Lost in the Corn: The Search for Lysimeters

Today’s guest blog post was provided by summer student intern Laura Lacquement. A native Iowan, Laura grew up south of Des Moines, and went to school at Martensdale-St. Mary’s. She started her college career at Valparaiso University, and later transferred to ISU, where she is now a senior studying Environmental Science.  

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I enjoy travelling across the State of Iowa with Water Rocks! and Iowa Learning Farms. The location and events vary, while the field work remains consistent. One of the projects I’ve helped with all summer long is ILF’s cover crop mixtures project. Each week we travel to three of Iowa State University’s research farms to collect water samples from lysimeters located in plots of corn and soybeans.  Each block of plots contains 12 lysimeters placed between rows of corn or soybeans.

Lysimeters measure the movement or storage of water in the ground.  The lysimeters that the ILF team uses are composed of a tube two inches in diameter and two feet (24”) deep.  The bottom of the tube is composed of a porous ceramic cup that allows the movement of water into the lysimeter from the soil around it. Using a vacuum pump, we create suction inside the tube that pulls water inside.  Each week, we extract the water by using a flask that is connected to the vacuum pump on one side and a straw connected to its lid and inserted into the tube to its full depth.  Using the pump and flask, we pull water from the lysimeter into a small bottle, where it will later be analyzed for the amount of nitrates present. Each lysimeter tube is installed so it’s flush with the ground. To protect the lysimeter, a four inch PVC drainage pipe plug and small pipe is placed above it.

Most of our plots are located close to each other, with the exception of the plots at the ISU Northern Research and Demonstration Farm in Kanawha, Iowa. Finding the lysimeters there can be quite an adventure! At the start of the internship, all we could see of corn and soybeans in our plots were little sprouts an inch tall.  In just a couple weeks, the corn grew past our knees to over our heads.  I not only watched this growth, but experienced it firsthand by struggling to carry our devices and tools over and through the corn and soybeans to each lysimeter.

On Friday, June 30, I traveled to Kanawha, Iowa, with Elizabeth to extract water samples from lysimeters there. As I mentioned, the plots here are not located right next to each other, but in completely different fields separated by a grass driveway.  After we collected samples from the soybeans, we entered the corn in search of our small buried lysimeters in the shoulder-height corn.  We walked inside each row looking for our lysimeters … for an hour or so. Our ILF plots happen to be in the middle of a much larger field, and the challenge is that there’s no easy way to flag or label the plots once the corn is this tall! We eventually ventured a bit south of our current location, where we recognized our plots and finally spotted a lysimeter only a short distance away. Small victories!

Friday, July 7, I returned to Kanawha with Kaleb to collect more samples. This time, I knew exactly where to go to find the plot, but not the precise location of the lysimeters. In just one week, the corn had grown from the height of my shoulders to the height of me. I could no longer see over the corn.  As I finished extracting each water sample, Kaleb would move to the next lysimeter.  He may be the tallest of us interns, yet I still could not see him over the corn.  To find him and the next lysimeter, I followed the sound of corn rustling and looked for his bright red shirt through the corn.  If we do not wear bright colored shirts, a game of Marco Polo may be necessary!

After these experiences, I’m now very confident where ILF’s plots at Kanawha are located, plus how to find the other lysimeters and interns in corn taller than me. Each time I take samples from the lysimeters, I have learned a little more about corn and soybean cropping systems, as well as water quality issues in Iowa!

Laura Lacquement

Who Owns Any Creek?

“Who owns Cross Creek?”

That is a line from one of my favorite films, Cross Creek. Released in 1983, the film is based on a memoir of the same title by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, the author of the classic children’s book The Yearling. The film is about her life as owner of an orange grove in Florida and all the local residents of “the creek.”

“Who owns Cross Creek?”

This line popped into my head when I was talking to Ann about our winter workshops. It was clear from the brainstorming activity that many of the farmers and landowners were more knowledgeable and caring about questions concerning soil health than water quality.

