What the Iowa derecho taught us

In the weeks and months following the mighty winds that swept through central and eastern Iowa in August – known as a ‘derecho’ event – many farmers have been left with devastation to both crops and property. Many fields were completely destroyed. Of Iowa’s 99 counties, 36 were hardest hit and an estimated 3.57 million acres corn and 2.5 million acres soybeans were damaged, accounting for approximately 20% of Iowa’s cropland. Estimates range from 200-400 million bushels of grain was lost from the event. Additionally, the sustained winds of 60-100 mph caused damage to numerous grain storage facilities, totaling approximately 100 million bushels of storage potential just ahead of harvest time.

While derechos don’t happen regularly, severe weather events seem to be more and more frequent. So, in this post, I wanted to share a few lessons we learned, in the hopes that they might help someone else in the future.

Insurance options on crop land

While short-term questions were answered by local agronomists and insurance adjusters, many growers are interested in future events and how to best mitigate against crop loss. Based on insurance determinations, corn growers were offered to harvest at a severe loss or crop-destruct and collect based on a range of recent crop production data points.

Most farmers in the Midwest have crop insurance in one form or another to protect themselves and their crop from naturally occurring events like flood, drought, hail and wind. However, not all growers purchase all options for every acre. Incremental-occurrence insurance can get costly, especially when margins are lower like they have been the past few years. Trying to cover all possible scenarios in a growing cycle can quickly outweigh returns. Multi-peril options can cover a variety of combinations up to complete coverage for a farm to mitigate against yield loss and loss of revenue.

Attributing actual yield loss for the crop this year was difficult. Much of Iowa had already been under severe drought conditions leading up through June, July and August. Though the derecho caused significant damage to the plant with widespread lodging, the corn plant’s seed-set had been established. Projected yield was already determined by the time of the event – August 10 – and the growth stage was transitioning within R3 (milk) and R4 (dough) stages. A rough estimate of the plant’s yield potential was already projected up until the event, but still needed help finishing out.

My big takeaway from Iowa’s experience was to always have a good relationship with your insurance partner, but also know that they’re always happy to sell you something new. Make sure you are clear on what each product covers (some products sound like they cover what you’re looking for, but they actually don’t) and double-check that all scenarios are spelled out before making a decision to purchase. Be smart about it, but remember: extreme weather events are becoming more frequent, and insurance against those can help protect your operation’s long-term viability. 

Management decisions after mid-season destruction

Growers were challenged with how to handle their acres after receiving confirmation numbers from insurance claims. If a field was determined to be ‘totalled’ or ‘zeroed’ by the adjuster, he could till the crop in and collect the insurance or wait for a suitable harvest window and combine, haul, and store the grain. Those who opted to till in the downed corn will face a challenge next season with volunteer seed germinating and becoming a weed in the next cash crop. Those who attempted harvest saw more challenges with a significantly slowed harvest pace from one-directional harvesting, greatly increased disease pressure from hail-damaged ears and lodged corn stalks, as well as the added volunteer corn risk the next year from fallen ears at harvest.

“Expect the unexpected” is thrown around a lot but – in this type of situation – it’s true. What we learned with the derecho is, while we want to continue planning for the year like normal, we need to have enough knowledge and flexibility to adjust the plan in case of loss due to flood, wind or drought (at any time of the year). Remember that trying to maximize economic returns on your farmland (beyond simply chasing yield) requires agility and preparation throughout the year – not just in the spring.

Soil health: tillage decisions with downed corn

One thing to consider when challenged with a downed-corn scenario is the potential to improve or maintain soil health. We know having live roots in the soil, maintaining ground cover, and minimizing tillage are significant tools to help build good soil health. When challenged with flat corn mid-season (after pollination), growers need to break open the stalks to promote decomposition while also minimizing soil disruption. 

Remember: we do not want to sacrifice long-term soil health for a one-time event. A grower may be tempted to incorporate the downed crop into the ground to accelerate breakdown of plant biomass and germinate downed grain. However, turning over the soil can destroy the work of building good soil structure and negatively impact the biome for our beneficial microbes. Additionally, an early season (V2-V6) herbicide pass to control the volunteer corn will almost certainly be a part of the following year’s management plan (with a second pass highly likely), so burying the seed is not critical to ensuring a quality crop the following year.

