In a couple of months, when the snow melts away and Iowa’s weather finally warms, expect to see more green fields as you travel around the state. That’s because Iowa’s farmers are planting sharply more acres of cover crops as they take on the challenge of improving Iowa’s water quality and reduce soil loss.

The state’s legacy of conservation is strong and has already spurred farmers to adopt practices that helped reduce losses of phosphorus by 26 – 27 % from a baseline established in the groundbreaking, researched-based Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (INRS) – a comprehensive strategy for improving water quality. Newer conservation practices, like cover crops to hold soil in place, are now accelerating as Iowa farmers and conservation leaders pivot to focus on reducing losses of nitrogen.

The latest figures from the Iowa Nutrient Research and Education Council (INREC) show that the state’s farmers planted 3.1 million acres of cover crops for the 2020 crop year. That’s a big number. But what’s impressive is the acceleration we’ve seen in cover crop acreage.

For the 2020 crop year farmers planted 43% more acres of cover crops than they did for the 2019 crop year. And 2020’s Iowa cover crop acreage nearly doubled the 2017 crop year, when INREC started its annual survey of conservation progress using a statistically-sound study of sales data from ag retailers and certified crop advisors to measure and demonstrate progress in conservation practices.

Indeed, Iowa’s cover crop acreage is now 300 times more than the 10,000 acres that farmers used to routinely plant prior to the 2013 adoption of INRS.

The cover crops, typically planted in the fall, have proven environmental benefits. Research from Iowa State University shows planting a rye cover crop helps reduce nitrogen losses from fields by 31% and phosphorus losses by 29%.

Along with the environmental gains, cover crops are helping Iowa farmers improve the health of their soils. Cover crops, studies have shown, increase organic matter in soils, improve water infiltration and help suppress weeds, all attributes good for the environment.

Ethan Crow has seen those improvements first-hand on his multi-generational farm in Marshall County. “We had some soils that didn’t seem to have a lot of life to them and grew mediocre crops. But they really came around after a couple years of covers crops,” he said.

Jerome Fulsaas, a Winneshiek County farmer, has also seen the benefits of cover crops on his northeast Iowa farm. Cover crops, in combination with his no-till program, have increased organic matter in his soils, improved in water infiltration after big rainstorms and boosted the number of earthworms in his fields, helping keep soils aeriated and healthy. “There absolutely is a soil health and environmental benefit to these practices,” Fulsaas said.

Cover crops are probably the most visible signal that Iowa farmers are taking on the challenge of improving water quality. But there are plenty of less visible, but just as important water quality practices, also gaining momentum all over Iowa.

In fact, Iowa leads the nation in reduced and no-till acres. More farmers are investing in products which keep nitrogen in the soil until plant roots can access it. They are also working with state agencies and others to accelerate pace of building wetlands, bioreactors and saturated buffers to capture and filter nutrients to protect water quality. The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship agency says farmers are in the process of planning and building more than 40 wetlands, as well as designing and developing 125 additional bioreactors/saturated buffers.

It’s all part of a promising culture of conservation that is alive and growing strong in Iowa’s deep, rich soils.

To see how farmers are conserving soil and protecting water quality in your region of the state, check out

By Dirck Steimel. Dirck is former News Services Manager for the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation and former editor of the Iowa Farm Bureau Spokesman.