September 18 Webinar: Integrating Perennials into Underperforming Parts of Crop Fields


Iowa Learning Farms will host a webinar on Wednesday, September 18 at 12:00 p.m. about the benefits of integrating perennial vegetation into underperforming parts of crop fields.

Emily Heaton 2019“Ever wonder if something more profitable, productive, and environmentally friendly could be grown in the bare spots you see in fields? We did too! Spoiler alert: perennial plants checked all the boxes,” said Emily Heaton, an Associate Professor at Iowa State University. Heaton is a plant scientist who is working on sustainable biomass production systems. She will discuss how the use of perennial plants in underperforming parts of fields can have a positive impact on the farm economy, water quality and bioenergy feedstock production.

When asked what she hoped webinar participants will take away from their viewing, Heaton said, “Perennial plants are to agriculture what exercise is to human health: a straightforward, consistently effective solution to a multitude of challenges.” If you’re interested in learning more about the integration of perennial vegetation into crop fields and the benefits that doing so could have, tune in to watch this webinar on September 18.

A Certified Crop Adviser board approved continuing education unit (CEU) is available for those who are able to watch the live webinar. Information for submitting your CCA/CPAg/CPSS/CPSC number to earn the credit will be provided at the end of the presentation.

Don’t miss this webinar!
DATE: Wednesday, September 18, 2019
TIME: 12:00 p.m.
HOW TO PARTICIPATE: visit and click the link to join the webinar

More information about this webinar is available at our website. If you can’t watch the webinar live, an archived version will be available on our website:

Hilary Pierce

What’s a wetland?


Adam Janke | Assistant Professor in Natural Resource Ecology and Management and Extension Wildlife Specialist, Iowa State University

In keeping with a theme from my last blog titled “What the heck is habitat”, this month I explore another critical question within the language of conservation. What’s a wetland?

Wildlife biologists like me adopt a broad definition of a wetland because so too do the wetland-dependent wildlife we study. We find often that a migrating flock of Greater Yellowlegs in August are apathetic whether a wet spot in a crop field has drainage infrastructure underneath it. And that a nesting pair of Soras care little about the motivation or permits behind the construction of a water-treatment wetland in town. To wildlife, and thus to a wildlife biologist like me, what makes a wetland is how it functions. And to describe that critical wetland function we need to consider two factors: water and plants.

Put simply, a wetland is a place where water and water-loving plants interact to create shallow pools that vary in depth and duration of flooding. In some years, a wetland may be feet deep and hold water from ice-off to freeze-up. In others, it may hold water for a few weeks or be entirely dry.

Wetland compare-01

Healthy wetlands transition between wet and dry cycles and have a diversity of water-loving plants in and around them.

Given this broad definition, we can look to the land to find a wide variety of wetland types.

  • Floodplain wetlands capture flood waters adjacent to over-filled rivers and streams.
  • Oxbow wetlands were once part of a stream or river channel and today reconnect only occasionally.
  • Ephemeral pools are found in woodlands where the deafening call of breeding frogs in spring is a distant memory when the spot is dry weeks later in June.
  • Prairie potholes take all shapes and sizes from problem areas in a crop fields to iconic lakes like Clear Lake, Spirit Lake, and Black Hawk Lake.
  • Engineered wetlands are designed to use natural wetland processes to clean water or sequester floods in strategic areas in agricultural and urban landscapes.
  • Fens are outlets of groundwater on slopes with unique chemistry and biological adaptions of many plants found there.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

All these wetlands and more share two common characteristics; their tendency for dynamic water levels (fluctuating between wet and dry periods) and their harboring of water-loving plants that cycle through time.

When these two characteristics manifest, the accolades for wetland function are long and include:

  • Removing nutrients in water, including nitrogen and phosphorus.
  • Removing contaminants in water, including sediment and chemicals used in urban and agricultural environments.
  • Providing habitat for a wide range of wildlife including many wetland dependent organisms and even terrestrial animals like bees, bats, and insectivorous birds.
  • Providing recreational opportunities like kayaking, canoeing, swimming, bird watching, and hunting.
  • Capturing and slowly releasing flood waters, reducing downstream flood peaks.
  • Providing for conditions for ground-water recharge.
  • Sequestering carbon from the atmosphere.

Scientists and policy makers call this long list of accolades “ecosystem goods and services.” According to economists who have estimated the values of these ecosystem goods and services, inland wetlands only lag behind coral reefs and coastal ecosystems for their financial returns to society.

This recognition of the critical roles of wetlands as “nature’s kidneys” (to say nothing of their value as “nature’s playgrounds” for many) has led to extensive and growing efforts to protect existing wetlands and restore others. In an ironic turn of tides, today the same forces that claimed over 90% of Iowa’s original wetlands — the excavator, drain tile, and bulldozer – are being employed to put wetlands back into our agricultural landscapes in areas of the farm that generally underperform for farmers and have potential to accrue the valuable functions described above for society.

Once water levels begin to fluctuate again and the vegetation follows in kind, you can be sure the Soras, Yellowlegs, and many more wildlife will contently reassert their satisfaction with these restored oases in Iowa’s landscape, happily calling the spot where uniquely adapted plants and dynamic water levels meet a wetland once again.

