Winter Cover Crop Workshop Series Announced

The 2017 Iowa Learning Farms winter cover crop workshop series schedule is now available and we hope to see you there!

Iowa Learning Farms, in partnership with the Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, will host five cover crop workshops this winter in Floyd, Linn, Marion, Sioux and Hardin counties. The workshops are free, open to the public, and include a complimentary meal.

At the beginning of the workshop, facilitators will invite questions and concerns from the participants using the Rapid Need Assessment and Response technique. For the remainder of the workshop, Matt Helmers, professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering, and Mark Licht, assistant professor of agronomy, will address the topics and questions raised by the participating farmers and landowners. They will also be prepared to discuss herbicide recommendations for termination and establishment, planter settings to handle higher amounts of biomass, cover crop seed selection, impacts on crop yields and soil health and more.


The workshops are free and open to the public, but reservations are suggested to ensure adequate space and food. Contact Liz Juchems at 515-294-5429 or email

Liz Juchems

Conservation at the Capitol

Despite the weather conditions, Soil & Water Conservation District (SWCD) commissioners as well as other conservation, soil health, and water quality stakeholders from across the state descended upon the State Capitol yesterday for Iowa’s annual Conservation Partnership Day.  There were many familiar and friendly faces – we cross paths often in the conservation world —  all showcasing the great “on the ground” efforts to increase adoption of conservation practices statewide! A special note of thanks goes out to our friends at Conservation Districts of Iowa for their work in organizing this year’s event.


Inside the rotunda of the Capitol, each of the invited conservation partners set up a display to showcase the work being done for soil health and water quality. Iowa Learning Farms showcased its conservation outreach successes, particularly with field days, while the Water Rocks! youth education program showcased its impressive youth outreach numbers from the past year. Numerous county SWCDs created posters to highlight local conservation efforts, visiting with senators, representatives, and their staffers, celebrating the theme Our Water – Our Land – Our People.


Mid-morning, we were visited by two special guests of honor: Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds (she agrees that Water Rocks!) …


… and Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey!



In addition to the displays in the rotunda, many SWCD commissioners took the opportunity to organize meetings with their local legislators to highlight the programs, practices, and funding issues that are most important in their districts to ensure clean water and healthy soils. Coming off an election year, there were new legislators as well as new commissioners in the house – an excellent opportunity for both parties to “learn the ropes” and see the wide variety of work being done for conservation here in Iowa.

One of the brand new ways that Iowa Learning Farms is helping to spread the conservation message is through our hot-off-the-press TALKING WITH YOUR TENANT publication series, distributed for the first time yesterday at Conservation Partnership Day. The engaging publications were very well received and fostered a number of good conversations throughout the day. Stay tuned to the blog for more information coming soon about this exciting new series of user-friendly, infographic-style handouts!

Ann Staudt

Eight-year on-farm study reports improved yields following cereal rye

cover_crops_and_withoutCereal rye cover crops added to a corn-soybean rotation have little to no negative effect on yield and actually increased soybean yields in seven site-years and corn yield in two-sites years, according to an eight-year study conducted by the Iowa Learning Farms (ILF) and Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI).

 In 2008 and 2009, 12 farmers across Iowa established replicated strips of winter cereal rye cover crop and strips with no cover crop within their corn and soybean rotation. The cover crop was either drilled after harvest or aerially seeded into standing crops each fall. At each site, the cover crop was terminated the following spring by herbicide one to two weeks before planting. corn-yields-2016


When the project began, the farmers were concerned that the winter cereal rye would impact their corn or soybean yields negatively. But after harvest was completed each year, the farmers reported that this was not the case. When properly managed, cover crops had little to no negative effect and, in some cases, actually improved yields. 

“Over the past eight years, my initial concerns have been proven wrong with stronger yields and better soil quality,” says Butler County farmer Rick Juchems of his experiences in the project. “A new benefit I’m now seeing is the suppression of weeds, especially ahead of soybeans when the rye is terminated later in the spring.” Juchems’ corn yields have remained steady and he has seen a slight improvement in soybean yields.  

Proper management is key when incorporating cover crops into a corn-soybean rotation. Knowing what cover crop to use, when to plant and how and when to terminate are the main components to successful implementation. Effective termination with herbicide requires an actively growing plant. Planter settings may also need to be adjusted to handle increased residue. 

