More and more farmers across Iowa are planting cover crops to improve soil health slow erosion and improve water quality. And Washington County is leading the way.

Farmers in Washington County, in southeast Iowa, planted 21,353 acres of cover crops in 2016 using government planning and financial aid, tops in the state, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Cedar and Iowa counties in eastern Iowa were next with 12,691 and 10,055 acres, respectively. Buena Vista County and Crawford County farmers in western Iowa planted 8,607 and 8,079 for the fourth and fifth most cover crop acres planted.

It was the second year that Washington County farmers led in cover crop acres for the second consecutive year, the USDA noted.

"Everybody wants to know what we’re doing down here (that we continue to expand our cover crop acres)," said Tom Vittetoe, a Washington County Farm Bureau member and a county Soil and Water Conservation District soil commissioner, said. "I guess a good thing feeds on itself. You get four or five of us farmers using cover crops, and it just kind of expands from there," he said.

Spreading farmer to farmer

Farmers in the county say the shift toward using cover crops began with a few farmers trying out the practice. Then, it just kind of took off.

"We’re in a very proactive county," Vittetoe said. "We continue to expand as our comfort zone expands."

Washington County Farm Bureau member Steve Berger started experimenting with cereal rye as a cover crop as a 4-H project in 1978. The family continued its no-till practice, but felt like they needed another tool to slow erosion.

"We kept no-tilling through the ’80s and ’90s, and felt like we needed a cover," Berger said.

He added cover crops to his corn and soybean acres in the 2000s, and has been using cover crops on 100 percent of his acres for about 15 years.

"(Cereal) rye is a soil builder because of its deep roots and fibrous root system," Berger said.

He noted that cereal rye is relatively easy to establish, readily available through seed dealers, and very winter hardy.

Vittetoe has been experimenting with cover crops for about four years. Like other farmers, he’s noted the benefits in erosion control and building soil health.

He now covers 15 to 20 percent of his acres with a cereal rye cover crop.

Networking to learn

Berger and Vittetoe say the best way for farmers to get into growing cover crops is to network with other farmers in their area, and start small, just like they got started.

"Find some neighbors and a peer group to ask questions. Different parts of the state are different, so find somebody nearby doing it," Berger said.

Though it may take a few years to realize the benefits of erosion control and soil health after establishing cover crops, farmers should be patient, Vittetoe said.

"The No. 1 reason we stuck with it was erosion control. We were capturing nutrients and they weren’t washing off," he said. He said water quality efforts in the county are driving more people toward using cover crops on their corn and soybean acres.

A combination of no-till and cover crops has improved Berger’s soils, he said.

"The soil is more resilient and will resist erosion," Berger said.

Staying patient

Patience is key, Berger said.

"There are some immediate benefits like slowing down soil erosion, but when you’re working with soil and changing aggregate structure and pore space and trying to bring microbial activity back, that doesn’t happen in one or two years, it might take a few years. But adding a cover crop with a fibrous root system changes the microbial environment and improves soil over time."