Engineers are Integral!

We are in the heart of National Engineers Week, so let’s give a shout out to all of the engineers out there who are combining science, technology, and problem solving to address real world challenges across the globe!


Engineers Week is an annual celebration, striving to get the word out about what engineers do, helping to increase understanding and build excitement around science and engineering. Founded by the National Society of Professional Engineers in 1951, Engineers Week is traditionally held around the time of George Washington’s birthday. In addition to serving as our first president, Washington is widely recognized as our nation’s first engineer thanks to his extensive surveying work.

Here in the conservation world, our work today is certainly much different from GW’s, but no less important in terms of working on some grand challenges here in the state of Iowa!  Engineers are integral to so many pieces of the puzzle, from developing agricultural machinery and grain handling/storage,  to working with big data and precision conservation (check out Amy Kaleita’s work for more), studying the interactions of land and water (read about the work being done by Michelle Soupir’s team and Matt Helmers’s team), designing and optimizing practices like wetlands and bioreactors for maximum effectiveness, plus designing water treatment and wastewater treatment facilities that treat millions of gallons of water each day.


However, technical solutions alone will certainly not solve the water quality challenges that we face here in the state of Iowa – the social sciences, music, and the arts are equally important pieces of the puzzle when it comes to making emotional appeals and helping people better understand and connect with the land and water resources around them.

I’m proud to be an engineer working in water quality and conservation here with Iowa Learning Farms, as well as inspiring the next generation to get super excited about science and engineering through our classroom visits with Water Rocks!. Happy E-Week to all!

Ann Staudt

P.S. Today is an especially unique day within National Engineers Week – it’s Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day. DiscoverE is celebrating #GirlDay2017 with a live Twitter Chat “Role Models Unite to Inspire Girls” coming up very soon — TODAY at noon ET (11:00am central)!



From the Director: A Faith-Based Approach to Conservation

fromthedirectorBack in November 2015, Drake University hosted a conference called Sustaining Our Iowa Land (SOIL), focused on the past, present and future of Iowa’s soil and water conservation policy. Jamie, Ann and I attended the conference. On the first day, a couple of the panelists asserted that a faith-based approach to increased conservation might be an added tool in our outreach and education strategy. Everyone was buzzing about this idea. It seemed to capture imagination. I think we are always looking for that approach that can bring better success. Perhaps it is also an acknowledgment that we need to appeal to folks’ “higher angels” if we hope to make the kind of change needed for a sustainable future.

My mind had already been considering the faith-based approach. Not many of you know that my environmental work started back in 2004 when I coordinated a symposium called “Caring for Creation.” I brought together religious and environmental leaders from across Iowa to the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge for a discussion on the environment and religion. I led the effort to craft a series of proposals on energy usage that were later given to the Governor. In summer 2007, I was asked to be a speaker at a religious-based young adult workshop in Boston that was focused on the environment. As a result of that, I was asked to be a speaker at Union College in Kentucky to give a talk on weaving faith and my work. By that time, I was working for the Iowa Learning Farms.

raindropripples2toneSo, this idea of a faith-based approach was not new to me. Nonetheless, the faith side of my environmental work was put on the back burner as I embarked on a secular journey to motivating change in my position at Iowa State University.

In 2015, when Pope Francis issued his environmental encyclical (letter) Laudato Si’, I started wondering how I might be a part of motivating Catholics and other people of faith toward the ecological conversion the Pope calls for in this document. I knew whatever I did would need to be on my own time. I met with Tom Chapman at the Iowa Catholic Conference and we started brainstorming ways that we might help spread Pope Francis’s message in Iowa.

iowalanduseThen the Drake SOIL conference happened and the call for a faith-based approach. Jamie, Ann and I met to discuss this. All three of us are practicing Catholics. One of us — Ann or Jamie — suggested that we create a Lenten reflection booklet that taught the science of Iowa’s ecology framed by the Pope’s Catholic teaching. Lenten reflection booklets generally provide daily content each of the 40 days of Lent to help in your spiritual renewal journeying to Easter. Booklets like this usually build on the Lenten pillars of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. We met with Tom Chapman and agreed to partner with him and Susie Tierney of the Center for Social Ministry to create the booklet. We wanted it ready for Lent 2017.

Jamie, Ann and I would supply the science as a part of our positions at Iowa State. Let me be very clear here: Iowa State University, Iowa Learning Farms, and Water Rocks! are not promoting or endorsing the views of the Catholic Church or any other faith-based organization. Our jobs were to ensure that the science was represented accurately and explained clearly. Outside of work, Ann and I volunteered the rest of our time to help Tom and Susie finish the booklet.

