The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) last week announced a plan to boost cover crop acres in the Des Moines and Raccoon River watersheds of central Iowa by assisting farmers’ efforts to plant more cover crops.

In the agreement, IDALS will work with Polk County, the City of Des Moines and Des Moines Water Works to purchase high-clearance equipment that can distribute seed into standing crops before harvest. Heartland Co-op will then work with central Iowa farmers to apply the cover crop seed.

In the cover crop plan, Polk County, with support from the City of Des Moines and Des Moines Water Works, will purchase cover crop seeding equipment. IDALS will then use funding from the Water Quality Initiative to reimburse the county up to $350,000, based on the number of cover crop acres applied by their equipment. 

Seeding with the high clearance equipment has shown to provide cover crops time to emerge before the cash crops are harvested, providing continuous cover for the fields, said Julie Kenney, Iowa Deputy Agriculture Secretary.

Securing the high clearance cover crop seeding equipment at the optimum time for planting cover crops can often be difficult for farmers who want to plant cover crops, Kenney said. “We are trying to help farmers overcome every barrier to get more cover crops on the ground,” she said. 

“Heartland Co-op’s conservation agronomists help farmers manage the numerous challenges which accompany the adoption of cover crops,” said Thomas Fawcett, the co-op’s director of environmental resources. 

“The addition of this seeding equipment will allow our conservation team to increase cover crop adoption and provide farmers with a streamlined process of seeding and managing their cover crops.” 

In the program, modeled after a similar successful program in Kansas, Heartland will also work with various partners to help central Iowa farmers offset the cost of cover crop seed and applications, Fawcett said. 

Water quality benefits

The goal of this project is to seed up to 40,000 acres of cover crops over the next four years in the Des Moines and Raccoon River watersheds.

Cover crops have proven water quality 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%.

The new data from the Iowa Nutrient Research and Education Council showed that Iowa farmers planted 3.1 million acres of cover crops in the fall of 2019 for the 2020 crop year. That meant that 13.3% of the state’s nearly 23 million crop acres were planted with cover crops going into the 2020 planting season.

The cover crop initiative is the second major collaborative push to boost conservation practices in the Des Moines and Raccoon River watersheds. 

Last summer, IDALS and other agencies launched a “water quality blitz” that added 40 saturated buffers and 11 bioreactors on farms in Polk and Dallas counties with minimal landowner effort or expense. 

The program created a new framework to streamline and scale up the adoption of saturated buffers and bioreactors by simplifying the financing and construction process for landowners in priority watersheds.

“Our public and private partners are critical to the success of every conservation project underway in Iowa,” said Iowa Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig. “We’re pleased to continue working alongside our current partners and welcome new ones to help implement more soil health and water quality practices in priority watersheds around the state.”