Alisha Bower

Strategic Initiatives Manager

Alisha Bower joined the PFI team as the Midwest Cover Crop Associate in the first days of 2017. Her work supports cover crops and small grains programs and involves grant tracking and reporting, event planning, data collection and management, and communications.

A native Wisconsinite, Alisha was raised on a small hobby farm in Southwest Wisconsin’s picturesque Driftless region. She attended the University of Minnesota Twin Cities majoring in Political Science and Spanish, then returned to school for her Master of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin Madison, focusing her studies on nonprofit administration and designing and managing research projects in agriculture and food systems. While working on her Masters she served as a Project Coordinator at the Integrated Pest Management Institute of North America and collected on-farm data from diversified organic vegetable operations. After completing her graduate degree, she moved to Lima, Peru for a brief internship with the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service where she paused between bowls of ceviche and lomo saltado to interact with producers, agribusiness representatives, and policy makers to support U.S. farmers’ and ranchers’ interests abroad.

After work, Alisha enjoys singing show tunes while gardening, fermenting anything remotely edible (or drinkable!), and biding her time until her next international adventure by reading books that explore different cultures.

Blog posts

Our fifth stop on the cover crop caravan this spring took us to Postville in northeast Iowa. We were greeted that morning with a fresh snow fall that unfortunately made it impractical to see cover crops in action, luckily our presenters had lots of photos to remind us what spring and summer look like. Don kicked off the field day by describing his cover crop practices and experiences and then we had a special presentation from Liam McVey, a local sixth grade student with a top prize science fair project on soil organic matter. NRCS Area Agronomist Neil Sass then wrapped up the day with a deeper look at the science of soil organic matter and new results from a cover crop seeding date and rate study Neil and his colleague Jacob Groth conducted last year.

A man in an ISU baseball cap sits on a tall stool to the right of a screen displaying a photo of green rye growing in strips. Audience members heads appear in the foreground.

Don Elsbernd discusses cover crops at his field day in his (heated!) shop.

Don has been planting cover crops for years on his farm in Allamakee and Winneshiek counties, even though some would say that’s “too far north” to do cover crops successfully. He first got into cover crops because he was concerned about erosion on soybean ground due to lack of substantial residue. But with more experience his goals have evolved and grown to three:

  1. Consistent, economical establishment of cover crops;
  2. Demonstrate economic benefits of using cover crops;
  3. And add diversity to the system.

Among the tricks he’s tried to accomplish these goals within his short window for cover crop growth are dormant seeding and interseeding. Continue reading

“My goal with cover crops is to balance soil health and maximize crop production;” Steve Berger began his talk on cover crops for our March “shared learning call.” Steve farms near Wellman, IA and joined us on March 16th to share his practices for successfully managing a cereal rye cover crop on every acre of his corn and soybean ground. His talk covered his fertility plan, terminating cover crops and planting the main crop.

A middle aged man in coveralls stands in a hole dug into a mostly brown field, holding a plant in his hand that has long roots clinging to soil

Steve Berger inspects the rooting depth of cereal rye planted in one of his fields. Photo: Cliff Jette, The Gazette

Fertilizer Plan

Steve plants rye in 10” rows using a crustbuster drill immediately after harvest – which can go up to or past the second week of November. Then Steve implements his fertility program, which he describes as “spoon feeding my nitrogen.” After temperatures drop in the fall he will apply swine manure, dribbled onto the soil surface. Then in early spring he takes soil tests to measure available nitrogen (N). In most years this leads to broadcasting ammonium sulfate in two separate passes with 30 lbs of N per acre in each pass for a total of 60 lbs of N applied before the corn planter hits the field. Or this nitrogen is applied as manure. This sets the stage for a successful corn crop after a cereal rye cover. Continue reading

If I had a nickel every time someone asked me about the potential of selling small grains to craft breweries and distilleries – I’d be able to start my own brewery by now! Unfortunately, for most of these questions I come up short on answers so I decided to invite some experts to fill in the gaps. Our March 2nd shared learning call featured Ryan Burchett, founder of Mississippi River Distilling Company in LeClaire, Iowa and Adam Wagner, farmer and founder of Vertical Malt in Fisher, Minnesota. They went over the grain requirement for each of their respective crafts and the prices and quantities required in each industry.

