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Serving: IA

Manual can help jump-start conservation on your farm

ILF Rolling hills, land and pond in Iowa
IT’S FREE: A new publication provides best management recommendations for farmers and landowners getting started with soil conservation and water quality practices.
Iowa Learning Farms: "Whole Farm Conservation Best Practices" can help you select most appropriate practices.

Farmers looking to implement conservation practices in their farming operations are often faced with a tidal wave of information and opinion about where to start, how to finance them and what will work best. This can be overwhelming and may cause some to delay when they would prefer to charge forward. 

With the recent release of its Whole Farm Conservation Best Practices Manual, Iowa State University’s Conservation Learning Group is hoping to make selection and implementation of appropriate measures quick and easy. Offering a comprehensive set of resources prepared for the practical perspective of the farmer, the manual isn’t meant to be read cover to cover, but rather to be used as needed. 

Covering in-field topics including tillage management, cover crops and diverse rotations, and edge-of-field practices such as wetlands, bioreactors, saturated buffers, controlled drainage and prairie strips, the manual provides detailed information regarding the use and expected outcomes. In addition, it includes comprehensive graphical decision tools to aid farmers in determining the best approaches for each area on their farm. 

The manual was developed in cooperation with Iowa Soybean Association, Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance and Practical Farmers of Iowa, and with support and input from local, state and federal organizations. 

“The development process involved many meetings and discussions among stakeholders in the conservation and ag communities working together to create a practical and usable tool for farmers in the zero to three-year range of implementing conservation practices,” says Mark Licht, principal member of the Conservation Learning Group and an ISU Extension cropping systems agronomist. “We realize that the volume of information coming from research projects can be daunting, and sometimes appear contradictory. This manual was created to help normalize discrepancies between different research outcomes and hash out recommended practices that align with the research.” 

Getting off the fence 

“The decision tools included in the manual are a recipe for farmers to get off the fence and get started with practices such as cover crops,” says Sarah Carlson, strategic initiatives director for PFI. “This manual not only relies on research, but also provides the benefit of the struggles and successes farmers in Iowa have had for years and decades, providing a comprehensive road map and sets of decision tools that can help ensure success.” 

At a cover crop boot camp in December, nearly 100 farmers were asked to provide comments and feedback on some of the decision tools prepared for the manual. Carlson says the response was positive and gave the team an opportunity to test-drive and fine-tune the tools. 

Commenting that some farmers who do not see early and definitive success with conservation practices may not continue, Licht says the group set a high priority on keeping content relevant to clear decision-making and early successful outcomes.  

“We’ve collectively learned so much about cover crops in Iowa, and this manual gets much of that knowledge out of our heads and puts it on paper,” Carlson says. “We have passed the early adopter phase and are really looking for a groundswell of middle adopters to get on board with cover crops. If we could get most Iowa farmers to simply adopt the least-risk practice of planting winter rye before soybeans, the state would surely come very close to its nutrient reduction goals.” 

Edge-of-field clarity 

When compared with cover crops and no-till, edge-of-field conservation practices are relatively new to many farmers. The manual provides foundational information about these practices, where each may be the most beneficial to use, and what outcomes should be expected. 

Chris Hay, senior manager for production systems innovation at the Iowa Soybean Association, says one major challenge to edge-of-field adoption is the hidden nature of the practices. “Once installed, there is very little to see with the practices like controlled drainage, saturated buffers and bioreactors, and the benefits are more on the downstream side of the structures,” he notes.

“Farmers implementing edge-of-field conservation solutions are also generally not going to see a direct financial return on the investment but will see progress toward conservation and environmental goals,” he says. “These benefits don’t immediately show up on the balance sheet, but clean water is an issue, and keeping nutrients out of the waterways will benefit all farming enterprises.” 

Both Hay and Matt Helmers, ISU professor and director of the Iowa Nutrient Research Center, agree there is a need for stepped-up outreach and education about edge-of-field practices, where they make sense, and why farmers and landowners should consider adoption. Hay and Helmers organized an edge-of-field summit with service providers, contractors and others who work with farmers to implement these practices to gather feedback and input on the edge-of-field content included in the manual. 

Hay notes that farm advisers have been asking for easy-to-understand resources that help guide decisions about which edge-of-field practices will fit best for a particular farm. The manual can be used to approach farmers with ideas for their land or to respond to a request for advice and assistance from a farmer who has used the decision tools and is ready to learn more or move forward on implementation. 

“This manual is not a do-it-yourself guide,” Helmers says. “It provides a means to explore options and point a landowner or farmer toward practices that might work best on their land. Then they can work with an NRCS service center or technical service provider to start the design and implementation process.” 

Tear out pages and go 

One unique aspect of the manual is the decision tools — or trees — included at the back of the book. These tear-out graphical sheets provide simple steps a farmer can take to determine if a practice is a good fit for their landscape, their conservation objectives and their business. 

“If it’s overwhelming to read the entire manual, I suggest you go straight to the decision trees,” Carlson says. “They are great shortcuts to find out what might work. They are the ‘CliffsNotes’ for the conservation novel.” She further recommends going to a field day to learn more but is confident that the decision trees would be a great starting point for any farmer. 

Designed primarily for farmers just starting out through three years of adopting conservation practices, the manual provides a broad range of information that can be beneficial to any farmer. The manual is available for free online or in hard copy from the ISU Extension Store. This manual is a joint publication of Iowa State University and USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. 

June 17 webinar

Anyone who is interested is welcome to join Licht for an Inside Look at the Whole Farm Conservation Best Practices Manual, a live webinar at noon June 17. By tuning in, you will see and hear Licht discuss the manual and answer questions from the audience. Information and a link to register and join can be found here. Select the June 17 webinar in the dropdown box. 

Pierce is an Extension program specialist with a focus on water quality with Iowa Learning Farms. 



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