“Too often, we talk about conservation like it is a nice thing to do—but totally optional. In fact, conservation action is quite essential to our state’s future. We must build and maintain our soils (and natural resilience in our communities and landscape) to protect Iowans’ way of life, and to have cleaner water, opportunities for recreation, and habitat for wildlife.”
It is spring time and with that brings many youth indoor and outdoor visits. Through our program Water Rocks! (www.waterrocks.org), our team has already been to over 20 youth events and reached all four corners of the state. Whether it’s Dubuque County one day and Pottawattamie the next, we always enjoy seeing Iowa’s diverse topography (despite the common misconception that all of Iowa looks the same!).
Here are some photographs from a few of our visits.
Iowa Learning Farms farmer partner Richard Sloan recently submitted an opinion piece to the Cedar Rapids Gazette. Sloan farms near Rowley and serves on several conservation-related organizations: Cropping Systems Coordinated Agricultural Project advisory board, Practical Farmers of Iowa, assistant commissioner for the Buchanan County Soil and Water Conservation District, and the Lime Creek Watershed Improvement Association.
“With pasture and Conservation Reserve Program lands being converted to row crops and fewer perennials in our fields, rains in excess of 1.5 inches per day will run off quickly, leading to potential erosion, pollution and spoiling of national resources. But farmers who want to protect the environment and their communities’ future do have opportunities to refine their conservation plans and integrate several new techniques.”
Sloan goes on to discuss these techniques. Read his column here.
On Tuesday May 7th, Iowa State University (ISU) Extension and Outreach field agronomists, ag engineers, Extension specialists, ISU farm specialists and other ISU crop experts took advantage of a beautiful sunny day when soil conditions prevented many from being able to work out in the field. The group of around 20 participants met at the Field Extension and Education Laboratory (FEEL) west of Ames to brainstorm and have an open discussion about cover crops. Also attending were research agronomist Tom Kaspar (National Laboratory for Ag and the Environment) and research and policy director Sarah Carlson (Practical Farmers of Iowa) who have conducted a great deal of research with cover crops.
The group met mid-morning and took a short tour of cover crop plots near the facility including those implemented by the Sustainable Corn project (USDA-National Institute of Food and Agriculture), as well as two sites where Kaspar’s long-term research has been ongoing. The group also made a short drive north to visit a multi-species variety trial that PFI has been conducting with Boone County producer and SWCD commissioner Jeremy Gustafson.
A number of practical and theoretical questions were asked of Kaspar and Carlson which spurred great conversations among members of the group. ILF program manager Jacqueline Comito led an afternoon discussion and focused on what additional educational/training materials may be needed for experts and cover crop producers alike. The Iowa Cover Crop Working Group, ILF staff and members of ISU Extension and Outreach will be working over the course of the next few months to put together additional cover crop materials aimed at answering commonly asked questions and providing additional technical reference information.
Iowa Farmer Today is running series of articles profiling young farmers and how they are getting their start in the industry. Read John Askew’s story from the May 2 edition.
“Cover Crops Control Soil Erosion” article written by Jason Johnson, NRCS public affairs specialist, was printed in the Cedar Rapids Gazette–on the Opinion page. Johnson interviews several southern Iowa farmers who are using cover crops. After heavy rains in southern Iowa in April, farmers and NRCS field staff talk of how their fields with cover crops held up. Read the story here.
Playing with that remote-controlled airplane has its benefits. In the No-Till Farmer article “Drones Could Change the Face of No-tilling” these remote-controlled planes can do many things, “In the not-so-distant future, farmers wanting to scout fields for diseases and pests, spot spray for weeds or obtain 3-D maps of their farm ground will be turning to tiny autonomous helicopters or planes to do the job.” Read the full story here.
And in Wallaces Farmer online, read the article “After Drought, Wet Spring Has Changed Amount of Nitrate in Soil.” ISU Extension soil fertility specialist John Sawyer cautions farmers that “some fields still have carryover nitrate-N amounts that should be used to adjust nitrogen.”
The articles concludes, “With the overall wet spring and decrease in carryover profile nitrate, Sawyer suggests farmers consider applying near normal nitrogen application rates for 2013 corn. He recommends farmers use ISU’s online Corn Nitrogen Rate Calculator for suggested rates.”