There are many resources to help farmers with answers to these management details online and in print, as well as contacting a cover crop farmer in your area through the ILF or PFI network, local Extension field agronomist or NRCS field specialist. 

Cover crops provide numerous benefits to farm fields. They reduce erosion by holding soil in place and improve soil health through increased soil microbial activity, nutrient cycling and soil organic matter. The biomass from the plant can add value through grazing or forage and potentially suppress winter annual and early season weeds.  

The farmers in this study include: Bill Buman, Harlan; Randy Caviness, Greenfield; Jim Funcke, Jefferson; Devan Green, Conrad; Rick Juchems, Plainfield; Whiterock Conservancy, Coon Rapids; Mark Pokorny, Clutier; George Schaefer, Kalona; Jerry Sindt, Holstein; Rob Stout, West Chester; Gary and Dave Nelson, Fort Dodge; and Kelly Tobin, New Market. 

The year eight update for this study is available online at the ILF website.

Liz Juchems


RNR is a Favorite for Conservation Workshops

Iowa Learning Farms believes that the most productive way to reach farmers with our message is to engage with them, and encourage them to engage with other farmers. ILF utilizes several methods to facilitate two-way, open communication at our events. One of our favorites is the Rapid Need Assessment and Response (RNR) technique.

A modified, amped up version of the carousel brainstorming technique often used by educators, RNR is a method for engaging participants in small groups to share their knowledge with one another on a specified list of topics or questions. This technique serves to identify what participants already know about certain topics, and encourages them to interact in small group settings to exchange ideas that will later be offered up to the larger group. Rather than making assumptions about attendees’ knowledge base on certain topics, RNR allows us as event facilitators to actually identify what attendees know, and directly gage our information toward their misconceptions and lack of knowledge on water quality and conservation topics.

Iowa Learning Farms most recently used RNR in September at an Iowa State University Extension and Outreach meeting for absentee landowners, to identify participants’ views on assignment of responsibility for conservation practices on rented agricultural land, to measure their general knowledge of water and soil quality issues, and to identify what methods they believed to be most useful for addressing those issues. By using RNR, ILF was able to observe landowners’ level of understanding of water and soil quality challenges.

The ILF team identified six questions they wanted participants to focus on during the activity. Six large sheets of paper were taped to walls around the room’s perimeter, each with a question written at the top. Small groups of seven people each rotated through the six stations to discuss the questions and add their thoughts onto the sheets of paper. This type of active engagement inspired participants to talk and engage with each other.


A small group of landowners discusses practices for minimizing nitrogen loss on land as part of the RNR activity.

The questions asked during the absentee landowner meeting, and the answers indicated as most effective during the large group discussion that followed, were:

1)    Whose responsibility is it to pay for edge of field conservation practices?


Joint responsibility between landowner and tenant, and also watershed cooperators; possibly should be written into land rental contracts
2)    What practices are most effective in preventing soil erosion and phosphorous loss in your area?


No till practices, waterways, and cover crops
3)    Whose responsibility is it to pay for infield practices?


Landowner (their asset; their responsibility), cooperation of landowner and tenant, or landowners should establish practices and tenants should maintain them
4)    What are the barriers to water quality improvement in Iowa?


Cost, lack of technology or knowledge of implementation, and apathy
5)    What are the leading causes of water quality issues in Iowa?


Surface run-off, too much tillage, stream bank erosion, and lack of conservation practices
6)    What practices are most effective for minimizing nitrogen loss in your area?


Buffer strips, measuring nitrogen and phosphorous levels, utilizing crop rotation and nitrogen stabilizers

In addition to encouraging landowners in attendance to interact with each other on these important issues, the Iowa Learning Farms team was able to identify some misconceptions held by several participants. Regulated tile flow, bioreactors, and wetlands were listed by some small groups as practices that help to prevent soil erosion and phosphorous loss. In fact, these practices help to filter nitrates, but do nothing to prevent soil erosion and phosphorous loss. Likewise, many groups believed the leading causes of water quality issues in Iowa stem from practices causing increased erosion, when in fact a lot of work has been done already to address surface water run-off and erosion, but less work has addressed the issue of nitrates at the root level.

