Digging in to soil microbiology

NOTE: This guest blog post was written by Tiffany Eberhard, one of our summer interns with Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks!.   Eberhard is starting her senior year at the University of Georgia, double majoring in Environmental Health Science and Anthropology.

“I’m going to Iowa for the summer for a water resource internship,” I told my friends in Georgia, the southern state I call home.
“Oh, the Potato State?” said my friend.
“No, the Corn State!” I replied.

Tiffany Blog Pic

Intern Tiffany Eberhard runs a titration as part of her soil respiration project in the new Sukup Hall Porous Media Lab.

I had no idea what to expect when I arrived in Ames in May, and obviously most of my friends didn’t either. The first night in Ames, there was a tornado spotted near the area and we had to take refuge in the basement of our apartment. I knew this was going to be an exciting summer from day one!

This was my first experience living outside of Athens, Georgia. It did not take long for me to predict what I would see on our long drives through the state: mostly corn and soybean farms. To someone not familiar with agriculture, this might sound, well, boring. And I thought the same until I spent more time observing and working in the fields. There is a quiet beauty to the slow growth of the crops. Starting out as a 2 inch tall seedling, and maturing to a corn plant with husks or soybean plants maturing with pretty purple flowers, these plants use natural resources to stay healthy. Natural resources and their important functions is a topic Water Rocks! teaches to youth throughout the state.

One of the most important natural resource in Iowa is soil. The top soil in Iowa is 1-2 feet deep! I was amazed at how black and rich it was compared to the Georgia red clay from my home. One of the first facts I learned was the vast number of organisms that live in the soil. One shovel of soil contains over 7 billion living creatures! This fact sparked my inquisition into more facts about microorganisms that call the soil their home. There is a whole world beneath our feet!

My project for the summer was to look at carbon dioxide respiration from microbes in the soil as an indicator for soil health. I began the project with a very limited understanding of soil microbiology and its importance, but as I learned about how the microbes respire CO₂ and the methods for measuring this CO₂, I began to unlock the mystery of microorganisms. Microbes in the soil eat decaying plant matter and provide nutrients from this matter to new plants as food. Without microbes, the plants would not be able to obtain their needed nutrients. The more microbes present in the soil, the healthier, on average, the soil. I worked on measuring the amount of carbon given off from different plots of soil, some with and some without cover crops. Data collection is still in progress, but hopefully we will have information in the future that supports previous data that cover crops correlate to more microbes in the soil and therefore, healthier soil.

Working with soil this summer and especially microbial activity in the soil has opened up a new interest for my future research and possible career. I want to delve deeper into soil microbiology to learn about the hidden world under us. My internship this summer gave me the opportunity to learn about not only Iowa’s rich soil but also about the life that we can’t see with our naked eye.

- Tiffany Eberhard

Clean Water Radio Recap


Dr. Jacqueline Comito co-hosted Friday morning’s episode of Clean Water Radio on KHOI 89.1FM.  The program was informative as well as entertaining, covering topics ranging from the voluntary nature of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy to music videos to cover crops and bioreactors.  ILF farmer-partner Tim Smith of Eagle Grove was interviewed as part of the program as well.

Listen to the program in its entirety at KHOI’s Local Talk website.

-Ann Staudt

Tune in Friday for Clean Water Radio

radio_towerDr. Jacqueline Comito will be interviewed on KHOI 89.1FM‘s Local Talk this Friday, July 25, between 7:00-8:00am.  Local Talk is a KHOI signature local interview program that explores people, stories, and events of central Iowa. It celebrates the creativity, diversity and civic spirit of our community.  Friday’s segment in which Comito will be featured is part of the “Clean Water Radio” series.

Tune in to 89.1FM Friday morning at 7:00am for the live program!  The program will also be rebroadcast later in the day on Friday at noon and 7:00pm, and also archived online at KHOI’s Local Talk page.

-Ann Staudt

Observations from a First Time County Fairgoer


Student intern Nick Hunter uses the Enviroscape model to teach Conservation Station visitors about watersheds and water quality at the 2014 Central Iowa Fair

NOTE: This guest blog post was written by Nick Hunter, one of our summer interns with Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks!.   Hunter is starting his senior year at Grinnell College, double majoring in Physics and Spanish.

