Spring, of course, is the traditional planting season in Iowa. Each year, farmers hustle to get their seeds of corn, soybeans and other crops sown in the state’s deep, rich soil.
But in the past few years, a second planting season has emerged in the fall. That’s because more and more Iowa farmers are planting cover crops.
Farmers plant cover crops either into maturing fields of corn and soybeans before harvest or immediately after the combines are finished. Then the cover crops — typically rye or a mixture of rye with varieties of turnips or radishes — germinate and grow during the late fall and early spring, after the fall harvest and before the next spring’s planting.
By growing during the off-season for corn and soybeans, cover crops help protect the soil from eroding over the winter and early spring months.
Using airplanes, modified spraying rigs and conventional planters, Iowa farmers sowed approximately 472,500 acres of cover crops in the fall of 2015. That was an increase of 35 percent compared to 350,000 acres in 2014, and up dramatically from less than 10,000 acres in 2009.
And there are clear indications that the state’s cover crop acreage will continue climbing as the state’s farmers take on the challenge of improving the state’s water quality and reducing soil loss.
The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship has received applications covering over 200,000 acres from more than 1,900 different farmers seeking to participate in the cover crop planting program.
More than 900 Iowa farmers had enrolled in the program to access cost-share funds to help them try cover crops for the first time. Another 1,000 farmers who had already tried cover crops are accessing a reduced rate of state cost-share to plant them again.
That means farmers will be investing nearly $6 million of their own money, while accessing $3.8 million in state funds through the Iowa water quality initiative, officially called the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.
Many Iowa farmers are planting cover crops and investing in water quality on their own, without government assistance. A recent poll by Iowa State University (ISU) also showed that farmers have invested as much as $2.2 billion to make those conservation improvements.
Studies have shown that cover crops can improve soils while providing habitat for birds, wildlife and beneficial insects.
Cover crops don’t work on every farm in Iowa, agronomists caution. That’s especially true in the state’s northern counties, where it’s tough to get cover crop seed planted and germinated before a hard freeze.