Vertical tilling offers the chance to chop and size the residue while also leaving the ground largely untouched. Crop destruction earlier in the life cycle – further from maturity – also alleviates the growth potential of the corn seed the following season. The challenge this year was the timing of both the event and the delayed response and confirmation from insurance companies. The large volume of service calls meant that many growers did not have their answer in writing early enough after the event to move quickly. You should never till under a crop with just a verbal confirmation from the adjuster – always have it in writing!

Soil health: cover crop seeding options in high residue

The second opportunity to build soil health in a downed-corn situation is with cover crop seeding. The sooner the cover crop can be seeded and start establishing roots, the better. Many growers like to fly on cover crops with aerial seeders or high-clearance ground seeders. When a crop is destroyed mid-season, we have a lot of residue to consider. Ensuring good seed-to-soil contact is critical when seeding cover crops, so drilling may be a better option if a grower must contend with significant residue on top of the ground. Some research has shown that aerial applying the cover crop seed PRIOR to tillage in a downed-corn scenario has good results. This is because, while the corn is lodged, it is not yet flat on the ground and seeds dropping from altitude can still reach the soil. Chopping the stalks shortly thereafter can help put some soil on top while also creating space for the plant to grow. Dropping seed on top of the chopped residue does not let the seed get that good soil contact.

A good density of cover crops will help keep the soil and residue from eroding, tie-up the nutrients in the soil and help with some weed competition the next season. Planning for a corn-selective herbicide the following year would be a good decision as volunteers should be expected. All these elements will help build the soil health of the field and protect the resiliency of the following crop year. Some growers noticed an increased standability in acres where cover crops had been used for several years versus those that had been conventional. Though the ground with high soil health may not prevent complete loss in events like sustained straight-line winds, they do provide the foundation for resiliency of long-term farming success.

Digging In

Continuing to look forward to future events allows growers to start making plans. With the adjusting climate conditions, we should continue to expect to see more severe weather events that have potential to negatively affect crop production. Mitigating your risk to these events will ensure long-term viability of your operation. Be sure to strategize with your team of professionals to build a plan that best suits your operation, but does not leave you vulnerable to one-off scenarios. Crop insurance plans can vary in size and scope and may not cover what occurs, but building soil health maximizes your land’s resiliency. Consider including the use of cover crops for both the protection of your land and your bottom line.

Field Checks with UAVs

There are benefits to flying Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones, over crop fields when combined with traditional field checking techniques. UAV flights provide a flexible option for collecting data from fields. In a short amount of time, it is possible to have your UAV in the air collecting images quickly. They are much more flexible to use than waiting on satellite imagery from different services, which can sometimes take days.

Benefits

Quick collection of high-resolution imagery.
With most common UAVs used for field checking today, it is possible to fly and collect images from a 60-80 acre field in 30 minutes or less. This helps to identify problem areas in the field quickly.

Identify problem areas.
There are software options that have made it possible to view your imagery at the field edge within 5-10 minutes of the flight. It is then possible to go to scout areas that are showing issues or problems.

UAVs can help to eliminate wasted efforts.
Compare the traditional field checking pattern of z or w across a field. This is a good method to randomly field check and get a broad idea of what is happening in the field. However, field checking this way becomes more difficult once crops are further in their growth stages. With UAV imagery, you will be able to see potential issues in the field that might not be as easily viewable from the ground. While UAVs will not eliminate the need for ground truthing, they can help to highlight areas of issue that might otherwise be missed.

Understanding your field.
Once imagery is collected, it is possible to use it in other precision agriculture applications. It can then be compared to yield data, as-applied maps, or
soil maps to further dive into what is happening in your field.

UAVs can be used to perform field checks many times throughout the year. The imagery they produce is not just beneficial during the growing season.

Considerations

Camera

When considering your UAV purchase, one of the most important questions to ask yourself is: what camera will you need? This has a large impact on the overall cost of the UAV. Most UAVs will come equipped with a standard camera that has an RGB lens. RGB stands for red, green, and blue bands of light that it collects.

Higher-end UAV models can come equipped with NIR or near infrared light band collection. For mapping NDVI indexes this type of camera is necessary. There are also multispectral cameras available for UAVs that combine RGB, NIR, rededge, and thermal. These are very expensive options for more advanced UAV users.