It was a labor of love. My team can tell you that I often take on projects that are a lot more work in the end. This was certainly true of this booklet. We needed to come up with the format that would work. We knew we wanted the science juxtaposed with information from the Pope’s work. We also knew we wanted some kind of daily “action.” The encyclical gave us a natural form: See, Reflect and Act. “See” would be the science. “Reflect” would be a section from the Pope’s encyclical. “Act” would be their daily action – that one’s pretty self-explanatory.


We decided to link each week of Lent to one of the videos from the award-winning Culture of Conservation video series, offering this as a supplemental resource to help deepen people’s knowledge of the interwoven connections between agriculture and the environment, soil and water, and our dynamic, ever-changing rural and urban populations here in the state of Iowa. Jamie and Ann got their parts completed and that left me to do the editing, write my sections and weave these in with the Pope’s words. I spent my June vacation on Rainy Lake, MN, reading the Pope’s letter and highlighting parts that really struck me. Don’t let the idea of a “letter” fool you — this encyclical is 184 pages!

leaveswitharrowAfter we completed the first draft, we sent it to Tom and Susie to supply the “action” statements. When they finished their part, Ann took over and used her design skills to create the booklet layout. Again, Ann volunteered her time outside of work at that point to complete the booklet.

A year later and the Lenten reflection booklet is available to the public. To obtain copies of Caring for our Common Home: A Lenten Reflection for Iowans, contact the Iowa Catholic Conference at 515.243.6256. Booklets cost $4.75 each. The full booklet can also be downloaded as a free PDF from the Iowa Catholic Conference’s website at

We know that this approach is not for everyone. It is available to those who want it. It is another way of reaching people. As The Most Reverend Richard E. Pates, Bishop of the Diocese of Des Moines, writes in his forward to the booklet, “This resource, Caring for our Common Home: A Lenten Reflection for Iowans, is a way to re-imagine our place in the created order and put us in touch with Iowa’s bounty and the world’s needs….In this resource, we are called to be mindful of how actions can have consequences for our land, water, air, all creatures and especially humankind.”

Jacqueline Comito

Lessons Learned from Farmer Interviews of the Lyons Creek Watershed Project

Today’s guest post was provided by Steve Hopkins, Nonpoint Source Coordinator with the Iowa DNR’s Watershed Improvement Section.

The University of Northern Iowa’s Center for Social and Behavioral Research recently completed a study of farmers and stakeholders involved with the Lyons Creek Watershed Project about the farmers’ participation in the project and their attitudes toward adopting conservation practices.  The study was a post-project evaluation done at the end of the Lyons Creek Watershed Project, administered through the Hamilton County SWCD in north central Iowa.

The primary goal of the watershed project was to reduce nitrate levels in Lyons Creek, which has the highest nitrate levels of all of the tributaries of the Boone River.  The Boone River is a tributary of the Des Moines River, which is a source of drinking water for the city of Des Moines.


Despite the fact that the primary goal of the project was to reduce nitrate levels, and that the project coincided with the release of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, the project fell short of its goals due to a lack farmer participation and adoption of nitrate-reducing practices.  The purpose of the study was to find out why.

The study, based on in-depth interviews with farmers and project stakeholders, found both positive and negative factors related to farmer participation in the watershed project:



The study included recommendations for future watershed projects, including providing funding for a full-time project coordinator, involving farmers early on in project planning, and making project goals clearer.

UNI will be presenting the results of the study at the 2017 Iowa Water Conference in March.

This study, funded by Iowa DNR with EPA Section 319 funds, is available on the DNR Watershed Improvement webpage under “Watershed News” at

Steve Hopkins


Planting into Cover Crops

Today’s guest post is from Mark Licht, Assistant Professor with the Department of Agronomy at Iowa State University and Extension Cropping Systems Specialist with ISU Extension and Outreach.

Spring planting is several weeks away. However, before long, planters will be coming out of hibernation for pre-planting maintenance. This is a good time not only to get the planter in top condition but also to think about considerations for planting into cover crops.


Planting corn or soybeans following a cover crop is not business as usual. Even farmers who have been no-till for a long time indicate planter settings must be adjusted. The same criteria need to be met whether planting into cover crop residue, high-residue, or low-residue situations. Focus on attaining optimal seed depth, make sure the seed furrow remains closed, and reduce risk of compaction from too much row unit down pressure and sidewall smearing. This sounds easy and straightforward, however, often times planting into cover crop residue fails for these reasons.

