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cover crop
GETTING STARTED: Putting specific practices in a lease, such as wanting a tenant to include a cover crop on row crop acres, takes planning in advance.

Conservation practices and land leases

Cropping Systems: Communication and planning are needed for landlords and tenants to include conservation in a farmland lease.

Often, I hear from both landowners and tenants questioning how to incorporate specific conservation practices into leases. The first step 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 till or no-till 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.

Include permanent practices and cover crops
More permanent practices such as grassed waterways and terraces are likely to benefit the landowner for the long term more than the tenant and may be a cost the landowner incurs, but they may also require management and maintenance by the tenant. Thus, language included in the lease may need to be specific to the situation. There are many conservation practices available that address soil erosion, water quality and wildlife benefits, but for 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 primary commodity crops, such as corn and soybeans. During this time, much of Iowa 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: reduce erosion; cycle nutrients, such as nitrogen, that could otherwise be lost to leaching; improve soil health; and be a feed source for animals.

Review this checklist for cover crops
For landowners and tenants considering cover crops, 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 to understand the benefits and any challenges they have experienced.

• Have an open discussion on the potential for yield loss in the commodity crop, especially corn.

• Explore and discuss local cost-share opportunities and the funding cycles.

• Discuss a termination plan for the cover crop. How will the cover crop be terminated?

• Look at the possibility of providing an incentive for the tenant by offering to share seed and seeding costs, or even lowering the cash rent.

• Have a backup plan, and communicate consistently so expectations can be tempered. What if it doesn’t rain, and the cover crop seed doesn’t germinate? What if herbicide carryover impacts cover crop growth? What if a wet spring delays termination of the cover crop, 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 on the field 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 has produced a series of publications titled “Talking with your Tenant,” which has four fact sheets that provide talking points and research findings 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.

Starting a cover crop conversation
Here are some helpful resources to begin discussing cover crops:

• Iowa State University Center for Agricultural Law and Taxation, Iowa Farm Leases: A Legal Review

• Drake Agricultural Law Center, The Landowner's Guide to Sustainable Farm Leases

• Iowa State University Ag Decision Maker website resources,  Lease Supplement for Obtaining Conservation Practices and Controlling Soil Loss

• ISU Ag Decision Maker website resources, Lease Supplement for Investing in Improvements on a Rented Farm

• ISU Ag Decision Maker website resources, Conservation Practices for Landlords

• ISU Ag Decision Maker website resources, Iowa Farm Lease Form 

• ISU Ag Decision Maker website resources, Tax Treatment of Water Quality Measures for Farm Operators and Landowners Cover Crops

• ISU Ag Decision Maker website resources, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture

• Iowa Learning Farms  Cover Crop Resources, Videos and Research

• Practical Farmers of Iowa, Cover Crops

Rieck-Hinz is the ISU Extension field agronomist covering north central Iowa. Contact her at


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