Keeping the ground covered
One of the best things we can do for our natural resources (especially the soil) is to keep the ground covered and protected throughout the year. This can be accomplished by leaving residue, such as corn stover, undisturbed through practices like reduced tillage. This residue slows water down and absorbs wind energy, decreasing the erosive power of these forces and keeping soil in place. However, it’s important to understand that reduced tillage, while a powerful tool for erosion protection, does not help with one of Iowa’s biggest water quality woes: nitrate pollution.
To protect our waterways and drinking water sources from nitrate, we need living roots like cover crops to keep the ground covered throughout the year. Cover crops such as cereal rye protect the landscape for the six-plus months that corn and soybeans are not actively growing; holding nitrate in the soil for future cash crops, rather than allowing it to wash out into our waterways.
One last approach to keeping the ground covered is buffers, areas where the soil is protected with year-round groundcover. Buffers can be within fields, often referred to as grassed waterways, or the edges of fields such as filter strips or shelterbelts. These living filters slow surface water and help it infiltrate deeper into the soil profile, capturing between 41-100% of sediment. Buffers can also be used for hunting or as an on-farm sanctuary to recreate or simply enjoy time in nature. Buffers can also increase the overall profitability of the farm if placed on areas of low crop productivity, removing those areas that require high amounts of inputs and drag down the overall yield potential of the field.
If you’re interested in enhancing your farm with reduced tillage, cover crops or buffers then stop in at your county’s USDA Service Center. There, you can talk to conservation professionals from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, and Pheasants Forever. Also, when you walk in ask, "Does this office have a Watershed Coordinator?" These are individuals who have expertise in conservation and who have additional access to funds to support conservation adoption.
Catherine DeLong, water quality program manager, 515-294-5963, firstname.lastname@example.org