Iowa erosion rates are greater than we think

In Iowa Learning Farms April webinar, held yesterday, Iowa State University Agronomist Rick Cruse painted a dirty picture. He said that sediment runoff rates in Iowa are much higher than official reports state.

erosion_bettsEphemeral gullies–those channels that are created in fields after a rainfall–carry a large amount of sediment away from the fields. These gullies are not accounted for in official erosion reports from the NRCS and the Iowa Daily Erosion Project.

Farmers are losing precious topsoil, especially when the gullies are graded over and filled again. Water will recreate these channels at the next rain, carrying the soil with it that was replaced earlier.  Cruse says “this is an incredibly efficient way of removing soil from the field.”

People seem to be complacent when we talk about soil erosion in Iowa. The national standard Tolerable Rate of soil loss (T) is an average of 5 tons per acre per year. The key word here is “average.” When erosion rates are averaged, Iowa is within the 5 T standard. But what about those fields where the loss is much greater than the tolerable rate?

Iowa_Soil_erosion_mapThe Iowa map is a “snapshot” of the erosion rates per township for one day. The map is taken from the Iowa Daily Erosion Project website. Note the townships shaded in colors other than green–these are areas where soil erosion rates were 5 tons and greater. And this map is not accounting for the ephemeral gullies and small channels that are whisking away that topsoil with every rainfall event.

Cruse’s presentation was highly informative and there was a lot of discussion with those who logged on. I wasn’t sure, but I thought I heard a collective “gulp” from those who were watching.

You can watch the archived session to hear Rick’s message:

You can watch all of the ILF webinars here, too. There is a great variety of topics to choose from.

-Carol Brown


The Wonderful World of Worms

Charles Darwin once wrote of worms that “it may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organised creatures”. Darwin was not one to exaggerate; and, although written over 130 years ago, modern scientific evidence continues to lend credence to his words.

Abundant evidence exists to support the fact that earthworms play a dominant role in soil engineering. In agricultural systems, earthworms increase soil infiltration and aeration by digging elaborate tunnels. Earthworms also form a key link in soil food webs, acting as both predator and prey.

In addition, certain species of earthworm, such as the nightcrawler, actively incorporate surface residue into the soil, speeding up decomposition and the conversion of fresh residue into soil organic matter.

Farmers who have adopted no-till have seen substantial increases in worm populations. Cover crops combined with no-till may also go a long way towards increasing on-farm worm populations. Cover crops can encourage earthworms by providing additional surface residue, as well as additional below-ground food sources.

Although little scientific research has investigated the link between cover crops and worms, there is an abundance of observational data from farmers who claim more worms exist in places managed under cover crops and conservation tillage.

Earthworms are nature’s plow; if we create the right conditions for them to work, then we won’t need to spend time and money doing their job for them.



Two stories offer perspectives on residue management

The article “Tips for Making No-Tilled Corn-on-Corn Successful” was published recently on the No-Till Farmer website. Author Laura Allen includes quotes from farmers from all over the central midwest and also Iowa State University Agricultural Engineer Mark Hanna, faculty advisor for Iowa Learning Farms. The farmers and experts offer advice on all stages of the corn-on-corn growing process from fall harvest through spring planting. Part of the article talks about soil health and residue breakdown.

“Once residue is present in the field, the soil microbes get to work decomposing the residue, says Doug Miller, vice president of Midwest Bio-Tech, a company that distributes liquid biological and enzyme treatment products for crops and crop residue. ‘As soon as you’ve got residue in the field, it’s more or less like opening up the buffet line for the microbes. They’re going to multiply very rapidly and start to work in seeking out carbon, which is their main fuel source,’ Miller says.”

“Myths and Facts About Residue Breakdown” is in today’s Integrated Crop Management News. ISU agronomy professor and former ILF leader Mahdi Al-Kaisi explains the results of his research study on the effects of residue breakdown through tillage and nitrogen application.

“There were no differences in the rate of residue decomposition as a result of N application of different N rates.  These results show that applying N fertilizer to facilitate residue decomposition is not effective.”

“Environmentally, both tillage and N application are not very sustainable practices; tillage can contribute to soil health and water quality deterioration by increasing soil erosion potential, sediment loss and water quality degradation, as do N applications, where no growing plant can utilize it.” – Al Kaisi


April Cover Crop Events


Iowa Learning Farms is sponsoring three cover crop events this month. The workshops focus on cover crop management and how they can be incorporated into a whole farm conservation plan. They are free and open to the public.

We hope to see you there!



Thursday, April 3rd: Poweshiek County, 10am-12:30pm

Meet at Malcom Community Center
212 Main St.
Malcom, IA 50157


The program will begin at the Malcom Community Center, then head to the fields for a tour of three cover crop field sites.  We will return to the Community Center for lunch. Washington County farmer Steve Berger will share his experience using cover crops and their role in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy and host farmer Joe Kriegel will talk about using a three-year rotation, growing cereal rye seed and frost seeding clover.

For individuals who need accommodations to attend, including transportation, contact Jody Bailey at 319-656-2310.


Tuesday, April 8th: Carroll County, 10am-12:30pm

Neil Vonnahme Farm
13628 220th Street
Arcadia, IA 51430                        
Directions to the site are 3 miles south of US 30 on Delta Ave./M68 and 2/3 mile east on 220th Street.  We will have the meeting in his machine shed.

