Northey makes NE Iowa stop


By Pat McTaggart

Freelance Writer


Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey was in St. Olaf last week to talk about cover crops with local farmers.  Producers that want to prevent soil erosion, improve nutrient cycling, sustain their soils and protect the environment have been returning to this ancient practice.  Although farmers have been using cover crops for centuries, today’s generation of producers has little experience with them.

Cover crops include winter kill grains, winter hardy legumes and forage covers such as turnips, rapeseed and radishes.  They are planted in late summer or early fall and taken out before spring planting. 

“We want to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus from coming off our farms,” Northey said.  “Cover crops can be really beneficial in that area.  We see about a 30% nitrogen reduction when using cover crops.”

“Right now, we have targeted eight different watersheds in Iowa, looking for ways to improve nitrogen reduction in those areas,” he added.  “The Turkey River watershed is one of them.”

Northey said there were probably about twice as many cover crop acres last year as there were in 2012.  The figure for 2012 is twice that of the previous year.   

“That sounds good,” he said.  “However, there are still less than two percent of Iowa farm acres that have cover crops.  There is a lot of opportunity there for the program to grow.”

There has been money from the Iowa Legislature to help in cost sharing for those that want to use cover crops, and there is also state money for education and product development.  In 2012, 50 producers received state cost share of $25 an acre for 1,533 acres.  Last year, 64 producers received the same cost share for 2,490 acres.  Protecting the state’s water quality has pushed a bi-partisan effort to promote the practice.

“I hope that we can get federal money to come in and help with research and product development.” Northey said.  “We have a lot of political support in a voluntary aggressive action to help with this, and we have a supportive governor and legislature for this program.  People are trying different methods to get the right amount of nitrogen needed in a certain area.  They are also working on better application methods.  We are trying to see what works and what doesn‘t work.”

Northey said he hopes that the cover crop program will continue to grow through education and by word of mouth.  He admitted that it is going to be hard to get “first-timers” to come into the program.

“This has to be farmer driven, not regulation driven,” he said.  “Regulations usually treat everyone the same, but the individual farmer knows what his or her land is like, and how it should be farmed.   I don’t want to see it highly regulated, because everyone is different.  We are also working with Iowa State University and Iowa Community Colleges to get the message across that cover crops are good for the environment and good for our water quality.”

“Iowa is doing more with this program than surrounding states,” he added.  “It’s not happening quickly, but it is happening and it is sustainable.  We just have to get the word out, so more producers know about the program and its benefits to the land and the people.”



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