Iowa Farmers Using Cover Crop Incentive to Protect Their Water Quality

By on January 24, 2018
cover crop

Iowa cover crop field. Credit: Iowa Department of Agriculture

Farmers in Iowa are saving money and protecting water quality at the same time by participating in the Iowa Cover Crop Incentive. Established in 2013, the program was implemented as part of the research-based Nutrient Reduction Strategy collaboration and Iowa Water Quality Initiative (WQI), which is itself intended to reduce phosphorus and nitrogen in Iowa waters. The initiative is collaborative because it involves both point sources, such as industrial facilities and municipal wastewater treatment plants and nonpoint sources, such as the fields of individual farmers.

Matthew Lechtenberg of the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) offers technical details about how cover crops protect water quality and how participants in Iowa’s program participate.

“Cover crops protect water quality by taking up water and nutrients between harvest and planting of commodity crops,” explains Lechtenberg. “In Iowa, most of the loss of nutrients happens during times when crops aren’t actively growing. Many farmers using cover crops are doing their own soil testing or are participating in other soil and water testing programs, although it’s not a requirement of this program. Although cover crops integrated into corn-soybean cropping systems present a number of challenges to successfully establish and manage, by promoting and creating incentives to encourage farmers to use these practices on their own farms, they have the opportunity to learn and adapt methods that work on their own farms through a variety of annual weather patterns.”

Although some Iowa farmers plant cover crops anyway, this is the first program to incentivize cover crop usage through the crop insurance program. The program is set up to encourage cover crop usage and adoption beyond what traditional state and federal cost-share programs are able to support. There is also an advisory support component to the program.

“There are a number of resources available to farmers about cover crop management based on years of research, Lechtenberg details. “Many groups including, but not limited to, Practical Farmers of Iowa, Iowa State University, NRCS, IDALS, Iowa Soybean Association, Iowa Corn Growers, Iowa Pork Producers etc. fund or conduct research and promote the use of cover crops through their publications. We find that the most successful way to reach more farmers is through peer to peer learning opportunities.”

The Iowa WQI takes a number of different approaches to protecting the state’s water and assisting farmers in working the land safely.

“The Iowa WQI was started to begin implementation of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy,” clarifies Lechtenberg. “The WQI has received annual state appropriations since 2013 and is tasked with developing programs that support, leverage outside resources, demonstrate and implement proven practices included in the NRS.”

Thus far, Iowa farmers are interested in the cover crop initiative, which appears to be achieving buy-in effectively.

“We’re seeing a lot of interest in the program,” Lechtenberg states. “It’s new, so there are certainly a lot of questions, and we’ll learn some ways to improve the program as it progresses.”

cover crop

Iowa Cover Crop Planting Zones. (Credit: Iowa Department of Agriculture)

Top image: Iowa cover crop field. (Credit: Iowa Department of Agriculture)

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