Ethan Crow is a true believer in the value of cover crops and other conservation measures that improve water quality, reduce erosion and improve soil health on his Marshall County farm. For the young farmer, cover crops and conservation just make sense.

“When we apply fertilizer, we want it to stay where it can be used by that year’s crops,” said Crow, a Marshall County Farm Bureau member who farms with family, raising corn, soybeans, sweet corn and cattle. 

Crow is one of a growing number of Iowa farmers who are taking on the challenge of improving water quality and reducing soil loss by planting cover crops and adopting other conservation measures, such as reduced tillage, wetlands and saturated buffers.

Cover crops are plants grown to keep the soil “covered” in between growing seasons rather than harvested for food or feed.

Iowa State University research shows that cover crops can reduce soil nitrogen losses in fields by more than 30%.

And new statistics show cover crop acreage is rapidly expanding in Iowa, as part of the state’s comprehensive water quality plan.

Iowa farmers planted 3.1 million acres to cover crops for the 2020 crop year, according to a recently released Iowa Nutrient Research and Education Council (INREC) survey, which tracks Iowa ag retailer and co-op sales data. 

That cover crop acreage total for 2020 was up 43% from the previous year and nearly double the acreage from the 2017 crop year, when INREC conducted its first retailer survey. 

The expansion of cover crop acreage is part of a promising pattern, said Shawn Richmond, INREC’s former director of environmental services, who recently joined the Iowa Farm Bureau as the conservation and natural resources policy advisor. “These numbers show that famers continue to make strong progress implementing practices that are known to reduce our losses of nitrogen and phosphorus,” he said. 

Iowa’s conservation progress goes well beyond rising cover crop acreage.The INREC data also showed continued gains in the use of reduced tillage to keep the soil in place, increase water infiltration and build organic matter. 

Farmers used a no-till program on nearly 37% of Iowa’s crop acreage for 2020, a gain of nearly 10% since 2017, the date showed. 

No-till leaves crop residue on the ground, letting it break down into organic matter. 

This improves soil quality and naturally filters out nutrients from groundwater before it enters Iowa watersheds and helps to improve Iowa water quality.

The combination of using no-till and cover crops excites Jerome Fulsaas, who farms near Decorah. “With no-till and cover crops, we have really been seeing some improvement in the health of our soils,” the Winneshiek County Farm Bureau member said. “That’s what I’m after.”

Fulsaas has seen the organic matter in his soils climb, water infiltration improve and a population explosion of earthworms in his soil. “There absolutely is a soil health and environmental benefit to these practices,” Fulsaas said.

Beyond cover crops, Iowa farmers are also installing more edge-of-field water quality practices, including wetlands, to improve water quality, says Mike Naig, Iowa’s secretary of agriculture.

Iowa farmers, partnering with the state, have built more than 100 conservation wetlands over the years. And they are currently partnering with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship and others to build at least 40 more wetlands, Naig noted. 

“We are just seeing so much evidence that Iowa farmers are on track when it comes to conservation and water quality,” Naig said.