When I pointed that out to Ann, she said, “Soil health happens on the land they own and they directly benefit from it. It’s personal. Water is a part of the common good and is less tangible.”

The common good is often a hard sell economically. No one owns the water. So no one is really responsible. Or everyone is responsible?

Let’s face it: when it comes to water quality, we have been slipping in through the back door, so to speak. As Marty Adkins points out in his previous blog post (Reducing Nutrient Losses While Building Iowa’s Soils and Economy), generally the practices that improve soil health also improve water quality.

That’s true. Cover crops are a good example. They are good for soil health, especially where land is highly erodible or degraded. On the water quality side, they play a major role in reducing both phosphorus and nitrogen loss. It is difficult to show a direct return on investment with cover crops in terms of soil health, and it could cost billions of dollars annually to implement the 12 million acres of cover crops needed every year to improve water quality (The Nutrient Reduction Strategy: Creating A More Resilient Iowa). That kind of investment is going to require a seismic change in attitudes toward water quality if it is going to happen.

In his 2012 book, Navigating Environmental Attitudes, social psychologist Thomas Heberlein argues that the way to change attitudes is by changing social norms. Norms are different than attitudes because they are tied directly to behavior, whereas attitudes are based on values and beliefs. In order for norms to change behavior, they must be focused on and activated by how society shapes what we do—i.e., what shapes the status quo. Norms influencing environmental behaviors do change, but it takes years (decades) for norms to emerge, change and strengthen. For norms to function, individuals must feel responsible for their acts.

I am not saying that farmers are deliberating doing wrong—they are following the norms within our current agricultural system. While many farmers could add more conservation practices to their operations, it is the system itself that needs changing. Policies over the last several decades have intensified row crop agriculture and led us to our current water quality and soil erosion challenges. The long-term vision for Iowa must include policies that more readily allow for a diversity of cropping systems and land use (Expand Beyond a Two Crop System, Clean Up Our Water).

Poor water quality is the unintended consequence of agricultural norms that aren’t sustainable. To change this is going to require a seismic change in attitudes.

As we try to implement Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, we need to do a better job of helping farmers see where we are, how we got here, and where we need to go. As we heard from one of the speakers at ISU Extension and Outreach’s Agriculture and Natural Resources spring inservice training earlier this year, “Farmers don’t need any help to stay the same.”

In 1983, I couldn’t have imagined how the answer to a question posed at the end of a loved film would become one of the central questions of my career. It has. Who owns Cross Creek? Or any creek?

Here’s how Rawlings responds to her haunting question:

“Who owns Cross Creek?

The red-birds, I think, more than I, for they will have their nests even in the face of delinquent mortgages…It seems to me that the earth may be borrowed, but not bought. It may be used, but not owned. It gives itself in response to love and tending, offers its seasonal flowering and fruiting. But we are tenants and not possessors, lovers, and not masters. Cross Creek belongs to the wind and the rain, to the sun and the season, to the cosmic secrecy of seed, and beyond all to time…”

Jacqueline Comito

 

The Nutrient Reduction Strategy: Creating A More Resilient Iowa

Have you ever fallen in love with a new car at the dealership and wanted to take it home until you look at the sticker price? Well, as I travel around Iowa, it seems like folks are pretty enthusiastic about the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS) until they hear the “sticker price,” i.e. the scale of practice implementation and cost.

NRS Goals_3-24-2017

One example scenario to reach the nitrate-N reduction targets of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy includes 60% of corn-soybean and continuous corn acres having cover crops (~12.5 million acres), 27% of all agricultural land being treated with a wetland, and 60% of the tile-drained acres being treated with a bioreactor.

For wetlands, it was assumed that each wetland (10 acres of wetland surface area with 35 acres of buffer) treats 1,000 acres of agricultural land, which would result in approximately 7,600 wetlands for this scenario. For bioreactors, it was assumed that each bioreactor treats 50 acres of subsurface-drained land, which would total approximately 120,000 bioreactors in Iowa alone.

