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State, federally funded cover crop acres increase 22 percent

By Staff | Feb 18, 2017

DES MOINES (NRCS) – Iowa farmers planted about 64,000 more cover crop acres funded through state and federal incentives in the fall of 2015 compared to fall 2014 a 22 percent increase.

These were the most recent numbers avauilable according to an August 2016 report from the Natural Resources and Conservation Service.

Iowans planted 291,267 cover crop acres last fall compared to 227,256 in 2014 with help from state and federal conservation programs.

The numbers include funding from the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship through the Water Quality Initiative, state cost-share, and local watershed projects.

USDA’s NRCS provides farmers assistance for cover crop through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Regional Conservation Partnership Program.

Cover crops such as cereal rye, winter wheat and hairy vetch are helping farmers provide ground cover and living roots in the soil throughout the year.

This helps improve soil health, water infiltration, and soil biology, reduce soil erosion and weed competition, trap excess nutrients in the soil, and even provide livestock grazing.

Barb Stewart, state agronomist for NRCS in Iowa, credits the increase in cover crop acres to the amount of outreach and education to famers from conservation groups throughout the state, along with more farmers paying attention to soil health and water quality the past several years.

“A few years back many farmers were more careful, experimenting with 10- and 20-acre cover crop plots,” said Stewart. “Many of those farmers are now planting hundreds of acres of cover crops, and even growing and harvesting their own cover crop seed.”

Washington County in southeast Iowa stands out in total acres planted in fall 2015, with twice as many – 19,974 – than any other Iowa county through conservation programs.

District Conservationist Tony Maxwell, who runs the NRCS office in Washington, said the conservation culture has a lot to do with their success.

“We have a long history of early adoption of conservation practices, like no-till,” said Maxwell. “That has made the transition to cover crops much easier.”

Maxwell said challenges Washington County farmers have faced in the past are helping them overcome any difficulties establishing cover crops.

“Many issues farmers face with cover crops, such as the carbon penalty associated with high amounts of organic matter and planting into heavy residue in cool, wet conditions, are problematic in no-till corn, too,” he said. “We have experienced no-tillers who have faced these challenges before, and can overcome them much easier.”

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