Survey: one in four Iowa farms planting cover crops

Survey: one in four Iowa farms planting cover crops

Cover crops are important part of the Iowa Water Quality Initiative; here's an update on what's happening in Iowa.

Cover crops are seeing a surge in popularity as farmers continue efforts to improve water quality and soil health on their farms. A recent survey found one in four Iowa farmers are using cover crops today. The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, released in May 2013 shows that cover crops are proven effective at reducing loss of nutrients from fields. They're also a critical component of improving and maintain soil health.

GAINING GROUND: Different cropping systems and weather variability provide an opportunity for farmers to try new types of cover crops. Iowa has a number of on-farm demonstrations and plots as farmers are finding out which crops work best in their fields.

Matt Lechtenberg, coordinator of the Iowa Water Quality Initiative, at the Iowa Department of Agriculture & Land Stewardship, has written a summary of what's happening with cover crops in Iowa. He's also summarized what's happening with cover crop research in Iowa, and provides a list of contacts for farmers to go to for answers to questions about establishing and managing cover crops. His listing of sources of information on cover crops is available later on in this article.

Listing provides valuable help to learn more about cover crops
"This listing provides a great resource for anyone interested in learning more about cover crops," says Lechtenberg. "To request additional information or if you are interested in conducting a demonstration or cover crop research on your farm, contact one of these groups." Here is the "rest of the story" as Lechtenberg has authored the following summary.

Cover crops are one of the only practices available to farmers that have been proven to achieve significant reductions in soil erosion plus nitrogen and phosphorus losses. Cover crops are seeded either after harvest of a cash crop or often seeded into standing crops to improve growth of the cover crop to maximize the benefits. These cover crops sequester nutrients that would otherwise be subject to loss through the fallow period between harvest and planting, the most vulnerable times for nutrient loss from Iowa's soils.


In addition to limiting losses of sediment and nutrients from fields, there are many other benefits to integrating cover crops, such as increasing organic matter, increasing beneficial soil microbes, and more. Even with this knowledge of the benefits, there are challenges to implementing cover crops more broadly across Iowa. Researchers, nongovernmental groups (NGOs), and farmers are leading these efforts on investigating, learning, and publicizing the proper management techniques and considerations for using cover crops in Iowa.

On-farm research and demo projects provide good information
These groups are in no small part responsible for much of the buzz and interest generated in recent years around cover crops. Their research and demonstration activities have led to invaluable information to help provide better understanding on proper management and other considerations to making cover crops work in farms across Iowa.

With the support of public and private organizations and businesses these groups are working to increase the knowledge and understanding of cover crops and how they fit into Iowa's cropping systems and weather patterns. Through on-farm research and demonstration, these groups have experimented and documented proper management techniques for better informed decision-making.

Who to contact in Iowa for answers to your cover crop questions
Here is a summary of the groups and locations of these activities currently being conducted in 55 of Iowa's 99 counties. Feel free to contact any of these groups for more information or if you're interested in conducting trials or demonstrations on your farm. For a full summary and listing of specific research and demonstration topics, go to or contact any of the individuals listed with their respective group or agency.

Cover Crop Solutions (CCS) Cover Crop Solutions this year is establishing a cover crop research and demonstration farm in Greene County in west- central Iowa. The main focus of their work is to address proper management considerations for cover crops in Iowa and an assessment of some of the benefits relating to SCN reduction and nutrient catch/release. Contact Mick Lane, research communications manager at [email protected]. Phone 800-767-9441, ext. 107.


Grassland Oregon (GO) Grassland Oregon has a research farm south of Richland, Iowa in Keokuk County investigating various legumes,

brassicas and annual ryegrass viability in Iowa's cropping systems. Contact Brent Jones, sales manager at [email protected]. Phone 503-302-7538.

Green Cover Seed (GCS) Green Cover Seed is working with multiple farmers primarily in southwest Iowa to investigate opportunities to use cover crops in a host of cropping and livestock systems. Contact Colten Catterton, Green Cover seed rep. at [email protected]. Phone 402-984-1631.

Iowa Cover Crop Working Group (ICCWG) ICCWG includes core members from the following agencies and organizations: Iowa Learning Farms, Practical Farmers of Iowa, Iowa State University Extension, USDA Ag Research Service, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Iowa Department of Agriculture & Land Stewardship. ICCWG conducts both plot and on-farm demonstrations of cover crops associated with seeding method, timing, etc., and the effects of cover crops on profitability, soil health and crop performance. Contact Elizabeth Juchems, events coordinator and educator at [email protected]. Phone 515-294-5429.

Iowa Soybean Association (ISA) ISA establishes on-farm strip trials to evaluate different cover crop management practices on crop yield and/or soil health. Results of replicated strip trials are posted at after completion of harvest and analysis. All projects with results from previous year are presented at the annual ISA Research Conference held in February in Ames, Iowa.

Farmers interested in conducting on farm replicated strip trials using cover crops or other management techniques can contact the On-Farm Network staff.

A current opportunity for farmers in the East and West Nishnabotna River watersheds for soil health testing is available for the spring of 2015. Anyone using cover crops who are interested in trying soil health testing can contact Theo Gunther, ISA resource management specialist at [email protected].

• Iowa State University Research Farms and ISU Extension. ISU continues to advance both plot level and on-farm research on cover crops in various cropping systems. Written articles on some of them can be found at and Contact Mark Licht, Extension cropping systems specialist at [email protected]. Phone 515-294-0877.


• Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI). PFI has a wealth of information on cover crops relative to Iowa, based on years of on-farm data collected from farmer cooperators. Many reports are available on past and current on-farm research at the PFI website. If interested in designing your own trial or participating in a trial listed, you should contact PFI staff today. Contact Stefan Gailans, research scientist and cooperator program manager at [email protected]. Phone 515-232-5661.

Soil Health Partnership (SHP) Partnership between the National Corn Growers Association, Monsanto, Walton Family Foundation and the Nature Conservancy to measure and communicate the economic and environmental benefits of different soil management strategies, and provide a set of regionally specific, data-driven recommendations which farmers can use to improve the productivity and sustainability of their farms. Specific soil health practices to be evaluated include cover crops, reduced tillage, and nutrient management. Contact Ben Gleason, sustainable program manager, Iowa Corn Growers Association at [email protected]. Phone 515-225-9242.

• USDA-Agricultural Research Service (ARS), National Lab for Agriculture and the Environment (NLAE). Conducting plot level research on cover crop effects on nitrate loss reductions, soil properties and corn seedling root diseases. USDA-ARS is involved in many of the other cover crop research and demonstration projects listed previously.

Contact Tom Kaspar, plant physiologist at [email protected]. Phone 515-294-8873.

NOTE: This report was prepared by Matt Lechtenberg, Iowa Water Quality Initiative Coordinator, IDALS, Wallace State Office Building, Des Moines, IA 50319. Email him at

[email protected]. Phone 515-281-3857.

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