Cover crops are finding a firm footing in the Silver Creek watershed in northeast Iowa.

Last year, 33 percent of the watershed was planted with cover crops, said Neil Shaffer, Howard County Soil and Water Conservation District project coordinator and a Howard County Farm Bureau member. He shared the success story of this 22,000-acre watershed during a presentation at the Iowa Water Conference held earlier this month in Ames.

Silver Creek empties into the Upper Iowa River, named one of the top 100 canoeing destinations in the United States. But it is also listed on the Iowa Department of Natural Resources impaired water list due to bacteria levels.

Like many watershed project coordinators in Iowa, Shaffer helps farmers secure the cost-share funding and knowledge it takes to put practices like wetlands, cover crops and grassed waterways on the ground.

But as a farmer and former dairyman, he also understands the added challenges livestock farmers can face with nutrient management and storage. That’s why he puts an extra focus on helping these farmers mitigate potential impacts to nearby streams.  

“There’s an extra step needed when you use manure as a nutrient on your fields,” says Shaffer. “But it’s not just manure. There are so many other concerns with livestock. And we can’t point fingers. You’re not doing things ‘bad,’ but we try to help find ways to do things better.”

Farmer investments

Farmers, Shaffer said, are making investments in conservation. Of the $5.5 million total investments in the Silver Creek watershed, about $1.35 million came from landowners.

Those are dollars farmers could have spent on other things, says Shaffer, but they decided these changes were an important part of their family farm.

Leveraging funds from the federal Environmental Quality In­­­centives Program (EQIP), Shaffer has assisted cattle farmers in restricting animal access to streams, stream bank stabilization projects and the installation of “vortex weirs,” a formation of large boulders placed in V-shapes across creeks.

These weirs help direct the flow of water to the center of the stream instead of alongside the banks, reducing sediment. Another benefit of a rock weir, Shaffer says, is that it creates a place for fish to “hang out.”

Shaffer has also assisted farmers in creating manure storage facilities for a feedlot, as well as moving dairy cattle under roof. Although manure management aids the quest for cleaner water, he says the farmers who have made these changes find their daily routine has become easier and their livestock have benefited too. “Many are finding their animals have a better rate of gain and that cow comfort has increased,” he says.

The Silver Creek watershed has seen 106 participants implement nearly 350 best management practices, helping re-introduce brook trout to the creek in the summer of 2018.

“We can talk about plots on a graph and data,” says Shaffer, “but when you can show a farmer a trout and talk about in three to four years putting trout in his stream, it brings a sparkle to his eye.”

Shaffer was honored during the conference with the Circle of Excellence Iowa Watershed Award presented by the Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance.

Lamm is a public relations spec­ialist with the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation.