October 17 Webinar: Wet spots as hot spots for nitrogen losses

On Wednesday, October 17th at noon Dr. Steven Hall, Iowa State University assistant professor of ecology, evolution, and organismal biology, will present a webinar that aims to improve the understanding and management of nitrogen losses from hydric soil landscapes.

05209012018WLThe leaching of nitrate and emissions of nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas, are key environmental impacts of Corn Belt agricultural systems. Dr. Steven Hall is leading a research group that studies the biological and geochemical processes that control the cycling of organic matter and nutrients across the plant-soil-water-atmosphere continuum.  One of their focus areas is the interactions across that continuum in former prairie potholes. These occasionally flooded hydric soils in topographic depressions can contribute disproportionately to nitrogen losses at the landscape scale, suggesting the promise of management interventions that specifically target these features.

“Crop nitrogen use efficiency, farm profitability, and environmental impacts of nitrogen loss are intimately connected,” commented Hall. “Innovative management of cropped hydric soils could yield disproportionate environmental and economic benefits.”

Don’t miss this webinar!

DATE: Wednesday, October 17, 2018
TIME: 12:00 p.m.
HOW TO PARTICIPATE: www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars and click the link to join the webinar

More information about this webinar is available at our website. If you can’t watch the webinar live, an archived version will be available on our website:

Liz Juchems

Could perennializing potholes reduce nitrate losses?


Emily Heaton | Assistant Professor of Agronomy, Iowa State University

Are wet spots hot spots for nutrient loss? That is the question Steven Hall will be addressing in the ILF Webinar Oct. 17, and it is one that interests me greatly. What I really want to know is, if wet spots are hot spots, what can we do to cool them off? And boy with all the precipitation, 2018 was a great year to test these questions!

Steve Schomberg

Fig. 1 Steve Schomberg has miscanthus planted on a few hundred acres near Letts, IA. Miscanthus is being used to replace coal for heat and power on the UI campus. Miscanthus’ deep root system and abundant soil residue allows harvesting when bare soil is too wet for equipment. Photo credit: Emily Heaton

Steven is part of a team of researchers, extension specialists, farmers, and farm groups digging into the economic and environmental performance of farmed potholes. As Iowa State University’s Extension Biomass Crop Specialist, I help this team learn if we can improve profit alongside water and nutrient cycling by incorporating perennial biomass crops into farmed potholes.

So, what are biomass crops?

Biomass crops are those harvested for their whole above-ground biomass, not just grain or fruit. The only perennial biomass crops widely grown in Iowa today are forages such as (give examples), but that could change as plants are increasingly used to replace things we get from petroleum today. For example, the University of Iowa is replacing coal in their power plant with the perennial grass miscanthus (Miscanthus x giganteus), grown on ~2,500 acres in the Iowa City area (Fig. 1). The UI expects miscanthus to provide about 10% of the entire university’s heat and power load within the next few years.

As those of us rooted in the prairie Midwest know, perennials have deep root systems that hold soil and clean water. They also require less fertilizer and fossil fuels to thrive and only have to be planted one time! Because of this, their carbon footprint can be considerably lower than the annual crops we currently use for energy, like corn ethanol and soy biodiesel, and there is growing demand for them. Perennials also tend to be more resilient than annuals, including tolerating drought and flood stress that would kill an annual (Fig. 2).

flood stress

Fig. 2. Looking north (top) and south (bottom) at a farmed pothole on the ISU Sorenson farm July 3, 2018 (left) and Oct. 12, 2018 (right). The pothole flooded multiple crops (from top left in top photo: cool-season grass CRP, miscanthus, corn, miscanthus, soybeans, sorghum) multiple times this year. The soybeans and later the corn, were a complete loss. The perennial CRP survived and miscanthus thrived, due largely to growth habits and established roots. Photo credit: Emily Heaton and Nicholas Boersma.

With all this in mind, our team is asking the following questions:

– Could we get feedstock for low-carbon fuels and products by planting crops like miscanthus in farmed potholes?
– Can farmers make more money with a resilient perennial in potholes instead of corn/soy?
– Would planting perennials in potholes change the amount and quality of water leaving farm fields?

