By Chris Clayton
DTN Ag Policy Editor
BOONE, Iowa (DTN) -- Stewardship is playing a big role this year at the Farm Progress Show in Iowa as commodity groups and state officials championed conservation practices that translate into water-quality benefits.
As the show opened Tuesday, Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey and members of the Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance announced an effort to encourage more businesses to get involved in conservation practices with farmers. The group wants to use the state's nutrient reduction strategy as a tool for economic development. With that in mind, the water alliance launched a business council that will specifically work on generating more business opportunities.
Iowa water quality is in the spotlight for various reasons, most notably a federal lawsuit by the Des Moines Water Works against upstream drainage districts and counties over high nutrient loads, mainly nitrogen. Iowa's nutrient reduction strategy calls for the state to cut nitrogen and phosphorus in water by 45% using various methods. Farmers are about halfway toward the no-till practices goal, but fall short in areas such as cover crops, wetlands and bioreactors at the end of tiling lines to lower those nutrient loads.
Northey took part in a forum on conservation practices and water quality on Tuesday sponsored by the Iowa Corn Growers Association. The forum highlighted actions farmers have already taken, while stressing that more needs to be done. Northey pointed out an array of groups are now championing soil health practices across Iowa. He specifically mentioned the Soil Health Partnership developed by the National Corn Growers Association, which is working to measure how much organic matter in soil can be affected by changes in cropping practices.
"We certainly see improvements when we use cover crops and when we do no-till," Northey said. "Yet, we always struggle to try to measure those. That effort (the Soil Health Partnership) is really to try to figure out how we can measure those improvements."
These practices and strategies need to be quantified for farmers and the public, Northey said. Farmers need to be shown that implementing conservation practices can provide economic benefits while the public needs to know that voluntary conservation is translating into better water quality.
Annette Sweeney, a former state representative who farms in north-central Iowa, noted more technology is being brought to bear toward understanding water flow and movement off fields. Earlier this year, Sweeney hosted a team from NASA and several universities that calibrated satellite imagery to see how much moisture is moving through the soil and how much evaporates after rain events. The emphasis was more on water quantity than quality, she said.
"They came in there with the premise that we have to understand our water quantity before we can understand our quality," Sweeney said.
With current low prices for farm commodities, Northey said it is a challenge getting farmers to try different practices or ideas. Still, he pointed out that more farmers across the state are signing up for first-time cost-share programs to use cover crops. "They are doing that in spite of the financial challenges. That shows a momentum that exceeds that economic pressure we see," Northey said.
Dean Meyer, a farmer from Rock Rapids, Iowa, who serves as chairman of the Iowa Corn Growers Association stewardship committee, pointed out how conservation has evolved on his farm. Over the last year, Meyer started using cover crops on the operation, and he acknowledged some concern at first. Last year, Meyer interseeded oats and radishes as cover crops that would die in the winter. He said he's going to take the next steps and plant covers that terminate in the spring.
"The farther north you get, as most of you know, it gets to be more of a challenge," he said. Meyer farms near the Iowa/Minnesota border. "We wanted to do it right. The worst thing we can do for advertising is do a poor job of it."
Meyer stressed Iowa farmers are increasingly risking further regulation by not jumping on board with more conservation practices, especially if the nutrient management strategy fails to show results. Meyer said there are a growing number of commercial tools for farmers to measure nutrient needs in the soil throughout the growing season. He pointed to fertilizer recommendations from software programs such as that offered by Climate Corp., a Monsanto company, and DuPont Pioneer's Encirca, which was developed through a partnership with DTN/The Progressive Farmer.
"There's a time when we do not need to apply more and there are times that we do, depending on the season and the type of soil," Meyer said. He added, "We have got the tools out there and we have got the expertise to help us."
Given that a high percentage of Iowa farm ground is rented, Meyer said conservation needs to be part of the discussion when farmers negotiate rental agreements.
"What we need to realize as farmers is the clock is ticking on getting our act in order and getting practices implemented," Meyer said. "We need to all get engaged now." He added, "Landlords are realizing they need to change too. It's not only rent, but they need to be engaged here as well. If you have a landlord that shows no interest, then there are problems there."
Sweeney said at least some tenants are now taking yield maps and water samples to landlords to discuss these issues as part of lease agreements as well. Conservation plans are being developed on more fields to improve soil quality and water quality, she said.
"A lot of times you will see the landlord say that's a good idea and they want to be part of that," she said. "If you have a landlord who says 'No, I want X amount of dollars or you are done,' then that's too bad. But I really see there are more landlords out there willing to have that conversation."
Northey also added that landlords need to be part of the conversation as Iowa officials further advocate for more conservation in the field.
"As time moves on, we have got to do a better job connecting with landlords and making them understand," Northey said. "Some get it, but we have got to communicate the issue to landlords too."
Meyer also stressed the need for conservation practices to remain voluntary. Farmers across Iowa face a range of seasonal challenges that may make it easier for farmers in one area to grow cover crops, but not in another, Meyer said.
"We have to look at the long-term of what does regulation cost us or what does not having the soil for posterity cost us? So I think we all need to be advocates," Meyer said.
He added, "We can't propose one regulation for the whole state because what we do in Lyon County is very different then what they do in Keokuk (in Southeast Iowa)."
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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