A glass of raw grain, a glass of malted grain and a glass of beer form a triangle in front of a vertical malt logo

Small Grains for Distilling

Technically – any grain can be distilled. But the classic spirits like whiskey sell the best, so Ryan sources corn, rye, wheat and barley. “We like to tell the story that grain is from farmers within 25 miles of the place,” Ryan says. “We know where our grain comes from, even the cows that fertilize the field.” He sources all his grains locally and pays $9-12/bushel for conventional grain delivered to the distilling facility. In a year he sources 3,000-4,000 bushels of corn, 1,000 bushels of rye and 300-500 bushels of wheat or barley. When we consider that average rye yield is about 40-60 bushels/acre this means that an entire year’s supply of rye for Mississippi River Distilling Company can be grown on 17-25 acres. In general, you can estimate that 1 bottle of spirits will require around 1.5 pounds of grain, so you can work backwards from a distiller’s capacity to know their grain demands.

Two men in collared shirts smile in a field of golden wheat that comes up to their knees

Ryan Burchett (left) and Gary Burchett are co-owners of the Mississippi River Distilling Company. They source 100% of their grain locally from farmers. Photo from: https://www.mrdistilling.com/quad-cities-businesses-partner-to-increase-whiskey-production-in-le-claire/

As for the grain itself the most important qualities are that it be dried down below 15% moisture and it’s clean. Ryan explains, “We’re into the starch in the grain – we’re getting as much fuel in there as possible so the yeast has a lot to work on.” There hasn’t been a lot of rye or wheat variety trial work done with distilling in mind, to this point, but an interesting Minnesota research project that’s getting started this year will test distilling quality of different cereal rye varieties.

Ryan works directly with his sourcing farmers before planting time to estimate volumes of grain that they’ll need for the year. “We try to give them a thumbnail of what we’d like them to plant for us and then we stay in touch as the season goes on so they know if we won’t use all of their grain and they need to start looking for other markets,” Ryan says. Continue reading

Last fall was wonky. Harvest was late and many people didn’t make it into the fields until November to establish their winter small grains – a month or more after optimal planting dates for yield. On top of it we’ve had some bitterly cold stretches this winter with little snow cover, so some folks are wondering – is my cereal rye and/or winter wheat going to make it? Should I go to plan B? Right now is the time to evaluate if it’s a good enough stand to keep for grain or treat it as a cover crop and terminate before planting corn or soybeans.

Snowy barn and silo with several tractors parked in front

Cereal Rye

First off, winter small grains are not created equal. Cereal rye is far more winter hardy than winter wheat so it’s more likely to emerge from this weird winter with grace. “It’s a survivor,” Keota farmer Tim Sieren says. “Rye will germinate at 35 degrees so it will green up in time for you to evaluate the stand and decide whether you keep it and over-seed clover or not.”

Agronomist Margaret Smith explains the plant physiology that makes cereal rye able to emerge and produce grain, even if you don’t see it emerge in the fall. “The meristem of the rye – the area of growing and dividing cells – requires vernalization (cold treatment) to allow the rye to become reproductive later this spring and to produce seed. Rye needs only to germinate to become vernalized, even if the meristem is still underground and it will make a crop the following year.” Even if you didn’t see any growth last fall, it’s still likely that the rye has germinated during a stretch of warmer days and will emerge in the spring. So don’t give up hope yet on your cereal rye!