We are hoping to find the answer to these questions, and discover new questions to ask, in several experimental plots we’ve established near the ISU campus (Fig. 3) as parts of a USDA NIFA grant and a Dept. of Energy grant. We will be monitoring ponding depth, water quality, greenhouse gas emissions and crop growth in experiments with separated and controlled tile drainage systems (white lines in top left of Fig. 3) as well as in “natural” farmed potholes (red outlines). In both cases we will test both corn/soy and miscanthus, along with the annual crop sorghum, which seems more resilient to environmental stress than corn.

tile drainage systems

Fig. 3. New ISU experiments will assess perennial and annual crop impacts on potholes using controlled drainage experiments (top left; white lines are tile maps) and monitored potholes (bottom right, red lines are ponding outlines) near Ames, Iowa.

To learn more about this exciting research, listen to Steven’s webinar on Wednesday. I know Steve will welcome your questions or insights into what we are doing. And then, in a year or so, once the sites are really established and we have data to share, we will be having public field days. Keep your eyes on this blog to know when and where!

Emily Heaton

Watkins Announced as Spencer Award Winner

We are thrilled to share the news that one of this year’s Spencer Awards for Sustainable Agriculture is being awarded to Clarinda-area farmer Seth Watkins, long-time farmer-partner and friend of Iowa Learning Farms!

The Spencer Award recognizes researchers, teachers and farmers who have contributed significantly to the environmental and economic stability of the Iowa farming community. Nominated by fellow farmer-partner Nathan Anderson, Seth Watkins is one of the most forward thinking, creative, and innovative farmers you’ll meet. He is dedicated to learning all he can about improving the water and land under his care. How he treats the land and how he gives of his time demonstrate both his conservation-focused stewardship and his incredible generosity.

Watkins’ crop and cattle enterprise, Pinhook Farm, is a little slice of paradise in the rolling hills of southwest Iowa, featuring rotational grazing, restricted wildlife areas, riparian buffers, ponds, wetlands and shallow water habitats, integrated pest management, prescribed burning, windbreak restoration, no-till, cover crops, terraces, prairie restoration/CRP, late season calving, and prairie strips. He sees no conflict between profitability and environmental sustainability.

For Watkins, conservation is a long-term investment in the land. It’s all about working in harmony with the land around him– strategic placement is key. As Seth described to a group of Emerging Farmers he hosted on his land this past August, “Sure, I could grow corn and soybeans all over the place out here, but looking at this land, it makes most sense that it’s in perennial vegetation and grazed by cattle.”

The same thing applies with prairie strips and areas of timber on his land. “I do love cows, but I really love the land.”

Watkins is a big-time conservation and systems thinking advocate, sharing that message on the local, state, and national levels. In addition to hosting a two-day Emerging Farmers retreat on his land with Iowa Learning Farms, Seth has been willing to be interviewed by a dog for the “Adventures of the Conservation Pack” video series, participated in ILF Leadership Circles and hosted both farmer field days as well as elementary school field trips on his farm. Seth teaches through example and he is kind and patient regardless of his audience. His creativity, compassion and willingness to help others make him stand out in a crowd.

Read more about the Spencer Award and this year’s winners in the news release Leopold Center at Iowa State University Presents Spencer Award for Sustainable Agriculture.

Join us in congratulating Seth – we couldn’t think of a more humble and deserving farmer!

Ann Staudt

Have we reached a tipping point for phosphorus saturation?

CLG-BannerImages-180213-04Phosphorus is one of the main nutrients of focus in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. It is essential to the growth of plants, but when phosphorus enters our water bodies it leads to excessive plant growth and increases in toxic algae that are harmful to human and animal health.

A recent study from the University of Montreal quantified, for the first time, the maximum amount of phosphorus that can accumulate within the watershed before additional pollution is released into the water.

Their results indicate a relatively low threshold compared to current application rates and notes that tipping points could be reached in less than a decade.

Research supervisor, Roxane Maranger, aquatic ecosystem ecologist at University of Montreal, compared the relationship of the land and phosphorus accumulation like this:

“Think of the land as a sponge,” Maranger said. “After a while, sponges that absorb too much water will leak. In the case of phosphorus, the landscape absorbs it year after year after year, and after a while, its retention capacity is reduced. At that point historical phosphorus inputs contribute more to what reaches our water.”

Be sure to read the full article to learn how they conducted the study and further implications of the results.

