Water quality deal lacks allure in swath of Iowa

Even with state aid, cover crops less common in north-central Iowa

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Relatively few farmers in the Des Moines River watershed are seeking state money to plant cover crops intended to improve water quality, according to a Gazette analysis of grants made in 2017 by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.

Farmers in 10 counties in north-central Iowa received less than 2 percent of nearly $5 million in state grants to help farmers pay for cover crops and other conservation strategies. Contrast that with farmers in three Eastern Iowa counties — Washington, Iowa and Cedar — getting nearly 20 percent of state cost-share grants.

“Yes, there is a dead zone of adoption up the (Des Moines) lobe and to the west,” said Sarah Carlson, Midwest cover crops director for the Practical Farmers of Iowa. “We need those cover crops there to reduce the nitrogen levels for water quality.”

Only 2.6 percent of Iowa’s total corn and soybean acres had cover crops in 2015-2016, according to a first-of-its-kind study by Practical Farmers and the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group that used satellite images to detect cover crops in the fields over the winter.

This is a far cry from the 60 percent of corn and soybean acres the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy says needs to be planted with cover crops, along with use of other conservation strategies, to meet the state’s goal of a 45 percent reduction in nitrogen and phosphorus washing down the Mississippi River and polluting the Gulf of Mexico.

Scientists estimate rye or oats grown as a cover crop in Iowa could slash nitrates by about 30 percent, the Nutrient Reduction Strategy reports.

So if cover crops are so critical to reducing nitrogen and phosphorus, why isn’t there more consistent adoption across Iowa — especially if the state is paying part of the bill?

‘A Mind-set THING’

Farmers plant cover crops not to glean a harvest, but to protect soil from erosion, break up compacted soil and absorb nitrate and phosphorus. The cover crop — usually rye — is killed off with herbicide before the spring planting of corn and soybeans.

Iowa started offering to split the bill with farmers in 2013 as part of the Iowa Water Quality Initiative. In four years, the program has helped 4,800 farmers across all 99 counties try cover crops, no-till/strip-till or nitrification inhibitors. About 98 percent of the 2017 money will pay for cover crops.

Nearly 2,400 Iowa farmers signed up to try cover crops this year with state cost-share funding. Everyone who applied by Aug. 7 and meets seeding deadlines gets reimbursed — $25 an acre for first-time growers and $15 an acre for subsequent years, said Dustin Vande Hoef, Agriculture Department spokesman.

Thirteen Iowa counties had at least 50 producers apply for cost-share funding, while 30 counties had fewer than 10 producers ask for state funds, state data show.

“It’s a bit of a mind-set thing,” said Josh Nelson, 35, who raises row crops and hogs with several family members and has his own chemical-free vegetable farm near Belmond in Wright County in north-central Iowa.

Wright County producers applied for and received $6,207 in cost-share funding this year, the sixth-smallest grant total among the counties.

Nelson has about a third of his 300 acres planted with a rye cover crop and is trying to talk his dad and uncle into adopting the practice more broadly.

‘EXPENSES AND HEADACHES’

The feeling among some farmers and agronomists is that cover crops aren’t as necessary in the Des Moines Lobe, a U-shaped landform that stretches down from the top of the state all the way to Des Moines. The glacier that covered the lobe 14,000 years ago flattened the land, so erosion isn’t as big of a concern, and left pebbly, cold and wet soil many farmers think is ill-adapted to cover crops.

Growing cover crops anywhere takes trial and error, farmers said. If planted too late, plants may not have time to grow big enough to protect soil over the winter. Spring kill is tricky because glyphosate, the herbicide used to terminate rye, needs daytime temperatures of 50 to 60 degrees. If farmers wait too long in the spring, the rye plants get gangly and tougher to kill.

Another fear is that cover crop growth would reduce the corn yield, especially if there’s not a long enough break between the rye kill and spring planting.

