Lime Creek field day at Richard Sloan’s
(July 2014) — Dick Sloan provided a glimpse into his evolution as a conservationist farmer along with an update of his no-till and cover crop farming practices at the June 19 Lime Creek field day.
“(I am) trying for a more resilient farming” he told the 66 attending the Practical Farmer’s-sponsored event. Unfortunately, heavy rain (nearly 2 inches) and cracks of thunder kept the crowd inside the machine shed, preventing most from getting a close-up view of the practices.
In conversation following the field day, Dick elaborated on his approach to resilient farming:
“I was invited to speak about our (Lime Creek’s) performance-based water quality project at the Leopold Center’s resiliency conference (a few years ago). While I explained our use of SCI (Soil Conditioning Index), PI (phosphorus index) and end-of-season cornstalk nitrate tests to plan rotations and tillage practices to build organic matter, I recognized some limitations,” he said.
“While some soils had the highest SCI with continuous corn and fall chiseling and lots of fertilizer, it still left the soil susceptible to erosion and provides no environmental services to protect from flooding, loss of pollinators and native species. It lacks diversity.”
Diversity is the method nature uses to be capable of responding to environmental stress, he continued:
“In a prairie, some plants do well in a dry year and different plants do well in a wet year. This ability of a natural system to respond to whatever hits us is resilience.”
What can corn, soybean, livestock farmers do?
“We already recognize the value of crop rotations, the boost corn gets from a previous soybean crop and the value of the manure going back to fertilize crops fed to livestock,” Dick said.
The resiliency of mixed farming “has kept many of us from getting rid of our animals and soybeans. Farmers with ruminants to feed don’t tear up pastures along streams. They use small grains and perennials like alfalfa to further diversify their crop rotations and use more stable forms of organic nitrogen for corn production.”
“Adding fall-seeded cover crops like rye, wheat, barley and vetch builds on that diversity and keeps the soil covered with living plants, adding carbon to soils and feeding the ‘underground livestock’ which are important for nutrient cycling in the soil.
“If we can get six weeks of growth from covers, it promises the effects of a crop rotation to boost production of our summer crops,” he concluded.
One of Dick’s showcase fields is adjacent to the farmstead. More than 300 acres are planted in a corn-corn-bean rotation, and he briefly explained the field’s history:
“I had soybeans no-till drilled on 15-inch rows in the area closest to my buildings in 2013 following corn in 2012. I drilled a mix of 40 pounds of white winter wheat and 30 pounds of cereal rye with 12 pounds of hairy vetch in 7.5″ rows after soybean harvest,” he said. Part of the field was planted Oct. 2 and the rest near the prairie was planted Oct. 13.
This year, he planted the corn on May 6 with starter fertilizer and sprayed the cover crop May 18 with a burndown plus a residual before the corn came up. Two weeks later he viewed the field with mixed feelings, since it appeared as there were swaths of cover crop that remained green. However, by the field day all cover crop was brown and the corn looked good (see photo at right).
In June 2012, Dick created Conservation Reserve Plan (CRP) strips in the field, seeded with 29 native species of grasses and forbs.
The strips are part of Iowa State University’s STRIPS (Science-based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips) Projects. Amy Moorhouse, ISU master’s graduate student, is studying bee diversity on STRIPS this year and in 2015, including Dick Sloan’s. In an email to Dick she wrote: “By looking at strips … with numerous flowering species we will be able to determine which mixes provide ample habitat for bees. Dick Sloan’s prairie strips are considered high diversity, with species such as purple prairie clover and wild bergamot.
“While corn and soybeans may not be dependent upon bees for pollination, bees are an indicator of ecosystem health and quality. The higher the diversity of both bees and plants in the strips, the healthier the system is.
For Dick, there is added benefit to cover crops and prairie strips in the two-way conversations he can have with the researchers, an opportunity to add more to his resiliency learning.
A national Resilient Agriculture conference is set for August 5-7 (2014) in Ames. For more information, visit http://www.sustainablecorn.org/conf-pages/2014NationalConference.html
“If you don’t want soil to move, don’t move soil.”
Rowley, Ia. – Rick Bednarek, Iowa Natural Resources Conservation Service state soil scientist, spoke briefly during the June field day presentations, providing an overview of the 2013 Four Core Soil Health Program:
1. Little or no disturbance of the soil. Seven years of good no-till is generally to be required for a good no-till system, although ISU suggests cover crops could reduce that to four years. No till is really about biology, he said.
2. Have a diverse crop rotation. A corn-bean crop rotation isn’t enough diversity, but cover crops can makes management more diverse essentially adding another rotation.
3. Have living roots year-round, as microbes live on/among the living roots.
4. Have residue year round as “armor” that protects the soil.
NRCS has a two-page PDF, “Healthy, productive soils checklist for growers” at http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb1167874.pdf
NEW: A strategy for ‘nutrient reduction’
Richard Sloan’s guest column in the Cedar Rapids Gazette of Sunday, Feb. 2, was one of three opinion pieces on nutrient reduction featured in the Insight and Books section. To read the column, visit: Gazette
For a PDF of all three opinion pages follow this link: CR Gazette nutrient columns 2.2.14
“Farmers keep eye on tile-line runoff”
Orlan Love of the Cedar Rapids Gazette writes about the Lime Creek watershed grant in a front-age story that appeared in The Cedar Rapids Gazette, July 23, 2013. The link below includes a short video featuring Coe College chemistry professor Marty St. Clair; Coe students are involved with the stream water sampling in the watershed.
Lime Creek watershed council
receives monitoring grant
(June 18, 2013) –– Lime Creek Watershed Improvement Association received a $73,760 two-year grant to measure tile-line delivery of nitrogen and phosphorus from 10 tiled, drained fields in the watershed. The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship State Soil Conservation Committee Research and Demonstration grant begins July 1, 2013.