Flight Conditions

There are many variables to consider before flying your UAV across the field, including:

  • Time of day
  • Weather conditions
  • Crop type
  • Growth stage of crop

The ideal time to fly is mid- to late-morning when skies are still clear and wind speeds are low. It becomes quite risky to fly in wind speeds above 10 mph and it can produce lower quality imagery due to the UAV tilting or shaking. Partly cloudy skies make orthomosaic generation difficult due to the image variability of clouds passing over.

Flight Height

For flight height, fly corn and soybean crops at 250’ early in the season when plants are small and up to 400’ later in the season once canopy is reached. A very important adjustment to make in UAV deploy is image overlap. To successfully stitch together images for the orthomosaic, each image must overlap the other images next to it. Usually, overlap is around 70%, but it is adjustable.

Timing

UAVs can be used to perform field checks many times throughout the year. The imagery they produce is not just beneficial during the growing season.

Early in the spring when the ground is bare, it gives a bird's eye view of areas of the field that might have water or erosion issues. It is possible to measure these areas and make plans to correct them.

After emergence, fly over to get an idea of crop stand and early season vigor. This timeframe can also help to show early issues like weed infestations or drowned out spots.

During the middle of the growing season, flights for field checking and plant health are useful to highlight areas with issues.

Late in the season, fly during dry-down to see if certain areas of the field are staying very wet and green or if other areas are drying down very fast.

It is important to compare what you are seeing on the ground versus what you are seeing from the air. UAVs are not a substitute for ground truthing and field checking on foot.

You can find a print version of this informational resource by clicking the button below.

Find Out More

Check out our recent Soil Sessions webinar to learn more about SHP's Field Check process.

Get to Know What Lives in Your Soil

Healthy soil is the foundation for productive crops and a resilient farming system. When it comes to building soil health, we often talk about the physical and chemical properties of soil – things like soil texture, aggregate stability and soil organic matter. There is a third component of soil health, though, that is highlighted less frequently: the biological component.

At its most basic level, soil is made up of weathered rock material, water, air, and the remains of decomposed plants and animals. Beyond that, the soil is an entire functioning ecosystem full of life! In just one handful of soil, there can be billions of microorganisms, including some you’re probably already aware of, like bacteria and fungi. 

Other living organisms in the soil can be classified as invertebrates. An invertebrate is simply an organism that does not have a backbone. Some common soil invertebrates include mollusks, earthworms, arthropods (i.e., insects, spiders and crustaceans), and nematodes. Soil invertebrates living beneath the soil surface may be harder to detect, but by familiarizing yourself with the most common invertebrate groups, you can be sure you won’t underestimate their impact on soil health and agriculture.

Arthropods and Earthworms

The role of arthropods and earthworms in agriculture is well-established. Arthropods, at the soil surface and beneath, are great decomposers and nutrient cyclers. Arthropods that feed on plant residue help to build soil organic matter and can impact soil fertility. Soil-dwelling arthropods can be pests (e.g., cutworms or white grubs), but they can also help to control pest populations. For example, ground beetles and spiders are arthropod predators that are often encountered in fields. 

When earthworms move through the soil, they create channels that can help improve soil drainage. Earthworms also enhance soil structure and nutrient cycling through their movement and feeding habits. Scouting for earthworms is fairly simple and can be done by counting the number of earthworm middens on the soil surface. An earthworm midden is a small pile of plant material and worm castings (worm poop!) that can be found at the entrance of a worm burrow. The photo below shows five earthworm middens in a no-till field. Click on the link below the photo for more information. 

Earthworm Middens

Credit: Sjoerd Duiker via No-Till Farmer

Nematodes

Nematodes – or microscopic roundworms – are lesser-known organisms in the soil. Plant-parasitic nematodes can be agricultural pests that impact plant health and yield by sucking out the contents of plant cells using piercing, needle-like mouthparts. This type of nematode can also vector plant diseases, such as tomato mosaic virus. There are also beneficial nematode groups that are present in healthy soils, such as bacteria feeding, fungal feeding, and predatory nematodes. 

Nematode feeding damage is often misidentified as a nutrient deficiency in crops; plant symptoms – such as chlorosis, stunting, and wilting – are common examples. While some nematodes, like Soybean Cyst Nematode, can be visible on plant roots, most nematodes will require positive identification through a soil sample. When soil sampling for nematodes during the growing season, use a soil probe to sample 6-8 inches deep and sample at the base of the plant in the root zone. If sampling outside of the growing season, fall is the best time for detecting nematodes because populations will be at their highest.

