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Farmers stepping efforts to build conservation knowledge

Posted on July 3, 2014 at 8:00 AM by Iowa Corn

By Dirck Steimel | Iowa Farm Bureau

Iowa farmers have made tremendous strides to conserve soil and improve water quality in recent years. And with the groundbreaking Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy in place, they are stepping up their efforts to learn more about which conservation practices will be most effective for the environment while fitting with their operations.

A good example of those efforts is sprouting this spring on a 20-acre field in Sioux County. Farmers Co-op Society (FCS), working with local farmers, the Sioux County Farm Bureau and others, is setting up several demonstration plots designed to show how different conservation practices will work in real world farming conditions of northwest Iowa.

“The idea is to have something to show for all types of farms,” said Dave Van Oort, an agronomist with the Sioux Center-based FCS. “It’s important to demonstrate things that farmers can relate to, whether they are all crops or raise crops and livestock.”

In Sioux County, the state’s leader in livestock production, the demonstration will look specifically at how manure applications fit with cover crops and the effectiveness of injecting manure with knives that minimized soil disturbance, Van Oort said. The demonstration field, which is southwest of Orange City in the watershed of the West Branch of the Floyd River, will also look at crop rotations, silage production and other agronomic practices that maintain strong yields and boost conservation in the area, he said.

“The idea is to keep our farmers ahead of the curve in both profitability and stewardship,” Van Oort said.

The Sioux County conservation demonstration project is one of eight around the state that are gearing up this spring to show off conservation practices in different types of topography, soils and cropping conditions. The projects, which were chosen last fall by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) as part of its Iowa Water Quality Initiative, are being designed to provide farmers in priority watersheds first-hand information on conservation practices.

The demonstration projects are a key part of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, which was developed by IDALS along with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, with technical support from Iowa State University. It is a voluntary science and technology-based plan that provides farmers with a series of options, such as cover crops, bioreactors and wetlands, to reduce losses of nitrogen and phosphorus from their fields. The overall goal of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy is to improve surface water quality in Iowa and help reduce nitrogen and phosphorus delivered to the Gulf of Mexico.

IDALS allocated $4.1 million in state funding to support the initial eight demonstration projects over the next three years. That investment is being leveraged with approximately $8 million in matching funds to support the demonstration projects, according to Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey.

Later this year, IDALS is expected to announce funding for another group of conservation and water quality demonstration projects.

Although the seeds of the Sioux County demonstration project are just now being planted, area farmers are excited about what they will able to learn from the conservation plots and eventually incorporate into their operations.

“It really shows that farmers are trying to do something new for conservation, not just the things we’ve always done before,” said Daryl Muilenburg, who raises row crops and livestock near Orange City. “It will give us a good idea of how different conservation practices work on our own farms.”

Lee Maassen, a dairy farmer whose land will be used for the demonstration project, said the demonstration project is part of the constant learning process for farmers. “We are always learning and try to see what we can improve today to do better than what we did yesterday,”he said. “This is really part of a lifelong process of trying to be the best resource managers we can be and learning from each other.”

Maassen, who farms with his three sons, has already incorporated several conservation practices into his operation, including cover crops, terraces and grass waterways. Those efforts have improved soil health, stemmed erosions and reduced the loss of nutrients into surface water, he said.

At the same time, the Maassens have worked to incorporate cover crops into the nutrition programs for their dairy operation. “It’s really creating a win-win for everybody,” Maassen said. Lee’s son, Aaron, added that the demonstration field will show which practices work and which ones need more refinement. “It’s going to be important to learn as we go so we can implement the practices on a voluntary basis,” Aaron Maassen said. “If certain practices were mandated,you’d end up with practices that might not work on some farms.”

Kirk Den Herder of Orange City will be looking at the demonstration field as part of his effort to continually improve his conservation efforts.

Den Herder, who raises row crops and beef cattle, has planted cover crops on his fields for several years and wants to find a way to improve fall growth of the cover crops before winter ends the growing season in northwest Iowa. “We are pretty far north to make cover crops work, so we are looking for ways to adjust,” he said.

This year Den Herder plans to experiment on a few acres by planting cover crops in midsummer, when his corn is waist-high, to gain growing time.

“It all goes back to trying different things. We need to step outside the box and try new things for conservation,” Den Herder said. “My goal is to leave thing better than when I started and this conservation work is a big part of that.”

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