Iowa farmers planted about 64,000 more cover crop acres funded through state and federal cost-share incentives in the fall of 2015 compared to fall 2014 – a 22% increase in one year. That’s according to data released by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service last week. It’s the latest data available on the amount of fall cover crops seeding made with cost-share funding.
Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey says this shows, even in challenging economic times in agriculture, farmers are seeing the benefits that cover crops provide. And they are also putting their own money toward cover crops and other practices focused on protecting water quality and improving soil health.
State and federally funded cover crop acres rose 22% in 2015
Iowans planted 291,267 cover crop acres last fall compared to 227,256 in the fall of 2014 with help from state and federal conservation programs.
The numbers include state funding from the Iowa Department of Agriculture & Land Stewardship (IDALS) through the Water Quality Initiative), state cost-share program, and local watershed projects. For federal funding, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) provides farmers financial assistance for cover crops through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP).
Farmers are seeing many benefits of cover crops adding up
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, reduces soil erosion and weed competition, traps excess nutrients in the soil, and even provides 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 farmers from conservation groups throughout the state, along with more farmers paying attention to soil health and water quality the past several years.
Many farmers started small with cover crops and are now expanding
“A few years ago many farmers were carefully experimenting with 10- and 20-acre cover crop plots,” says 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, says 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, in this county,” notes Maxwell. “That has made the transition to cover crops much easier.”
Maxwell says 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 says. “We have experienced no-till farmers who have faced these challenges before and can overcome them much easier.”
Iowa cover crop acreage expected to increase by 15% in 2017
NRCS and IDALS are both anticipating cover crop acres to increase by about 15% next year in Iowa, based on 2016 program signups. “We continue to see a growing interest in cover crops,” notes state ag secretary Northey, “both from farmers who are brand new to the practice as well as those who have been doing it for a couple years.”
He adds, “Even in these challenging economic times in agriculture, farmers are seeing the benefits cover crops provide and farmers are putting their own money toward cover crops and other practices to help protect water quality and improve soil health.”
For more information about cover crops and other practices and programs to help address natural resource concerns on your land, he encourages you to visit a local USDA Service Center or your county’s Soil and Water Conservation District office for planning and program assistance.
IOWA’S LEADER: Washington County in southeast Iowa leads the state in total acres planted to cover crops. That county has a large proportion of its row crop acres in no-till which makes the transition to cover crops easier.