Some plant-parasitic nematodes are very common and can be found in nearly every soil type or cropping system (root lesion and stunt nematodes [see picture below], for example). Generally, these nematodes will rarely cause economic harm to crops. Some nematodes, however, are more specific to a soil type or to the crop they are attracted to. Two examples of harmful plant-parasitic nematodes are Soybean Cyst and Corn Needle (see picture below) Nematodes.

The head of a Corn Needle Nematode. This nematode feeds almost exclusively on corn roots and the economic threshold is just 1 or 2 individuals in 100 CC of soil (about a handful of soil). 

Stunt nematodes are plant-parasitic nematodes that feed on field and vegetable crops. The economic threshold for stunt nematodes varies by crop and soil type, but is 100-200 individuals in 100 CC of soil (about a handful of soil) in corn.

Time to Dig In

The soil is a living, functioning ecosystem full of organisms you can and can’t see. Microscopic or not, these organisms can have a big impact on your productivity. The next time you’re out in the field, keep an eye out for signs of earthworms and other invertebrates that can be seen with the naked eye. And, if you are interested in learning more about soil invertebrates on your farm, reach out to your SHP field manager or your local agronomist to explore scouting and soil sampling options.

Have armyworms marched into your fields?

Scouting for insect pests is critical for effective pest management. Throughout the growing season there are many different insect pests that farmers should be on the lookout for. Japanese Beetle, Corn Rootworm and Western Bean Cutworm are examples of some of the pests that are consistently detected above threshold levels across the Midwest.

Some insect pests can be more difficult to identify and manage because they aren’t always a consistent threat to crop fields. Pests like True Armyworm and Fall Armyworm are good examples of insects that may not be detected in fields year after year because they depend on the migration of adult moths from southern states to infest fields in the Midwest. While similar in name, these pests differ in most other ways including appearance, feeding habits and damage to crops.

True Armyworm

True Armyworm

Photo credit: Iowa State Extension

True Armyworm can vary in color from a green-brown (as above) to almost black, but will typically have white, orange, and brown-black stripes that run the length of the body. The head capsule is orange-brown and the insect can be approximately 1.5 inches long at maturity.

Fall Armyworm

Fall Armyworm 

Photo credit: Purdue Extension

Fall Armyworm is tan (as above) to dark brown-black in color with three thin yellow stripes down the back. A thicker, dark brown-black stripe runs the length of the body along the side and a thick yellow stripe is below that. To distinguish this insect from other larval field pests, look for the yellow Y-shaped mark on the head capsule.

 

Life Cycle

Neither the True Armyworm nor the Fall Armyworm overwinter in the Midwest. Adult moths travel north from southern states in search of attractive fields to lay their eggs. Multiple flights to northern states are possible throughout the year.

Armyworm lifecycle chart

Figure 1. The life cycle for multiple generations of True Armyworm, which can overlap with the Fall Armyworm life cycle. These pests may overlap mid-season, which may make it more difficult to distinguish between the two species. True Armyworm has the potential to have multiple generations in one growing season, which could extend their damage through the end of the season in October, further overlapping with Fall Armyworm.

Scouting

Armyworms get their name from their behavior of migrating from field-to-field in large masses in search of new food sources. It’s important to continuously scout fields that may be targets for this marching army.

True Armyworm are most active at night or on cloudy days. During the day larvae may be found inside the whorl of corn plants or under residue at the soil surface, but damaged plants are often going to be the primary indicator of an infestation. Armyworms are attracted to grasses and grain crops. 

First, scout corn fields that were planted into grassy cover crops or that have grass weeds present; these will be most attractive to females for egg laying. Fields that are no-till or reduced-till will likely see larger infestations than tilled fields due to the number of grassy weeds present. 

Next, scout fields that are adjacent to fields with grass crops or cover crops – fields like rye, wheat, and oats. This pest is most likely to be detected along field edges as they move inward from grassy fencerows or harvested grass and small grains crops.

Fall Armyworm are daytime feeders and, unlike True Armyworm, can readily be found on corn plants when the sun is out. Scout for Fall Armyworms on late-maturing corn from mid-July through harvest. This pest can typically be found in patches throughout the field, which may make detection more difficult.

