Cover crop plantings gain momentum due to environmental concerns

Article from Cedar Valley Business Online By Jim Offner

WATERLOO -- Iowa may be defined by corn and soybeans, but agricultural leaders across the state say cover crops like alfalfa, oats, radishes and rye likely will play a major role in how that definition evolves.

“With a good cover crop program, we see about a 30 percent reduction in the amount of loss of nitrogen or phosphorous,” said Bill Northey, Iowa’s agriculture secretary.

Northey, who grows corn and soybeans near Spirit Lake, says he has a cover crop program on his land, and he hopes others across the state do the same.

“There’s been a burgeoning interest in cover crops the last four, five years,” Northey said.

The state is tapping into that interest, having developed a cost-share program that picks up half of first-time participating farmers' costs for planting cover crops.

About 1,000 farmers signed up for the program two years ago, accessing $2.8 million in available funds, Northey said, noting that about 500 more got involved this year, with $1.4 million available.

“I think there was already an interest, and we tapped into it,” Northey said.

Northey and other agriculture leaders across the state see it as more than a nice idea; they say it’s a necessary step in order to maintain water quality in urban and rural areas.

Toward that end, the Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance is trying to get farmers engaged in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, a voluntary program initiated by Gov. Terry Branstad’s administration.

Cleaner streams a goal
Organizers point out that Iowa, which leads the U.S. in corn, pork and egg production and is among the top soybean-growing states, has struggled to clean hundreds of rivers and streams that have received runoff of fertilizer and manure.

In late August, the state commission responsible for enforcing clean water regulations passed tougher inspection rules for livestock farmers, although the INRS regulates runoff from corn and soybean fields.

The alliance will be funded by farmers themselves through trade groups Iowa Corn Growers Association, Iowa Soybean Association and Iowa Pork Producers. It will be based at the soybean association’s headquarters in Ankeny. Its board chairman is Kirk Leeds, the CEO of the soybean association.

A major alliance function will be to convince farmers they need to use practices including no-till farming, grass strips, cover crops and bioreactors, new systems that run water flowing from field drainage pipes through wood chip filtering systems that digest excess nitrogen from fertilizer.

That’s where the increased emphasis on cover crops serves multiple purposes: A thick tangle of root systems keeps topsoil and nutrients in place. They also can be used as a relatively high-protein rough forage feed.

“You can use about anything” as a cover crop, Cedar Falls farmer Jim Fitkin said.

Runoff isn’t a major problem in Northeast Iowa like it is in other parts of the state, but cover crops are still an effective tool to help the soil hold nutrients, Fitkin said.

“The same concept can go with your lawn -- if you mow the yard and don’t rake it, you return all the nutrients to the soil and it’s sustainable.”

Last week, an airplane applied seed on Fitkin's fields from 20-30 feet above the tips of the cornstalks.

“The impact will put it in the ground a little bit, and the rain will do some,” he said.

Fitkin uses several cover crops, including oats, root plants and alfalfa.

Advocates concerned
Cover crops are gaining momentum, but voluntary efforts like the INRS fall short of environmentalists’ goals.

Environmental groups said a voluntary program is unlikely to work.

“The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy will not lead to real improvements in Iowa’s polluted water quality unless and until it is strengthened with measurable and enforceable water quality standards and tougher and more effective public oversight,” farmer Larry Ginter, an Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement member, told reporters in late August.

Northey said forcing farmers to get involved is not the way to go.

“My belief is (voluntary) is the only way it works,” he said. “It’s pretty hard to tell folks to put on cover crops against their will if they don’t really want to do it. We need to have folks doing it because it works in their operation, and one operation can differ from another.”

Nick Meier, a corn and soybean grower in the La Porte City area, said he plants oats, radish, crimson clover and rapeseed as cover crops in a field that will go to corn next year. In the field that will go to soybeans, he’s planning an annual rye, radish, rapeseed and crimson clover.

“In each field, I’m doing 120-foot-wide strips of cover and 120 feet of no cover, and I’ve got three strips spread out of the cover crop with those species in them,” he said.

Cost concerns
Cost is a potential challenge to anybody considering cover crops, Meier said.

“It’s expensive to do, but it’s got to pay for itself,” he said. “That’s the difficult part. I’m hoping the retun is the value it puts back into the soil. Organic matter takes a long time to build. That’s why cover crop seems to be the big thing.”

Timing is another challenge, said Dustin Sage, a corn and soybean grower near Dunkerton.

“The problem is our growing season is so short, it’s hard to get a crop established in an economic and timely manner,” said Sage, who planted oats and radishes as cover crops last year.

“By the time you get beans to drop their canopy, you have maybe two or three weeks to get it established. But I think they could be beneficial in the long term if we could figure out a way to do it.”