Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds visited the Jonbar Ranch, south of Waukee, on Thursday, Aug. 3 to learn more about the United States Department of Agriculture’s and the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s 1 Percent Challenge. She talked with soil conservationists from the NRCS and with farmers who have recently started the 1 Percent Challenge on their farms, including Dan Golightly, who manages the Jonbar Ranch.


The 1 Percent Challenge is a new initiative which encourages farmers to work towards increasing organic matter in their farm soil by 1 Percent. According to information provided by the NRCS, a few of the ways farmers can do this include keeping their soil covered and by planting high-carbon cover crops, by having crop diversity, by incorporating grazing and/or spreading manure, and by reducing tillage and soil disturbance.


“Soil organic matter is the dead organisms in the soil,” said Rubyana Neely, soil conservationist for the NRCS. “It’s what gives us our nice, dark, black soil in Iowa with an earthy smell to it.”


Neely said that the 1 Percent Challenge is not a short-term project, and could take at least 10 years for farmers to increase their organic matter by 1 percent.


The benefits to increasing organic matter in soil by 1 percent include providing a natural reservoir, it buffers against the soil erosion, it improves water infiltration rates and water holding capacities, leading to less impact during wet years or drought years, and it improves soil health.


“It (soil health) is the continued capacity of soil to, as a living ecosystem, to support plant growth and maximize yields in the long run,” Neely said.


The first thing to do, Neely says, is to set a baseline by doing a soil test to start. Five years in, farmers will do another soil test to see if their management practices are working.


Heidi Dittmer, another soil conservationist with the NRCS, demonstrated the four tests that the farmers can do to see what they need to change on an annual basis. Dittmer said that you would normally do the four tests in the middle of the land and they recommend doing the tests at the same time of the year every year, with June being considered the optimum time.


The four tests include measuring compaction, water infiltration, soil temperature, and counting earthworms.


When measuring compaction, farmers can stick a penetrometor in the ground and read the dial to measure compaction. Another option is for farmers to stick a wire flag in the ground and feel how much resistance there is for themselves.


The water infiltration test measures how your soil receives rainfall. They measure this by driving metal cyllinders into the soil and putting 107 millileters, equal to one inch of rainfall, into it and watching how quickly the water is absorbed into the soil.


“That helps us to understand how intense of a rainfall event our soils could take in,” Dittmer siad. “So if it goes in in 10 minutes, you could get six inches of rain and your soil would be able to take that in theoretically, but if it takes an hour for that inch of rainfall to go in, you would have to have one inch of rain per hour for your soil to be able to receive that.”


When measuring soil temperature, Dittmer says the soil should be between 70 and 90 degrees. The way she recommends counting earthworms is to dig out a 1-foot by 1-foot square and count the earthworms and the hope is to see an increase in the number of earthworms, since they are a good indication of bateria and fungi levels.


Dave Hogan, who farms north of Waukee, has taken on the 1 Percent Challenge and says that this challenge could help increase net farm income.


“I’m really trying to look at it from an economic standpoint and say ‘how can we drive this?’” Hogan said.


Golightly said many people are asking “what is it going to cost?” when they should be asking “what’s it going to pay?” He said one of the “brick walls” they are up against is that people want to see results right away, but the 1 Percent Challenge is intended to be a 10-year program.


When it comes to saving money, information provided by the NRCS shows the different ways this plan could save farmers money. Each year, 1 percent of soil organic matter per acre releases $15.10 worth of nutrients while eliminating tillage will save them about $3.50 in fuel costs per acre each year.


Utilizing cover crops may reduce their need for herbicides by about $16.20 per acre per year and an average increase of 5 BU/AC in soybean yields following cover crops can earn them about $50 per acre per year. Additionally, significant increases in organic matter can hold 25,000 gallons of plant-available water, reducing the potential for erosion by runoff by 15 percent.


To get involved and to take the 1 Percent Challenge, farmers can contact the USDA Service Center in Adel at (515)993-3413 and speak with a conservationalist.