To scout for either Armyworm pest in corn: inspect 20 consecutive plants in 5 different areas of the field for a total of 100 corn plants. Determine the number of larvae per plant and the percentage of damaged plants per set. In small grains, inspect three feet of one row at 5 different areas of the field. Strongly shake the plants to dislodge insects and search under residue. Count the total number of Armyworms per area. 

Crop Injury

Feeding patterns differ between the two Armyworm species. In small grains like wheat, True Armyworm will defoliate the plant but will usually leave the head untouched. Depending on the growth stage, this may not affect the yield too drastically, but a severe infestation can reduce yield by 50% if not treated. In severe infestations, Armyworm may damage the heads or clip the stems just below the head. Once the small grain is harvested, True Armyworm will “march” to an adjacent field, such as corn, to complete their life cycle.

True Armyworm damage in corn is typically restricted to leaf margins moving in toward the midrib. Plants may look completely defoliated with just the midrib left untouched, but corn will often survive and recover if the damage is above the growing point.  

Fall Armyworm damage in corn is often found on leaves and in the whorl, but this pest is also known to damage corn tassels. 

Damage in corn by either Armyworm can sometimes be mistaken for hail damage, or for another pest such as black cutworm. Close inspection of the plants for the insect is important for a correct diagnosis. 

Management

Armyworm infestation is dependent on weather patterns, cropping practices, and field conditions and so infestation levels will vary from year to year. Management is not always necessary or economical. Insecticides should only be applied when Armyworm are detected above threshold levels. In most states, the threshold for True Armyworm in both corn and wheat is 25% of plants damaged with larvae present, or 2 larvae per plant. For Fall Armyworm, consider taking action when egg masses are present on 5% of plants, or when 25% of plants are damaged with larvae present. Insecticides applied after silking may not be effective in preventing ear damage. Check with your state’s Extension service for more information on local thresholds, products and rates.

In corn, there are several Bt traits available to control Fall Armyworm, and certain traits have been documented for True Armyworm. However, because Armyworm infestations are difficult to predict, and Bt traits are not always effective at controlling infestations when they do occur, other management strategies should be considered.  

Beneficial Insect “Army”

Not every insect spotted in your fields will be a pest; there’s a whole “army” of beneficial insects out there from pollinators to predators to parasites! Some common beneficial insects you may encounter are Spined Soldier Bugs (A), multiple species of ladybugs (B), various spiders (C), and, my personal favorite, the Green Lacewing (D, E). Lacewings are voracious predators as larvae, attacking pests such as aphids, spider mites, leafhopper nymphs, and various moth eggs, such as Armyworm. As adults, lacewings are a beautiful lime green color that you may see fluttering from plant to plant.

beneficial insects

 

The Importance of Data Collection

After the harvest issues in 2018, planting issues of 2019, and the heavy rains in mid-May of 2020, data software and collection might be on the back burner of important things on your operation. Farmers have been so focused on getting a crop in or out of the field that, when the monitor beeps or acts up, the reaction for most is to ignore it and keep on going. Not to mention prices have been volatile, making breakevens tight and preventing farmers from upgrading their systems.

Why, then, is data collection still something to focus on?

At Soil Health Partnership (SHP), we believe quality information is critical to farmer success. For example, in order to truly understand the yield potential and fertilizer efficiency for every grower in our program, we look at planting dates, fertilizer rates, and population counts (among many other things), and tie that information to harvest data – which gives us a more complete picture of farming practices for the year in that SHP trial.

Data collection allows us to report back to the grower the best information possible. In return, that information helps the farmer decide what to do or not do in the years to come. Our data and reports are only as good as the data we receive – proving that good data collection is pivotal for you and SHP.

Here’s another example of just one of the many reasons information gathering can be useful:

Let’s say your crop was planted in a timely manner, was open and growing – and then heavy rains came through and washed out 5-10% of the field. If you were collecting good data, this would show up on a harvest map come that fall. Because you’re able to take this map to your landlord and show them the problem spots in the field, you can help the landowner understand the value of tile drainage, and how the return on investment (ROI) of tiling could quickly increase both their income and the value of that piece of ground.