Identifying these misconceptions and knowledge gaps before moving forward with the meeting was tremendously helpful, as water quality experts, Matt Helmers and Jamie Benning, could speak to the group about current scientific studies on these topics, and help dispel myths or misunderstandings of the issues. It also encouraged greater participation during the remainder of the session, since everyone in attendance had gotten a chance to really engage with the focus material, and get a sense of other attendees’ points of view. The rest of the workshop was based on what participants still needed to learn about water quality and conservation practices.


The large group reconvenes in a discussion lead by Dr. Matt Helmers to go over ideas that were exchanged during RNR.

RNR is one of the many ways Iowa Learning Farms encourages interactive participation at our events, and makes sure that everyone’s voice is heard as we move forward in our efforts to improve Iowa’s water and soil quality through increased adoption of conservation practices! Watch our website,, for opportunities across Iowa to participate in an RNR workshop in February and March this year.

Brandy Case Haub

Introducing the Iowa Watershed Approach

Today’s guest post was provided by Adam Wilke ISU Extension and Outreach Water Specialist.

The Iowa Watershed Approach (IWA) is a new five-year project focused on addressing factors associated with flood disasters in the state of Iowa. The IWA project will also provide benefits of improved water quality by implementing conservation practices outlined in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.


Assessing Cedar River flood waters, September, 2016. Photo courtesy Brain Powers / DSM Register.

The “HUD Project,” as it is commonly referred, was awarded $96.9 million by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The National Disaster Resilience Competition provided $1 billion to communities that have experienced recent significant natural disasters, including Iowa’s three flood-related Presidential Disaster Declarations in 2013. Iowans remember the devastating floods of 2008 and 1993, and some are still working to repair damage from September 2016 flooding.


Map of Iowa Watershed Approach. Courtesy of Iowa Flood Center.

The IWA focuses on nine watersheds throughout the state, representing varying soil types, topographic regions, and land uses. These watersheds were prioritized as regions that have been most impacted and distressed from previous flood events and have unmet recovery needs. The IWA is a vision for both rural and urban resilience, and three cities (Storm Lake, Coralville, and Dubuque) are priority areas for the project.

Previous efforts to address flooding impacts were piloted through the Iowa Watersheds Project in five watersheds throughout the state in 2010. By 2016, over 65 constructed practices—such as ponds, wetlands, and terraces—have been completed.


Road damage from Cedar River flood, June 2008. Courtesy Iowa Dept. of Transportation.

The theme of year one is “The Iowa Watershed Approach: A Visions for Iowa’s Future Under Changing Hydrologic Conditions.” Climate science indicates that annual average precipitation in Iowa has trended upward over the last 100 years and extreme precipitation events (more than 1.25 inches per day) have increased throughout the state. University of Iowa research of 774 U.S. Geological Survey stream gauges found an upward trend in frequency of flooding throughout the Central U.S. over the past 50 years. This has contributed to crop loss and destruction of infrastructure, such as homes, roads, and bridges.

The IWA will work to achieve six specific outcomes:

  1. Reduce flood risk
  2. Improve water quality
  3. Increase flood resilience
  4. Engage stakeholders through collaboration and outreach/education
  5. Improve quality of life and health, especially for susceptible populations
  6. Develop a program that is scalable and replicable throughout the Midwest and the United States

The IWA focuses on innovative in-field and edge-of-field practices to reduce flood potential and decrease nutrient concentration in surface water. The practices include:

• Wetland Construction                              • Farm Ponds
• Storm Water Detention Basins              • Terraces
• Sediment Detention Basins                    • Floodplain Restoration
• Channel Bank Stabilization                    • Buffer Strips
• Saturated Buffers                                       • Perennial Cover
• Oxbow Restoration                                     • Bioreactors
• Prairie STRIPS


Courtesy ISU Extension and Outreach.

The IWA project creates Watershed Management Authorities (WMA) and these organizations allow for a broad range of stakeholders—including scientists, state agencies, counties, municipalities, farmers, and citizens—to organize and work towards the common goals of flood reduction and water quality improvement. Some watersheds, such as the Middle Cedar, have established WMAs, while others are beginning the formation process.

Stream gauges will provide data for the Iowa Flood Center to conduct hydrological assessments in each watershed and allow researchers to assess risks associated with flooding and water quality, including developing and evaluating future scenarios to maximize results from project resources.