Now that it’s started to warm up more, it’s time to get out in the field and look at the plant stand. For rye, an ideal plant stand is 20 to 24 live plants per square foot, but the Alberta Agriculture and Forestry Department suggests that five to six live plants per square foot is a keeper stand. To verify the plants are alive you should dig up a few plants and verify that there’s new pure white and thick roots coming out of the crown. Even if the tops are brown, if the roots are actively growing the plants will recover. Continue reading

Cover crop termination and cash crop planting in the spring is the most important aspect of cover crop management to ensure good yields. So this spring we’ve scheduled two shared learning calls where experienced cover crop farmers share their “spring cover crop management playbook.” On February 16, Wayne Fredericks, a corn and soybean farmer in Mitchell County laid out his spring plans for us putting emphasis on the importance of planter set up for planting both corn and soybeans into higher residue field conditions created by the cover crop.

“Last fall was the first fall that we seeded 100% cereal rye before corn and soybeans,” Wayne began. “Our first experience with cover crops was fall of 2012, and we did that in strip trials because we saw the need to gather input and research on what cover crops were doing.” Wayne, who was a member of the Iowa Soybean Association Board at that time, used the knowledge he gained in these strip trials to design his finely tuned spring management strategy to maximize benefits from the cover crop and deal with the unique scenarios preceding corn and soybean planting. Wayne’s talk focused on terminating cereal rye in the spring, fertilizer adjustments for corn planted after rye and planter settings for corn and soybeans.

Cover Crop Termination

A man in a white shirt with a Iowa Soybean Association Logo kneels in a field with brown dry stalks of cereal rye with bright green rows of 5 inch tall soybeans growing up through it.

Wayne Fredericks inspects soybeans that were planted into two-foot tall cereal rye earlier that spring. Photo credit: Iowa Soybean Association.

Before soybeans, Wayne maximizes biomass growth and weed control from his cover crop by “planting green” into living rye for the last three years. He says, “when you include your pre-emerge chemicals with the roundup it takes a higher rate to ensure adequate control.” On his farm they combine the cover crop burn down herbicides with their pre-emergence plan just before soybean planting, including 44 oz. of WeatherMAX® + AMS, 3 pints of Harness®, 5 oz. of Sencor® and generic capture. Continue reading

Small grains are a unique crop in the Midwestern system because they are harvested early – around July – leaving the field open for different field operations and cover crops. This longer window makes it possible to grow a legume cover crop that can synthesize nitrogen and offset purchased fertilizer costs for the following crop in the rotation.  But farmers don’t have to wait until August to seed their legume, on our February small grains shared learning call we welcomed Keota farmer Tim Sieren and USDA Ag Research Station technician Keith Kohler to discuss frost seeding legumes, an alternative to waiting until after small grain harvest to establish the cover crop.

Flowering red clover established via frost seeding into a rye cover crop. Between clover plants you can see the brown of the rye residue decomposing.

“The name ‘frost’ seeding is actually a misnomer,” Keith begins. “It’s really a ‘freeze thaw’ seeding where you want the seed out there as the season warms up.” In early spring as the days begin bouncing back and forth between freezing and warmer temperatures, the ground contracts and expands with the changes, working a seed laying on the soil into the ground. So, if you get a small sized legume seed out there at the right time this natural cycle will do the work of planting it for you. It’s the ideal method for planting clover or alfalfa into an established winter small grain like rye or winter wheat so that the crop isn’t disturbed and can be used ahead of spring small grain planting too. Continue reading

Have you ever heard of a shared learning call? Probably not, unless you’ve been participating in our small grains monthly calls for the past year. They’ve worked so well there that we’ve decided to try out the format for other topics. A “shared learning call” is essentially a conference call, where you dial into a conference line with many others and listen as a farmer shares their practices for about 15-20 minutes and then we open the floor for questions and discussion for the rest of the hour. All you need is a phone!

