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Reimagine profit-loss areas in your fields

If you set out to improve overall field profitability this year, you may want to evaluate the performance of side hills, eroded hill tops, and field edges and reimagine their use.

Adam Janke, wildlife Extension specialist, and Mark Licht, Extension cropping systems specialist, both with Iowa State University, have worked with the Sustainable Ag Research and Education group to explore options for these areas that can shift them to cost-neutral and even profitable.

One solution is to convert the marginal land areas to native, perennial vegetation, which offers benefits to water quality, soil health, wildlife habitat, and overall aesthetics.

A conservation seed mix that is heavier on grasses than forbs is suited to often saturated areas, like floodplains and prairie potholes. The mix, once established, will attract pollinators and migratory species.

“One the reasons this strategy is so enticing is it can increase field profitability overall,” says Licht. “If these areas aren’t producing, and we’re not getting revenue off of them, yet we put the cost of production onto them, we’re lowering our field profitability.”

There are one-time costs for establishment (time, equipment, and seed), but after that, profitability will increase in the long-term. And you can look into local funding to offset those costs.

Licht says the cost range is individualistic. Seed mixes vary but are generally between $100 to $125 per acre. Factoring in labor, fuel, machinery, and any seedbed prep, he estimates the cost at around $250 per acre or less. That’s a one-time cost that you do not incur in years two, three, four, etc.

“To put that into perspective, the cost of production on corn and soybeans is $500 to $700 per acre and varies year to year,” Licht says. “Some of these areas are losing $50 to $100 per acre and so the perennial establishment cost is trivial when you think about what you’re losing year in and year out.”

Janke recommends finding out if you’re able to get a rental payment by enrolling in a program with the Conservation Reserve Program. Janke adds, “Make money by not losing money and increasing profitability in the rest of the field.”

Mitch Kezar

How to get started

Of course, establishment is key. Janke says perennial plantings take time, patience, and persistence.

“In the first year to year and a half, perennial plants grow down instead of putting biomass above ground like we see with annual plants. We need to create conditions that are favorable for the establishments of root systems that will feed the perennial plants for years to come and help it outcompete the annual plants,” Janke explains.

To steward a perennial planting, keep in mind that it takes a different mind-set and set of practices to find success. It can’t be planted and left alone, especially in the first two years.

Take the steps below to get started and rely on the experts when you have questions.

Select a mix.

The CP23 mix is a widespread conservation program seed mixture designed for wetter areas that are often saturated (floodplains, prairie potholes). It has more grasses and than forbs. You will see pollinators and migratory species in the established area. There are different CP23 mixes available and you can mix-and-match to your specific soil moisture.

Ensure you have access to the land and then plant the mix.

For first-year control, think about residual herbicide effects in the area, especially following corn.

“To plant native perennial vegetation, do it the way Mother Nature would,” Janke says. Simply spread the seed on the surface of the ground; it doesn’t need to be buried deep into the ground. Scratch into the surface with no-till drill or broadcast. Small grains don’t require too much depth.

First-year management.

Management is different every year the plot exists, Janke says. It’s a long-term investment. Consistently mow and scout the fields to understand competition between native perennial plants growing down vs. the annual plants trying to grow up and take the sunlight.

Three mowings throughout the growing season at 6 to 8 inches is all you need to do. Janke says it shouldn’t look like a golf course. Mowing is intended to to set back the annuals.

Second-year management.

Scout to determine if perennials have established and mow if needed, then transition out of the mowing phase. Keep scouting to look for invasive species. Begin a long-term management strategy, which is prescribed fire (if possible) to outcompete the woody vegetation. In addition to fire, spot spraying and mowing may be best.

Wildflowers bloom on CRP land in Iowa
Photo credit: Betsy Freese

In addition to the potential for cost-neutrality or profitability, there are many benefits to incorporating perennial vegetation on your farm.

You’ll see that more plant diversity brings wildlife diversity. Monarchs will take advantage of small patches of flowering plants and milkweed to support their lifecycle.

You’ll also see enhanced aesthetics and a change in water quality, especially if your location is near groundwater sources, as the vegetation can serve as a filter to reduce nitrates in the water as it moves.

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