When it comes to adopting no-till and cover crops, data from a recent Iowa State University survey shows significant differences between owned and rented cropland.

A roadblock to reducing erosion, runoff and nutrient leaching is a belief that investing in some of the more traditional conservation practices, such as waterways, buffer strips and sediment basins, leads to extra crop costs.

Data from the recent Iowa Farmland Ownership and Tenure study that’s been conducted by Iowa State University for 35 years shows 37% of Iowa’s farmland is owned by the families who work the ground. In addition, 53% of the state’s farmland is leased, 2% is custom farmed and 8% is enrolled in government CRP and CSP conservation programs.

More No-Till, More Covers

In 2017, some 31% of Iowa’s overall cropland was no-tilled, an increase from 27% in 2012. The survey data showed considerable regional variations, such as in the southwest area that has a high level of highly erodible ground where 56% of the ground is no-tilled. No-till’s acceptance is also likely higher on rented ground as growers see it as a way to trim costs.

The reasons given for not no-tilling were interesting. Some 12% of on-farm operators felt no-till was not suitable for their land while 46% of non-operators felt this way. Another 12% of operators felt no-till reduces yields while 22% of non-operators felt this was the case.

Across Iowa, cover crops were seeded in 2017 on only 4% of the state’s cropland. Cover crops were seeded on 4.8% of the land owned by the grower, but only on 3.6% of rented acres. Yet in southeast Iowa, 12% of the ground is seeded to cover crops in an area where 26% of the ground is no-tilled.

When it comes to what’s holding back the acceptance of cover crops, 27% of absentee-landowners felt it’s too costly to terminate cover crops while 19% of farm operators felt this was the case. Some 16% of operators feel cover crops require too much time and labor or the growing season is too short. Among non-farming landowners, only 9% felt the need for more labor or believed the growing season was too short.

Both age and gender have an impact on no-till adoption. Some 70% of Iowa farmers under 35 years of age no-till, yet no-till is used by only 26% of older growers. This could be a major impediment to further no-till adoption as nearly two-thirds of Iowa’s farmland is owned by folks of retirement age. Older landowners also account for two-thirds of the ground enrolled in conservation programs.

Some 82% of Iowa farmland was debt-free in 2017, which was an increase from 62% in 1982. However, this did not translate into the use of more conservation practices. And while there is a perception that women are more likely to support conservation, the survey found men tend to enroll more land in government conservation programs.

Non-farming landowners were asked what would entice them to adopt conservation measures such as no-till, cover crops, buffer strips, ponds and sediment basins. Some 24% said tax credits or deductions for implementing conservation practices would encourage enrollment while 11% would be interested if the land was excluded from property values used for tax purposes. Others would invest in conservation practices with more tax-free cost-share assistance.

Huge 5-Year Goal for Seeding Cover Crops

“Aging landowners are related to the increasing amount of land found in larger tracts, shorter-term leases, cash rental agreements and land managed by farm management companies for out-of-state land-owners,” says Wendiam Sawadgo, an Iowa State ag economist.

“All of these factors tend to be associated with a lower investment in conservation. Plus most absentee landowners don’t want to force renters to adopt practices they would not use on their own.”

The data suggests the adoption of no-till and cover crops has increased only slightly over the past 8 years.

“But it is encouraging that landowners indicated a strong to moderate interest in increasing cover crop use over the next 5 years on nearly 60% of Iowa cropland,” says Sawadgo. “About 20% expressed a willingness to cover a portion of the costs to encourage tenants to seed cover crops.”

Based on this conservation interest, it will pay you to do a better job of explaining the benefits of cover crops and no-till to area landowners. Taking time to explain what you are doing to protect the soil could pay big dividends in the future.