Our first cover crop shared learning call will be on February 16 from 12-1 p.m. when Mitchell county farmer Wayne Fredericks will share his strategy for managing cover crops and planting into cover crop residue on heavy soils. Fredericks has been no-tilling soybeans for 20 years and has been planting cover crops, mainly cereal rye, since 2011. Here’s a sneak peak of his tips on planter set up for cover crop residue that he’ll share on the 16th:

“Watch your depth if you’re planting into high residue. You want to plant a little bit deeper,” he says. Fredericks sets his planter a quarter-inch deeper than he normally would on his John Deere 1790 which has 24 units on 15-inch rows. He also runs 400-pounds of down pressure per unit when planting into heavy rye residue. “Having the ability to apply the necessary down pressure is key.” If this is your first time planting soybeans into rye, you might want to plant into knee-high growth instead of waiting until it gets to almost three feet high. But, ultimately, “Termination timing isn’t as critical on soybeans as on corn,” he says. “I’ve planted soybeans into cereal rye as high as this table (34 inches).”

A red tractor pulls a blue planter through lush green rye that's as tall as the tractor wheels

Wayne Fredericks will discuss planter set up for situations like this, “planting green” into living rye cover crop.

To Participate:

  1. Dial 641-715-3620
  2. Enter passcode 357330# when prompted
  3. Put your phone on mute to avoid feedback during presentation and unless speaking in the Q & A

Be sure to your calendars for these additional upcoming shared learning calls:

  • Friday, March 2 Noon – 1 p.m. Shared Learning Call on Marketing Small Grains to Breweries and Distilleries
  • Friday, March 16 Noon – 1 p.m. Steve Berger of Wellman Shared Learning Call on Cover crops for corn & soybeans: planter setup, nitrogen for corn, termination reminders

It’s hard to pick just one favorite part of the PFI conference, but I think mine is our potluck and this year we have a special treat – a whole roast pig from one of our members! Please join us Friday January 19 from 7-11 pm for a shared meal hosted by Ty and Bobbie Gustafson of Story City Locker and Donna Prizgintas and Lonna Nachtigal of the DonnaLonna Kitchen Show. Practical Farmers will provide a main dish, coffee, water and tableware. Please bring a side dish and beverage to share.

Potluck is held at CMPI Event Center (2321 North Loop Dr.) in Ames. Friday January 19, 7:00-11:00 pm.

A long line of people select food from a huge table laden with dozens of brightly colored dishes of food.

2017 PFI Potluck

PFI will provide:
  • A whole roast pig from Crooked Gap Farm, roasted by Story City Locker;
  • Buns from Madrid Bakery;
  • Salad greens from Lee’s Greens;
  • Beans from PFI member Darren Fehr;
  • Coffee and water;
  • Tableware.

Don’t want to keep food cold or warm all day? You may drop food off at Scheman when you arrive for the conference and we will transport it for you! Items can be dropped off on a designated table on the ground floor at Scheman. We will transport food from there until 5 pm 1/20/17. We can plug in crock pots and refrigerate dishes.

Need to pick something up last-minute? Visit one of these local establishments:

Don’t miss this fun family event! 

Two young boys, one holding a big brimmed hat talk to two men who are seated at a table enjoying food and beer. In the background you can see many tables full of people eating.

PFI staffer Stefan Gailans and PFI member Jeremy Gustafson are entertained by two youngsters at the potluck.

You finally did it. You took the leap of faith and grew small grains last year. Everything went great – you got your weeds back under control and grew an amazing clover cover crop. Next year you’re going back to corn – but, uh oh, hold on, it’s not business as usual. Now that you’ve grown biological nitrogen with your cover crop you’ll need to adjust your nitrogen plan. And what about terminating that clover before corn? You’ve heard that can be a real chore. PFI members Randy and Willie Hughes, who operate a 5,500 acre split conventional and organic farm in southern WI, joined us for our December small grains shared learning call to address these questions.