The Cedar River Watershed Education Project, in eastern Iowa, is of course, working to improve the water and soil quality in the watershed. But their website has many resources that are applicable to anywhere in Iowa and the midwest. The Articles tab on the website contains a series of stories written by writer and photographer Larry Stone.
Below is the lastest installment. Visit Cedar River Watershed Education Project website to read the other stories.
Visit Larry Stone’s website for more of his work.
The following article is the ninth in a series written by Larry Stone as part of the Cedar River Watershed Education Project.
Please don’t call it dirt!
“Soil is, in fact, a very vibrant, living community,” declared Frederick L. Kirschenmann, distinguished fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University.
“There are more living organisms beneath the surface of the soil than there are above the surface,” Kirschenmann explained. Estimates range from 50 million to four BILLION per teaspoonful of soil. “It isn’t just all of the things that we can see – the earthworms and the beetles and the ants,” he said. “It is those micro-organisms which dominate all of our soil culture.”
“So this is a community of life,” Kirschenmann marveled. “And if we’re going to have not only good food, but any food at all, we have to sustain that community of life in the soil.”
Healthy soil also can help hold water, thus reducing erosion and flooding, noted Dr. Doug Karlen, Research Leader for the U. S. Department of Agriculture’s National Laboratory for Agriculture and Environment in Ames.
He lamented most farmers’ reliance on just two crops: corn and soybeans. “We all have benefited by the advancements in corn and soybeans,” Karlen said, “but the mistake has been to put those two crops on every square inch of our landscape.”
“We have done that by putting in more drainage, bigger tile lines,” Karlen continued, “but all we’re doing is short-circuiting the system and sending both water – and anything that’s carried by that water – downstream.”
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that these are annual crops. “There is no vegetation growing from roughly the first of October to the middle part of April across much of our watershed,” Karlen said.
With nothing to hold the water, rain or snowmelt runs off the surface or through tile lines. “There’s only one place for that water to go and that’s right into the channels, which have been straightened, and scooting on down past our cities,” Karlen said. The water also carries nitrogen and phosphorus – nutrients which are lost to the farmer, but which contribute to the hypoxia (dead zone) in the Gulf of Mexico.
“Over the long term, we have to change our land use decisions,” Karlen declared. “What made our soils of the Midwest great was having a high percentage of deep-rooted, perennial plants. The carbon that was fixed from the atmosphere was put into the soil and cycled through the microbial processes and then had an impact on the physical, on the chemical, and on the biological properties and processes,” Karlen said, “which is really the essence of soil health and soil quality.”
A diversified plant community – perennial grasses and trees, pastures, and winter small grains – can take in, hold, and use the water, and transpire the excess back into the atmosphere, Karlen said. Soil scientists calculate that adding one per cent more organic matter to the soil could enable it to hold 19,000 more gallons of water per acre. Without those growing plants, however, water runs into streams and can contribute to flooding.
Growing deep-rooted perennials could help, Karlen said – but farmers are “up against a wall” because economics dictates that they plant corn and soybeans for the market.
Society must step in, Karlen said. “It has to be a community effort, as well as an individual farmer effort. (The community must make) decisions that we’re going to create these opportunities and these markets so they can sell other materials.” Woody species and perennial species could be used in bioenergy production, or for other bioproducts – from baby diapers to food to chemicals.
Karlen envisions woody buffers along streams, wetland species in flood-prone river bottoms, and conventional crops on uplands. Entrepreneurs could harvest and process the alternative crops, while farmers focus on conventional species.
“It’s a bigger, more holistic land management approach,” Karlen said.
Kirschenmann said that “holistic” approach looks at soil as “a web of relationships.” Unfortunately, some farmers regard soil as something to hold plants in place where they can be doused with chemical fertilizers and pesticides, he said.
That industrial model of agriculture is unsustainable, Kirschenmann fears. We’re now dependent on dwindling supplies of three finite resources: fossil fuels, fertilizer, and irrigation water. When those artificial inputs become too scarce and expensive, we’ll be forced to use our basic resources more judiciously.
To restore soil health, we should view the farm as an organism, Kirschenmann said. Plants and animals in the system should support each other, and provide goods and services for each other. Then soil, water, and nutrients will stay on the land – and not clog our rivers.