See what I mean – quite a sticker price!

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But, while the scale of implementation and costs associated with reaching the NRS goals seem daunting, it is important to recognize the additional benefits that could come from pursuing nutrient reduction such as the economic benefits of cleaner water as well as the employment and labor opportunities to implement the various strategies.

Throughout the Midwest, discussions have begun on resources needed to implement the various state nutrient reduction strategies. While this is encouraging and exciting, most of the discussion has focused on the resources needed to implement the practices. There is very little discussion of the labor needed to successfully scale up the practices.

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I believe that for large-scale implementation of the NRS to be successful, we need to make the necessary investment in people. We need trained individuals that can work with farmers and landowners on implementing these practices. We need them both in the private and public sectors. Developing and delivering programs and classes that can train individuals to promote and assist in NRS practice implementation is crucial if we are going to make significant progress on reaching our nutrient reduction goal. There will be a significant increase in job opportunities for individuals who are trained and willing do this work.

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I firmly believe that if we accelerate the rate of practice implementation, we will see numerous small business opportunities throughout rural Iowa to site, design, and maintain these various practices and provide technical assistance to farmers and landowners.

 

It is a win-win for our state. Yes, it is a big investment, but it could stimulate our economy and make for a more resilient Iowa in every way.

Matt Helmers

Matt Helmers is an Iowa Learning Farms team member and Professor of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering at Iowa State University. To hear more about implementing Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, listen to Matt’s Conservation Chat with ILF Program Director Jacqueline Comito.

Conservation Gone to the Goats!

As a dog owner, I’ve covered a lot of miles with my Siberian Husky walking the streets, sidewalks and trails of west Ames. However, one of our special adventures is taking a short road trip out to Ada Hayden Heritage Park on the north side of town. It’s just a few miles away, but visiting this urban park gives the feeling of a great escape when you’re immersed in the sights and sounds of the prairie, oak savanna, and wetlands surrounding the lake itself.

Wildlife sightings are always exciting out at Ada Hayden, and the changing seasons bring a plethora of unique insects, reptiles, amphibians, and waterfowl to the park. On our most recent visit, we were excited to stumble upon a different animal we hadn’t seen out there before – goats! A new herd has taken the park by storm, and it’s all in the name of conservation!

Along the south side of the lake, a herd of 40+ goats, provided by Goats On the Go, has taken up temporary residence in a 3.5 acre area. The goats were brought in specifically for the purpose of targeted grazing, clearing out low brush and managing invasive vegetation in the oak savanna area. Targeted grazing with goats offers many benefits – including reduced use of herbicides (and the associated challenges of herbicide resistance), reduced need for mowing, and their ability to work in rough terrain with minimal risk of erosion. The goats are fenced in to ensure they are grazing the correct targeted area, and they typically spend 4-7 days per acre before being moved. The Goats On the Go website says it best: Goats go where people can’t, eat what most animals won’t, and leave behind nothing but fertilizer.

How do the goats know exactly what to eat?  The goats are not specifically trained to eat certain plants and avoid others. It just so happens that quite a few common nuisance or invasive species are to be some of the goats’ favorite delicacies, including honeysuckle, poison ivy, wild parsnip, buckthorn, garlic mustard, thistle, ragweed, mulberry, and more. The goats will also eat some grass, but when the above species are present, the grass comprises a pretty small portion of their diets.

The City of Ames is in good company with its use of targeted grazing. Goats are gaining traction across the country as excellent mob grazers, from airports (Goats, Llamas and Sheep Make Up Landscaping Team at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport) to golf courses (Grazing Goats To Help Prune SF Presidio Golf Course’s Bushes, Lawns) and business campuses (check out the Goats of Google!).

SO, bring on the goats! It’s quite the show, and ALSO an excellent practice when it comes to land management, invasive species control, and conservation.