Sidewall compaction occurs because cover crop residues reduce soil water evaporation, increasing the time needed for soil drying prior to planting after spring rains. Shallow and variable seed depth is due to lack of row unit down pressure, while too much down pressure creates a compacted zone beneath the depth gauge wheels, potentially resulting is poor root development. Seed furrows reopen as a result of not enough pressure on the closing wheel.

feb-img_0393Knowing when soil conditions are ready for planting requires taking the time to check soil conditions. Remember, it’s not what the surface soil conditions are, it’s the soil conditions where the seed is placed. Make sure double disc openers on the planter still have a bevel and have 1.5 to 2.5 inches of contact. Row unit downforce should be enough to place the depth gauge firmly in contact with the soil yet should allow it to be turned by hand. Closing wheels should be checked to make sure the furrow closes again. In wet soils, too much pressure on the closing wheels cause problems.

Mark Licht

5 Lessons Learned with Rye Cover Crops

Here at Iowa Learning Farms, we’ve been working with cereal rye cover crops since 2008. That’s not nearly as long as our good friend and colleague Tom Kaspar with USDA-ARS, but we can certainly say that, with our partners in the Iowa Cover Crop Working Group, we’ve been exploring and promoting cover crops long before they were cool!

Our longest ongoing study involves the use of cereal rye as a winter cover crop in on-farm trials within corn/soybean cropping systems across the state of Iowa. Over the years, twelve farmers have participated as partners in this project, with each demonstration site featuring field-length replicated strips with a cereal rye cover crop as well as replicated strips without a cereal rye cover crop.


In our eight years of on-farm cover crop demonstrations, what have we learned?  Here are our Top 5 takeaways regarding cereal rye cover crops:

1. Rye cover crops are largely yield neutral.
In the vast majority of this study (55 of 59 site-years), farmers found that a properly managed cereal rye cover crop had little to no negative effect on corn and soybean yields. Soybean yield actually increased in 7 site-years and corn yield increased in 2 site-years. There can be a learning curve up front, but in the long run, this study’s findings dispel the myth that rye negatively impacts crop yields (especially corn yields) in the following season.

2. Cover crops require active management.
Additional considerations/management factors when using a rye cover crop include seeding rate and method in the fall, and then cover crop termination and adjusting planter settings to accommodate additional residue in the spring. In the few cases of this study where crop yields were negatively impacted, farmers identified insufficient cover crop termination and improper planter settings as reasons for the few years where there were crop yield reductions.

3. Spring growth is key to realizing rye’s benefits.
Unlike winter wheat, oats, radishes and turnips, cereal rye survives over winter and continues its growth into the spring months. Large amounts of spring over crop biomass can be produced – variable to location and termination date.

4. Soil health is hard to define and even harder to measure.
Five years into the study, we found no measurable differences in soil health variables (soil organic matter, total carbon, total nitrogen, pH, infiltration and runoff) between the strips with and without the cereal rye cover crop at individual locations. A much greater intensity of sampling and additional time (years) may be required to quantify significant changes. Plus many of Iowa’s soils have relatively high levels of organic matter to begin with, so detecting very small changes can be challenging.

5. Earthworm numbers have increased with a cereal rye cover crop. Looking at the common nightcrawler (Lumbricus terrestris), our 2016 midden count data indicate a statistically significant difference of 38% more earthworms with a cereal rye cover crop. Earthworms can serve as tangible, early biological indicators of soil health.

These findings and more will be highlighted at ISU’s Soil Health Conference coming up later this week. Stop by and see our poster, and let’s talk cover crops – we hope to see you there!

Ann Staudt


Additional information on our work with rye cover crops:

ILF Cover Crop Research webpage
Additional ILF Cover Crop Resources
Earthworms, Cover Crops and Soil Health

The Iowa Cover Crop Working Group is a collaboration of Iowa Learning Farms and the following organizations:

  • Practical Farmers of Iowa
  • Iowa State University Extension and Outreach
  • Iowa Dept. of Agriculture and Land Stewardship
  • USDA-Agricultural Research Service, National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment
  • USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service
  • Midwest Cover Crops Council

Funding for this demonstration project has been provided by Iowa’s State Soil Conservation Committee, Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Iowa State University Extension Water Quality Program, and NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant 69-6114-15-005.

Calling all K-12 teachers …

Have you ever thought you’d like to learn more about water, soil, pollinators, climate change, and other ecological issues … if only you had the time?

Have you ever wanted to incorporate more hands-on, interactive activities and games in your classroom … if only you had the money for supplies?

Have you ever felt overwhelmed by all the resources online?  If only there were a simpler way to sort through all of them … and how do you know if they are reputable or not?

formulaThe formula is clear! The Water Rocks! Summit is a one-of-a-kind, FREE professional development workshop for teachers like you.  This is your year to dive in and beef up your own personal understanding of water, soil, and other natural resources issues here in the state of Iowa and beyond, as well as exploring a ton of highly interactive, hands-on games and activities to teach these concepts in your classroom.