Adam Janke

Celebrating 30 Years of Drainage Research

ILFHeaderThis year marks 30 years for the ISU Drainage Research and Demonstration Project site near Gilmore City. To celebrate this milestone, Iowa Learning Farms partnered with the Ag Water Drainage Management team to host a field day this week to share findings from ongoing cover crop and water quality studies.

Kicking off the field day was Humboldt County farmer, Doug Adams, sharing his experiences with implementing cover crops on his farm.

DSC_2303“I started the transition to strip-till with just a few acres. I worked with a local farm management company to contract the strips. Due to the weather this spring, we are trying no-till for the first time and have been happy with the results so far,” noted Doug.

Doug has been using primarily rye and rapeseed as cover crops on the majority of his acres. Ideally, he is killing the rye when it is about 8 inches in height, before the plant elongates for easier termination and quicker decomposition back to the soil.  He has noted improvements in the soil health in his fields and recommends all farmers take a shovel to their soil and have a look for themselves.

“One of the most valuable tools you have is a shovel to take a look at the soil. The highest yield doesn’t always result in the highest profit – cutting costs through nitrogen management and improving soil health is key.”

DSC_2306Morgan Davis, Natural Resource Ecology and Management graduate research assistant, is researching a variety of soil health aspects at the site. With multiple crops, tillage practices and treatments with and without cover crops, the site allows for a wealth of data to see how soil carbon and nitrogen vary.

“Although total carbon and total nitrogen is similar across the various plots, the more  accessible carbon and nitrogen and depth of available nutrients is higher when cover crops are used. This allows the microorganisms present in the soil to more easily utilize those nutrients and improve overall soil health,” noted Morgan.


Some key findings of the ongoing cover crop and water quality research was shared by Matt Helmers, ISU professor and Ag and Biosystems engineer, who leads the research team.

  • Even without fertilizer applied, a corn-soybean rotation lost 15-20 lb N/acre at nitrate-N concentrations of 6-8 mg/L.
  • When N-fertilizer is applied at economic N-rates, the average concentration of nitrate-N in the tile drainage ranged from 12-16 mg/L. (Drinking water standard is 10mg/L.)
  • Use of a cover crop has the potential to reduce nitrate-N concentration in drainage water. For the conventional tillage plots, nitrate concentrations were reduced by 4-4.8 mg/L, in the soybean phase and corn phase respectively.

Based on these studies, high nitrate-N levels are less about mismanagement of N-fertilizer and more a result of the land use and cropping practices.

That’s why in-field practices like cover crops and no-till, alongside edge-of-field practices like saturated buffers, bioreactors, and wetlands, play a large role in meeting the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy goals.

To learn more about these practices, be sure to attend a field day near you! Check out our events page and subscribe to our newsletter to stay connected.

Liz Juchems


More Than Milkweed!

ILFHeaderFarmer Partner, Nathan Anderson, opened his farm to a pasture restoration and monarch habitat field day on Tuesday, September 10th. It was a great day to explore the hard work Nathan and his family has done to remove cedar trees and nurture the native grasses and flowering plants.


“Our primary goal for this work was livestock management for profitability, but we were seeing these added benefits (to improving the pasture) to creatures needing nectar – like monarch butterflies. That keeps us motivated to keep going and provide these flowering plants in multiple areas on our farm,” stated Nathan.

IMG_5165From our initial stop in the pasture, Nathan pointed to a large cottonwood tree (pictured behind him). “In 2017, when we were just starting on improving the pasture, you couldn’t see that tree due to all the cedar trees. To date we have worked to remove cedars from about 20 acres and have plans to keep working on it.”

The native grasses and flowering plants are working to reclaim the area now that the competition from the cedar trees has been removed. Adam Janke, ISU Extension Wildlife Specialist, pointed out that this time of year is especially difficult for creatures that rely on nectar.

IMG_5178“The corn and soybeans that cover the majority of Iowa do not have nectar available this late in the season. With the rotational grazing Nathan is using on this land, resting portions while the cattle graze elsewhere in the pasture, those grasses and flowering plants can be a value nectar source,” noted Janke.

From a monarch habitat perspective, providing milkweed plants is important for them to lay eggs and access food source early in their lives. Just as important are flowering nectar sources throughout the year to assist on their migratory journey.  That journey is completed by four generations of monarchs and research has shown that the majority of third and fourth monarchs originate in Iowa and the Midwest.


As you travel the state, you will notice the monarchs making their way south for the winter.  To help future generations of monarchs, consider adding a diversity of flowering plants on your property to help provide them some food on their return journeys this time of year.

For more information on monarchs, visit the Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium website. For resources on pasture restoration, visit your local Natural Resource Conservation Service office for technical and financial assistance opportunities.

Liz Juchems

The Start of a New Adventure!


img_1969Hello everyone! My name is Megan and I am so excited to be the new Assistant Music and Outreach Specialist at Iowa State University. I will mainly be working with the Water Rocks! program as well as, on occasion, Iowa Learning Farms.