Fifteen people pose and smile in front of a green and yellow john deere tractor

The employees and family members that make up the Hughes Farm. Randy Hughes stands in the front row on the far left and Willie Hughes is in the back row on the far right. Photo from: http://www.whughesfarms.com

Adjusting Your Fertilizer Plan

The first step in deciding how much nitrogen you’ll have to purchase this year for your corn is figuring out how much you already have in the plant matter and the soil from your nitrogen-fixing, legume cover crop. As with different fertilizer products, no two cover crops are created equal in terms of the nitrogen they provide. The amount of nitrogen fixation depends on the biomass produced by the plant and how long it’s been in the field. Luckily, the Hughes provided some rules of thumb that can help put a number to this N source:

Cover Crop Biomass Amount of N
1 Year Alfalfa Over ankle high 100 lbs/acre
2 Year Alfalfa Over ankle high 200 lbs/acre
Clover Way above ankle but below knee 80 lbs/acre

 

It’s important to note that all of the legumes listed in the table above are planted in July or August in the year preceding the corn, after wheat is harvested in the Hughes’s operation. “You won’t get nitrogen out of it if it’s only got a couple months of growth,” Randy says, “so it’s got to go in after a small grain.”

But, N in the cover crop is not necessarily correlated directly to available N in the soil that corn can use. So the Hughes designed a study to see which fertilization strategy created the most available N. They compared two different legume cover crop treatments and two manure treatments that varied the time of cover crop planting and manure application. The cover crop treatments were alfalfa planted after oat harvest (summer) or winter wheat with alfalfa drilled into it in the spring. The manure treatments applied 6,000 gallons of hog manure into a non-legume cover crop after wheat (summer) or applied in the spring before soybean planting.

Blue semi with Hughes written on the side sits in front of a field of wheat with wheat straw in wind rows

Wheat harvest on the Hughes’s farm with the green of an underseeded legume peeking through the wheat stubble. Photo from: http://www.whughesfarms.com

They found, as they expected, that the legume cover crop with more growing time produced more available N, but both cover crop treatments actually had higher N concentrations than either of the manure treatments. The frost seeded alfalfa into wheat resulting in 26 ppm of available N in the soils, alfalfa planted after oat harvest rang in at 20 ppm, hog manure applied after wheat was 14 ppm and spring applied N was only 10 ppm. Through this project the Hughes learned that their green manure strategies were highly effective at providing available N to the subsequent crop.

Terminating the Cover Crop

While you want to give the cover crop as much time to grow as possible to maximize the available N, we also know that killing it before corn planting to avoid yield drag can be tricky. As Willie says, “You’ve got to get it dead or it’ll be a weed for you too.” Their preferred implement is the disc, a fifty foot sunflower 1550, though they say plowing or chiseling could work. They perform 1-2 passes with the disc when the soil temperature is at 45-50 degrees and then plant corn when soil temperature reaches 60 degrees.

One benefit of the nitrogen provided by plowing in the cover crop, often referred to as a green manure, is that the nitrogen is not as susceptible to leaching. “If you get four inches of rain in the conventional world you lose four inches of nitrogen, but with the legume breaking down it doesn’t leach away because it’s not soluble yet.”

When it comes the balance sheet, the Hughes see the benefits. “Small grains have made or saved more money organically than they have conventionally,” Randy says. “You can buy nitrogen conventionally about as cheap as you can grow it, but in organic you can’t.”

Every month we host a shared learning call featuring on growing or marketing small grains. If you’d like to join our next shared learning call, email Alisha@practicalfarmers.org or call 515-232-5661. Learn more about our small grains cost share or other programming at practicalfarmers.org/small-grains-cornbelt .

Increasing rates of cover crop use on rented ground is the next frontier in improving water quality, promoting soil health and improving farmers’ resilience and not all of this rented land is privately owned. Local, state, and federal agencies own a large amount of land in the U.S. for the purpose of protecting natural resources and providing public infrastructure (flood management, water quality management, etc).

