Across Iowa, farming and water quality are the current hot topic. As a consumer you have a vested health interest in ensuring the water you drink is safe and that lakes and rivers are safe for public recreation. Farmers, with vast

A multispecies cover crop (rye and crimson clover visible in the photograph) in late May immediately prior to termination.

A multispecies cover crop (rye and crimson clover visible in the photograph) in late May immediately prior to termination.

reaches of land in Iowa, have an important role to play as changes are made to improve water quality. Everyone wants a sustainable watershed with reduced nutrient and sediment runoff from all lands. Toward that end, farmers can take action and non-farmers can speak with friends that are farmers about conserving and improving the quality of their farmland. Water quality is only one component of soil heath that concerns farmers. The composition of the soil, made up of mineral, organic matter, water, and air, is important in determining how well soil will function. For row crop land, cover crops are a cost-effective practice that can help reduce nutrient and sediment runoff and improve the function of the soil. For 9 years, Whiterock Conservancy has been using cover crops.

Cover crops permit farmers to reap a slowly increasing return on investment by improving soil health through increasing organic matter, increasing below-field water holding capacity, and reducing erosion by stabilizing soil. By taking the long view of improving soil, farmers are ensuring that their land is sustainable in the long run. In doing so, soil is being “weatherized” to help protect and improve the water quality of the entire watershed. Yet those benefits take years to reap. There is a real cost to implementing cover crops both financially and in time to educate oneself on how to adapt cover crops to the specific farm’s systems.

Current cost-share from state and federal resources helps offset costs during the “dip the toe in the water period” for a farmer to get closer to the years when soil health benefits are achieved and costs associated with cover crops are recouped as part of the cash crop. As a taxpayer who helps supports these programs I urge you to consider for yourself or speak to farmers you know to encourage them to try cover crops. By increasing the number of farmers that are using cover crops the number of protected acres in the watershed increases.

Whiterock Conservancy continues to integrate cover crops into our row crop program to ensure that soils are covered year round. We grow rye that we use for our own cover crop program. By incorporating a small grain into the cropping rotation we help stabilize soils and improve the soil quality of the fields.

We continue to experiment with types of cover crops and planting and termination schedules. In addition, we are trying a few versions of companion cropping (crops that grow during the primary crop season and assist the growth of the primary crop by providing nutrients, share or support) to determine the potential benefits.

This spring we hosted field days to share our findings with fellow farmers and agronomists. As a non-profit we are in a special position to be able to share our financial information with farmers and explain the financial costs and benefits.

In the grand scheme we watch over the soil for a brief period of time and are responsible for ensuring that soils are improved rather than just sustained. Sustaining current soil health is accepting the status quo of all the impacts from past farming activities that have depleted soil health. We recognize that more variability in weather, including 92 inches of rain on a field in a year, is now the reality. Diverse cropping systems that keep soils covered year round can help us achieve sustainable watersheds that are “weatherized” and ensure that soil health continues to improve. By using cover crops as one of our conservation practices we continue to play our role in improving soil health and water quality while working towards a more resilient watershed.

A rye cover crop in March that has been enrolled in a Practical Farmers of Iowa and Iowa Learning Farms long-term monitoring study to assess the effects of cover crops on crop yields.

A rye cover crop in March that has been enrolled in a Practical Farmers of Iowa and Iowa Learning Farms long-term monitoring study to assess the effects of cover crops on crop yields.