Conservation is a Gift

Growing up on a century farm in North Central Iowa was a gift. I had an old barn with a haymow and a rope swing to play around with. There were old silos to climb, horses to ride, and timber to explore. My best memories were playing hide-and-seek in the tall grass and climbing every tree I could find.


An old oak tree that I used to climb.

What I didn’t realize until I was older was that this piece of land wasn’t common, at least not today. This land resembled Iowa’s past. The grass I was playing in was a tall grass prairie and the trees I was climbing were big oaks, several hundred years old. My dad once told me, “You know, a long time ago there was probably a young Native American boy your age playing in that same tree.”

My dad had always stressed the importance of leaving a legacy for your family. In this case, preserving the land for the next generation to enjoy. He started over 30 years ago by picking wildflower seeds and scattering them around on some of his land. After seeing an immediate increase in wildlife he took it further. He went on to add a wetland, cover for wildlife, 15 acres of food plots, a timber stand improvement project, and 100 acres of prairie.

In the last 10 years, I have been able to help him with an oak savanna restoration project and several tree planting projects. I helped create several prairie habitats using native ecotype grasses and forbs, established pollinator habitats, and established filter strips along streams.


Recently, the Iowa learning Farms team took a field trip to see the prairie, oak savanna, and oxbow restoration site.

Those experiences gave me an appreciation of nature, history, and Iowa that have stayed with me today and led me to work for the Iowa Learning Farms. This work has opened my eyes to the fact that conservation doesn’t start at the field’s edge.

Cover crops, no-till, and nutrient management are just as necessary to preserve Iowa’s legacy as its native landscapes, because the only thing older than that beautiful oak tree is the soil it grew out of and the water it needed to grow. To me, conservation means preserving the past to protect the future.


ILF staff Dr. Helmers poses with some Big Bluestem.

Back on the farm there is an oxbow restoration project underway with the Nature Conservancy. My Dad is also re-enrolling some CRP land, which means that ground will have been in CRP for 40 years. I recently asked my Dad what’s next because he likes to have a new project every year. He replied, “I think I’ll try cover crops.” Now we’re talking!

When I look back as an adult, I realize it wasn’t just growing up on a farm that was the gift; it was the conservation around me. This is a gift I plan on sharing with my son. I know of a great place to play hide-and-seek and a great big tree to climb as soon as he’s old enough to walk.

~Nathan Stevenson

It’s Webinar Wednesday!

640px-Bee_pd6Tune in today at 11:30am for the Iowa Learning Farms November webinar, featuring Dr. Mary Harris.    Get the buzz on pollinators – their importance to biodiversity, larger impacts on our agricultural ecosystems, and the many challenges that pollinators currently face.    This promises to be a timely and thought-provoking presentation!

Harris is housed in ISU’s Departments of Natural Resource Ecology and Management and Entomology.  She is actively involved with the STRIPs project at the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, Prairie City.

To connect to the webinar, go to at 11:30 am.  If you’d like to attend in person, the webinar will be presented live from Curtiss 0009 on the Iowa State University campus.  As always, the archived version of the webinar will be posted on the ILF website following its completion.

-Ann Staudt




Top Ten Webinars #4: Bioreactors: Benefits and Potential Challenges

May 2011 Screenshot

In the previous webinar in this series, Dr. Matt Helmers mentioned bioreactors as a possible tool for nitrogen management. And right on cue, here comes “Bioreactors: Benefits and Potential Challenges,” hosted by Laura Christianson, then a Ph.D. candidate at Iowa State University and now a Research Agricultural Engineer for the Freshwater Institute. My take-home points:

1. A denitrification (or “woodchip”) bioreactor addresses the problem of nitrate pollution by sending drainage water through a subterranean colony of carbon-eating, nitrogen-exhaling underwater bacteria. You can’t make this stuff up.

2. There are some challenges and downsides, including the small-scale nature of bioreactors. With a device that lasts up to 20 years and is built to treat 40 to 80 acres, you just can’t get the same wide-ranging, long-term benefits that you can from wetlands.

3. Still, as a small-scale tool to fight nitrate pollution from a specific area, bioreactors are well worth looking into.

Watch the full webinar here. And stay tuned for a later installment in this series, in which we’ll take a closer look at bioreactors.

- Alex Kirstukas

A few stories to ponder


There have been several agricultural stories across the nation that have focused on topics besides this year’s harvest. If you haven’t seen these, take a few minutes and do some reading/listening.

Reducing Fertilizer Needs by Accounting for Soil Microbes, from Ohio’s Country Journal, talks about the new Haney test for soil nutrients. There has been some talk about using the Haney test in Iowa as well. The article provides a good explanation of how the test is conducted.

cover_crop_closeupLearn about the Hagie Manufacturing’s cover crop inter-seeder (CCI ) from the AgriNews article Inter-Crop Seeder Opens Planting Window Wider.  The CCI converts the Hagie chemical sprayer to a cover crop seeder. ILF, as part of the Iowa Cover Crop Working Group, is researching this seeding technique on several Iowa fields.

Speaking of cover crops, WHO-TV channel 13 ran a story about how cover crops are gaining ground (literally!) in Iowa. The video story Cover Crops Taking Hold for Winter includes an interview with Cliff Mulder, a farmer from Pella who is trying cover crops for the first time on his farm. Mulder talks about whether the benefits are worth the cost, “I think the jury is out on that. But if you don’t try – I’m a strong advocate of research to answer your questions. And so, I think, if you don’t try, on your own farm, to answer some of these questions, you won’t have an answer.”