There are three main public agencies that own and rent farm land in Iowa: The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the United States Army and the Army Corps of Engineers. For the DNR particularly, renting out this agricultural land is a balancing act between making sure that land is productive and creating and protecting wildlife habitat. The use of cover crops between cash crops on public rented ground addresses both of these goals.  Cover crops are planted to coincide with maturity of commodity crops like corn or soybeans and protect the soil until a new cash crop is planted in the spring so that there are living roots in the ground at nearly all times. This protects natural resources like water and soil by preventing erosion and nutrient leaching, and it provides and/or improves habitat for both aquatic and terrestrial species (see Wilcoxen et al. 2017).

A male farmer, dressed for cold weather kneels in a harvested field of corn where a lush, green cover crop is growing among what's left of the corn stalks

An Iowa Farmer inspects growth on his cereal rye cover crop, planted earlier this fall.

Despite the natural overlap between the goals of public agencies like DNR and the outcomes of cover cropping, it is still rarely implemented on their rented land. We spoke with land managers at several public agencies to better understand the barriers and opportunities for implementing cover crops on public lands. The following blog outlines three case studies where public land managers have added cover crop requirements in their leases and we conclude with some lessons learned that could help other public land managers implement cover crops on their acres. We found that the elements of a successful lease are: a cover crop requirement, basic best management safeguards and a penalty if cover crop is not established. To effectively manage these leases, land managers also require easier access to quality information about cover crops and should leverage public support for cover crops in their county.

Army – Middletown, Iowa

The Army owns 20,000 acres in Des Moines County where it operates a munitions plant near Middletown, Iowa. In 2017, just over 1,000 acres of land suitable for row crop production was leased to farmers on leases for one, two or five years. Since 2015, a stipulation of these leases was that cover crops had to be used, motivated largely by the Army land manager’s own interest in the benefits of cover crops. The exact language from the lease used at the Middletown plant is located in Section five of the Agricultural Land Use Regulations and Special Conditions (p. 26). It states:

A screen capture of the lease that says: "The lessee should plan to direct seed/plant cover crops the same day the row crop is harvested."

This language includes several key factors to ensure both compliance with the cover crop requirements and a successful cover crop establishment. To the first point, the lease contains explicit language about a monetary penalty for failing to establish a cover crop. The penalty payment is strategically set at $60, higher than the $40-50 per acre cost to install cover crops. This provides an incentive to the manager to pursue the cover crops as the more cost-effective option.

To ensure that the cover crop is successfully established, the lease takes one step further with some guidelines on cover crop management and planting. Notice that if the cover crop is drilled, the lease suggests the tenant should plant cover crops on the same day as row crop harvest – a best practice to ensure maximum heat units and cover crop growth before the winter dormancy period. The lease prohibits fall tillage; safeguarding the benefits of leaving cover crops growing or their winter kill residue on the fields through the winter and spring protecting the soil from erosion and holding nutrients in the plant tissue. Another stipulation requires the farmer to consult with the IAAAP Agronomist on cover crop rates and varieties so they have some expert guidance to develop a successful strategy. These clauses not only maximize the environmental benefits of cover crops, but also support the farmer in managing these tools in their production system.

A small red airplane flies low over a field of yellowing soybeans on a sunny day with few clouds dotting the blue sky

Because the Army’s fields surround a munitions plant, they have special stipulations for planting methods for cover crops. Aerial seeding (as shown in this photo) was only allowed as a permissible practice in the 2017 lease, previous versions required cover crop planting via ground methods.

DNR – Ringgold County

After the DNR committed to cover cropping 100% of their row crop leases in 2014, DNR staff in Southwest Iowa have been pioneers in taking on the challenge of implementing the mandate. Because the DNR leases in this part of Iowa tend to be larger, continuous acreages, it made it an ideal place to pilot cover crop requirements in leases. Provision 13 of the addendum to a lease for 160 acres of row crops in Ringgold County for 2016-2020 reads:

A screenshot of the DNR lease that says "Cover crops are required on all row crop fields unless the field is to be seeded down the following year or an exception is made by the land manager"

The requirement is simple, straightforward. So far, it has been well received, with only one case of a farmer simply not following the requirement. Rather than have a penalty tied directly to the cover crop provision, the following clause applies to all of the items in the addendum:

A screen shot of the DNR lease that says, "Failure to follow any of the above rules without written approval from the land manager can result in termination of any or all leases with the State of Iowa."

