Photo: Jack Boyer of Reinbeck refills his air seeder Nov. 10 before spreading for cover crops on his farm in Grundy and Tama counties, where he has been growing cover crops for seven years. A retiree of John Deere, he researched and experimented with different crops on his own land and found that cover crops were beneficial to his soil by increasing organic matter, preventing nutrient runoff and reducing soil compaction. (Mary Mathis/Freelance)
Relatively few farmers in the Des Moines River watershed are seeking state money to plant cover crops intended to improve water quality, according to a Gazette analysis of grants made in 2017 by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. Farmers in 10 counties in north-central Iowa received less than 2 percent of nearly $5 million in state grants to help farmers pay for cover crops and other conservation strategies. Contrast that with farmers in three Eastern Iowa counties — Washington, Iowa and Cedar — getting nearly 20 percent of state cost-share grants.
“Yes, there is a dead zone of adoption up the (Des Moines) lobe and to the west,” said Sarah Carlson, Midwest cover crops director for the Practical Farmers of Iowa. “We need those cover crops there to reduce the nitrogen levels for water quality.”
Only 2.6 percent of Iowa’s total corn and soybean acres had cover crops in 2015–2016, according to a first-of-its-kind study by Practical Farmers and the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group that used satellite images to detect cover crops in the fields over the winter.
This is a far cry from the 60 percent of corn and soybean acres the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy says needs to be planted with cover crops, along with use of other conservation strategies, to meet the state’s goal of a 45 percent reduction in nitrogen and phosphorus washing down the Mississippi River and polluting the Gulf of Mexico.
Scientists estimate rye or oats grown as a cover crop in Iowa could slash nitrates by about 30 percent, the Nutrient Reduction Strategy reports.
So if cover crops are so critical to[…]