Winter_Rye_Effect_on_Yield_Yr5ILF and Practical Farmers of Iowa published a piece on the results of using cover crops after five years on several Iowa farms. The 4-page publication Winter Cereal Rye Cover Crop Effect on Cash Crop Yield can be downloaded from our website, and Agri-View recently wrote a story about our research results, Long-term On-farm Research: Cover Crops, Yields.  We also have a publication Winter Rye Cover Crop Effects on Soil that can be downloaded as well. These publications look at the data from several Iowa farms with actual farmers using cover crops.


We hope you are able to take some time and read up on these techniques for better soil and water!

-Carol Brown


Another month of growth…

Over the last two weeks, Iowa Learning Farms team members (with help from our friends at Practical Farmers of Iowa) have been visiting ISU Research and Demonstration Farms statewide, checking up on our cover crop mixture plots planted as part of the National Conservation Innovation Grant.   Our visits to the six sites include collecting fall above-ground biomass from each of the cover crop plots, the final water sampling of the season, and winterizing the suction lysimeters until sampling resumes in spring.

In a previous blog post, I shared photos from the Armstrong Research and Demonstrations Farm in Southwest Iowa from our trip there at the end of September.   After another month-plus of growth, the cover crops are flourishing!  So for comparison purposes, let’s take a look post-harvest:

Treatment #1: Single Species Cover Crop (rye pictured here in corn plots)

Treatment #1: Single Species Cover Crop (Rye in corn plots, 9/26/2014)

Treatment #1: Single Species Cover Crop (Rye in corn plots, 11/5/2014)

And how about those mixtures?

Treatment #2: Cover Crop Mixture (Blend of rye, radish, and rapeseed shown here in corn plots)

Treatment #2: Cover Crop Mixture (Blend of rye, radish, and rapeseed in corn plots, 9/26/2014)

Treatment #2: Cover Crop Mixture (Blend of rye, radish, and rapeseed in corn plots, 11/5/2014)

And a few views from the soybean plots:

Cover Crop Mixture used in Soybeans (Blend of oats, radish, and hairy vetch)

Cover Crop Mixture used in Soybeans (Blend of oats, radish, and hairy vetch, 9/26/2014)

Cover Crop Mixture used in Soybeans (Blend of oats, radish, and hairy vetch, 9/26/2014)

Collecting water samples from suction lysimeter in Cover Crop Mixture plots (Blend of oats, radish, and hairy vetch, 11/5/2014 – All species present, but definite frost damage observed here)

Two sets of biomass samples are collected in each plot:


Biomass Sampling in Progress: All cover crops within the quadrant are cut at ground level, collected in bags, and brought back to ISU for analysis to determine the amount of cover crop growth (# biomass/acre) and well as total carbon/total nitrogen content of the cover crop biomass collected. Biomass is collected in the fall (as close to hard freeze as possible) and in the spring (as close to termination as possible).


Want to learn more?   Join us for one of our upcoming November field days!   Detailed information for each is available on the Iowa Learning Farms website.

Nov. 12, 10:30 am-12:30 pm
Wallace Learning Center at Armstrong Research Farm

Nov. 18, 10:30 am-12:30 pm
Borlaug Center at Northeastern Research Farm

Nov. 19, 10:30 am-12:30 pm
Fire Department building

Nov. 20, 10:30 am-12:30 pm
Rob Stout farm, Washington Co.

Nov. 25, 11 am-1 pm
Truro Lions Club, Madison Co.

-Ann Staudt

Top Ten Webinars #3: Nitrogen Management and Water Quality

April 2011 Screenshot

The Top 10 Most-Watched Webinars adventure continues with “Nitrogen Management and Water Quality,” hosted by Dr. Matt Helmers, professor and extension agricultural engineer at Iowa State University. Here’s my preview:

1. There are big demands for row crop products and cleaner water … but the subsurface drainage needed to produce the one makes the other harder to get.

2. There are multiple in-field practices to help farmers manage where the nitrogen they use ends up.

3. Even with the best possible in-field management, though, there’d still be too much nitrate in the water. So, for the sake of the land we depend on, we also need off-site practices like wetland restoration and bioreactors. (And stay tuned for the next webinar in this series for more about those…)

Watch the full webinar here.

- Alex Kirstukas

Top 10 Webinars #2: Managing Cover Crops

March 2011 Screenshot

This blog’s exploration of the Top 10 Most-Watched Webinars continues with “Managing Cover Crops,” hosted by Dr. Jeremy Singer, then a research agronomist for the USDA Agricultural Research Service and currently a principal scientist for BASF Plant Science in Durham. And here are my Top 3 Take-Home Points:

1. Cover crops can reduce soil erosion, improve water quality, stabilize or increase organic matter, and provide other benefits. (That’s pretty much a direct quote from the webinar, but I couldn’t have put it better.)

2. Managing cover crops is all about balancing potential benefits and risks, and farmers can tinker with plenty of variables—different crop varieties, different methods, different approaches—to fine-tune that balance.

3. More research is needed, and a lot of it is underway right now, to clear up remaining mysteries and ambiguities about cover crop management. However, the concept is now well-established, the benefits are clear, and the practice is getting more and more common.

So, if it weren’t for the awful pun, I’d say the whole idea of planting cover crops … has taken root.

Watch the full webinar here.

- Alex Kirstukas

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