Another interesting takeaway from good data is the ability to look more closely at areas that struggle to be profitable. Wet holes, fence rows and tree lines are places that drainage and conservation farming practices will not help. These areas might be prime candidates for NRCS programs, which ensure an income while setting back acres that are costing you money year-in and year-out. When you use this data and look at it from an ROI point-of-view, it can help you make decisions that can increase your bottom line and decrease your workload.

I encourage you to research and look into ways to track and collect data on your operation. There are many different companies out there; I recommend finding a local company with great service to work with. With so many products available, service and reliability are my top two priorities. From there, learn the software and find ways to utilize the data received, both on and off the farm. As with any software, keep up-to-date with everything, as companies are constantly upgrading systems to help justify and simplify things annually for their growers.

What You Should Know About Cover Cropping and Soil Health in 2020

Most of us recognize there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to cover cropping. That makes accessing good data and insights – from across different geographies, weather patterns, and farming systems – absolutely critical. To address this need, Soil Health Partnership (SHP) Field Managers Dustin Brucker and Jim Isermann, along with SHP’s Michigan Research Manager Kristin Poley, recently led a Soil Sessions webinar highlighting cover crop observations from across the Midwest and the details of SHP’s new field check protocols. 

With this information, growers, agronomists and other key partners can more effectively consider how cover cropping fits their operation, design more tailored approaches to implementation, and tap into the experience of others in order to increase the chance for success. 

Good Information In, Good Information Out

Collecting in-field data and observations is core to the work of SHP’s field team. As such, all three panelists shared how they are implementing a new approach to data collection – field checks. Starting with cover crop planting, SHP field managers are collecting information at four key points throughout the growing season:

  • Field Check 1 – fall, post-harvest/cover crop planting
  • Field Check 2 – spring, pre-plant, spring cover crop establishment
  • Field Check 3 – spring, post-plant
  • Field Check 4 – mid-season (e.g., following ear set in corn, pod set in soybeans)

At each of these touchpoints, field managers are evaluating multiple data points such as soil temperature, residue cover, and the presence of various weeds, diseases and insects.

While sampling in spring 2020 has been somewhat inconsistent due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, Poley notes that, “Our team has put forth incredible effort to make this data collection process consistent across the network in order to magnify its impact.”

Learn from Others to Create an Effective Cover Cropping Approach

For growers considering cover cropping or who are looking to tweak their current program, it can help to look at what others have done and where they’ve seen success.

“I recommend getting as much advice as possible on management techniques prior to planting the cover crop,” says Brucker. “To have long-term impact from cover cropping, growers need to experience initial success – otherwise you run the risk of getting a ‘bad taste in your mouth’ and walking away before getting the full benefit. Have a good plan backed by careful thought.”

This is where SHP trial data comes in handy. Brucker and Isermann shared several observations from farms they partner with in Iowa and Illinois, which growers considering cover crops should take into consideration:

  • The cool, wet fall that many growers experienced in 2019 impacted who was and wasn’t able to plant cover crops post-harvest. For those who were able to plant, it went in late in many places – impacting overall growth and benefit.
  • Where cover crops were planted, growth varied by application method. Both Brucker and Isermann observed better growth with drilled or interseeded application as compared to aerial application (especially in soybeans). 
  • Cover crop impact on soil temperature continues to be measured. At Field Check 3, it appears that some are seeing benefit from cover cropping, where residue from cover crops creates cooler soil temperatures – thus impacting moisture retention.
  • Should you plant green or not? Jury’s still out. Isermann noted that several farms he works with were able to terminate earlier in 2020 as compared to 2019, simply because of more favorable planting conditions this year (especially for soybeans). For those who are planting green, he’s seeing more success planting into smaller cover crop plants. He also reiterated the importance of terminating in a timely manner, which is even more important in corn.

The Opportunities for SHP Data are Endless

In the final segment of the webinar, Poley highlighted early findings from trial data. This information is collected using Survey123, an app within ArcGIS Online. She highlighted that this platform allows SHP to collect data in a way that’s customizable, as well as easy to use and access.

“From a science perspective, I hope growers, agronomists and our other industry partners recognize how powerful this data collection effort is. The immense magnitude of our dataset creates an equally immense potential for analyses, learning, and adaptation based on findings,” she says. 