Two Water Rocks! Summits will be offered at Iowa State University this summer: June 14-15 and June 21-22, 2017. These professional development workshops are geared towards 3rd-12th grade classroom teachers across the state of Iowa – we have something for everyone!  Teachers are asked to apply in teams of 2-4 teachers from their school district, and interdisciplinary/cross-age teams are highly encouraged. How about a 4th grade teacher and an elementary music teacher? Or a middle school science teacher and middle school language arts teacher? The possibilities are endless. Don’t delay in getting your team assembled – there are just two weeks left to apply, as the WR! Teacher Summit application deadline is coming up on February 24.


In addition to the teacher team, schools also have the option of bringing along 2-4 high school students to be trained as peer mentors. Consider the leadership and service opportunities for high school students to go into elementary and/or middle school classrooms and lead engaging, interactive hands-on activities that get the younger students excited about the environment around them!

The Summits offer a unique, hybrid approach in which attendees learn the science of water quality, climate change, etc. from the experts — Iowa State University faculty and staff that are working in these fields. The Water Rocks! team then turns around and shares their highly engaging, highly interactive original games, lessons, activities, and songs that have been developed to help teach these concepts in the classroom.


Consider the complex topic of water quality in Iowa. Dr. Matt Helmers, Professor of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering, kicks things off by providing an overview of water quality issues in Iowa, helping participants dig in to soil erosion, nutrient transport, agricultural and urban contributions to water quality, and conservation land management practices that can facilitate improved water quality.  Attendees then get to become the students as the high energy Water Rocks! team leads the interactive “We All Live in a Watershed”  game, in which participants get to see first hand how each of our actions can impact water quality as water moves across and through the land. Mix in a couple music videos, the Environmentally Conscious Robot, and an optional field tour of conservation practices, and that’s quite a recipe for getting everyone engaged in thinking about and talking about water issues!


Accepted school teams are invited to attend the Water Rocks! Summit at no charge. Upon completion of course requirements, an honorarium payment is presented (which can help cover travel expenses like mileage and lodging), PLUS the Summits are eligible for one license renewal credit, as well.

Further, each accepted school team goes home with a Water Rocks! activity kit worth over $800, containing all of the student-tested, ready-to-use, hands-on games, lessons, and activities which the teachers were trained on during the Summit. All of these games, lessons, and activities are aligned with applicable standards in the Iowa Core and Next Generation Science Standards for ready integration into the classroom curriculum!


Are you ready to apply for the Water Rocks! Summit?  Gather your team of 2-4 teachers, and carefully consider your responses to the application questions.  The application process is competitive, so be thoughtful and thorough in explaining why you’d like to attend and how you plan to utilize the materials in your home school district.  The application deadline is Friday, February 24 at 5:00pm – two weeks from now. Visit the Water Rocks! website to APPLY today!

Get ready to dive in this summer with Water Rocks!.

Ann Staudt


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

Tim Palmer Elected as NACD First Vice President

Congratulations to Tim Palmer, Iowa Learning Farms farmer partner, on his election as the National Association of Conservation District’s First Vice President on February 1, 2017!img_9571

Press release by Conservation Districts of Iowa Executive Director Clare Lindahl, reprinted with permission.

Tim Palmer of Iowa was elected and sworn in as the National Association of Conservation District’s (NACD) First Vice President during their 71st Annual Meeting held January 28 to February 1, 2017.

Palmer has been a Madison County Soil and Water Conservation District Commissioner since 2003. He is past president of Conservation Districts of Iowa and a former Governor appointee of the State Soil Conservation Committee.  Palmer served as an Executive Board Member for the National Association of Conservation Districts where he represented Iowa and 7 other corn belt states prior to becoming First Vice President last week. He chaired the Natural Resource Policy Committee and was a steering committee member on the National Conservation Planning Partnership.  Palmer is a recipient of the Conservation Districts of Iowa Honorary Member Award, State Division of Soil Conservation Award and NACD President’s Award.

Palmer has been farming for 40 years. He has row corn, soybeans and cattle and numerous conservation practices on his farm including cover crops, no-till, grassed waterways, terraces and forage rotations.

“Protecting, conserving and enhancing resources – natural and other – is a long win consisting of a huge number of smaller victories. I am honored to be part of the national voice for local conservation district concerns and priorities” Palmer stated.

The National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD) is the non-profit organization that represents the nation’s 3,000 conservation districts, their state associations and the 17,000 men and women who serve on their governing boards.

Conservation Districts of Iowa (CDI) is the non-profit organization that represents the state’s 100 Soil and Water Conservation District, 500 men and women elected to these boards and the District staff they employ.

For more than 70 years, local conservation districts have worked with cooperating landowners and managers of private working lands to help them plan and apply effective conservation practices. For more information about NACD, CDI and the Madison County Soil and Water Conservation District, visit:, and