A gravel country road winds past a farmstead.

ISA research staff, farmers outline path for future work

December 15, 2020

December is the time for the Iowa Soybean Association Research Center for Farming Innovation (RCFI) staff members to wrap up current projects and map out future opportunities. 

“It’s an exciting time as we head into 2021, understanding what we learned this year and working closely with our farmer participants,” says Roger Wolf, director of ISA Research Center for Farming Innovation. “We are dedicated to offering them options and also following their lead.”

He says it is why ISA follows a “road map and opportunity zone” mentality.

“We consider projects and map them out,” Wolf says. “Working with farmers, we understand their needs, know who we need to travel with and hit the road. Farmers need to recognize the return on their investments in the checkoff. Having data about management practices and economic implications informs us of the opportunity zone and why farmers should engage with us.” 

Peter Kyveryga, ISA’s senior research scientist, describes the opportunity zone across four levels. 

“We are focused on yield increases from improved practices and management, economic strengthening from increased productivity, improved crop productivity, and clear connections between supply chain and soil and water benefits,” says Kyveryga. “Addressing these levels can lead to stable or higher land prices, new payment opportunities and other long-term benefits for landowners and operators.”

Mapping it out

While each quadrant of the state requires a unique approach from the Center’s field service managers, there are common issues in the state, including soil health and erosion control, precision ag, and new tools and techniques. Overall, the team is seeking additional farmers to be involved and realize the benefits from active engagement.

Four of the center’s field services program managers offer their perspectives on developing the road maps for research projects in their areas.

Northwest: Scott Nelson

Northeast: Teresa Middleton

Southwest: Drew Clemmensen

Southeast: Anthony Martin

Farming starts with the soil and each quadrant’s ISA research road map begins there. 

Middleton says her group in northeast Iowa has soil health and precision ag tools at the top of their lists of interest. 

“Many of my conversations with farmers are around interest in improving techniques, figuring out how to apply only what is needed and exactly when and where,” she says. “I think we’ll continue to see interest in variable rate and population trials in the coming years.” 

She says ISA’s five-year data set of farmers participating in variable rate nitrogen trials is valuable. 

“We have solid history and data to work from and help guide our trials moving ahead,” says Middleton. 

According to Nelson, herbicide resistant weeds, manure management, soil health and soil erosion are of greatest concern to farmers in northwest Iowa. According to Iowa State University’s Daily Erosion project report, soil erosion estimates range from loss of 5 tons per acre annually in the most northwest corner to 13 tons per acres each year in the southwestern portion. 

“These rates of erosion are not sustainable and significantly contribute to declining soil health in the region. Some farmers fear yield loss in soil health promoting systems, such as cover crops and reduced tillage,” says Nelson. “A key topic for research is to demonstrate and develop innovative practices that address farmers agronomic concerns in these systems. We made some very interesting discoveries in 2020 and look forward to replicating these results on more farms in 2021.” 

In southwest Iowa, Clemmensen said adoption of no-till is strong and there is opportunity to strengthen adoption through cover crop implementation. 

“I’d like to see an increase in the number of cover crop/no-cover crop strip trials,” he comments. “It would be a great effort to begin with farmers and build that around the state. That group mentality can move the needle.” 

He knows that yield protection is important and management changes can lead to yield barriers, but the RCFI has years of results to provide examples of how farmers have worked through those barriers. It often takes commitment to the new strategy and following the map. 

Longevity is the best strategy on the soil health journey, adds Clemmensen. “I’d like to create more long-term trials around this work that starts to incorporate a systems approach versus a “one and done” protocol.” 

Just down the road in southeast Iowa, Martin says cover crop adoption has been successful in the areas in and around Washington County. 

“We’d like to partner with farmers who currently using those practices to implement more in-depth research projects relating to relay cropping, cover crop termination and manure management,” says Martin. 

In addition, he says farmers are seeking ways to improve seed application. 

“Farmers wanting to avoid aerial application inconsistency issues are looking at drones. Drone application, like those conducted in 2020, are an area of interest among farmers,” says Martin. “This aligns with their efforts to capitalize on profitability and clearer return on investment, in addition to saving them time and field impacts from unneeded applications.” 

The map may include new destinations, but there is a familiar focus: yield. 

“We want to be more consistently breaking the 60-bushel per acre barrier,” says Nelson. “I can see great value in distributed networks of farmers, allowing them to discuss ideas and experiences in raising high-yielding soybeans along with replicated strip trials to discover improved management systems for beans.” 

COVID-19 has altered the traditional meeting landscape, so novel approaches for farmer engagement will be key. 

“We pivoted to put technology to our advantage since many of our usual meetings and field days couldn’t be held, we are using new strategies,” says Martin. “We are committed to keeping our farmer connections strong with virtual tours and meetings.” 

Wolf is quick to offer the innovation invitation to all soybean farmers. 

“We’re committed to helping farmers capture value. Imagine if it was possible to add $1 billion from innovating our cropping systems and managing our resources differently,” says Wolf. “ISA scientists are analyzing collected data from farms for years and these insights begin to illuminate the value farmers gain from participating with the Center.” 

This story was originally published in the December 2020 issue of the Iowa Soybean Review. 

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