Some key takeaways from 2020 that Poley highlighted include:

  • At Field Check 2 (spring, pre-plant):
    • Grass species continue to be the most popular cover crop (47% of fields with an established cover crop included grass species)
      • Ground coverage varies widely, with growers experiencing either low (less than 25%) or high (more than 75%) coverage
      • Stand count ranges from <148,000 plants per acre to more than 593,000 plants per acre, with the bulk of samples ranging from 296,000-444,000 plants per acre
    • There’s an opportunity for future research, specifically around planting different cover crop species and the impact of single vs. mixed species planting
    • Soil temperatures were, on average, 0.26° warmer in strips without current season cover cropping
  • At Field Check 3 (spring, post-plant):
    • Early season cash crops show a nearly even split between corn (55%) and soybeans (44%)
      • Corn:
        • Field Check 3 most often occurred at V3
        • Average corn stand count at around 31,000 plants/acre
      • Soybeans
        • Field Check 3 most often occurred at V(n) or V2
        • Average soybean stand count at around 124,500 plants/acre
    • Soil temperatures were, on average, 0.98° warmer in strips without current season cover cropping 

While these highlights are useful, Poley emphasizes that the 2020 field dataset is not complete. She looks forward to combining this information with field management, yield, and additional soils data for even deeper insights. SHP will also be looking at how this data corresponds to long-term environmental and economic benefits.

According to Poley, “We’ve only scratched the surface of the relationships and patterns that this dataset undoubtably holds.”

Time to Dig In

When it comes to cover cropping, no two farms are the same. Varying weather conditions, soil types and management practices impact the potential benefit of cover cropping and other soil health practices on any given operation. With that in mind, SHP continues to collect real-time, real-world data in order to help growers make decisions that are most relevant and effective for their business. Using the insights shared in this post and in the full webinar session, growers can feel more comfortable and confident making cover crop decisions that serve their unique situation and goals.

To access this full webinar or to watch past SHP webinars, check out our Soil Sessions library here.

SHP Early-Season Field Checks

This planting season, the SHP field managers have a new tool for delivering valuable data to our growers by observing periodic field checks at key intervals in the season. Our team of experienced and knowledgeable agronomists worked tirelessly to build and deliver a standardized protocol for our field team to use to collect data. By standardizing our readings, we are more closely able to use objective information, rather than subjective observations, to describe what’s happening in our more than 200 farmer trial sites across the network.

Using Technology to Optimize Soil Health

field side-by-side trialUsing highly-functioning yet easy-to-use survey apps from the ESRI ArcGIS platform, our team is quickly able to download our fields, input data into the survey, and instantly upload the completed survey from our mobile devices at the field.  GPS-enablement features allow for precise location identification for each reading and enables users to revisit the same spot throughout the year for spot-specific trending.

The SHP data team continues working to evolve the survey and capabilities of the app to ensure the most useful data is collected and delivered to both our growers and our own data team.  By using spot-specific data points, our data team can observe soil health trends over the months of the season for as long as the plot is in the program.

New Field Check Protocols

The Agronomy Team put together a uniform and comprehensive field book for our Field Managers to standardize our in-field readings.  The key soil health notes we are looking to capture for our early season readings include cover crop stand, cover crop growth stage, ground cover residue, 4-inch soil temperature, weeds, insects, and disease pressure. Then, we take cash crop measurements, including plant growth, seed depth, and stand count, in our post-planting readings.  Standardizing measures, including tools and training, have aligned the team to return the best data for our growers and data team.

measuring corn height

Preparations for taking Field Check observations had been completed and distributed right on time for spring planting! However, the actual task of taking the readings this Spring was not as successful. Since our difficulties with stay-at-home orders and limited travel restrictions, many of our early season activities had been delayed or cancelled for much of the Midwest. Our newly minted Field Check protocols require 4 visits a year:

  1. Post-harvest/cover crop establishment
  2. Pre-planting
  3. Post-Planting Early
  4. Post-Planting Midseason.

Travel restrictions limited our pre-planting Field Checks to only a few select locations where travel restrictions were more limited, including Western Iowa.

Field Visits

cover crop

I was able to complete a large majority of my Field Check #2 this year because of the loose restrictions, but I took all necessary precautions when traveling, including packing lunches, minimizing extended travel, and limiting personal contact.  Keeping an open dialogue with my growers as to when I’d be out at the location was very helpful. As much as I want to meet with my growers to continue to develop our on-going relationships, I fought to keep everyone safe by keeping safe distances.

