Q & A with Matt Helmers on Nitrate Reduction and Drainage

By popular demand Dr. Matt Helmers set out to address some of the common questions, and sometimes misconceptions, about nitrate loss and drainage in this month’s Iowa Learning Farms webinar.  Helmers is the Dean’s Professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Professor in the Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering at Iowa State University.

Although the questions are straightforward, the answers are not as simple as yes or no.  Helmers uses research from his team, as well as other researchers in the Midwest, to provide the best available answers to the very complex questions of water quality. Watch the full archived webinar on the Iowa Learning Farms website.

Here is a sampling of the questions (and summarized answers):

 Q. Is Elevated Nitrate Primarily a Nitrogen Rate Problem?

A. Nitrogen rate management is the first place to start, but it is not enough on its own to reach our goals established by the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.  Moving from 150lb N to the Maximum Return to Nitrogen (MRTN), or economic efficiency of nitrogen, results in about a 9% reduction in nitrate loss. A necessary step on the path of meeting our goals of 41% from non-point sources!

Q. How Does Nitrate Leaching Vary From Year to Year?

A. Precipitation plays a large role in how water moves through the soil profile and the loss of nitrates. Under consistent N-rates, research data shows in years with lower precipitation a higher concentration of nitrates (which is the measurement used to determine water quality e.g. 10 mg/L is the standard for drinking water).ilf-webinar-10-16

Q. Do Cover Crops Really Reduce Nitrate Loss?

A. Yes – 34-36% reductions were observed when a cereal rye cover crop was drilled following crop harvest near Gilmore City in North Central Iowa.  This reduction is a conservative estimate as the nitrate loss reduction has been shown to improve with more cover crop growth (achieved with an earlier planting date).

Q. How Do We Reach Our Goals?

A. We need it all – nitrogen management, cropping practices and landuse changes, and edge of field practices like wetlands, bioreactors and more!


Credit: TransformingDrainage.org, USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture

Q. What’s New on Drainage?

A. Keep an eye out for the new practice – drainage water recycling.  The practice looks to store spring drainage water for use later in the growing season and has the potential to also aid in nitrate reduction.

Be sure to watch the full webinar on our Webinar Archives page to check out remaining questions and more information on the hydrologic impacts of drainage on our landscape.

Tune in next month…
The next Iowa Learning Farms webinar will be Wednesday, November 16 at 1:00 p.m., featuring our own Ann Staudt digging into our newest cover crop project – earthworms!

Liz Juchems

Webinar to Address Common Misconceptions about Drainage and Water Quality

img_0057Iowa Learning Farms has hosted a number of field days in 2016 where people have come together to learn about conservation farming practices. At these events, many attendees have had common questions, and sometimes common misconceptions, about water quality and drainage. Dr. Matt Helmers will explore some of these misconceptions and will touch on drainage practices that you might hear about more in the future such as drainage water recycling.

One common question asked at field days is what might need to change to reach our nutrient reduction goals. Helmers commented, “Many are surprised by the magnitude of change. Under some scenarios, we need on the order of 7,600 wetlands and 120,000 bioreactors on the land, in addition to cover crops on over 10 million acres.”

Helmers is the Dean’s Professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Professor in the Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering at Iowa State University, where he has been on the faculty since 2003. His research focuses on the impact of nutrient management, cropping practices, drainage design and management and strategic placement of buffer systems on nutrient export from agricultural landscapes.

Log on as a guest shortly before 1:00 p.m.: https://connect.extension.iastate.edu/ilf/

If you can’t participate live, watch the archive of today’s webinar (along with all of ILF’s past webinars) on our website: https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars

Julie Whitson

Help Celebrate Cover Crop Week with #FarmersCoverIowa!

aerial-vs-hagie-plot_-hagie-seedingLed by Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship and CleanWaterIowa, we are joining the celebration of Cover Crop Week.

Cover crops are a great way to improve soil health and protect water quality. Many Iowa farmers are adding cover crops to their crop rotations so soil stays covered when the fields are not growing other crops. Cover crops also improve soil organic matter and slow water runoff.

The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy research summary indicated an average 31% reduction in nitrate (N) concentration with use of a rye cover crop and a 28% reduction with an oat cover crop. The living cover crop will reduce soil erosion and phosphate (P) loss by about 29%, when planted in late summer or early fall.

Share your photos and experiences with cover crops with #FarmersCoverIowa!