I’m a pretty big fan of the Iowa State Fair. Mostly for the fried pickles and other greasy goodness, but also for the eclectic crowd that gives the fairgrounds such a unique atmosphere. As a Des Moines native, it’s the only fair I had ever known until I started going to county fairs this summer with our fleet of Conservation Station trailers. I had been accustomed to the crowded and epic fried food mecca that is the Iowa State Fair.  County fairs were going to be something mighty different.

For the most part, they’ve been much less crowded and mostly attended by rural Iowans. Honestly, at first I didn’t think we would be able to meet with a very significant amount of people, and sometimes we don’t.  Many kids often bolt away right in the middle of a conversation to show their chickens or hogs at the 4-H events. Yet, no matter how small the fair, there always seems to be groups of fair-goers – families, groups of kids, seniors – who sincerely enjoy doing the activities at our Conservation Station.

Recently at the Central Iowa Fair in Marshalltown, a young girl came to watch the Enviroscape watershed activity. When it finished, she entered the trailer’s learning lab, we talked through the module, and went outside to play the poo toss activity.  She absolutely loved that game. She came back all afternoon to play and when it was time to leave she insisted in helping us pack up.


Intern Nick Hunter (left) proudly holds a chicken for the first time in his life

When we finished, she brought us over to her chicken coop to see the chickens she had shown earlier that day for 4-H. She opened the cage, yanked out her prized chicken, and shoved her into my arms before I could object.  It wasn’t exactly one of the most monumental moments in my life, holding live poultry in my arms, but it certainly was the first time I had held a chicken and for that I was proud.

I could tell that our young friend really enjoyed the presence of the Conservation Station at her fair. I also noticed the appreciation in almost every visit from the group of summer school kids that were bussed in to the fair that afternoon. By the end of the day, 110 kids and 20 adults had actively participated in our activities and had learned all about pollution, water quality, and conservation — a pretty successful day. Plus, I even held a chicken.

- Nick Hunter

July Webinar Recap: Riparian Forested Buffer Strips and Farm Windbreaks

Dr_Randall_150-largeOur July webinar features Jesse Randall, Associate Professor in Natural Resources Ecology and Management and ISU Forestry Extension.  He shared his knowledge of riparian forested buffers and farm windbreaks as a researcher as well as a landowner implementing these practices on his own property.

Riparian buffers along streams and rivers provide additional benefits to those provided by grass buffers.  When properly constructed, these riparian buffers have the ability to reduce stream bank erosion by about 80% and protect these sensitive sites, all while improving wildlife and aquatic habitat, creating a recreational area and enhancing aesthetics.

Randall describes the process of retiring a pasture and utilizing cost-share funding through CP22  within the Conservation Reserve Program on his own property.  Over the past three years, he has installed cedar revetments where the stream was likely to flood and/or cause stream bank erosion. They have shown to demonstrate a remarkable decrease in stream bank erosion, especially during flood events. The photo below shows a cedar revetment installation along Randall’s stream.

Jesse Randall

Be sure to check out the archived webinar to learn more about Jesse’s stream bank project and to learn more about the CP5A program that looks at establishing field windbreaks.

Also available in our archive is the June Webinar featuring Dan Jaynes, research soil scientist at the USDA-ARS National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment, who discusses the use of saturated buffers for nitrate removal.  Saturated buffers enhance the benefits of riparian buffers by redirecting some of the water from tile drainage that typically bypasses the buffer into the buffer as shallow groundwater flow.  Once there, the roots can utilize nitrates and the microorganisms can assist with denitrification of the drainage water.

Using these buffer techniques in tandem will help reduce erosion, sediment and nitrogen in the water body, all of which help with the goals of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

-Liz Juchems

A St. Louisan’s Perspective on Environmental Awareness in Iowa

NOTE:  This guest blog post was written by Anna Chott, a summer intern with Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks!. Chott is pursuing Environmental Science and Environmental Policy at Drake University.


