In most cases, the problems seen throughout the rural landscape can be solved with management changes and conservation practices. The Polk SWCD works hand in hand with landowners and farmers to work to make these changes in order to solve erosion, water quality, and soil health problems. Some of these solutions are “quick fixes” and others are complete changes to the way someone manages the land. Below we have highlighted some common solutions to our environmental problems.
Yearly Management Changes: These solutions involve changing the way producers and landowners manage their property or farm.
Cover Crops – Turnips, cereal rye, and snow peas are all types of cover crops used across farm fields in Iowa. Cover crops are seeded after the cash crop (corn and soybeans) are harvested, covering the soil until the next years planting season. They have multiple benefits including reduced soil erosion, increased organic matter, lessened nutrient leaching, and decreased compaction. Erosion, Water Quality, Soil Health.
Reduced Tillage – Tilling a farm field can destroy the soil structure, creating compaction and reducing microbial activity. In many cases, tillage is not necessary to produce a profitable cash crop. By reducing tillage, or removing tillage all together (no till), the soil structure will recover leading to greater infiltration and increased soil health. Not tilling also decreases the input costs that are associated with farming, saving the producer some money!
Nutrient Management – Managing the source, amount, and timing of nutrients is a great management change that can decrease the chance of excess nutrients reaching our water sources. Determining the proper amount of nutrients to apply can also save the producer from applying too much, saving them money! Water Quality
Conservation Crop Rotation – Conservation crop rotation involves growing multiple crops in succession on the same field. Most of the time, one soil conserving crop such as hay is inserted into a normal rotation of corn and beans. This management practice has the potential to break up the disease and pest cycles leading to less use of chemicals. The third crop also decreases erosion potential and adds biological diversity to the soil. Erosion, water quality, soil health.
Prescribed Grazing – Prescribed grazing (or rotational grazing) is the management of the harvest of perennial vegetation using grazing animals such as cattle. This is a great way to avoid over grazing and has potential to extend the grazing time of pastures. Preventing the vegetation from becoming overgrazed also provides more ground cover reducing the chance of erosion and helping water quality. Erosion, water quality
Permanent Landscape Changes: These conservation practices are “one-time” fixes and usually don’t require changes to the land management. In many cases, these are structures or plantings that are placed on the ground and kept there indefinitely requiring only occasional maintenance.
Terraces – Terraces are earthen embankments placed across the slope of a hillside. They intercept surface runoff and reduce erosion. Erosion, Water Quality
Water and Sediment Control Basins – A Water and Sediment Control Basin (WASCOBS) is an embankment of soil placed across (perpendicular to) an area of concentrated water flow. This embankment intercepts the water flow, slowing it down and allowing the sediment and pollutants to be removed. Erosion, Water Quality
Grasses Waterways – Grassed waterways are installed along areas of concentrated water flow and are designed to convey water off the field during rain events. They are seeded down to grass that holds the soil in place, preventing erosion. Erosion, Water Quality
Filter Strips – Filter strips are planted between fields and surface waters (streams, lakes, rivers…etc) to protect water quality. The vegetation the strip is planted to (usually grasses or prairie plants) slows down the surface water as it flows from the adjacent fields, settling out nutrients and sediment before it reaches the water sources. Water Quality, Erosion
Contour Buffer Strips – Contour buffer strips are narrow strips of perennial vegetation planted along the slopes of hillsides between wider strips of crop. They are placed strategically to slow down surface waters and prevent erosion. Prairie STRIPS are contour buffers strips that are planted to prairie plants and can have a secondary benefit to pollinators! Erosion, Water Quality.
Saturated Buffer – Saturated buffers are specifically designed to remove nitrates from farm field tiles. Normally, these tiles run underneath a filter strip and dump directly into a river or stream, dumping nitrogen directly into the stream. A water control structure box is placed on this tile line directing water out laterally through new perforated along the filter strip. The water then seeps through the filter strip before it enters the stream or river. This allows for the nitrogen to be removed from the water by the plants and soils. Once installed, the saturated buffer is barely visible on the landscape. Water Quality
Bioreactor – Bioreactors are another practice that is designed to improve water quality, specifically removing nitrates. A large pit is dug adjacent to a tile line and filled with wood chips. Tile water is then directed from the original tile into the bioreactor and allowed to flow through the woodchips before exiting back into the tile. The microbes in the woodchips remove the nitrate from the water before it is discharged into the stream or river. Water Quality
Wetlands – There are two main tops of wetlands in Iowa; constructed and restored. Constructed wetlands usually involve placing an embankment across an area of high volume of concentrated flow. The water is then slowed down and stored in the wetland allowing the pollutants to settle out. Restored wetlands involve digging out an old wetland, usually identified by an area that is consistently wet, a few feet and allowing water to intermittently pool. Oxbow restorations are another from of wetlands that can even be used as livestock watering areas in pastures! Water Quality, Erosion
Wind Break – Windbreaks can be planted on residential properties or along field borders. They usually consist of multiple sizes and types of trees and shrubs designed to slow down the wind. This reduces the potential of wind erosion, cuts down on energy bills by providing shade, and provides wildlife habitat. Some windbreaks can even be planted with berry producing shrubs! Erosion
Conservation Cover – Planting areas of the landscape to prairie grasses or other perennial vegetation is the implementation of conservation cover. Conservation cover is suited for areas of a farm field that shouldn’t be farmed such as steep hillsides, wet areas, or portions with poor soils. This is usually done through the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and has the potential to receive a yearly incentive payment! Erosion, Water Quality, Soil Health
As you can see, many of the solutions to our rural problems have multiple environmental benefits. Along with water quality and soil health, many of them provide essential wildlife habitat that is missing from our landscape. Recreational benefits also arise when we talk about wetlands and any of the practices that improve the quality of our lakes, rivers, and streams. Contact us today if you are interested in implementing any of these solutions on your property.