While this allows the agent to dismiss the tenant at any time during the four year lease, it doesn’t provide the DNR manager with many options for encouraging compliance with the cover crop requirement. The risk of dismissing a tenant mid-lease and being unable to find a replacement is a serious consideration for land managers. Having an intermediate, financial consequence diversifies the tools that land managers have to encourage behavior change even within a set lease period and offers a lower-risk option to address non-compliance rather than terminating the lease.

One approach taken by Josh Rusk, the DNR land manager for the Ringgold lease, has been to work with Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) or Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) to cover the costs of implementing cover crops for the farmers. The farmer applies for cost share through their county NRCS or IDALS office and receives technical advice there on how to plant and manage cover crops. If necessary, Josh says, “I will take the extra cost of doing cover crops into account when setting the rental rate. We’re not in it for the money; we’re in it for the management, so I have this flexibility.”

An additional benefit of working with NRCS is that planting date requirements and prohibitions against fall tillage are enforced through the cost share. These management aspects are thus not required in the DNR lease, but many leases, like the Ringgold example, include prohibitions against fall tillage in addition to the NRCS restrictions. It is a best practice to include basic management safeguards like planting date guidelines or prohibitions on fall tillage after cover crop establishment, even if they are encouraging tenants to work with the NRCS, so that basic best management practices are secured regardless of the tenant’s use of other cost-share programs.

DNR – Badger Creek, Madison County

Andy Kellner manages DNR land in Madison and Adair counties and, like Josh, has gotten creative with how to implement cover crops with his tenants. His work with his tenant on the Badger Creek Watershed in Madison County is an example of how land managers can start implementing cover crops with their tenants even if they’re in the middle of a lease.

When the DNR started encouraging land managers to include cover crop requirements in their leases, Andy had just signed a five year lease with his tenant for the Badger Creek land. Rather than wait for five years to take action, Andy started having conversations with his farmer. “The farmer was nervous about the money he was putting into it because it’s not his property and doesn’t have a guaranteed lease forever,” Andy says. “So I worked with the NRCS to get the cost share and then committed with the farmer to take any remaining cost off of the rental rate.” The Badger Creek Park is on state land and  because the lake is on the impaired water list, the area is eligible for Environmental Quality Incentives Program and federal Water Quality Initiative money. Andy worked closely with Anna McDonald, the watershed project coordinator for the Badger Creek Lake Watershed Project, to identify and enroll his tenant in cost-share opportunities. So far, cost share has covered all of the costs for his tenants so he hasn’t had to lower rental rates at all.

Badger Creek Lake Watershed Project Logo featuring an animated badger perched on an outline of the shape of the watershed

The Badger Creek Lake Watershed Project has been a major partner in getting cover crops on DNR’s leases in Madison County.

“As soon as you get over the price barrier to let them know that there are price programs and lease negotiation possibilities,” Andy says, “then it’s a positive conversation because they’re curious – it gives them a no-risk trial. And hopefully we can be a good example for neighbors.” So until the lease comes up for renewal, Andy has a verbal agreement with his tenant to plant cover crops built on the strength of their relationship.

For land managers who don’t have a rock star like Anna driving the process to connect farmers with cost-share and information on how to successfully manage cover crops, locating the tools to implement cover crops can be a barrier. “We do find that we share a lot of goals with the farmers when it comes to conservation,” Andy says. “It’s just a matter of providing or connecting them to the right resources to get it done.”

