Please consider a gift to the Cerro Gordo Soil and Water Conservation District. Your tax deductible donation will assist our Commissioners and staff in spreading the word about protecting our natural resources on private lands. Please send your gift to the Cerro Gordo SWCD at 1415 South Monroe Ave., Mason City, Iowa 50401.
The Soil and Water Conservation District Commissioners thank the Globe Gazette for publishing our conservation articles on a routine basis. These articles are written by Dennis Carney, Cerro Gordo Soil and Water Conservation Commissioner.
Practices to improve water quality - May 2020
Even as we all struggle with the current public health emergency, let us not lose sight of the continuing efforts being made toward natural resource protection and climate change. I hope that by next summer we will have moved beyond the Coronavirus but the importance of vigilance concerning the quality of our water, the health of our soil, and the need to slow climate change will remain.
This summer two large Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) projects that are designed to reduce the amount of agricultural nitrogen reaching our surface waters, will be built in our area. One along Interstate 35, just south of Clear Lake, and one is planned for Floyd County a few miles south of the Floyd County Fairgrounds. These projects are just one part of multiple efforts being undertaken in our area to protect natural resources.
CREP is a federal, state, local, and private partnership that provides incentives to landowners who voluntarily create wetlands for water quality improvement in the tile-drained regions of our state. In addition to improving water quality, these wetlands provide wildlife habitat, increased recreational opportunities, and some flood mitigation. The sites are selected by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS), based on the impact they would have on water quality. Once this is established, landowners are contacted. Monetary incentives to the landowner include up to 15 years of rental payments for all acres involved, 100% cost share for wetland restoration and buffer establishment, and an incentive payment for a 30-year or perpetual easement. This program is only available in 37 north central Iowa counties. North Central Iowa is responsible for the largest amount of excess nitrogen that leaves our state via the rivers that eventually reach the Gulf of Mexico.
Public concern about the detrimental effects of our agricultural systems are having on surface water quality is rising. Nitrate contamination can negatively affect human health and contribute to nutrient enrichment problems in surface waters. To substantially reduce the amount of nitrate in our surface water requires first, that producers use best management practices in the timing and amount of nitrogen applied to the land and second, that tile and surface water be treated in this type of wetlands. Iowa State University research has shown that strategically sited and designed wetlands can remove 40 to 90% of nitrates and up to 90% of herbicides from the cropland drainage water that passes through them. Obviously, if fertilizer rates are reduced and application is done closer to the time that the crop needs the nutrient, less downstream removal is needed. Better management practices, reduced tillage, use of cover crops, grassed waterways, and CREP sites all have a role to play in improving our local water quality.
Agencies involved with the selection, construction, and financing of these areas include IDALS, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), local Soil and Water Conservation Districts, Iowa State University, and The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). If you have concerns about the protection of land you own or operate, contact your local Soil and Water Conservation District. In Cerro Gordo County call 641-424-4452 or visit www.cerrogordoswcd.org.
Water Quality Initiative - June 2020
One of the programs available to producers in Iowa to assist in reducing soil erosion and improving water quality is the Water Quality Initiative (WQI). This program, like all the programs administered by your local Soil and Water Conservation District, is voluntary and incentive based.
WQI was established in during the 2013 legislative session to help execute Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy. The strategy established a suite of practices that if adopted would result in a 45% reduction in the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus reaching the state’s waterways. Water Quality Initiative cost share funds help farmers and landowners install nutrient reducing conservation practices. Funds can be used to offset the cost of cover crops, no-till/strip/till, or the use of a nitrogen inhibitor with fall applied anhydrous ammonia all of which will help improve soil health, reduce erosion, and improve water quality.
In 2019, nearly 3000 farmers participated in the program and invested approximately $10.2 million in funding to match $6.1 million through the state’s WQI cost share fund. This included 1200 farmers using a conservation practice for the first time. For the fiscal year 2021, that would apply to crops planted in the spring of 2021, the state is challenging each Soil and Water District in Iowa to implement at least 2000 acres of WQI funded Cover Crops.
Producers should be aware that there are several additional funding opportunities for cover crop implementation through other state and federal programs. Participation in other programs may have an effect on funding available through the WQI. There are many watershed projects in north Iowa that offer very attractive incentive payments because of the huge positive effect that cover crops have on water quality.