WMA will use these findings to best select eligible subwatersheds at the HUC 12 (Hydrologic Unit Code) scale and prioritize implementation of constructed projects. Stakeholder inputs, watershed plans, and hydrological assessments will guide the WMAs in selecting the most beneficial practices and appropriate locations.


Courtesy ISU Extension and Outreach.

This project combines the strengths and efforts of Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, the Iowa Nutrient Research Center, and the Daily Erosion Project by the Iowa Water Center to achieve these goals. The IWA is a new way to think about the movement of water across the Iowa landscape. One of the most important pieces of completing such a large and complicated project is to ensure stakeholder engagement throughout the project. We look forward to hearing your questions, thoughts, and concerns as we all seek the common goal of reducing flood disaster and ensuring water quality for generations to come.

Adam Wilke

ILF and IDALS: Reaching Out Together for 13 Years and Counting…

Today’s guest post was provided by Jake Hansen with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS). Hansen serves as the Water Resources Bureau Chief in IDALS’ Division of Soil Conservation and Water Quality, as well as chair of the Iowa Learning Farms Steering Committee.

Back in 2004, we had no idea what a success Iowa Learning Farms would be and that it would last 13 years! Started as a partnership of the key conservation stakeholders in Iowa, Iowa Learning Farms was our way of responding to the Integrated Farm and Livestock Management (IFLM) legislation based in 2000.

The Iowa Legislature initiated the IFLM program to showcase the adaptability and effectiveness of conservation systems with farming operations.  New and emerging technologies are demonstrated on private farmland to refine management input to reduce erosion and soil loss, enhance soil quality, increase infiltration, reduce runoff and lessen nutrient and sediment loading to Iowa’s water bodies.


hansenblog-02Since its inception, Iowa Learning Farms has been a key partner and participant in the IFLM program, utilizing more than $3.1 million over 12 years to improve farmer outreach and landowner engagement using a broad array of programs and tools. We successfully leveraged those funds with dollars from our partners at Iowa Department of Natural Resources and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

During that time, ILF has evolved from hosting and programing field days to providing conservation information and education at fairs, libraries, and schools, and partnering throughout our great state with local farmers, agencies, conservation groups, the agribusiness sector, the research community, and the public. In addition to field demonstrations, ILF has made thousands of visits to groups all over the state with their Conservation Stations and reached out to even more of an audience through webinars, podcasts, and trade publications.

hansenblog-03As we begin our 13th year in partnership with Iowa Learning Farms, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship continues to embrace the value provided to our producers, watershed coordinators, state, federal, and private sector partners, and all of Iowa’s citizens in promoting conservation awareness and strengthening Iowans’ commitment to the preservation of our natural resources to sustain our quality of life.


ILF’s relentless, comprehensive, grassroots approach to outreach and education is critical to support continuing change for improved water and soil quality in improved tillage, cover crop, and residue management field demonstrations. At IDALS we are extremely grateful for the role ILF plays in supporting our vision for soil conservation and water quality, and we look forward to a continued partnership in 2017 and beyond!

ILF Steering Committee consists of members from IDALS Division of Soil Conservation and Water Quality, Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, Conservation Districts of Iowa, State Soil Committee and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.

Jake Hansen


Go Take a Hike!

This coming Sunday, January 1, is the perfect opportunity to get outside and go take a hike … literally! Start the new year outdoors taking in the scenery, the winter wildlife, and the crisp, cool fresh air with a guided hike in one of Iowa’s state parks. New Year’s Day 2017 marks the sixth annual celebration of America’s State Parks First Day Hikes initiative, encouraging all of us to get outside and explore the wonderful parks around us in a wintery setting.

Twenty-five different parks across the state of Iowa will be hosting free guided First Day Hikes this year on January 1, 2017. The DNR’s First Day Hikes webpage provides further details including times and meeting locations for each of the hikes. The guided hikes are typically 1-2 miles in length.


Iowa’s many state parks, recreation areas, and forests are true gems – offering an abundance of outdoor activities ranging from camping to canoeing, fishing, swimming, wildlife, and hiking galore (my personal favorite!). I love how these natural areas showcase Iowa’s changing beauty with the changing seasons of the year.

So gather your family, your friends, and/or your dog for a New Year’s Day outdoor adventure … and go take a hike!

Ann Staudt