Chatting with Lisa Schulte Moore about Ecology and Biodiversity

Have you heard our newest Conservation Chat? Our 26th podcast in the Conversation Chat series features Dr. Lisa Schulte Moore, Iowa State University Professor in the Department of Natural Resource Ecology & Management. Iowa Learning Farms Director, Jacqueline Comito, speaks with Schulte Moore, who is co-founder of the STRIPs (Science-based Trails of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips) project. This project, based out of ISU with test strips in operation on the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge and various private lands, is the first scientific field study promoting the use of prairie strips on agricultural land as a water quality and conservation practice.

dscn1150c“I’ve always been, when it comes to science, an innovator,” Schulte Moore tells Comito. Schulte Moore worked as a post-doctoral associate for the U.S. Forest Service before coming to ISU thirteen years ago. Her research specialty is in historical ecology and forestry land management, with an emphasis on bird habitats and populations. While her educational background is highly focused on forest ecology, she has found herself more focused on prairie ecosystems and row crop agriculture through her work with the STRIPs project. She says this about the transition in her research focus:

A prairie isn’t that different from an old growth forest, it’s just that all the biomass is below the ground. But you can get something that looks, at least above ground, like a prairie much more quickly than you can get an old growth forest. And so in some ways it’s a little bit more satisfying because I can see more of my impact in my lifetime.

Schulte Moore tells Comito about not only the dramatic water quality benefits from converting 10-20% of agricultural land into prairie, but the increase in wildlife biodiversity and its benefits as well. She says the results from just the first five years of scientific data on twelve experimental catchments at the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge are unprecedented: a 7-fold increase in native birds and insects, a 4-fold increase in the total abundance of insects (including a 3.47-fold increase in native pollinators), and a 15% increase in natural enemies (insects that feed on crop pests).

Why should we care about having greater biodiversity of wildlife in our agricultural lands? Schulte Moore tells us that birds, for example, offer humans many benefits—they act as a “canary” for measuring the health of an ecosystem: the more bird biodiversity, the healthier and more balanced the surrounding ecosystem. Birds control insect pests by preying on insect populations, and also eat weed seeds in cropland. And many humans enjoy observing and feeding different types of birds.

Are you a farmer who is interested in learning more about how to put prairie strips onto your land? Are you interested in learning more about the benefits of adding strips to row crops, the funding and costs, and possibilities for implementing prairie strips in new locations on your land in the future? Or maybe you are curious about Dr. Schulte Moore’s self-affirmed obsession with fire, or her special talent related to ornithology. If any of these things spark your interest, then this Conservation Chat is right up your alley. Click on the image below to be taken to the Conservation Chat with Dr. Lisa Schulte Moore!


Brandy Case Haub

A Time of Thanks!

Happy Thanksgiving!

On behalf of the entire Iowa Learning Farms team, I would like to thank all of our hosts, speakers and partners for a great 2016 Field Day season. Our 32 field days were attended by 1,575 farmer, landowners, government employees, media and agribusiness staff. The topics included: cover crops, grazing cover crops, prairie strips, strip-till/no-till, saturated buffers, rotational grazing and biofuels.  The combinations of these practices implemented on our landscape are key to helping reach our Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy goals.

Keep an eye out this January! We will be mailing a brief survey to all farmers/operators and landowners who attended an ILF-sponsored field day or workshop.


Be sure to check out our events page on our website to attend a 2017 field day near you.

Liz Juchems

Fields of Green: Fall Cover Crop Biomass Sampling

An unseasonably warm fall has made an excellent year for cover crop growth! The ILF team has been traveling across the state and has seen some beautiful, green cover crop fields. With more growing degree days this fall, it has been a good year for radishes in the southern portions of the state. Check out this growth on radishes at Crawfordsville!

If you have cover crops and are interested in measuring the amount of biomass growing in your fields, follow along with our methodology in this blog. Check out the end of the blog for a summary of how you can apply this research to your own farm.

As part of our National Conservation Innovation Grant/Cover Crop Mixtures demonstration project, we are interested in learning if more biomass can be generated by seeding a single species of cover crop in a plot versus a mixture of cover crop species. To see which treatment yields more biomass (pounds per acre), we collected biomass in the fall and spring from six research sites throughout the state.

To sample biomass, we start with a frame that we constructed out of PVC piping. Our frame measures 19.2 inches x 30 inches (about four square feet). We toss the frame randomly into our test plots. Wherever the frame lands, we sample the cover crop biomass to the soil surface within the frame. We use clippers to cut the cover crop biomass, and we do not include soil, cash crop residues, or weeds in the sample. We try to only capture cover crop biomass and then place it in a labeled paper bag that tells us which test plots the sample came from.

