At three locations across Iowa next week, you can get the "dirt" on cover crops and soil health from nationally-recognized, soil-health experts. Two of the speakers are Ohio farmer Dave Brandt and USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service conservation agronomist Ray Archuleta. The three seminars will be on June 4, 5 and 6. Each seminar will cover the same topics but will be held at different locations to give more people a chance to attend a seminar.
"To quote Ray Archuleta, many of our soils are 'naked, hungry, thirsty and running a fever'," says Jay Mar, the NRCS state conservationist for Iowa who is located at the Iowa NRCS office in Des Moines. "These meetings are a great opportunity to learn more about the important basics of soil function and biology, and how diverse cover crops can improve the soil's ability to infiltrate water, resist drought and erosion, improve nutrient cycling and produce healthy, abundant crops."
Learn how to design a cover crop mix and cover crop management system for your farm
Topics will include designing cover crop mixes, cover crop management systems, soil function demonstrations and sharing results from on-farm case studies. The free one-day seminars run from 9 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. No registration is required. Locations and dates include:
* June 4: Boulders Convention Center in Denison.
* June 5: Scheman Building at Iowa State University in Ames.
* June 6: Cherry Auditorium, Peterson Building, at Coe College in Cedar Rapids.~~~PAGE_BREAK_HERE~~~
A 45-minute break is provided for participants to eat lunch, which is not provided as part of the seminar. For more information call Iowa NRCS state soil scientist Rick Bednarek at 515-284-4135. Maps to the meeting locations can be found at the Iowa NRCS website.
Cover crops go beyond saving soil -- they also build soil organic matter and healthier soil
While most Iowa farmers don't use cover crops, a growing number of corn and soybean growers are giving them a look. Iowa NRCS conservationists estimate the number of cover crop acres in the state has mushroomed from a few thousand acres four years ago to 80,000 or 90,000 today. That number is likely to keep increasing, conservationists say, as the soil saving and soil-building benefits become better known.
Steve Berger and his dad, Dennis, farming near Wellman in southeast Iowa, have watched cover crops both save soil and build soil organic matter and improve soil health on their rolling hills and bottomlands near Wellman in southeast Iowa for more than 10 years. They drill cover crops, mostly cereal rye, on as many acres in the fall as they can, and then terminate the cover crop in the spring before planting corn or drilling soybeans. They get extra soil protection against erosion and they get soil building benefits, such as increased organic matter, with their cover crop system.
"We have more than 14 miles of terraces on our land, along with grassed waterways and field borders. And we have many years of continuous no-till," notes Steve. "Dad was no-tilling before I came into the operation in 1988. He has one field south of our homeplace that's been continuous no-till for 35 years."
Gaining organic matter content and building better soil, by planting cover crops
While the Bergers were trying to conserve soil on their sloping land, they weren't getting the complete control desired, and they found that their conservation practices weren't improving their soils as fast as they desired. "We have a corn-soybean rotation and we were losing organic matter in the years we planted soybeans," says Steve. "We don't want to just maintain our soils, we want to build them. We're doing that slowly now with cover crops, no-till, hog manure and tiling."~~~PAGE_BREAK_HERE~~~
That combination with the cover crops has resulted in corn yields that are consistently 30 bushels per acre above the average yield in Washington County, on soils with average corn suitability ratings. "We like to have something growing on the land throughout the year as best as we can, and we want it covered at all times," says Steve. "We have cereal rye growing about seven months of the year. The top growth is there to control erosion, but the root mass below holds the soil in place, too."
Farmers plan to add oats or other covers with the annual ryegrass to provide a mixture for a cover crop
Rye roots also aid water infiltration. "The rye has a prolific root system that goes as deep as 4 feet," says Steve Berger. "That not only opens the soil for air and water passage, it makes pathways that corn roots will follow deeper into the soil profile. If we can gain an additional 12 inches of root growth on corn, that's 2 more inches of available water in a dry year."
The growing roots of the cover crop also increase microbial action in the soil, which builds organic matter and leads to better soil structure. "There are a lot of options to choose from in planting cover crops," he notes. "We chose cereal rye (winter rye) because it adapts well to Iowa. It dramatically reduces soil erosion and it has an excellent root system. In the future, we'd like to add oats or other covers in a mixture."