For more information on adding cover crops to your farmland, visit our resources page today and follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

Liz Juchems

ILF Launches Conservation Learning Labs Project

cll_logoIowa Learning Farms has launched a project—The Conservation Learning Labs—that will study how implementation of conservation practices can reduce nitrogen and phosphorus loss at the watershed scale in Iowa. The project is funded by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) and the United States Department of Agriculture – Natural Resources Conservation Services (USDA-NRCS) of Iowa.

The project is specifically focused on small watersheds — between 500 and 1,300 total acres in size—and the widespread adoption of cover crops on a large percentage of the watershed’s agricultural land. The two pilot watersheds were chosen because of their size and because the watersheds already have a Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) wetland on-site that will provide baseline water quality monitoring data on nitrogen and phosphorus loads over several years. We will be able to see how nutrient loads might be affected in real time based on the implementation of cover crops on the land.

Our main focus: Can high levels of cover crop implementation be obtained on a small watershed scale, and water quality improvements documented accordingly?


Goldilocks and the Three Scales of Nutrient Load Research

The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS) lays out in-field and edge-of-field conservation practices that, if implemented, can improve Iowa’s water quality and reduce N and P export. Much of the research highlighted in the NRS is from small, plot-scale research projects. While these controlled studies are essential to our understanding of nutrient loads, results at the plot scale can differ from actual nutrient loads that we see at a larger scale (HUC-12 and larger watersheds). In-stream processes such as bed and bank erosion can add variability and complicate the overall picture in larger watersheds of how we assess agricultural source loads.

It’s the Goldilocks principle: plot scale research is too small, and HUC-12 watersheds are too large. The sweet spot is somewhere in between. This is why the Conservation Learning Labs project will target the scale at which nutrient loads are actually delivered: small watersheds containing less than 2,000 acres.



High Levels of Implementation Required

The NRS gives us a road map that we can use to reduce nutrient loads; however, high levels of adoption of conservation practices are required. Iowa has made great progress in recent years as we see farmers across the state adopting minimum or no-tillage practices and seeding more cover crops. If ones looks closely, more wetlands, buffers and bioreactors have also begun to dot the landscape. But we have a long way to go.

Despite our continued improvement, we will still need more than ten million total cover crop and no-till acres throughout Iowa to reach the goals of the NRS. Edge-of-field practices like wetlands and bioreactors will also be required at a much higher rate than we currently see.


Just like the NRS, the Conservation Learning Labs project will rely on high adoption of cover crops in the agricultural acres of the pilot watersheds. Iowa Learning Farms has reached out to landowners and farm operators in each of these pilot watersheds to talk to them about the project and to ask for their participation. Cost share dollars are available if they agree to seed a cover crop in fall of 2017.

So far, both pilot watersheds have at least 50% of the agricultural acres in the watershed tentatively committed to seed a cover crop in fall of 2017. We will continue to work with farmers in the months ahead to maximize cover crop adoption in each pilot watershed. Stay tuned for updates!

Julie Whitson

Last Call for Nov. Youth Education Workshop

Tomorrow is the priority application deadline for the Water Rocks! Summit, coming up on November 1-2, 2016 at Iowa State University! This hands-on, highly interactive workshop is designed for Extension educators, naturalists, watershed coordinators, and more – anyone who is involved with youth education outside of the traditional classroom setting.

Why apply for the Water Rocks! Summit?


The November Summit is not just limited to Iowa – it is open to attendees from across the North Central Region. Visit the Water Rocks! Summit page of our website for more information and to apply.

Apply by Wednesday, October 12 for priority consideration, as well as consideration for financial assistance. Generous financial scholarships are available; last year, we were able to offer full scholarships to multiple Summit participants. Apply today to be eligible for the scholarship dollars that are available!

Ann Staudt

This cooperative project has been funded by the North Central Region Water Network. Partners of Water Rocks! include Iowa Department of Natural Resources (United States Environmental Protection Agency/Section 319 of Clean Water Act), Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Iowa Water Center, Iowa Learning Farms, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, and personal gifts of support


Join us Nov. 1-2 for Water Rocks! Multi-State Youth Education Summit

Our next Water Rocks! Summit is just around the corner on Nov. 1-2, and this time around, we’ll be bringing together youth educators from across the North Central region! Read on for more information about this great professional development opportunity…

novembersummitgraphic-ilfblogWho can attend the Water Rocks! Multi-State Youth Education Summit?
4-H and extension educators, SWCD youth outreach coordinators, watershed coordinators, naturalists, municipal/public works education personnel, scientists who frequently conduct youth outreach in the classroom, and STEM coordinators are all welcome — anyone who is involved with youth education outside of the traditional classroom setting!  We will be bringing folks together not just from the state of Iowa, but also extension educators from land grant universities in several surrounding states from across the North Central region.

