Why Conservation Should Matter to a Landowner

By Evan Brehm; Conservation Agronomist Iowa Soybean Association

As the famous Iowan, Aldo Leopold, once said, “Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land.” This implies that if we give back to our land, it will give back to us. This was a quote about conservation agriculture before anybody really understood what it was. So, what is conservation in agriculture? Conservation agriculture is aimed at minimizing soil loss, keeping the soil covered, reducing nutrient loss, and improving water quality. By working with the land, everybody benefits. Intertwining farming and conservation has increased over the past decade. This is due to cost share programs, the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, and high interest in water quality.

This article will highlight a few conservation practices that can be added to row crop acres in Iowa that provide economic, environmental, and social advantages today and into the future.

Reducing tillage is a conservation practice that is gaining momentum on Iowa farmland. Tillage is needed to some extents, but not what has been done in the past. Moldboard plows, chisel plows, disc rippers, and cultivators are examples of tillage equipment. When Iowa was first settled, the moldboard plow paved the way for the state to become where we are today in agriculture production. Overtime, we have gotten away from the moldboard plow on every acre. On top of the moldboard plow, the state of Iowa rests in a climate suitable for row crop production with glacial movements of soils that allow the state to be an agriculture powerhouse. We need to keep that valuable soil in place. By reducing tillage with no till or strip till, the soil stays put. Soil staying put means the crop residue remains in the field, synthetic fertilizers that cost money will be there for next year’s crop, and less runoff into nearby streams that house wildlife and drinking sources for cities.

Examples of tillage reduction are no till and strip till. Both practices minimize soil loss. No till can be done on any row crop acre. Strip till is usually done ahead of a corn crop. A small strip is tilled in the field where fertilizer is placed below the soil. The corn crop is then planted in the strip the following growing season. By reducing tillage, we can also reduce diesel fuel use and increase soil carbon. Reducing fuel saves money and increased soil carbon develops a healthier soil that cycles nutrients more efficiently.

Another conservation practice to consider is adding a cover crop. Cover crops in Iowa have exceeded over 2 million acres according to the USDA in 2020. In 2008, cover crops were used on less than 600,000 acres. There are a few reasons for this momentum. One reason is reducing soil erosion. There are many types of cover crops, but on average they can reduce soil erosion by 50%. Grasses such as rye, wheat, and oats can reduce erosion over 90%. The winter months in Iowa can be harsh with frigid temperatures and howling winds. Whether a cover crop is 2 inches or 10 inches by mid-November, that cover crop is decreasing soil erosion.

Another reason for increased acres is weed suppression. Waterhemp is a major weed in row crops in Iowa. It has developed resistance to six herbicide classes. Cover crops growing prior to row crops create competition to early season weeds. This causes fewer weeds to emerge over time and allow herbicides to be more effective.

A third reason for increased cover crop acres is water quality. Grasses, particularly cereal rye, are excellent at taking up excess nitrates in the soil. Less nitrates in the soil means less nitrates in our water. We need nitrogen to grow corn. Iowa is the #1 corn producer in America. By adding in a grass species, the nitrogen will stay in the field where it belongs. This is in hopes to prevent any future regulations on nitrogen applications in high priority watersheds. And a final reason for increased cover crop use is cost share.

As an agronomist, I want farmers and landowners to see the above-mentioned advantages first. But opportunities for cost share are only increasing with more dollars. Cost share allows landowners and farmers to experiment with cover crops on row crop acres with financial incentives. This information can be found through your local NRCS county office.

Edge of field practices are on the rise in Iowa under the conservation umbrella of practices. With local cost share options available they can be paid up to 100%. Edge of field practices consist of saturated buffers and bioreactors. Saturated buffers are located in an area of perennial vegetation between the farm field and waterways where tile outlets drain. These buffers can reduce nitrates up to 50%, stabilize stream banks, and provide wildlife habitat. Bioreactors are deep trenches dug on the edge of the field that are then filled with woodchips. A tile line drains into this bioreactor where bacteria remove nitrates before leaving the field into a body of water. Perennial vegetation is then planted on top of the bioreactor. The lifespan of the wood chips is 10-15 years, of which then will need to be dug out and new chips added.

Awareness around conservation in agriculture has a high demand. Although it may sound good, there does need to be economics behind these practices. Cost share has helped many Iowa farmers and landowners get started. I encourage people to start small and plan on the continued practice for 3-4 years. Depending on what success looks like to the operation, there may be economics year one. Conservation practices need to be looked at for the long term. These practices create more resilient soils. When soils are more resilient, they give back to us. More resiliency means less worry about drought, floods, and pests that hinder our crops. Inputs like fertilizers and herbicides are at an all time high. Conservation allows our farming system to be more sustainable by using what we have now and into the future.

If you have any questions on how to get started or who to contact, I’d be happy to connect with you. Please reach out at any time and see how conservation can be added or increased onto your acres.

Evan Brehm

Conservation Agronomist

Iowa Soybean Association