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Researching solutions to climate change

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Emily Heaton, Ph.D, assistant professor of agronomy at Iowa State University, is an advocate for incorporating perennials into the farming landscape to help with soil health and runoff along with other benefits. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy/Iowa Soybean Assoc

By Bethany Baratta, ISA Senior writer

Erratic changes in the weather have presented challenges for farmers in the Midwest. Some farmers in Iowa experienced excessive moisture and drought-like conditions all within 2019. How can farmers plan for these changes? Will these challenges continue?

"Farmers aren't denying that the climate is changing," said Wayne Fredericks, an Iowa Soybean Association (ISA) past president and current member of the American Soybean Association’s board of directors. "We're trying to figure out how to farm as it happens and still be profitable.”

This was top of mind during the "Agriculture in a Changing Climate: What the Future Holds for Iowa" forum in Des Moines recently. The event was co-sponsored by Iowa State University’s (ISU) College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Iowa Smart Agriculture Work Group.

Fredericks has implemented a variety of conservation projects on his farm near Osage. He’s worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment to delve into several years of research to understand how the practices he’s using not only protect the soil and water, but also raise a better crop.

Weather swings

Fredericks said he’s noticed bigger swings in the weather in recent years. Larger rain events have narrowed the optimal windows for getting field work completed.

Dennis Todey, Ph.D, director of the USDA Midwest Climate Hub in Ames, said there have only been six times in the last 24 years in which precipitation has been below the long-term average. These big rain events are happening during the spring and fall, making it a challenge for farmers planting and harvesting.

“Water is incredibly powerful, especially when it moves,” said Rick Cruse, director of the Iowa Water Center.

He said 40 inches of rain on 100 acres is equal to the energy of 4.7 tons of TNT. The strength and movement of water has implications when it comes to keeping soil and nutrients in place.

One way to curb this is the addition of perennials, said Emily Heaton, Ph.D, assistant professor of agronomy at Iowa State University (ISU).

“Perennials on the landscape is like what exercise is to people,” Heaton said. “We need to make changes to encourage good habits.”

An ISU study involving the addition of prairie strips in a field showed that adding 10% prairie to no-till provides a 37% reduction in water runoff, a 95% reduction in sediment loss and a 70% reduction in nitrogen runoff.

In addition, the area saw triple the number of pollinators and double the bird population versus a conventional area. Heaton noted the addition of prairie strips could be a more cost-effective alternative to terraces with the additional habitat benefit.

“The project made us realize how impactful strips can be,” Heaton said.

Fredericks said he’s interested in learning more about how he can utilize prairie strips in his fields. He’s incorporated several practices but hasn’t tried prairie strips yet.

“This sounds interesting to me as I work to keep my soil in tact and increase pollinator habitats,” said Fredericks, who is also the American Soybean Association representative with Keystone Policy Center’s Monarch Collaborative. The Collaborative is made up of a diverse group of organizations working to promote conservation and monarch population recovery.

Multiple interests in climate swings

Dan Robison, dean of ISU’s College of Ag and Life Sciences, said the university will continue find ways to help farmers navigate these new risks under changing weather patterns.

 “Climate smart and Iowa smart agriculture are not political statements,” Robison said. “There is a new normal out there and we need to figure out how to cope going forward.”

ISA District 4 director Jeff Frank said he relies on the information from the research to help him make decisions on his farm near Auburn.

“Within the past few years it just seems like the window gets narrower and narrower every year to get things done,” Frank said.

Since these weather changes affect farmers, they affect people like Blake Rabe, too. Rabe is an operations lead for Bayer in Huxley.

“We know that weather has a huge impact on farmers,” Rabe said. “Knowing the challenges that lie ahead helps us to create more resilient seeds and develop solutions which can stand up to these weather conditions.”

Farmers and experts agree: climate change is a multi-faceted issue which requires a variety of practices and disciplines to research and implement solutions.

“The one thing we can all agree is that there is no single solution,” said Michael Castellano, Ph. D., professor of agronomy at ISU. “It’s going to take creativity, foresight, and long-term planning to face these challenges.”

Contact Bethany Baratta at

For media inquiries, permission to republish articles or to request high-res photos, please contact Katie James, ISA Public Relations Manager at © 2020 Iowa Soybean Association. All rights reserved.

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