August 2018

Conservation practices and land leases

Often times I hear from both landowners and tenants questioning how to incorporate specific conservation practices into leases. The first step to take is for both parties to meet and have an open discussion about the goals of including specific practices. Specific practices such as wanting a tenant to include a cover crop on crop acres takes planning in advance, maybe up to a year in advance. A conversation about who is paying for the seed and the seeding of the cover crop, termination costs, possible decrease in commodity crop yields and other factors should be included in the discussion. Other practices such as moving from conventional tillage to strip-tillage or no-tillage may require a significant investment on the part of the tenant in terms of machinery. In either case, these annual practices may require a huge learning and adoption curve so expectations from both parties need to be understood and discussed. Starting on a small number of acres is highly advisable.

More permanent practices such as waterways and terraces are likely to benefit the landowner long- term more than the tenant and may be a cost the landowner incurs. Management and maintenance by the tenant may be required so including language in the lease can be specific to the situation. There are many conservation practices available that address soil erosion, water quality and wildlife benefits, but for the purpose of this article let’s focus on cover crops.

Cover crops are loosely defined as closely planted crops that bridge the gap between harvest and planting of our primary commodity crops such as corn and soybean. During this time much of Iowa’s landscape is bare of vegetation and is most vulnerable to water and wind erosion as well as nutrient loss. Cover crops are planted for many reasons including but not limited to, 1) reduce erosion, 2) cycle nutrients such as nitrogen that could otherwise be lost to leaching, 3) improve soil health and 4) feed source for animals. If a landowner or tenant is considering cover crops to meet any of the above reasons here is a list of things to consider and ways to start the conversation.

  • Identify the goal(s) of growing the cover crop.
  • Talk to experienced cover crop users to learn how they got started and understand the benefits and any challenges they have experienced.
  • Have an open discussion on the potential for yield loss in the commodity crop.
  • Explore and discuss local cost-share opportunities and funding cycles.
  • Discuss a termination plan. How will the cover crop be terminated?
  • Possibly incentivize tenant by offering to share seed and seeding costs or even lowering cash rent.
  • Have a back-up plan and communicate consistently so expectations can be tempered. What if it does not rain and the seed does not germinate? What if herbicide carryover impacts cover crop growth? What if a wet spring delays termination and subsequently planting of corn or beans is delayed which could impact yield? Discuss options and expectations that will define success or failure.
  • Realize the inclusion of a cover crop is part of the cropping system and will require adjustments throughout the whole system and is not just something that might be there from September to April.
  • Start small. There is no need to seed every acre to cover crops until everyone has more experience with this cropping system and expectations are met with reality.

Iowa Learning Farms produced a series of publications titled Talking with your Tenant, that contains four fact sheets that provide talking points and research that can be shared with your tenant or landowner. This series includes Cover Crops, No-Till/Strip Till, Denitrifying Practices: Wetlands, Bioreactors, Saturated Buffers and Land Use Changes: Prairie Strips, Perennial Cover, Extended Rotations.

Other resources regarding leases and conservation practices are listed below.

Resources Available

Iowa State University Center for Agricultural Law and Taxation

Drake Agricultural Law Center

Iowa State University Ag Decision Maker Website Resources

Cover crops


Angie Rieck-Hinz, extension field agronomist, north central Iowa, 515-231-2830,


Angie Rieck-Hinz

extension field agronomist
north central Iowa
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