In addition to the goat spectacle, the prairie is ablaze in color out at Ada Hayden, as well. I’ll leave you with a selection of snapshots from our adventure exploring the prairies and wetlands, and the lake as well, on a gorgeous July day.

Ann Staudt

Higher Adoption of Cover Crops in Watershed Projects Areas

Today’s guest post is by Steve Hopkins, CPM, Nonpoint Source Coordinator, Iowa Department of Natural Resources 

The increase in cover crop acres across Iowa is encouraging news for soil health and water quality. According to a news release sent out on May 31, 2017 by Iowa NRCS and IDALS, the number of acres of cover crops increased to 353,000 in 2016 for landowners receiving financial assistance, plus another 247,000 acres in cover crops planted outside of cost-share programming, for an estimated total of 600,000 acres in cover crops statewide.

Of Iowa’s 23 million acres of land in corn and soybeans, approximately 1.2% of row crop acres are in cover crops through financial assistance programs, and an estimated 2.1% of row crop acres are in cover crops when including all cover crop acres. The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy calls for a goal of cover crops on 12.5 million of Iowa’s row crop acres, close to 50% of the state’s row crop acres. Since we have a long way to go to reach that goal, it makes sense to look closely at where cover crops are being adopted most quickly and ask why.

Where are the Highest Percentages of Cover Crop Acres in Iowa?

Where in Iowa are the highest percentages of row crop acres in cover crops? Below is a list I compiled showing the top ten counties by percentage of row crop acres planted under cost-shared cover crops (this excludes cover crop acres planted without cost-share, which is not reported), based on the county data from NRCS and IDALS:

1.   Washington (7.5% of row crop acres in cover crops)
2.   Cedar (4.6%)
3.   Monroe (2.9%)
4.   Buena Vista (2.6%)
5.   Audubon (2.26%)
6.   Wapello (2.23%)
7.   Polk (2.20%)
8.   Black Hawk (2.17%)
9.   Marion (2.1%)
10. Jefferson (2.06%)

Why Cover Crops There?

Washington County leads the state in both the percent of row crop land in cover crops and total acres in cover crops. This is very likely due to the presence of a successful Water Quality Initiative (WQI) project in the county, plus the presence of several prominent producers and producer-led groups who have championed cover crops for a number of years. Social science research shows that farmers are most influenced by other farmers, and this seems to be exemplified by Washington County’s lead among all Iowa counties in cover crop adoption.

Most of the other top ten cover crop counties are located within or near watershed projects, such as a WQI project, which focus solely on practices to reduce nutrients, a DNR Section 319 project, which focus on restoring impaired waters (many of which focus on reducing phosphorus), or a watershed project funded by some other source. This is not surprising, given that water quality practices do not sell themselves. The presence of a watershed project means that local producers have access not only to additional cost-share for cover crops, they also have increased access to technical information on how to manage cover crops, plus an outreach program on why cover crops are important for soil health and water quality in Iowa.

The map below–a statewide map of watershed project areas, plus the top ten cover crop counties highlighted in yellow–shows the correlation between watershed projects and cover crop areas:

July 2017 Hopkins Blog

“Boots on the Ground”

Watershed project coordinators serve as needed “boots on the ground” who deliver key information directly to producers about water quality practices, like cover crops. Given the declining numbers of federal and state agency staff who deliver conservation information to producers, the presence of a highly skilled watershed project coordinator can help fill the gap and boost local adoption of practices like cover crops.

Along with experienced cover crop producers who are sharing information with other producers, watershed project coordinators are key to continuing the expansion of cover crop acres in Iowa.  To continue the progress made so far, the map shows we need to fund not only the cost-share for cover crops themselves, we also need to keep funding the “boots on the ground” who sell the practice.

Steve Hopkins

Working Within Our Current System: A Conservation Chat with Eileen Kladivko

Cover kladivko_creditHost Jacqueline Comito sat down with Dr. Eileen Kladivko, Professor of Agronomy at Purdue University and founding member of the Midwest Cover Crops Council (MCCC), for the most recent episode of the Conservation Chat podcast.