We walk to a different portion of the plot and repeat the process. We always use a different paper bag for each sample and make sure to close the bag after sampling so that sampled biomass cannot escape. We go through the same process in all of our cover crop plots.

We take our biomass samples back to a lab on campus at Iowa State University within the Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering and immediately open the bags the allow them to start air drying. This can prevent sample degradation, like molding on wet samples, from occurring.


We then sort our samples from each plot by species. For the mixture plots, sorting helps us separate the biomass generated by each cover crop species. For all plots, it ensures that crop residue and other items can be separated from the sample before it is dried and then weighed.

Sorted samples are then placed into their own paper bag and dried in a drying oven at low heat (104 degrees) for at least 48 hours to remove any remaining water. We weigh the samples to get the dry measurement of the biomass. For our demonstration project, the last stop for our samples is the ISU Soil Processing Lab in the Agronomy Department. The samples are analyzed for Total Carbon and Total Nitrogen of the plant.

On-farm Research: If you’re interested in measuring the biomass growing on your own farm, here’s a summary of steps you can follow to make it happen.

Step 1: Create your frame (as long as you know how many square feet are within your frame, the math will work).

Step 2: Take samples in your field and place the samples in separate paper bags. We recommend taking at least eight square feet of samples to get a representative average for the field.

Step 3: Dry the biomass (about 104 degrees for 48 hours). Regional ISU Research Farms may have facilities for you to dry your samples.

Step 4: Calculate total biomass. Weigh the sampled biomass with a scale with two decimal precision (ounce or gram). Also weigh the paper bag by itself.



Average the total biomass from all of your samples to get an average biomass for the field. Convert results to appropriate lbs/acre using unit conversions.  1lb = 16 ounces = 453.592 grams, 1 acre = 43,560 sq. ft.

And finally, always expect surprises! We found a few purple top turnips mixed into our mix of oats, radish, and hairy vetch.


Julie Whitson


Earthworms serve as Indicator of Soil Health

A friend of the farmer, gardener, and angler alike, the earthworm may help to unlock the secrets of the soil by serving as an early indicator of soil health!  Anecdotally, farmers have expressed benefits to using cover crops and noted improvements to their soil, but quantifying changes in soil health can be complex to measure (and require years of intensive sampling). That’s where earthworms come into play!

Thanks to funding from a USDA-NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant, the Iowa Learning Farms team is studying the common nightcrawler, Lumbricus terrestris, and investigating its population dynamics in agricultural ecosystems.


In particular, we are conducting midden counts at seven sites across the state (6 on-farm demonstration sites, 1 research site), all managed as a no-till corn/soybean rotation.


Within that system, we are evaluating earthworm populations on side-by-side strips with and without cereal rye cover crops.  Read more about the study in our earlier blog posts Guest Blog: Digging for Worms and Midden Madness.

What have we found?

The midden counts conducted in June 2016 indicate that on each site, strips with a cereal rye cover crop have comparable or higher earthworm counts than those without a cereal rye cover crop …


Looking at all sites together across the board, we see statistically significant differences between the strips with a cereal rye cover crop and those without. Based upon this preliminary data set, we are seeing 38% more earthworm middens with a cereal rye cover crop!


If you’d like to learn more, I just gave a webinar earlier in the week on this topic. The archived webinar can be viewed on the Iowa Learning Farms webinar page (along with all of our previous webinars). Click on the November 16 webinar to view Earthworms and Cover Crops: Unlocking the Secrets in Soil!

Ann Staudt

This material is based upon work supported by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, under NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant 69-6114-15-005.

ILF Webinar Digs into Earthworms and Soil Health

The common nightcrawler, Lumbricus terrestris, is a deep-burrowing worm species that is found in many Iowa crop fields. The presence of nightcrawlers can serve as one indicator of the overall soil health in Iowa’s agricultural ecosystems. Ann Staudt, Assistant Manager of the Iowa Learning Farms, will discuss ILF’s recent research that analyzes the relationship between earthworm populations, cover crops and overall soil health.

midden1While soil health can be difficult to quantify, earthworms are a very tangible early indicator of soil health, long recognized by farmers and gardeners as being beneficial organisms in the soil ecosystem. Staudt hopes that this research will teach us more about the connections between earthworm populations and soil health in a cover crop versus no cover system, and that earthworms can be a simple, straightforward indicator of soil health.

Staudt is an environmental engineer who actively blends scientific knowledge and creative expression through her work and teaching. Staudt holds her MS degree in Environmental Engineering from the University of Notre Dame and BS degree in Chemical Engineering from Iowa State University.

