New information sheets from ILF

The Iowa Learning Farm has recently created a series of information sheets addressing soil and water quality topics. There are four handouts titled “Iowa Watersheds,” “Transition to No-till,” “Water Quality and Conservation Practices” and “Economics of Residue.”

These four-page informational publications contain key points and tips to help improve farming practices and natural resource quality. Here is a summary of each.

• The “Iowa Watersheds” fact sheet is an overview of watersheds and resident-led watershed groups. It offers tips on forming a local watershed group and what these groups can accomplish, and includes sources of possible funding. The sheet cites the successes of the locally led Hewitt Creek watershed group in northeast Iowa. This group works to improve Hewitt Creek’s water quality with the goal to remove the creek from the state’s impaired waters list.

• The “Transition to No-till” sheet details steps when making the transition to no-till. It offers general recommendations for planter adjustments and harvesting in no-till situations, and touches on nutrient and weed management. The publication explains some of the environmental as well economic benefits of no-till, and tries to dispel some myths associated with no-till farming practices.

• The “Water Quality and Conservation Practices” handout highlights conservation farming structures that improve water quality by reducing erosion. It reviews the statewide study comparing the costs and benefits of grassed waterways, grass filter strips and terraces in Iowa fields using the Water Erosion Prediction Project, or WEPP, model. The study accounts for the off-farm costs and benefits, and evaluates the effectiveness of these three conservation practices on Iowa farms.

Eight supplements to the “Water Quality and Conservation Practices” handout detail findings from the study sites by soil region. The supplements describe each site and soil loss outcomes using the three conservation structures within different tillage systems. It also looks at the overall economic impacts of these structures.

• The “Economics of Residue” information handout explains the benefits of leaving crop residue on the field and explores the costs of crop residue removal, both economically and environmentally. For example, when residue is removed from a field, the soil is exposed to the forces of wind and rain leading to higher erosion rates.

What’s a ton of soil worth?

Several of the information sheets address the unseen costs of soil erosion. The impact of soil erosion occurs both on and off the farm. Soil losses from fields reduce productivity and sustainability. Erosion carries away soil, nutrients and organic matter. Based on 2009 USDA estimates, the total cost of eroded soil is between $6.10 and $6.40 per ton.

One chart in the “Economics of Residue” handout states that removing 50% of the crop residue from the surface of a chisel-tilled field in northwest Iowa (with an average 2.6% slope) results in the loss of 3.08 tons of soil per acre annually. Using the economic values above, that is a loss of about $19 per acre each year. The economic benefits of conservation tillage are more evident when considering the value of eroded soil.

This is just one example of many made in the information sheets. All four of the handouts are on the Iowa Learning Farm Web site under the conservation section. These sheets are also available in print through the Iowa Learning Farm. The ILF team has these handouts available at workshops and field days. To request copies of the printed information sheets, send an e-mail to ilf@iastate.edu and include a mailing address.

Brown is communications specialist with the Iowa Learning Farm.

This article published in the April, 2010 edition of WALLACES FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.