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‘Residue Matters’ at Clay County Fair

By Staff | Sep 18, 2009

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey speaks Saturday at the Clay County Fair during a kickoff event for the state’s new Residue Matters program. Partners in the effort include Iowa State University Extension, Iowa Certified Crop Advisers and Ag Partners. The campaign, which begins this fall, will promote the economic and ecological benefits of new tillage systems and leaving more plant mass in the field after harvest.

SPENCER – With harvest moving closer and farmers across the state increasingly unsure what to expect in their fields, a new partnership of state and private experts is preparing to help farmers make better use of the plant residue their combines leave behind.

“We hope to increase awareness of the value of the residue in our fields,” said Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey during a Saturday morning kickoff for the Residue Matters program held on the opening day of the Clay County Fair.

“A lot of farmers are getting their supplies and taking advice from private cooperatives, so this program is a chance for us to go beyond Iowa State University Extension and the Natural Resources and Conservation Service and hopefully promote practices that will protect Iowa’s soils and get the most out of our agricultural efforts.”

Residue Matters is a joint project of multiple state agencies including the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Iowa Department of Natural Resources and ISU Extension as well as private partners including the Iowa Corn Growers and agribusiness associations and northwest Iowa agricultural service company, Ag Partners.

The project, which will begin in northwest Iowa and eventually be expanded to the rest of the state, will include informational materials, meetings and gathering of statistics to show the environmental and agronomic benefits of responsible residue practices.

Jerry DeWitt, director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, said preparations for Residue Matters have been in the works for several months, including making connections between the various state and private partners. He said farmers have grown accustomed to keeping as much as 30 percent of their field residue, but the program goes beyond simply asking producers to do less tillage.

Seeking improvement

“We need to look at what we’re doing and ask ourselves, ‘Can we do better?’ I think yes we can,” DeWitt said. “We’re not coming up with a prescription that says you must or everyone should.

“Every farm is different. But hopefully we can get farmers looking at what is possible and thinking, ‘I can do better on this 80 or this 60 and maybe another farm we don’t need to do anything different.”

Over time, DeWitt said, asking producers to rethink their tillage systems or take other steps, such as planting cover crops will have a significant effect on the cost of inputs as well positive effects on soil and water quality.

“It’s not as simple as, we take an action this fall and we see a large benefit in the spring, but if you do it and your neighbor does it there will be benefits and those benefits are additive,” DeWitt said. “Residue allows for more organic residue in the soil and allows the soil to sponge up more water.

“That has an impact on your retention when you come into a drought year. It also helps contain runoff in a wet year. Those are just some of the kinds of changes we are hoping for.”

The core messages of the test program will be saving money, saving soil and saving nutrients. Several guides and reports relating to each point are already available online at www.residuematters.com. Each of the member organizations has also pledged to promote updating residue strategies.

Networking is key

Carol Brown, a representative of ISU’s learning farm network, said the inclusion of several member organizations is important because farmers get their information from several different sources.

“What we’re doing is using those points of contact, agronomists and local offices to get the message across,” Brown said. “At this point it is an awareness issue and we are using those experts around Iowa to help get farmers started thinking.”

Troy Upah, CEO of Ag Partners, said the focus for his company will be on communication and letting farmers know how the use of their residue can result in profits. While wider use of crop material as natural fertilizer could decrease demand for some co-op services, Upah said he sees the overall success of farming operations as tied to the success of Ag Partners as a business.

“Ultimately we look at it as if it’s good for the farmers and increases their profitability that is a good thing for us. If that isn’t the best for our short term interest, we feel it will be good for us to support our customers in the long run,” Upah said. “We see this as an important issue. We have relationships with local farmers already and this gives us another topic of discussion to take up with farmers.”

Ultimately, DeWitt said, organizers’ confidence in the program goes back to potential environmental impacts, but also to the experiences of farmers who have already begun to reform their tillage strategies.

“We have a lot of farmers in northwest Iowa who are really leaders and who have helped us see what works and what doesn’t work as far as tillage systems and other issues related to residue,” DeWitt said. “Those first ones over the hill have learned a lot and that is what they are sharing with us so that farmers now can avoid those mistakes.”

Contact Kevin Stillman by e-mail at stillman.kw@gmail.com.

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