TEACHERS: Visit the Water Rocks! website to learn more about our Teacher Summits, offered during the summer, which are designed exclusively for you.

What is the Water Rocks! Summit all about?
This professional development workshop offers training on a multitude of interactive and hands-on educational lessons covering water, soil, agriculture, environmental science, and more. The November Water Rocks! Summit will cover a wide variety of topics including the water cycle, watersheds, connectedness of agriculture and the environment in Iowa, agricultural management practices, wetlands, biodiversity, and more. Music, videos, technology, and super fun hands-on activities will be woven throughout!

How much does it cost?
The full cost of the November Summit is $800, which includes the WR! activity kit ($800+ of materials), plus lunch and snacks during the day. Financial assistance is available to qualified individuals/organizations.

What’s included in the WR! activity kit?
The Water Rocks! activity kit features numerous original, interactive educational modules that Water Rocks! has developed to help teach classroom lessons on water, soil, agriculture, environmental science, and more. It’s chock full of original hands-on learning activities and games (We All Live in a Watershed, Habitat Hopscotch, Wetlands BINGO, Biodiversity JENGA, Dig Into Soil, What’s In Your (Storm)water?, and more) that can be used time and time again with Grades K-12.

There are several people from our county/organization that would like to attend. Can we all come to the Summit? Do we each have to buy our own activity kit?
Multiple individuals from the same county office or local organization are encouraged to attend the Water Rocks! Summit together (up to 3 people on a team); please apply together so we know you are a team. In this case, only one shared Water Rocks! activity kit would be required.

Ready to apply?
Space is limited, so apply right away!  Financial assistance is available to qualified individuals/organizations; apply by October 12, 2016 to be considered for scholarship assistance.

Ann Staudt

This cooperative project has been funded by the North Central Region Water Network. Partners of Water Rocks! include Iowa Department of Natural Resources (United States Environmental Protection Agency/Section 319 of Clean Water Act), Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Iowa Water Center, Iowa Learning Farms, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, and personal gifts of support.

Saving the world with giant grasses

This could well be Dr. Emily Heaton’s personal motto, as she works to better understand the ins and outs of growing Miscanthus giganteus, a giant grass with outstanding bioenergy potential!  Heaton is an Associate Professor of Agronomy at Iowa State University, and much of her miscanthus research is being done collaboratively with the University of Iowa, through their Biomass Fuel Project.

If you’re a regular reader of our blog, you’ve heard a little bit about this great synergy in an earlier September blog post titled A Cy-Hawk Collaboration on Conservation. Here’s your chance to dig in deeper, as this month’s Conservation Chat podcast features an engaging dialogue with Emily Heaton as well as Ingrid Gronstal Anderson, Environmental Compliance Specialist with the University of Iowa.

conservationchat-miscanthusBack in 2010, the University of Iowa set 7 sustainability targets for its campus and its operations, one of which is to acquire 40% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. Their Biomass Fuel Project officially got underway in 2012, and the partnership was underway – working with not just ISU, but public and private entities to start growing miscanthus grass as a bioenergy feed source on land within a 50 mile radius of Iowa City. There are currently 500 acres of miscanthus being grown, with the goal of getting to 2500 acres.

Miscanthus offers great potential as a bioenergy crop because it is a very high yielding perennial crop, and while not native to Iowa, it is sterile so that eliminates the potential for spreading/invasiveness. Further it can offer numerous benefits to the Iowa landscape in terms of both water quality and soil health!  I like Heaton’s analogy that the rhizomes of the miscanthus plant act a lot like rebar does in concrete – adding great structural stability to the soil, minimizing erosion, and the deep roots helping to build soil organic matter.

There are numerous benefits to miscanthus in Iowa, but also a whole handful of challenges when introducing a new crop: figuring out how to best grow it and harvest it (timing is critical), developing a market and creating a business structure for miscanthus, and operational challenges of utilizing biomass as a fuel source in facilities that were designed for coal!  Gronstal Anderson and Heaton reflect on these challenges, opportunities, and more in this month’s Conservation Chat podcast – listen at www.conservationchat.org or on iTunes.

Finally, FYI, today is also International Podcast Day! It’s a day dedicated to promoting podcasting worldwide through education and public engagement. In celebration, check out previous episodes of the Conservation Chat for engaging dialogue about all things water, soil, and conservation across the state of Iowa, or share a favorite episode with family or friends.

Ann Staudt