Intern Anna Chott, center, teaches the Enviroscape watershed lesson to Conservation Station visitors

One of the first distinctions I noticed when I moved to Iowa from St. Louis, Missouri, was the incredible friendliness of Hy-Vee employees. The drivers here are very courteous as well, sometimes giving a friendly wave as they pass me in the opposite lane. I was also astonished to see an Iowan leave her car parked with her purse in the front seat, rather than hiding it in the trunk. These are some of the ways that living in Iowa, first as a student in Des Moines, and now as an intern with Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks! in Ames, has been different from life in St. Louis. During this internship, I have traveled to outreach events at smaller towns across the state and taken note of not just the friendliness of Iowans, but also of their views on the environment.

There is a stark difference between environmental appreciation in rural Iowa compared to a relatively big city like St. Louis. In my hometown, people strive to be environmentally friendly by recycling, driving hybrid cars, and eating tofu. While there may be fewer vegetarians in Iowa, the number one pork producing state in the nation, there is no shortage of environmental awareness; it’s just expressed in different ways. Iowans, in fact, have a greater appreciation for the outdoors than the people back home.

The Iowans I have met have a genuine appreciation for nature. They enjoy boating and fishing in their many rivers and lakes. Stargazing and hosting enormous bonfires are also popular outdoor activities in rural Iowa. Every spring, the Decorah Eagles website becomes painfully slow, as millions of people log on to watch live footage of a family of hatchlings as they grow. Children in St. Louis grow up with a backyard barely big enough for a swing set. In rural Iowa, kids have entire acres to explore.

Iowans understand what’s at stake if they fail to protect their rivers and lakes. There are alarming water quality issues facing this state, the primary one being sediment from agricultural runoff. The farmers involved with Iowa Learning Farms never fail to surprise me with the extent of their commitment to investigating up-and-coming conservation practices like cover crops. However, solving the state’s water quality issues will require widespread participation. I hope to see even more Iowans join in and take steps to protect the natural places in which they enjoy spending time.

- Anna Chott

Lance Henrichs: My internship so far…

I am one of seven student interns this summer so I will introduce myself. I am Lance Henrichs and I am going into my third year of college at Iowa State. I grew up on a farm in south central Iowa, New Virginia specifically. We raise around 600 acres of row crops and a herd of about 30 beef cows. Since I came from a farming background, fourth generation of farmers, I realized how important Iowa and its natural resources are to everyone at a young age. I decided to come to Iowa State University my senior year of high school for some sort of agriculture program. After about a year I found the Agricultural Systems Technology degree and choose the option of bio-systems management. I soon found out that in my program I needed an internship to graduate. That is when I began looking and found Water Rocks!

This internship has been a learning experience from the start. I felt pretty confident coming into this since I had grown up on a farm that had done many conservation practices, but I have learned so much more thus far. We have attended seminars on cover crops, soil health, and have participated in the Iowa Learning Farms’ webinars. I have had my eyes opened to how much more is needed than no-till and crop rotations. There are many pieces to the clean water and healthy soils puzzle. There is no “one time/fix all” solution. There are many tools that each producer can use to reach the goals of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, but no one practice alone will get us there. So, with this increasing knowledge and my connections to farms through friends and family, I am going to try to convince agricultural producers to do more than they currently are.


Pulling the mound off of a worm burrow at the ISU Ag Engineering and Agronomy Research Farm

This summer has been busy for me, with field work, project work, and events. My main individual project that I have for the summer is researching if there is a relationship between cover crop presence and earthworm presence, specifically lumbricus terrestris (nightcrawlers). I have been researching how they operate and what they do for our soils. In a nutshell, worms are bio-indicators of good soil health. From there I measured their presence by counting mounds on the soils. Since the nightcrawler is a worm that tends to live in one single burrow during its lifespan, it is easily counted by finding its burrows. To feed, these worms pull crop residue over the burrow and slowly pull it into the hole, creating an easily visible mound to count.

As this summer carries on, I hope to be able to continue learning and reaching out to people. I want to be a resource to many people and answer their questions best that I can. Aside from the many two and a half hour car rides, this internship has been a wonderful learning and teaching experience. Thank you to the Water Rocks! and Iowa Learning Farms members for granting me this experience!

-Lance Henrichs

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