For first time users, cost share rates for cover crops are $25 per acre, for no-till and strip-till the rate is $10 per acre and for the use of fall applied nitrification inhibitor the rate is $3 per acre. All of these practice payments are limited to 160 acres. For second year cover crops, the payment available is $15 per acre, also limited to 160 acres maximum.
It is of course the hope that if producers receive cost share for trying these conservation practices, they will be more likely to continue using them after seeing the economic and environmental advantages. The use of cover crops and no-till/-strip/till are dramatic money makers when the reduced inputs are taken into account. Both practices require several years of continuous use to really reap the economic benefits of lower machinery expenditures and reduced use of commercial fertilizers.
Healthy soils – less runoff - July 2020
This month I would like to take a closer look at how improving soil health on our farmland acres can have a dramatic effect on reducing soil erosion and rainfall runoff amounts that result in downstream flooding and property damage. During the past few years, as a result of climate change, rainfall totals have increased in our part of the country. We also seem to get more intense rainfall events where several inches of rain fall in a short period of time. Both of these occurrences result in soil damaging runoff and flooding.
One of the hardest farming myths to dispel continues to be that for the soil to absorb the maximum amount of water it needs to be tilled. All farmers in my generation were told by their fathers and grandfathers that you had to till up the soil to allow the water to soak in. This notion has been disproved many years ago. For a particular soil to absorb the most water, therefore reducing runoff from large rain events, it needs to be healthy. A healthy soil has a higher organic matter percentage, it has good soil particle aggregation that allows for air spaces in the soil profile and it has a thriving soil biology. The use of tillage harms all of these parameters and results in a degraded soil.
First, soil organic matter (OM) percentages in our area have been steadily decreasing since the native prairie was broken up over 150 years ago. In the last 50 years, the dramatic reduction in pasture and small grain acres has accelerated this loss. When most of my generation started farming it was common to have 5-7% OM in our soils. I am sure that now most field are at 3% or less. Intensive grain cropping and tillage reduce this decaying plant material in the soil profile. Soil organic matter is critical in forming soil aggregates and aggregates are critical for allowing a soil to absorb water and to hold on to it for crop plants to take up. In a 3% OM silt loam soil, increasing the OM by 1% through less tillage and cover crops results in a 20,000 gallon/acre increase in water holding capacity.
The popular soil slake test, is a great illustration of the advantages of a well aggregated soil. If you take a soil clod from a field where long term no till and cover crops has been used and a clod from a consistently tilled field and put them each in a container of water the differences are dramatic. The clod from the tilled field (that has no stable aggregates) will crumble, dissolve, and turn the water brown. The clod where soil health practices have been consistently used will maintain its shape, not crumble into small pieces and not disperse into the water. Soils with poor aggregation will crumble, seal up the soil surface and force rainfall to runoff.
To explain all the reasons why this occurs would take up much more space than I have here but primarily cover crops keep a living root in the soil most of the year which helps develop a healthy soil biology that produces exudates or glues that help bind soil particles together. Also, cover crop root channels and the huge increase in the number of earthworm tunnels that result when tillage is eliminated help the soil to absorb more water. Finally, it has been shown over and over that a healthy soil is able to absorb two to three times as much water during a rain event than a degraded soil thereby reducing runoff and downstream flooding.
Farmers and Carbon - August 2020
The role agriculture in the Midwest can play in reducing carbon dioxide in our atmosphere has been talked about for years, but several new programs and some proposed legislation may actually advance us into a new era where sound agricultural practices, rewarded by government and industry, result in slowing climate change.
Carbon is essential for life on earth. Humans and animals release carbon dioxide through respiration. Plants take it in and release oxygen, returning carbon to the soil when they die. It is generally agreed that this carbon cycle stayed mostly in balance until the 1880s. Environmental changes and human activity in our post-industrial world resulted in increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This increases the greenhouse effect, resulting in the global warming and climate change we have been experiencing for years.