In talking with DNR land managers, a surprising barrier they identified to putting cover crops into leases was the beginning farmer requirements for public ag leases. In 2013, the Iowa legislature passed a mandate that DNR leases had to be given preferentially to beginning farmers to increase land access for those starting out. In 2017, any farmer with a net worth of less than $645,284 qualifies for preferential access to DNR leases under this policy. Therefore a small farmer who has been farming for fifty years but comes in below the net worth threshold because of special accounting practices or agricultural management qualifies alongside a farmer in their fourth or fifth season who hasn’t amassed large assets yet. In Josh’s words, “With beginning farmers, they’re pretty receptive to doing new practices. It’s the old timers that have more of a problem adapting to new practices.” In DNR staff’s experience, the current policy brings in both of these groups of farmers for preferential treatment.

A second issue with the beginning farmer policy is that it requires all DNR contracts to be posted to a public forum for a certain period to allow beginning farmers to apply for them. Previously, DNR land managers had the option to continue to offer the current tenant a renewed lease without posting it to the public forum if the rent was under $5,000 per year. The change is problematic for cover crop goals because it exacerbates the inherent tension in implementing long-term conservation measures on short-term leases. If a farmer only has a two year lease then they will do most of the work for cover crops but not reap the benefits of building soil health in the term of their lease. This is then further compounded by uncertainty around whether or not they will be able to renew their lease on that ground, so there is no business case for caring for the rented land as a long-term investment; current legislation requires that preference be given to beginning farmers who have not participated in the program over a beginning farmer in a position to renew their lease (House File 457, Section 1.7).

Typically, one strategy for creating a conducive environment for cover crops on rented ground is to increase lease (and thus relationship) lengths so both parties have a long-term stake in its management. Working within a structure where long-term relationships are off of the table, DNR land managers like Andy and Josh have turned to agreements that cover the up-front costs of cover crops through leveraged state and federal money to make sure that these practices can fit in their tenants’ business interests.

Lessons Learned

From these case studies and others we were able to identify the following elements of effective cover crop lease requirements:

  1. A cover crop requirement in the lease with absolute language;
  2. Best management guideline such as event date (plant cover crop same day as harvest, before November 1, etc.) to promote cover crop establishment or prohibition on fall tillage after establishment;
  3. Penalty for noncompliance (lease termination or additional charges).

Our interviews with staff from several different public agencies within and outside of Iowa indicated that comfort with cover crops among the staff who manage land resources is often a key barrier or opportunity to implementing cover crop requirements. Knowing some basics about the best management practices for cover crops can go a long way to helping land managers write leases and interact and answer farmers’ questions about the lease requirements. We saw in the Ringgold and Badger Creek case studies that the land manager relied on NRCS or Watershed Coordinators to provide a lot of this technical information. Land managers can use this watershed project website to identify if there is a watershed project in their area and this IDALS website to find contact information for each of the county SWCD offices where the watershed coordinators are housed. These offices also deal with state and federal cost-share programs, so they are a one-stop-shop for farmers seeking cover crop assistance.

To address this knowledge gap among DNR staff, the DNR may consider setting up a state-wide cover crop training event or several regional events for land managers led by experts like Practical Farmers of Iowa or NRCS, allowing land managers to attend cover crop field days on work time or developing a mentor network for land managers to interact with their peers who have already started working with farmers to implement the cover crop requirements. Any or some combination of these options would help land managers expand their knowledge and confidence on cover crops, allowing them to tackle adding cover crop requirements to their own leases head on.

Public agencies that own and lease farmland have an enormous opportunity to implement conservation practices that provide public goods as a model for other farmers and landowners. These conservation practices not only promote clean water and improved soil health, but also work towards goals such as creating wildlife friendly spaces, a central component of the DNR’s mission. The case studies presented here provide blueprints for other DNR and public agencies in Iowa to incorporate cover crop requirement language into their leases. Land managers should attend cover crop field days in their area or seek out educational materials online about cover crops to equip themselves with basic information to begin conversations with their renters.

With these next steps, the DNR and other public agencies in Iowa can create successful cover crop practices that both fit in the business and production plan of the farmer and satisfy the stewardship goals of the public agency.