“There’s a real time crunch ahead of corn and soybeans,” said John Holmes, an agronomist for North Central Cooperative, based in Wright County.

With corn prices at $3 a bushel, compared with $7 in 2012, farmers want to have the highest yield possible and often need the longest possible growing season to do it.

“There are some expenses and headaches you don’t have it you don’t have cover crops,” Holmes said.

Success stories

Many farmers, though, are making it work economically.

Jack Boyer, 65, of Reinbeck, has been growing cover crops for seven years on his farms spanning Tama and Grundy counties. By planting rye as a cover crop before soybeans, Boyer can eliminate one round of herbicide to prevent waterhemp, a fast-growing weed that can hurt soybean yields. Although he spends $30 an acre on cover crops, he saves the $40 an acre cost of herbicide application.

“So that’s $10 in my pocket,” Boyer said.

Boyer has worked with Practical Farmers to do random studies of his land, with soil samples of fields before and after he planted cover crops. Land overwintered with rye is richer even without taking it out of production every seventh year like his father-in-law used to do.

That’s even more money in Boyer’s pocket — while improving the value of the family farm.

“My father-in-law has passed now, but he would approve of what we’ve done,” Boyer said.

Steve Berger, 54, of Wellman, is kind of the godfather of cover crops in Iowa. His 2,200 acres of corn and soybeans have been planted in cover crops since the 1990s. His fields have not been tilled since the 1970s and tile inlet terraces collect and drain water before it can roll downhill, along with his soil.

Cover crops have increased Berger’s soil fertility, which has boosted his corn yields above the Washington County average. Nitrate concentrations in water leaving Berger’s tile lines are lower than surrounding fields and the statewide average, the Iowa Soybean Association told The Gazette in 2015.

Berger’s evangelism is at least partly responsible for Washington County receiving the largest share of state cost-share funding in 2017, at $323,800 for 175 farmer-submitted applications. Iowa County got $310,800 for 143 applications and Cedar County got $276,150 for 128 applications.

Berger knows growing cover crops in north-central Iowa can be riskier because of cooler soil temperatures, but says that argument goes only so far.

“You can go across Minnesota and there are people using rye there,” Berger said. “If there are guys doing it, it proves it can work. Then the farmers in Northern Iowa can’t use that as an excuse.”

Education needed

Berger is among farmers and agronomists who say there needs to be more education about how to grow cover crops successfully.

“Their ag retailers should be providing better advice,” said Carlson, of Practical Farmers.

She sees a correlation between rented farmland and low adoption of cover crops. Some landowners, not up on modern farming practices, think cover crops are weeds that make their land look messy, Carlson said.

“We really need landowners to understand this is to protect their asset,” she said.

A 2010 report by J. Gordon Arbuckle, an Iowa State University associate sociology professor, shows north-central Iowa counties had the highest percentage of rented land in the state, at 61 to 70 percent in 2007.

Farm co-ops, which sell farmers their seed, help plot the planting and share new research, are in a position to educate farmers and landowners on cover crops, Carlson said. She cited Two Rivers Cooperative, in Pella, as a leader.

Two Rivers not only sells rye seed, but purchased a drill and will plant the seed for farmers so they don’t have to buy their own expensive equipment for it.

Aaron Steenhoek, an agronomist and seed specialist with Two Rivers, specializes in helping farmers find alternative cover crops such as triticale, brassica, winter wheat, turnips and radishes.

“The species that will overwinter will have the best chances further north,” he said.

The University of Minnesota Extension is studying cold-resistant cover crops that produce a harvest of their own, which would make cover crops more economically viable. Winter camelina, for example, produces an oil used for cooking and as a renewable aviation fuel, UM reported.

Steenhoek compares the cover crop revolution to what happened with plowing as many farmers have gone from tilling their soil every fall to only strip-tilling or skipping the practice all together.

“Once they figure out how to manage it, they know they can do it more sustainably,” he said.

l Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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