Cover crops as a gateway to greater conservation in Iowa?: Integrating crop models, field trials, economics and farmer perspectives regarding soil resilience in light of climate change

Friday, 19 December 2014
Gabrielle Elan Roesch-McNally, Andrea Basche, John Tyndall, J. Gordon Arbuckle, Fernando Miguez and Troy Bowman, Iowa State University, Ames, IA, United States
Scientists predict a number of climate changes for the US Midwest with expected declines in crop productivity as well as eco-hydrological impacts. More frequent extreme rain events particularly in the spring may well increase saturated soils thus complicating agronomic interests and also exacerbate watershed scale impairments (e.g., sediment, nutrient loss). In order to build more resilient production systems in light of climate change, farmers will increasingly need to implement conservation practices (singularly or more likely in combination) that enable farmers to manage profitable businesses yet mitigate consequential environmental impacts that have both in-field and off-farm implications. Cover crops are empirically known to promote many aspects of soil and water health yet even the most aggressive recent estimates show that only 1-2% of the total acreage in Iowa have been planted to cover crops.

In order to better understand why farmers are reluctant to adopt cover crops across Iowa we combined agronomic and financial data from long-term field trials, working farm trials and model simulations so as to present comprehensive data-driven information to farmers in focus group discussions in order to understand existing barriers, perceived benefits and responses to the information presented. Four focus groups (n=29) were conducted across Iowa in four geographic regions. Focus group discussions help explore the nuance of farmers’ responses to modeling outputs and their real-life agronomic realities, thus shedding light on the social and psychological barriers with cover crop utilization. Among the key insights gained, comprehensive data-driven research can influence farmer perspectives on potential cover crop impacts to cash crop yields, experienced costs are potentially quite variable, and having field/farm benefits articulated in economic terms are extremely important when farmers weigh the opportunity costs associated with adopting new practices. Our work represents multidisciplinary collaboration necessary to gain greater understanding of what it will take for farmers to cover the ground to prevent erosion and nutrient losses in the context of a changing climate.