By Jared Strong
A central Iowa partnership has emerged to encourage the use of cover crops in farm fields in the watersheds of the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers in an effort to boost the quality of the metro’s major sources of drinking water.
Polk County will purchase a tractor that is tall enough for it to cross rows of corn. It will also apply cover-crop seed in the summer while corn is still growing. It’s a cutting-edge technique that is expected to yield better success with the cover crops, which are used to reduce soil erosion and flooding, boost soil quality and help limit fertilizer and chemical seepage into rivers. When the time for the seeds to take root is limited, they are often used after harvest.
“Our hope is for the machine to travel around and get some excitement,” said John Swanson, watershed management authority coordinator for Polk County. “As soon as you see the corn harvested, you’re going to see that nice lush cover.”
Polk County has used $150,000 of federal pandemic relief money for the purchase of the machine. Des Moines Water Works and Des Moines City are contributing $75,000 and $25,000. The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship can contribute up to $350,000, depending upon how much is planted.
“Our public and private partners are critical to the success of every conservation project underway in Iowa,” said Mike Naig, the state’s secretary of agriculture.
Heartland Co-op agreed to use the machine to apply seed to Beaver Creek watershed fields that feed the Des Moines River. Swanson plans to cover approximately 10,000 acres in Boone and Greene counties this year.
John Deere said that members of the Central Iowa Cover Crop Seeder Project worked together over the past year to refine a demonstration version of the machine. He hopes to make it more widely accessible. Farmers have used customized tractors to spray their fields with tall tires and collapsible booms.
The new machine can be used to plant a variety of cover crops such as rye, oats or turnips.
“It’s going to be one of the first ones in Iowa out there,” Swanson said.
Farmers will have to pay a fee for the participation in this project. Swanson said that seeding the cover crops costs $40 per acre. However there are several federal and state programs that offer financial assistance to farmers who plant the crops. The goal is to cover 40,000 acres within four years, and expand the program to other parts the Des Moines or Raccoon watersheds that extend into northern Iowa.
The idea came from northeast Kansas, where state and city officials teamed with a nonprofit conservation organization to buy eight similar machines to lay cover crops in watersheds that feed Wichita’s drinking water sources. That partnership got national recognition in 2020 from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“What happens upstream impacts the safety of our drinking water and the recreation in our rivers and lakes for everyone in Polk County,” said Angela Connolly, chairperson of the county’s board of supervisors. “We know the utilization of cover crops can have a tremendous impact on reducing nutrient load from agricultural operations in our surface water and groundwater and improve soil health.”
The project is also intended to foster goodwill among upstream farmers who were displaced by a water-quality court battle from 2015, when Des Moines Water Works sued three northeast Iowa counties for high levels nitrate it had removed from Raccoon River water. Crop fertilizer is one source of the contaminant.
“We recognize the value this project can have in sharing some of the responsibility to protect our public waterways and watersheds,” said Ted Corrigan, chief executive of the water utility.
Cover crops are a key component of the state’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, which promotes voluntary measures for farmers to keep their fertilizers from waterways. According to state agriculture officials, cover crops were planted on more land than 2 million acres in recent years.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Iowa farmers have planted more than 20,000,000 acres of corn and soybeans.
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Source: Successful Farming