The benefits of cover crops and no-till or minimum-till methods for building up organic matter, preventing erosion and overall soil health were showcased at a recent Iowa State University (ISU) Extension field day. 

Held at the ISU Agricultural Engineering and Agronomy Research Farm near Boone Aug. 3, the event drew around 75 participants who gained insight into topics like cover crop seeding, strip-tilling and the advantages of enhanced water infiltration.

Jason Steele, a U.S. Department of Agriculture soil scientist, and J.D. Hollingsworth, a soil health specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in southeast Iowa, emphasized the vital role of no-till and cover crop adoption in nurturing soil health through a rainfall simulator demonstration.

The simulator illustrated how cover crops and no-till practices retain water in the soil while curbing erosion. 

“I remember going home and telling Dad, I’m done tilling,” Hollingsworth said, after seeing his first rainfall simulator and slate demonstration in 2012. 

The slate test — a visual demonstration Hollingsworth now presents to others — shows how cover crop versus tilled soils are impacted by water. 

Soils that have been tilled fare worse than those in a no-till, cover crop system — breaking up and falling apart more readily, Hollings­worth said.

He and his dad implemented cover crops the very next year, and after a quick assessment, they were sold. “(Dad) said we’ll never have an acre that doesn’t have cover crops on it again,” Hollingsworth said. “It’s that important on our farm.”

Strip-Till Adds to Arsenal

While cover crops have gained popularity across Iowa for their advantages such as weed suppression and reduced nutrient runoff, coupling them with reduced tillage techniques like no-till or strip-tilling amplify the positive impact on soil health.

Ben Covington, an ISU ag and biosystems engineering program specialist, has delved into strip-till methods since 2016. He extols the targeted approach, which employs GPS guidance to cultivate strips with precise fertilizer application and seed placement. 

Covington explains this method revitalizes the soil and allows for optimal seed contact while disturbing only one-third of the soil compared to full-field tillage. 

“The less interactions that we have by disturbing that topsoil profile, the better soil health we will see going forward in the future,” he said.

Covington’s research indicates that strip tilling not only enhances soil health but also yields economic benefits. By eliminating additional field passes, farmers reduce soil compaction and save on fuel, labor and equipment expenses.

Strategizing for Success

Setting a reasonable conservation goal is key to success. Mark Licht, ISU Extension cropping systems specialist, said that’s the number one question he asks anyone considering practices like cover crops.

“If your goal is simply to get cost share dollars, you will fail,” he said. “If you’re going to do the bare minimum, this isn’t the practice for you.”

Licht said cover crop management requires discussions about changing tillage systems or fertility programs, rethinking a herbicide program, crop maturities and planting dates.

Farmers need to determine what cover crop varieties will grow best on their operation and for what purpose they’ll be used, whether to build soil health or for weed suppression.

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all,” Licht said. “Being able to adapt is the only way we’re going to be successful.”

Farmers should start small and be data-driven — consider cereal rye ahead of soybeans and oats or cereal rye ahead of corn. Grasses or brassicas also could be considered as cover crop implementation ramps up, Licht said. In addition, consider how best to seed, via aerial application or high-clearance equipment with drop tubes or spreader boxes.

First-hand Experience

For Arlin Vos, a Pella farmer, the positives of conservation practices are evident. Having embraced no-till methods in 1993 and cover cropping in 2010-11, Vos has witnessed improved soil health and reduced erosion. 

He underscored the importance of a genuine commitment to cover cropping and soil health. “If you’re going to do cover crops, your heart has to be in it. You have to think about the benefits for your soil. It’s up to you as an operator, owner, manager to create life in that soil.”

Vos advocates for engaging with peers and consulting ISU Extension before embarking on conservation plans. He emphasizes that for him, cover cropping has proven to be a game-changer.