Eileen Kladivko’s chat covered many issues areas that she has studied for decades surrounding soil health, cover crops, earthworms and drainage. To start the chat off, Eileen wanted to make something clear: drainage is essential.

“I like to remind people that we wouldn’t be growing crops at all on some of our most productive lands in the Midwest if we didn’t have tile drainage.”

Tile drainage is essential if we want to farm much of the land that we currently farm – especially in Iowa. While there are benefits to tile drainage, a drawback of the system is the movement of nitrate with water that flows out of tile lines and into the surface water. How can we begin to solve this challenge? Mimic nature and the system that we replaced, Eileen suggested.

We’ve got agriculture, we’ve got lots of human beings here, and we want to be productive. We want to mimic nature where we can, but we’re not going back to pre-settlement conditions. That’s impossible. But let’s see if there are some things we can learn from what the vegetation cycles were, and the hydrology cycles, that can help us with our current system.”

Adding cover crops to our current system is one way to address our nitrate challenge and to mimic the natural vegetation cycle that once existed on the land. Cover crops have seen a steady increase in popularity, and for some farmers, the desire to grow something comes naturally.

A subject that Eileen Kladivko is most passionate about is soil health. Soil health is a popular topic because we want our soil to function to full capacity for crop production, but we understand relatively little about the soil biology that can shape the physical and chemical properties of soil. In recent years, the soil health conversation is shifting to research about soil biology. The downside is that soil health research takes time.

“That’s one of the challenges with the whole soil health thing . . . we’re trying to look at some of the commercial soil health tests that are available right now and see which of those might actually be able to detect changes with time in some of our Indiana sites. It’s quite challenging because the tests are quite variable. Soil health does take time to improve, and sometimes those tests just don’t show it over the short term.”

Without lab tests to show short-term gains in soil health, there is one indicator that can give farmers a short-term pat on the back: earthworms! Earthworm populations are highest in systems with limited tillage and high levels of crop residue. Eileen has spent much of her career counting earthworms.

“I didn’t think that was going to be a long-term commitment of mine,” said Eileen. Decades later, Eileen has developed a foundation for research on the physical and chemical properties of soil as they relate to soil health and good soil biology.

What are your chances of having a high earthworm population within a system that includes tillage? Not likely. Switching to no-till and adding a cover crop will increase your chances to see early signs of soil health and good soil biology before other commercial soil health tests are able to show results. Iowa Learning Farms has seen similar results when counting earthworms under different tillage and cover crop systems here in Iowa.

Listen to the full Conservation Chat episode! If you’re on the go, take the Conservation Chat podcast with you – find it on iTunes or search for “Conservation Chat” on the podcast app of your choice!

Julie Whitson

Expand Beyond a Two Crop System, Clean Up Our Water

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Seth hosted a 3rd grade field trip to his farm on May 11, 2016 and invited us to visit too!

Earlier today Iowa Learning Farms farmer partner, Seth Watkins, was featured in the Des Moines Register Editorial: To clean up our water, go ‘nuts’ like this Iowa famer. Seth has shifted away from a two crop (corn/soybean) rotation on his family farm near Clarinda.  He still grows corn, but has also added oats, alfalfa, and cover crops.  Seth also actively raises 600 cows and has converted nearly 400 acres to prairie, ponds, and other wildlife areas. As a result of this diversification, he has seen better financial returns while improving soil health and water quality.

Be sure to also take a listen to Episode 20 of our Conservation Chat to hear first hand as Seth shares his whole farm approach to conservation.

Seth is no stranger to trying something new.  He agreed to be interviewed by our Conservation Pack for a video series produced by Water Rocks!  It continues to be one of our most viewed videos and is a sneak peak into Seth’s farm and management choices.

You don’t miss out on a great read and fun video as you head into the weekend!

-Liz Juchems