Topics for this workshop include:

  • Cover crops as a weed management tool: Bob Hartzler, ISU Extension and Outreach weed specialist
  • Choosing the right cover crop for your farm and raising your own seed: Barry Kusel, Carroll County farmer
  • Cover crop mixtures and cultivar selection: Stefan Gailans, Practical Farmers of Iowa
  • Using cover crops, conservation tillage and buffer strips to enhance soil and water quality: Matt Helmers, ISU Extension and Outreach water quality engineer

 The workshop begins with the program at 10am and will conclude with a complimentary lunch. Please RSVP by noon on Friday, April 4th: Liz Juchems 515-294-5429


Wednesday, April 9th: Pottawattamie County, 10am-12:30pm

Oakland Community Building
614 Dr. Van Zee Road
Oakland, IA 51560

This workshop will feature presentations on the following topics:

  • Using cover crops, conservation tillage and buffer strips to enhance soil and water quality: Matt Helmers, ISU Extension and Outreach water quality engineer
  • Cover crop mixtures and cultivar selection: Stefan Gailans, Practical Farmers of Iowa
  • Cover crop effects on soil health: Rick Bednarek, Natural Resources Conservation Service
  • Choosing the right cover crop for your farm: Jon Bakehouse and Steve McGrew, Mills County farmers

The workshop begins with the program at 10am and will conclude with a complimentary lunch. Please RSVP by noon on Friday, April 4th: Liz Juchems 515-294-5429



The following cover crop field day is sponsored by Cherokee County Soil and Water Conservation District.

Wednesday, April 9th: Cherokee County, 1pm

Nathan Anderson’s Farm
1950 520th St.
Cherokee, IA
Directions:1 mile North of Highway 3 on M10 and ½ West on 520th St. South Side of the road.


Featured Speakers:

  • Nathan Anderson – Conservation Districts of Iowa Cover Crop Champion Commissioner
  • Mike Henderson – District Conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service for Cherokee and O’Brien Counties

For more information, please contact: Patrick Kohn, Cherokee County SWCD, 712-225-4151 ext.3 or


- Liz Juchems



Recognition on the Red Carpet


The historic Capitol Theater in downtown Burlington

The historic Capitol Theater in downtown Burlington

The 23rd Annual Iowa Motion Picture Association Awards were held onSaturday, March 29 at the historic Capitol Theater in Burlington.   In a nutshell, this red carpet event is Iowa’s own version of the Oscars!   We are pleased to announce that Water Rocks! was honored with 15 IMPA awards, in a variety of categories related to both programming and craft:

Will U B the H 2 My O? Music Video
Award of Excellence in Educational Production
Award of Achievement for Original Music
Award of Achievement for Direction

Cover Crop Anthem Music Video
Award of Excellence in Original Music
Award of Achievement for Computer Generated Visual Effects

Isle of Plastic Music Video
Award of Excellence for Computer Generated Visual Effects

“What’s In Your Water?” Series (12 videos)
Full Series  – Award of Achievement in Educational Production
The Shower — Awards of Excellence for Editing and PSA
The Walk— Award of Achievement for Visual Effects
The Walk (30s) — Award of Achievement for Commercial Under $5,000
The Movie — Award of Achievement for Direction
Tubing — Award of Achievement for PSA

“I Am An Iowan” Series (5 videos)
Award of Achievement for Educational Production

Incredible Wetlands
Award of Achievement for Documentary

Water Rocks! director Jacqueline Comito accepts an Award of Excellence in the Public Service Announcement (Under $5000) category on behalf of video director Andrew Bentler and the full Water Rocks! team

Water Rocks! director Jacqueline Comito accepts an Award of Excellence in the Public Service Announcement (Under $5000) category on behalf of video director Andrew Bentler and the Water Rocks! team

Ann Staudt and Jacqueline Comito show off a few of the Iowa Motion Picture Association Awards received by Water Rocks!

Ann Staudt and Jacqueline Comito show off several of the 15 Iowa Motion Picture Association Awards received by the Water Rocks! team

-Ann Staudt

Natural Crop Insurance

Insurance is perhaps the only thing we purchase with the hope that we never need use it. Farmers have long been active in using insurance to mitigate some of the uncertainties inherent to farming. Insuring against uncertainty has been popular amongst farmers over the past decade; especially here in Iowa, which has seen a substantial number of extreme weather events.

However, Iowa is not the only place to experience these extreme vagaries in weather; the changes have literally been on a global scale. The problem has become so extensive that the most recent Farm Bill offers increased subsidies for crop insurance and has lowered the threshold of insurance payouts (for more info see the blog “Not your Father’s Farm Bill”).

Although we have put considerable resources into bolstering traditional crop insurance, we have largely neglected the value of healthy soils, which are nature’s own crop insurance policy. Healthy soils have minimal erosion and a healthy supply of soil organic matter. These soils provide slow-release plant nutrition through mineralization of organic matter. The organic matter in soil can also hold up to 20 times its weight in water, meaning excess water is absorbed during wet times and soil moisture is retained during droughts.

Adding cover crops and no-tillage to your farm operation are two of the best ways to invest into a “natural crop insurance policy”. Both practices enhance soil organic and reduce soil losses due to erosion. These practices do require a greater investment in field management, but it is worth remembering that the only thing more expensive than having insurance is not having it.

March 25 is National Ag Day

NationalAgDayThe Agriculture Council of America (ACA) will host National Agriculture Day on March 25, 2014. This will mark the 41st anniversary of National Ag Day which is celebrated in classrooms and communities across the country. 

ACA is a nonprofit organization composed of leaders in the agricultural, food and fiber community, dedicating its efforts to increasing the public’s awareness of agriculture’s role in modern society.

The National Ag Day program encourages every American to:

  • Understand how food and fiber products are produced.
  • Appreciate the role agriculture plays in providing safe, abundant and affordable products.
  • Value the essential role of agriculture in maintaining a strong economy.
  • Acknowledge and consider career opportunities in the agriculture, food and fiber industry.

For more information, visit the website:

We salute Iowa farmers on this National Ag Day!

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