Demand continues to be strong for state cost-share funds to plant cover crops and install other practices to improve water quality and reduce soil loss, Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey said last week. That strong demand shows that Iowa farmers are still investing in conservation despite a sharp drop in commodity prices and farm income, he said.

"So far the interest in conservation cost-share has been better than in previous years," Northey said. "With the economics in agriculture today, we were concerned about how many folks would step forward to do this, but that’s not been the case."

Under the state program, Iowa farmers can access the cost-share funds by agreeing to invest their own money in practices designed to improve water quality.

The state cost share rate for first-time users of cover crops is $25 per acre. Farmers using no-till or strip-till for the first time are eligible for $10 per acre, and farmers using a nitrogen inhibitor when applying fall fertilizer can receive $3 per acre. Farmers are eligible for cost share on up to 160 acres.

First-time users for the conservation practices will receive priority for the cost-share. But those that have planted cover crops before can access $15 per acre in cost-share.

Funds available

So far, more than 700 Iowa farmers have applied for $1.6 million in cost-share funds, Northey said. "We do have some funds available, both for first-time users and those interested in trying cover crops again. I hope interested farmers will contact their local Soil and Water Conservation District soon to learn more about the assistance that is available," Northey said.

Most of the cost-share funding has gone to offset the cost of planting cover crops, which grow in the late fall after harvest and early spring before corn or soybeans have been planted.

Research by Iowa State Uni­versity (ISU) and others has shown that cover crops can significantly reduce nutrient loss, especially in the early spring, and can improve soil quality.

There were approximately 472,500 total acres of cover crops planted in Iowa in 2015, an increase of 35 percent compared to 350,000 acres in 2014, according to projections from the Iowa Learning Farms at Iowa State University. That was up dramatically from less than 10,000 acres in 2009.

Northey said he sees continued interest in cover crops as he travels the state. "I think a lot farmers are getting pretty serious about it and considering a normal part of farming," he said.