Visiting the plots and taking observations was a great opportunity to finally get out into the field to see how things are progressing. Talking with growers is very informative, but walking the plot really puts it all together.  Each field is unique as far as layout, cover crop establishment, topography, and other agronomic conditions. Instantly, I was able to get a real picture of the challenges and successes each of our growers competes with in every growing cycle.

Soil Health Data Delivery to Farmers

cover crop

After the data collection was complete for each plot and the data was sent to ArcGIS online, I was able to print out a concise report of each point where I’d collected data. Complete with images of cover crop landscapes and single-plant growth progress, the reports are QC’ed and forwarded on to the growers to keep them up to date on the plot’s progress. Several growers commented back on some of the interesting bits like cash crop stand counts and cover crop establishment.

The major success from this year’s rollout of the Field Check operation is attributed to our Agronomy team and our Data Management team. The Agronomy team created extensive and detailed field books for Field Managers to reference and conducted thorough training sessions to drive home key ideas. The Data Management team needs commending for finding the right apps, fitting our needs in a clear and concise format, and continually improving these creative tools to capture and report the best data. I continue to be amazed by the teamwork and creativity the SHP team brings in our continued efforts to deliver value to our growers.

SHP Field Insights

Join Dustin Brucker, SHP Field Manager for Iowa, Jim Isermann, SHP Field Manager for Northern Illinois and Wisconsin, and Kristin Poley, Michigan Research Manager for Soil Session to discuss SHP field insights.
During this webinar we will discuss what SHP Field Managers are seeing in the field, including:
  • Field update with observations from the field checks in Iowa and Illinois
  • How SHP is collecting data from the field
  • Data summaries from SHP’s field check protocol

Soil Sessions is a webinar series by the Soil Health Partnership that provides monthly, in-depth updates on various SHP programs and research findings. Soil Sessions covers a range of topics such as our evolving data insights, how SHP manages and integrates data, our connection to and work with our partners, as well as providing technical information on topics like cover crops, scouting and grazing. To view all SHP webinars, visit our website here.

4 Reasons to Use a Drone to Field Check

There are benefits to flying drones over crop fields when combined with traditional field checking techniques. Drone flights provide a flexible option for collecting data from fields. In a short amount of time, it is possible to have your drone in the air collecting images quickly. They are much more flexible to use than waiting on satellite imagery from different services which can sometimes take days.

  1. Quick collection of high-resolution imagery
    With most common drones used for field checking today, it is possible to fly and collect images from a 60-80 acre field in 30 minutes or less. This helps to identify problem areas in the field quickly.
  2. Identify problem areas
    There are software options that have made it possible to view your imagery at the field edge within 5-10 minutes of the flight. It is then possible to go to scout areas that are showing issues or problems.
  3. Eliminate wasted efforts
    Compare the traditional field checking pattern of z or w across a field. This is a good method to randomly field check and get a broad idea of what is happening in the field. However, field checking this way becomes more difficult once crops are further in their growth stages. With drone imagery, you will be able to see potential issues in the field that might not be as easily viewable from the ground. While drones will not eliminate the need for ground truthing, they can help to highlight areas of issue that might otherwise be missed.
  4. Understanding your field
    Once imagery is collected, it is possible to use it in other precision agriculture applications. It can then be compared to yield data, as-applied maps, or soil maps to further dive into what is happening in your field.

It is important to compare what you are seeing on the ground versus what you are seeing from the air. Drones are not a substitute for ground truthing and field checking on foot.

Check out this Soil Sessions Webinar where we discuss ways to check your crop.

Aerial Seeding

Join John Stewart, SHP Field Manager for Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio for a Soil Session discussing aerial seeding. During this webinar John discusses the basics of aerial seeding and how it could benefit your operation, including: aerial seeding equipment, identifying an aerial applicator, and considerations before aerial seeding.

Soil Sessions is a webinar series by the Soil Health Partnership that provides monthly, in-depth updates on various SHP programs and research findings. Soil Sessions covers a range of topics such as our evolving data insights, how SHP manages and integrates data, our connection to and work with our partners, as well as providing technical information on topics like cover crops, scouting and grazing. To view all SHP webinars, visit our website here.