/Flickr)
A southern Minnesota farm just before harvest. (keeva999/Flickr)

Southeast Minnesota farmers converting their grassland into cropland could be contributing to increased nitrate levels in groundwater, according to researchers at the University of Minnesota.

The research estimates that it will cost between $700,000 and $12 million over the next 20 years to address increased nitrate levels in private wells throughout southeastern Minnesota. Researchers Bonnie Keeler and Stephen Polasky used biophysical models and economic valuation to draw their conclusions.

Between 2007 and 2012, more than one-quarter of grassland in southeastern Minnesota were converted into cropland. This led to higher amounts of fertilizer being used which then led to higher nitrate levels in waterways. This creates both health and financial risks for 70 percent of Minnesotans who rely on groundwater as well as for the 1 million residents who get their water from public wells.

The southeastern portion of Minnesota is especially vulnerable to groundwater contamination because of its karst geology which contains cracks and fissures in underground rock formations that can easily be penetrated and jeopardize the quality of the water. Researchers from the University of Minnesota and the University of Minnesota Extension found tillage to be the most effective method to protect water quality in southeastern Minnesota.

Both the Upper Iowa River and Cedar River Watersheds begin in southeastern Minnesota and travel down through portions of eastern Iowa before draining into the Mississippi River.

University of Michigan wins 2014 American Solar Challenge, Iowa State University finishes 3rd

Nick Fetty | July 29, 2014

The University of Michigan took first place at the 2014 American Solar Challenge which ended Tuesday. Photo by Ali Eminov; Flickr
The University of Michigan took first place at the 2014 American Solar Challenge.
Photo by Ali Eminov; Flickr

For the fifth-straight year, the University of Michigan took first place at the American Solar Challenge which concluded Monday.

Michigan’s race team – which included roughly 20 students – overcame its fair share of setbacks including various mechanical problems earlier in the summer as well as acceleration issues at the start of the race. The Wolverines persevered though and finished just 10 minutes ahead of Big Ten rival Minnesota to take the gold. Team PrISUm from Iowa State University finished third. The Cyclone team was briefly slowed down after being pulled over by law enforcement while driving through Wisconsin.

The eight-day race – which went from Austin, Texas to Minneapolis this year – gives engineering students from across the country the opportunity to design, build, and race a solar-powered car. The first American Solar Challenge was in 1990 and has occurred every other year since with some irregularity. This year’s event featured teams from 22 different universities including representation from countries as far away as Germany, Iran, and Taiwan.