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World Water Day is March 22, a good time to recognize the strides farmers are making to adopt practices that enhance water quality for everyone.
I’m a sixth-generation family farmer. My wife, Sara, and I grow corn, soybeans, alfalfa and run a 140-head cow/calf operation. We grow corn almost exclusively using no-till methods, and hope to someday pass the farm on to our four young sons. We also began seeding a variety of cover crops on some of our acres several years ago. They prevent soil erosion, take up leftover nitrogen and phosphorus in the field, and provide additional forage for my livestock.
Our farm is one of about 25 in Iowa enrolled in the Soil Health Partnership, an ambitious long-term, data-driven initiative of the National Corn Growers Association. This unique research effort hopes to show U.S. farmers how sustainability through soil health can also lead to increased profitability. Conservation practices can improve soil health, sequester or reduce greenhouse gases, improve nutrient use efficiency and help to optimize yields over time. This makes good environmental sense, and also, we hope to show, good business sense.
A recent poll shows more than half of Iowa's farmers are interested in cover crops. In Iowa State University Extension's Iowa Farm and Rural Life poll, 20.6 percent of farmers said they used cover crops in 2015 and another 33.5 percent said they might use it in the future.
Seeing more farmers test and hopefully adopt practices like cover crops, reduced tillage, and advanced nutrient management are all positive steps for progress. Growing cover crops can help improve water quality by enhancing water infiltration which keeps water where the crops need it, in addition to preventing erosion and nutrient losses. Also, with more cover crop acres planted, we will get a better data set and understanding of these crops and their value. We should also consider that building infrastructure for substantial cover crop adoption will take time. Quality cover crop seed availability, seeding equipment, and educated technical advisors need to be in place.
Like any new crop on the farm, cover crops have a learning curve. It takes some experimentation with varieties and seeding methods. It takes time to see benefits while identifying potential risks. The important thing is to get started! Learn from your neighbor and your agronomist. I invite farmers to learn from those enrolled in the Soil Health Partnership (soilhealthpartnership.org) and encourage them to attend a field day or other event this summer. ISU Extension, the Iowa Soybean Association, your local soil and water conservation district, and others also have useful information.
I believe farmers care about improving the environment and limiting impact. Sara and I want to improve our farm for the next generation. We want to protect water, soil and air, and grow more with less. And, if we can make our business more profitable through sustainability – that’s a win for all of us.
Kevin Ross grows corn and soybeans near Minden, Iowa. He is a farmer enrolled in The Soil Health Partnership, serves on the Board of the National Corn Growers Association and is a former president of the Iowa Corn Growers Association.