While Julie Kenney uses her role as Iowa Deputy Secretary of Agriculture to encourage farmers to use 4R Plus practices to improve soil health and water quality, her husband, Mark, a fifth-generation corn and soybean farmer in Story County, is already using these practices on their farm.
Julie and Mark want to do what’s right on their farm and encourage other farmers to learn as much as they can about conservation and nutrient stewardship practices. They also encourage farmers to use public and private-sector cost-share opportunities to put more conservation work on the land.
“In my role with the ag department, I’m able to take the experiences from our farm and apply them to the work we do across the state,” Julie says. “Conservation and water quality are a major focus for Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig and the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. There are numerous practices farmers can use within fields, as well as edge-of-field practices, to make sure soil and water are protected now and in the future.”
More farmers must add 4R Plus
The 4R Plus program is a stewardship effort using the right source of fertilizer, applied at the right rate, at the right time, in the right place. The “Plus” part of the program is using various soil conservation practices teamed up with a nutrient management plan to result in efficient use of nutrients by the crop, along with soil erosion control and protecting water quality.
On their own farm, the Kenneys plant cover crops, use conservation tillage, plant native grasses in buffer strips and use data from soil tests to target fertility applications. “We are fortunate to live in a time with access to data. It’s our responsibility as farmers to use that data to see what’s happening in our fields,” Mark says.
Proper nutrient management promotes crop growth and improves soil health, while reducing nutrient losses from the field, he notes.
Match crop needs to nutrient supply
Every two years the Kenneys sample soil on 2.5-acre grids. “This has opened my eyes tremendously to the holding capacity of our soils for available nutrients and rainfall,” Mark says. “There’s definitely an economic benefit of allocating dollars for soil sampling as the plant is going to take in only what it needs and no more. The soil testing has allowed us to realize we can reduce our P and K fertilizer applications and switch some of those dollars to conservation practices.”
DOLLARS AND SENSE: Precise nutrient management teamed with conservation practices provides nutrients when the crop needs them, enhances soil health and improves water quality.
As a result, cover crops have become a large part of their plan to improve soil health, and much of their corn acreage is dedicated to growing seed corn. “A big advantage of growing seed corn is the early harvest, which gives us time to seed oats as a cover crop, so it’s well-established with good growth,” Mark says. “Cover crops protect the soil from wind erosion and scavenge nutrients to make those nutrients available for the next year’s crop that’s planted in that field.”
Advice from experienced 4R Plus farmers
Mark says getting started with a new practice is the biggest obstacle. He has learned a lot about cover crops from attending meetings and field days and he encourages farmers to adopt a long-term view of this practice. “I asked a lot of questions when I decided I wanted to learn about cover crops,” he says. “After I started planting cover crops, I realized I should have started doing this a long time ago.”
To assist in the knowledge-gathering process, Julie encourages farmers to visit their local USDA service center. “IDALS and NRCS staff will make sure you are connected with the right funding sources and are equipped with experts to help you determine what practices would be best to add to your farm,” she says.
“We continue to see farmers across the state implementing soil and water conservation practices because it’s the right thing to do, and there are in-field benefits,” she notes. “I’m proud of the work we have done so far in the state, and I want to use my role working with Secretary Naig to challenge farmers to learn how we can all do our part to protect Iowa’s valuable natural resources.”
For more information, visit 4rplus.org.