The more carbon held in our soils, the less there is available to be released into the air. Carbon sequestration is the capture and secure storage of carbon that would otherwise be emitted to or remain in the atmosphere. According to Mahdi Al-Kaisi, Iowa State University (ISU) Professor of Agronomy, this be accomplished by agriculture in three main ways. First, we can trap carbon in growing plants; since plants need carbon to live, the more permanent the vegetation the more carbon dioxide is required. Secondly, we can minimize carbon mineralization by letting organic material decompose more slowly and naturally. This is accomplished by eliminating unnecessary soil tillage that mixes residue with oxygen, resulting in rapid decomposition and increased carbon losses. Lastly, when we reduce soil erosion that exposes soil and carbon to the atmosphere, we can keep more carbon in the soil.
Amazingly enough, the practices that we promote to reduce soil losses and improve water quality are the same ones that will allow agriculture to trap vast amounts of carbon in the soil. Growing higher amounts of biomass during the season by planting cover crops, adopting greatly reduced tillage to keep the soil covered and in place, and developing a healthy soil biology by reducing fertilizer and pesticide use will result in greatly increased carbon sequestration and healthier soils.
Agricultural industry is not going to be left out. With their vast resources and ability to see what is coming, seed and chemical companies want to be viewed as doing the right thing. There are so many different types of programs being developed, it is hard to keep up. A few days ago, Bayer announced that they will begin incentivizing conservation practices that will sequester carbon in the soil and help them meet sustainability goals. Payments will be made to 1,200 producers in both the United States and Brazil to adopt climate-smart practices that will also improve soil health.
International consumers of U.S. grains and foods want not only high quality, but they want to know what system was used to produce the product. If the U.S. does not work to adopt climate-friendly, carbon reducing practices, our products may be worth less in the world markets.
During the recently past legislative session, bills were proposed in both the U.S. House and Senate recognizing the important role that agriculture can play in carbon mitigation. The House bill stresses the need for continued support for current USDA conservation programs and expansion of healthy forest programs that would assist in reaching atmospheric carbon reduction goals. The Senate bill concentrates more on developing carbon markets and to certify certain USDA providers who would verify the amount of carbon that had been stored in the soil with a particular practice.
Covers after Disaster - Sept. 2020
On August 10, 2020, farmers in central Iowa experienced one of the worst natural disasters to ever affect agriculture in our state. The 2020 derecho event flattened and destroyed corn fields in at least thirty-six counties. Government agencies and conservation groups are working to establish assistance programs for those affected to try to salvage what they can from their fields.
Planting a cover crop in these destroyed fields is a priority that will at least provide a living root in the soil profile. This will help long term by feeding the soil biology to keep it healthy. The cover crop roots will capture some of the excess fertility present in the soil that will not be utilized by the crop, before it moves out of the soil profile and into tile lines and surface water. Nutrients applied to a corn crop that will not be harvested will eventually leach out of the residue and into the soil. Being able to get a cover crop planted on these acres should more than pay for itself in improved weed control and reduced fertilizer expenses next year. Also, without the crop canopy, a winter annual like cereal rye will have a great chance to get well established before winter.
In northern Iowa, thousands of acres of cover crops were aerially seeded during the past two weeks. The current rainy weather came at just the right time to allow the seed to germinate. The advantages of cover crops applied to the drought and heat damaged crops we have this year are the same as in the wind damaged area. Crops were fertilized with the expectation of a larger yield and nutrient removal by the grain. A deep-rooted cover crop that continues to grow all winter will salvage much of this excess and expensive fertility. It may be difficult for a producer to put more resources into a crop that will not yield as expected but planting cover crops is a great jump start to next year’s crop. In addition, you will be helping to keep some soluble nutrients out of the water supply.
The Des Moines Water Works reported two weeks ago that algae blooms in the water of the Des Moines River that are caused by excessive nitrogen and phosphorus combined with exceptionally warm temperatures has made it impossible to use the river as a water source for Des Moines. This is a major announcement that did not get the press coverage it deserved. The city will eventually need to drill wells to reliably obtain the water it needs for Iowa’s largest metro area. The fact that the surface water in the Des Moines River is now so polluted with agricultural nutrients that they can no longer be economically removed, is an indication of how much work needs to be done in educating producers and landowners on how to keep applied nutrients from leaving their property.
As with so many environmental issues, waiting for government or industry to finally act is usually too late. Using cover crops, especially this year, is an environmentally sound practice that actually makes money for the producer, and in many situations can be subsidized with federal, state or local watershed funds. For information on how to get cover crops planted on your farm and if cost-share dollars are available, contact your local Soil and Water Conservation District.