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WFAN, PFI extol cover crops’ benefits

By Staff | Oct 12, 2012

ANN STAUDT, coordinator of The Iowa Learning Farm’s Conservation Station, conducts a demonstration using the Enviroscape, a watershed model that depicts how pollution from fertilizer, pesticide, manure and other products gets in to our water.



JEFFERSON – Using cover crops during the off time of the growing season in Iowa is gaining more attention by those looking for ways to reduce the chances of soil erosion and improve soil quality.

On Monday, the Iowa Learning Farm, along with Women, Food and Agriculture Network, hosted a field day at Chris Henning’s farm near Jefferson in Greene County.

The field day, which gave Henning a chance to talk about her own conservation practices as well as a few professionals speaking, had approximately 30 people in attendance ranging from Iowa State University professionals, local conservation employees and farmers.

MATT HELMERS, associate professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering and Extension agricultural engineer at Iowa State University, conducts a demonstration using a rain simulator during an Iowa Learning Farm field day on the Chris Henning farm near Jefferson.

Henning grew up near her current 145-acre farm which she purchased after returning to Greene County from Des Moines in 1992.

After living in Des Moines for 25 years, she decided to move back to rural Jefferson following the floods of 1993. The affects the flooding had on Des Moines water, where her children were still living, led her to implementing more intense conservation practices on her farm.

“My dad was a conservation farmer,” Henning said. “He contoured the land, but the first time I really paid attention to the land was in 1993 after we flooded then it took only three days for the water that flooded us here to reach Des Moines.

“Whatever we put in our water here – silt, chemicals or manure, if it gets in our water here it gets to Des Moines.”

Shortly after the floods, Henning began installing buffer strips near her waterways. By 1996 she had installed 26 acres of buffers.

Chris Hennings

Henning’s 145-acre field has 35 acres in cropland. A second farm, which she manages with her sister and brother-in-law, of 160 acres, has a pond, 80 acres ion the conservation reserve program and 40 acres of cropland. A third farm has 120 acres, with a 10-acre and 3-acre wetland patches and a 3-acre garden where she grows potatoes, sweet corn and onions.

Henning said she manages all of the CRP ground. Out those 80 acres, 40 were taken out of the program this year for hay. The CRP, she added features a mix of 25 different species of plants.

Henning is also in her second year of growing cover crops. This year, a variety of winter rye was aerial seeded into standing soybeans with about 70 acres of her cropland being seeded this year.

The wind that was fiercely blowing outside during her presentation was one reason Henning sited for utilizing a cover crop.

“Cover crops help keep the soil from blowing away,” she said.

She also thinks having a cover crop on her land last year may have helped keep her corn and soybeans growing longer, helping to retain moisture due to the mulch cover left on the soil from the rye.

Latest research

Sarah Carlson, research and policy director for cover crops, non-GMO corn and water monitoring with Practical Farmers of Iowa, updated the audience on the benefits of cover crops, as well as the latest research results after three years of documented study. 2012 has yet to be evaluated.

Cover crops, Carlson said, can be a worthy practice to any farm system for improving soil quality, decreasing soil erosion and decreasing loss of nutrients in the soil. They can also be used for emergency forage.

Time, she said, is the main reason why the practice of cover cropping isn’t more widely done.

“Time is the biggest reason cover crops aren’t being planted,” Carlson said. “Farmers are busy in the fall to get crops harvested and don’t want to take the time to get the cover crops planted and are anxious in the spring to get planting and don’t want to take the time to get the cover crop killed.”

For those reasons, Carlson suggests producers look to other outlets such as an aerial seeding company to get a cover crop planted and talking to local cooperatives for a herbicide to killed he cover in a timely manner.

According to Carlson and the research provided, cover crops had no adverse effects on corn yields at eight site-years; however it negatively impacted corn yields at six sites in 2010 and at one site in 2009, where the cover crop was not properly managed.

A site-year is the number of test plot locations in any year times the number of years. It’s used to show the magnitude of the number of replications in a project.

So far, research has shown that a cover crop either positively affected or did not affect soybean yields in 10 out of 10 site-years.

STRIP project

Matt Helmers, an Iowa State University Extension water quality engineer, introduced the Science-based Trials of Row-crops Integrated Prairie (STRIPs) project.

This project explores the addition of strategic placement of perennial plants in row-crop fields to improve water retention, soil quality and improved biodiversity.

Helmers said the research has shown a dramatic reduction in runoff and has also provided substantial benefits of adding prairieland into watersheds.

The study, he said is also allowing for other research areas to look at bird diversity, insect diversity, plant diversity and the socio-economic affects.

The Iowa Learning Farm’s Conservation Station mobile learning center was at the field day giving presentations depicting a rainfall simulator, an Enviroscope watershed model and information regarding soil, soil health and the importance of wetlands.

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