Log on as a guest shortly before 1:00 p.m.:

If you can’t participate live, watch the archive of today’s webinar (along with all of ILF’s past webinars) on our website:

Julie Whitson

Water Rocks! Hosts Multi-State Youth Water Education Summit for Non-Traditional Educators


In early November, Water Rocks! hosted the Multi-State Youth Water Education Summit for non-traditional educators. This two-day Summit, hosted at Reiman Gardens in Ames, brought together more than twenty educators from Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, and South Dakota. Educators from these states came to Ames to become more familiar with Water Rocks!; our award-winning Iowa State University Extension and Outreach youth water education campaign.

Participants at the early November Summit represented a wide range of professions, from county extension and state DNR offices, to 4-H and county conservation programs and botanical gardens. Thanks to generous funding from the North Central Region Water Network, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (US EPA, Section 319 of the Clean Water Act), educators were able to take advantage of the opportunity to come to Iowa State University for water quality education and Water Rocks! training, and received not only reimbursement for their travel expenses, but also took home $800 worth of educational materials to use in their home programs!

Educators attending the Summit heard from Iowa State University faculty on the newest research related to water quality, soil health, nutrient transport from agricultural land, erosion and climate change. These expert presentations were followed up with interactive demonstrations from ISUEO’s Water Rocks! team, allowing Summit participants to channel their inner 5th graders, and engage with the educational presentations just as students would. Water Rocks! youth education modules covered a wide range of environmental topics, including biodiversity, watersheds, wetland ecosystems, and soil health. Attendees participated in regional roundtables to share their tools of the trade with the larger group, and also discussed the challenges they face in their home states in reaching target audiences.

The Water Rocks! Multi-State Youth Water Education Summit for non-traditional educators was an overwhelming success. It opened up dialogue among professionals in neighboring Midwestern states who face similar environmental issues and outreach challenges, and who hope to utilize Water Rocks! educational materials and music videos to address some of those challenges, and bring in a fresh, artistic perspective to their existing programming. But you don’t have to take our word for it; check out what Summit participants had to say about their experiences!

What struck me the most during the summit was the importance of music and movement to learning these science concepts. The Water Rocks! program has found unique ways to make learning about these concepts fun and memorable. What also struck me is how positive, enthusiastic, and talented the Water Rocks! team is, and they are a testament to how big things can happen when people are passionate and enthusiastic about something. –Missouri team

The program’s passion for environmental conservation and education of youth are reflected in the activities and resources it provides educators and learners.—South Dakota team

I’ve attended other conferences in the past where the topics and speakers have been focused on water, but I thought the creativity and scope of the topics and speakers were outstanding…There are so many children who connect with art either visually or audibly. The inclusion of art in the Water Rocks programming… allows children with all types of learning strategies to get involved, understand, and, hopefully, retain the information that is being presented. –Iowa team

I have been involved with water festivals for many years and we have done similar hands-on lessons, however, the Water Rocks kit is the most professionally developed that I have seen. –Missouri team

I am extremely confident I will be a much better teacher and advocate of the topics after the Water Rocks! summit.—Iowa team


–written by Brandy Case Haub

Field Work Fun – Removing Lysimeters

At Iowa Learning Farms, we have many tools in our tool belt to help us collect data and conduct field research. Funded by the USDA-NRCS National Conservation Innovation Grant (NCIG), one tool we use to collect groundwater samples are groundwater suction lysimeters at research farms throughout the state. Lysimeters have been installed at our cover crop mixture sites on research farms throughout Iowa. These fields that are under different crop treatments – single species cover crop, multi species cover crop, and no cover. The lysimeters reach 24” into the fields of corn or soybean to allow us to sample water from the crop root zone and analyze the differences in nitrate-nitrogen leaching among the three treatments. After the lysimeters are installed, we travel to field sites throughout the year and collect water samples.

Once field research is completed at a site, what goes in must come out. Unseasonably warm weather this fall allowed the Iowa Learning Farms team the chance to dig out 24 lysimeters at McNay Research Farm near Chariton in early November. We started by removing crop residue from around the lysimeter cap. We took the protective cap off, cleaned the cap, and then the fun began.

We used a spade to dig out a deep but targeted area of soil around the lysimeter and then removed loose soil.

We continued to dig down until at least 1/3 to 1/2 of the lysimeter tube was exposed. Digging out that much of the lysimeter allowed us to get a grip on the tube and relieve some suction pressure on the lysimeter from the surrounding soil.

After a few strong pulls with a firm grip, the lysimeter worked free of the soil and came out with a final reverse squat.

We collected all 24 of our lysimeters from McNay Research Farms and delivered them back to our lab on campus.

Julie Whitson