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Creating soil health

By Staff | Jan 22, 2016

MARK HECKMAN, far left, president of the Iowa Corn Promotion Board, leads a Jan. 15 round table discussion on soil health in Ames. From left are, Heckman, Bill Northey, Iowa secretary of agriculture; Jerry Mohr, an east central Iowa farmer; Jolene Riessen, a northwest Iowa farmers; and Steve Berger, a southeast Iowa farmer.

AMES – While conservation-minded farmers are working to help Iowa meet the three-year-old Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy goals, they are finding their soils are gradually becoming healthier and adding value to their farms.

That was the assessment by Bill Northey, Iowa secretary of agriculture, as he moderated a Jan. 15 round table discussion on soil health at Fisher Theater in Ames.

Northey led discussions about different soil-saving land management practices employed by three Iowa farmers – Jolene Riessen, of northwest Iowa; Jerry Mohr, of east central Iowa; and Steve Berger, of southeast Iowa.

“We’re proud of what farmers are doing across the state in just three years,” Northey said. “We have seen increased interest in and adoption of cover crops over the past two years as farmers work toward nitrogen loss reduction.”

Jolene Riessen, who farms in Ida County, grows no-till corn and soybeans and manages a cattle operation.

COVER CROPS and other land management practices, said farmers who use them, can help prevent this type of ditch-blackening wind erosion that was evident along a Hamilton County road in January 2015.

She said they moved their cattle away from a nearby creek.

“They were in the water to be cool,” Riessen said, “but they also dirty the water.”

In 2005, with federal Environmental Quality Incentive Program funds, they installed devices designed to settle manure solids from feedlot runoff before it reaches the creek.

Riessen said her operation is no-till row-cropping and uses cover crops for soil health and as a cattle feed source.

Jerry Mohr, who farms in Scott County, said he and his wife are fourth-generation farmers. They have been using cover crops for 40 years, starting with wheat.

“Cover crops have been a great addition to our cattle operation.” —Jolene Riessen Ida County-farmer

The grain was sold to a nearby processor and straw was baled for livestock bedding.

He primarily plants cereal rye as a cover crop now.

Mohr said he no-tills soybeans into cover crops, plus uses precision planting and spring-applies his nutrients.

Steve Berger, who farms in Washington County, said his father started no-till farming in the 1970s.

2016, he said, will be the farm’s 37th year with no-till to stop erosion on sloping farm land.

“It takes time to change soil,” Berger said. “Stop (tilling) or use reduced tillage.

“Stop stirring it up and get it covered.”

He plants cereal rye as a cover crop.

Although the principals of increasing soil health are the same for every farm, the solutions will differ from farm to farm.

Lessons learned

Northey asked the farmers to tell their tales of decisions that worked and failed with sustaining soil health.

Riessen said in 2005, when installing the structure to divert feedlot runoff from a nearby creek, “to get into the (Natural Resources and Conservation Service office) early if you plan to apply for federal or state grants.

Keep all expense sheets in a separate place for easy referral.

“Document all discussions,” Riessen said, meaning with whom and when and what was said.

She said she plants cover crops just after harvesting corn for silage. Once it goes to seed, the grain is harvested for cattle feed.

“Cover crops have been a great addition to our cattle operation,” she said.

If a farm has implemented grassed waterways and headlands, watch them closely.

“You need maintenance of waterways,” she said.

Mohr said when he first considered cover crops he chose rye grass or cereal rye.

“It was the worse decision,” he said. “The grass kept coming back.”

The next year he tried oats and tillage radish.

Although the deep taproots of tillage radish breaks up compaction, “They don’t hold the soil.”

Oats and cereal rye do, however, he said.

“Drill (cover crops) as soon as possible,” he urged, to assure a good stand through the fall. “It will grow in commercial corn.”

Berger agreed saying cereal rye is the easiest cover crop in Iowa to grow and manage.

“But don’t go it alone,” he said. “Get a peer group with experience with cover crops and learn about setting planters, weed control.”

He said he thinks he’s getting better at managing cover crops and is seeing increased yields, “but it took a while.”

He said corn growers can experience a yield lag following cover crops because the corn has to compete with the cover crops’ microbes for nitrogen.

He recommended dribbling UAN 32 percent at planting, followed by side-dressing later, providing corn with nitrogen as it needs it.

Since cover crops attract army worms, Berger said, an integrated pest management system is necessary, using a variety of chemicals with different modes of actions each year to control pest populations.

“So manage the nitrogen, set the planters, manage pests and give it some time,” Berger said.

Using technology

When asked how technology has advanced their efforts to farm with soil health in mind, Riessen said her operation composts animal waste.

“Manure is not a four-letter word on our farm, it’s fertilizer,” she said.

Through grid sampling and harvest maps, Riessen said she can target areas in fields that need extra management due to the soil type.

Composted animal waste, she said, “is a probiotic for my soils.

“Without an active biology, inputs won’t work..”

She said for Ida County soil types, organic matter is essential for water-holding capacity.

“It will save a crop in dry years.”

Mohr said global positioning systems and auto tracking have been game-changers for him.

“I always say the tractor never forgets where it’s been,” Mohr said. “I have fewer sprayer gaps.”

Measuring success

When asked how they measure success in soil health and reducing nitrate leaching and surface erosion, all three said it’s hard to document, but what they see not happening is the key.

“When I don’t see feedlot runoff running into the creek,” Riessen said.

Mohr said he knows he’s doing good when no soil flows off the slope during rain events.

“Biological (soil) changes makes the soil more resilient. it’s stickier.”

Mohr said that during December’s frequent rains, he saw his neighbors’ field eroding, while his no-till fields were “not even close.”

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