I recently graduated from the University of Missouri-Kansas City with a BA in Theatre-Cum Laude, with a performance focus. I also attended Des Moines Area Community College for two years to take several of my general education classes. While studying at DMACC, I was lucky enough to take a semester abroad and live in London, England and take classes at the University of London. Although I have been blessed to travel all over, I grew up in Ames, Iowa and it will always be my home.

Over the years, with my background being in liberal arts, I have many eclectic passions and one of them is educating people about one of my favorite eras in history. For the past 6 years, I have been part of a Renaissance Royal Court troupe that travels around the Midwest to give educational programs on the Renaissance time period. The programs range from court life, to weaponry, and basic history of that time period. Most of our shows audience ranges from children to adults.

img_8812When I am not rocking it out with Water Rocks!, I pursue several of my other passions. One of them is performing on stage with ACTORS Inc., the Ames Community Theatre, reading one of the several novels that I own, singing around my apartment, playing piano, watching movies, or hanging out with family and friends.

Megan Kroeger

Bioreactors, Birds and Butterflies – Oh My!


On Thursday Rob Stout hosted a bioreactor and monarch field day at his farm near Washington, IA. After dinner, attendees got a chance to check out Iowa Learning Farms’ Conservation Station “On the Edge” trailer to see how saturated buffers and bioreactors look and work underground. After the trailer demonstration we all headed out to Stout’s bioreactor.


Rob Stout addresses field day attendees at his bioreactor site

Stout had his bioreactor installed in 2014 thanks to cost share funds available through the West Fork Crooked Creek Water Quality and Soil Health Initiative. The bioreactor is 100′ x 30′ with an 8″ tile and drains about 68 acres. Water quality monitoring done at the inlet and outlet of the bioreactor over the last 5 years has shown that the bioreactor has been effective at reducing the nitrate load. Average nitrate removal has been around 90% for August – October, with slightly lower amounts removed (~43 – 83%) in April – July. Check out the installation video here to see how the bioreactor was built! Stout explained that the monitoring has also shown a decrease in the nitrate loads at the inlet of the bioreactor over the 5 years it’s been installed, due to changes he’s made in his nitrogen management (splitting up applications) and likely also related to his use of cover crops.


Attendees also heard from Taylor Shirley, an Iowa State University Graduate Research Assistant in the department of Natural Resources Ecology and Management. Shirley is working on a research project in the Washington area related to pheasants, quail and their habitat. She described the methods used for tracking and monitoring the birds, as well as biomass measurements and vegetation surveys to analyze how the birds are using cover crops and if they are using them for nesting. One unique finding that Shirley mentioned was an Upland Sandpiper nest found in cover crops when they were conducting nest searching.


The evening wrapped up with Holly Shutt, from Pheasants Forever, discussing monarch butterflies and monarch habitat. She explained the monarch lifecycle and the importance of milkweed being available for monarchs since it provides the only food that they can eat during their caterpillar stage. After seeing the lowest recorded monarch populations around 2012-2013, a lot of work has been done to educate the public about the importance of monarch habitat – not just milkweed, but also other flowering plants that they can get nectar from. Although there has been progress made, there is still a lot of work to be done! Stout’s bioreactor area is planted with a pollinator habitat seed mix and Shutt explained some of the basics of seeding and management for those interested in establishing their own pollinator habitat.

If you’re interested in attending an Iowa Learning Farms field day, check out our events page to see if there will be one in your area!

Hilary Pierce

A Conservation Chat with Marty Adkins

Conservation Chat Header


Marty Adkins. Image credit: ISU Extension & Outreach.

There’s a brand new episode of the Conservation Chat podcast out now! Host Jacqueline Comito sat down to chat with Marty Adkins, who is retiring after a long career with the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS). Adkins is passionate about conservation and devoted his career to working to leave Iowa’s natural resources in better shape than they were when he started.

Adkins described how he’s seen equipment and technology change over his 40 year career, but said that the same basic processes remained the same. The most important of those basics? Working with people. He described the importance of listening to and understanding people and then working with them to develop conservation plans and management options that will work for their individual needs and interests.

“I’ve been privileged with the opportunity to work on issues that matter for the long term.” – Adkins

Comito asked Adkins to describe a few highlights from his career – things that he was particularly proud of looking back on. Adkins described a stream channel stabilization project in Western Iowa, which is still working today, his recent work with agricultural business and retailers to work on improving soil management and being involved in the creation of Scenic Byway systems here in Iowa. When asked about his greatest disappointment with his career, Adkins responded that he wished we had gotten into soil health 30 years sooner.

“If conservation is going to happen […] we’ve got to make those systems work for farmers.” – Adkins

interestingthingsunderground-03 (2)

Adkins performing in a Water Rocks! video with Conservation Pack member Charlie

Comito summed up Adkins’ career in one word: “connect”. Adkins worked throughout his career to connect with the major stakeholder groups and has been a key partner for Iowa Learning Farms. In addition to his passion for conservation, Adkins also writes and performs music and is involved in his local community theater.

Listen to the full podcast here!

Hilary Pierce