“With 6 years’ experience addressing nitrogen and phosphorus leaching into our surface waters, we felt we still wanted more accurate measurements of the results of our attempts to control these losses,” says Richard Sloan, Rowley, president of the Lime Creek Watershed Improvement Association and producer.
“Iowa’s new Nutrient Reduction Strategy will rely on farmers believing that cover crops, reduced tillage and biofilters will work on their farms. We designed our project to help our producers have confidence in the science behind the strategy,” he says.
Sloan is one of the ten watershed producers who will volunteer a field for the project. Field management will vary by farm to include continuous corn, corn-soybean rotation, other rotations, cover crops, and various nutrient applications.
First steps will be the installation of tile-line monitoring sites at the edge of each of the fields and as part of a denitrifying bioreactor and associated monitoring station at a separate site. Coe College students, who have been taking stream samples in the watershed since 2006, will take grab samples through the growing season while tile flow will be automatically collected. Other information, such as field-level management (crop rotations, nutrient applications, etc.) and precipitation and temperature, will be recorded.
Information from the monitoring will be made available to watershed residents and the general public through news releases and on this web site.
The Lime Creek Watershed Association is also an active member of the Cedar River Coalition.
Lime Creek is a 27,039 acre sub-watershed of the Cedar River in western Buchanan County with its outflow in northwest Benton County approximately 25 miles from Cedar Rapids. The lower one-half of the 16 mile stream was on the final 2004 Iowa list of Section 303(d) Impaired Waters. The cause/stressor was identified as biological, potentially flow alteration, habitat modification, nutrients and/or siltation.
In 2006, producers in the Lime Creek watershed organized a watershed improvement association, became incorporated and used a grant from the Iowa Corn Growers to initiate a watershed a watershed improvement project using performance-based incentives. The project focused on nitrogen (N) management and received an Iowa Watershed Improvement Review Board grant that provided funding through 2011.
Field Day review of cover crop
(Posted August 2012, with update October 2012.)
One year after Richard Sloan had winter rye seed flown onto corn and soybean fields as a winter cover crop, he looks favorably on the experiment. So much so that he’s ready to continue this fall and winter.
Sloan looked back on the year during a cover crop field day held in late August on his farm and cosponsored by Iowa Learning Farms along with the Cedar River Coalition and Lime Creek Watershed Council.
He told the group that he’s planned new seeding for this September and hope for rain, or watch the forecast and plan seeding accordingly.
Richard’s discussion touched on many facets of cover crops, no-till farming and the weather:
• He began with the weather, of course, and the stress of the drought. For “this part of Iowa,” there were 200 stress degree days when the temperature was above 86 degrees, a guarantee of reduced corn yield. (Richard used the Iowa Environmental Mesonet web site http://mesonet.agron.iastate.edu as a reference for his discussions. Select current and growing season.)
• Nutrient management this year was approximately 50 pounds of 32 percent and 100 pounds of a 6-18-6 mixed and applied about two inches to the side of each row. He planted the seeds in the center of the residue. He also included 30 units of N mixed in the burndown on April 4, and side-dressed 70 units of N on June 9. The field also received plowdown and hog manure in the spring of 2010 when he planted corn on corn. The field has a history of livestock production so soil tests are high or very high.
• Negatives of no-till include dealing with ground squirrels that ate the seed after planting. Tillage usually disturbs the squirrels’ habitat and they move on.
• Annual weeds are another negative – they can fill a niche on no-till fields when the crops are out (“nature abhors a vacuum” he says). But Richard thought cover crops would help, since they germinate around 34 degrees and will grow if there is no snow.
• Winter rye adds variety to the field environment and soil biology, increasing soil activity by increasing microbial life. It builds organic matter and Richard believes it helps break down corn residue; he also thinks it will help tie up nitrogen in fields that are harvested early.
• Risks this year include getting the cover crop established during a dry fall. He says he’s tempted to plant earlier fall giving the rye more time to establish.
• He also said there were areas last year where the rye seed went unintentionally, and wasn’t killed in the spring. These volunteer areas had to be cut before planting the crop (soybeans).
• Finally, there were issues of wet ground and cracking as it dried, but Richard said there was enough residue to prevent rain from impacting soil particles.
During a question and answer session, Dick was asked if will continue with cover crops: “I am definitely committed,” he said, because of other programs he’s involved with (Sustainable Corn, for example).
“I went to college and learned biology and came back to farm,” Richard told the audience. “I found there was a lot to learn (about farming) on the ground, looking at things.
“I’ve always enjoyed the mental and physical aspects of farming.”
Update: The field ended up producing an average yield of 124 bushels per acre, “nothing to brag about,” but fields four miles away with different soil types produced 169 bushels per acre in a stressful year.
Sloan had cereal rye flown onto 65 acres of standing corn in September and it was still viable in October when the rains came. “…I’m hoping it will soon be emerging from the residue,” he says.
“In my other fields the 85 acres of rye that I drilled soon after harvesting corn and soybeans are greening up nicely. I will still plant some late-seeded rye on another 70 acres that are not harvested or just didn’t get done yet.
“The oats with crimson clover are up and coming, with the earliest planted the obvious winner.
“We will see how things look next spring…,” he adds.
Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship news release dated Aug. 31, 2012 on cover crops:
• • •
Buchanan County gem is running cleaner
Orlan Love, outdoor writer for The (Cedar Rapids, Iowa) Gazette, looks at the efforts of the Lime Creek Watershed Association in the Sunday, Oct. 9, 2011 edition.
Conserving the soil is important to Rowley farmer Dick Sloan, writes Jean Caspers-Simmet in the Oct. 13, 2011 issue of AgriNews.