Chris Teachout was us­­ing cover crops before cover crops were widely touted throughout the state for their use in slowing erosion and diminishing runoff.

Growing up on a livestock farm near Shenandoah, the family would use the cover crops for bedding their livestock.

"Clear back in the mid '80s, we did cereal rye, and we aerially seeded it in corn, which a lot of people are doing with cover crops now. We’d harvest the grain, and then we’d always like the big, tall, long straw. My dad had a farrow-to-finish hog operation, and I had cow/calf pairs, so we loved the straw bedding for that," Teachout said.

But as equipment got more efficient for baling corn stalks, they did away with the cereal rye as a cover crop. They began selling corn stalks and eventually exited the livestock industry. Although he’s not raising traditional livestock, Teachout refers to the earthworms and soil microbes as his "livestock" underground. And as the fifth-generation farmer continues to raise corn and soybeans, he’s very much interested in how to improve his soil and gain efficiencies in his fields.

Along with no-till, Teachout has more than 25,000 feet of terraces and 4.7 acres of grassed waterways to control soil erosion on his farm. He’s installed riparian forest buffers in a 7.6-acre area near his farm pond, a 2.59-acre field windbreak and a wetland restoration project that covers 26.31 acres.

Teachout was recently named the recipient of the 2017 Iowa Conservation Farmer of the Year award. The award, which got its start in 1952, is co-sponsored by the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation (IFBF) and the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS). For his award, Teachout receives the keys to a John Deere 6E Series tractor, or its equivalent, for up to 12 months or 200 hours of use. The prize, valued at more than $12,000, is supported by The Van Wall Group of Perry and John Deere. This year, AgriVision Equipment joins as a major sponsor and will deliver the tractor.

Regional conservation winners this year include: Tom Oswald, Cleghorn; Dwight Dial, Lake City; Greg Palmer, Waukon; Steve & Ann Brinkman, Audubon; Stewart Baldner, Dallas Center; John Maxwell, Donahue; and Ray Menke, Ft. Madison.

Measuring the benefits

Teachout began reinvesting time and money into researching and experimenting with cover crops in 2011, when they were back in the spotlight.

"About six years ago, when everybody started talking about cover crops, the light went on. That’s what I had been doing, and I saw some of the benefits in the soil working differently," he said.

Since then, Teachout has been researching different cover crops on his own fields, experimenting how different mixtures affect the soil and provide a "carpet," cooling the ground below to encourage microbe activity.

Through each experiment, he’s learned something that inspires other experiments and research. He’s excited to see his soils build organic matter over time. And he’s not hesitant about sharing his enthusiasm about soil health with others not only in the state, but through invitations to speak at international conferences.

On a recent visit to the farm, Teachout pointed out an experiment with interplanting cover crops in his cornfield early in the season.

"I’ve got this (underground) feedlot now (of earthworms and microbes) that I’ve got to take care of," he said.

In a soybean field, Teachout is conducting a variety of tests to measure the amount of microbe activity in the soil. He’s also measuring moisture, surface temperature and 4-inch soil depth temperatures to see what kind of difference the carpet of cereal rye is making. Teachout is using tea bags and cotton underwear to determine the microbe activity overtime. He’s weighed each before burying them in the soil, then will take each out at different intervals throughout 90 days to see how much each have broken down.

The organic matter in that particular field, at 5.5 percent, shows strong microbe activity. A shovel full of dirt exposed a centipede, mushrooms, fungal threads and all sorts of earthworm holes. It’s exactly what Teachout likes to see.

"Mushrooms are decomposing the cornstalks and releasing nutrients back into the systems. Fungal threads going from the rye are extracting nutrients," Teachout points out.

Keeping it cool

The soil temperature was 93 degrees just under the carpet of cereal rye. Four inches below the surface of the rye carpet, the soil was 73 degrees. The soybeans were green and lush.

Nearby, in a rare bare spot, the soil was 109 degrees on the surface "The soybeans aren’t as good in this sun spot right here," he said.

Not only do the experiments tout the benefits of cover crops, but it’s also visible after heavy rains, he said. He doesn’t see muddy water coming off of his fields.

"When we have that nice carpet, it slows the impact of the rain, it doesn’t dislodge any soil," he said.

While the thought of trying a different practice or cover crop on a field might sound intimidating, Teachout recommends that farmers give it a go. He offered his top three pieces of advice for farmers wanting to learn more:

1. Ask questions, get in the soil pit, and go to soil health field days and meetings. Try to open your mind up and see if there’s just one takeaway you can bring home. "Most likely there’s somebody in your neighborhood doing something. … Stop and ask and start the conversation."

2. Understand what we’re doing with our natural resources. "If you’re not concerned about that, none of this matters. Forty to 50 years from now, do we want to hand our kids just clay?"

3. Learn from others. "There are a lot of us out here willing to share. Farming is a lot of relationships and it’s social. We need to share and help each other out."