Locally, the implementation of nutrient reduction strategy practices like no-till, cover crops, phosphorus application management, perennial vegetation, buffers and more are imperative to the long-term sustainability on our water resources.

Liz Juchems

Where does your drinking water come from?

CLG-BannerImages-180213-04Two new infographics from the Conservation Learning Group take a closer look at that question and how nitrogen and phosphorus move on our landscape. Be sure to check out these great resources and the full report using the links below!

A Closer Look: Drinking Water – Source to Tap

This publication was produced by the Conservation Learning Group and is based upon research conducted at Iowa State University under USDA NIFA award number 2014-51130-22494. The full project report, Economic Benefits of Nitrogen Reductions in Iowa (Chuan Tang, Gabriel E. Lade, David Keiser, Catherine Kling, Yongjie Ji, and Yau-Huo Shr).

A Closer Look: How Does Nitrogen and Phosphorus Move?

This publication was produced by the Conservation Learning Group and is based upon Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy and work done by Iowa Learning Farms.

About Conservation Learning Group:
Conservation Learning Group (CLG) is a collaborative team established to advance training, outreach, and research across land uses and production systems to increase overall sustainability of agricultural and natural systems for multiple generations to come. CLG draws on experts in various disciplines to deliver engaging science-based outreach to farmers, agricultural advisors, landowners, decision makers, youth, and communities. To learn more about Conservation Learning Group visit www.ConservationLearningGroup.org

What can conservation planning do for your farm?

With over 130 conservation practices that can be implemented through the conservation planning process, farmers and landowners are able to find the best practice or management tool to fit their operation.

This month’s webinar featured Kevin Kuhn, Natural Resources Conservation Service Resource Conservationist Serving on the Ecological Services State Staff, highlighting the benefits of conservation planning for farmers and landowners. Conservation planners rely on gathering information from producers through questions in the office, but also by visiting the field to gather as much information as possible to make the best recommendations for success.

As founder Hugh Hammond Bennett stated in 1943,

“We cannot depend on windshield surveys and office planning to carry out a job of the complexity and magnitude of safeguarding our farmland and controlling floods.”

As a nine step process, conservation planning helps consider all natural resource concerns, is voluntary, science based and works to relate common objectives between the planner and client. The conservation planning process is an opportunity to receive free conservation consultations from trained professionals and build a working relationship with your local Soil and Water Conservation District office.

Be sure to check out the recording of this webinar to learn more about when, where and how to start the conservation planning process and potential funding opportunities that become available through the planning process.

Check out this webinar and previous webinars on our website!

Liz Juchems

Lady Liberty’s Vision for Land

Adam Janke | Assistant Professor in Natural Resource Ecology and Management and Extension Wildlife Specialist, Iowa State University

Liberty is at the heart of the American experiment: that fundamental concept that says the will of the majority should not supersede the rights of individuals. Emerging from this pillar however is a fundamental question: to what extent can one actor infringe on the rights of another? This question is central to private land stewardship.

statue of liberty

Photo by Daniel Bendig on Pexels.com

It takes a special view of liberty to work for land. One that acknowledges individual rights while also recognizing the stakes of a whole community of downstream and yet unborn beneficiaries of ‘common pool resources’ like water, air, soil, and wildlife. It takes what Iowa native Aldo Leopold called “The Land Ethic”.

Universal adoption of a land ethic however has not been realized. And incentive structures of land ownership tend to push any obligations for natural resource stewardship to the fringe of the land ownership experience. To fight this centuries-old challenge, I think we need new inspiration and a healthy dose of American optimism.

Now, I should make an admission. For better or worse, it seems that at any given moment my mind is dwelling on two subjects: 1) conservation or 2) current affairs. The former is my job, but also a life-long passion, whereas the latter is admittedly more an indulgence, probably driven by whatever gene I share with those who go to the State Fair only to “People Watch”.

Recently, attention to the questions of liberty and access to our democracy that have consumed headlines precipitated a weird mashup of those two streams of thought, connecting one fundamental American idea with that one fundamental American challenge for land.

That American idea is that diversity makes us stronger; that the parts are greater than the whole when we work together to exploit individual strengths. It’s so central to our democracy that a tribute to it is cast in bronze on the Statue of Liberty:

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The-New-Colossus-2 - National Park Service photo

National Park Service photo.

In those lines, I read a vision for the land from Lady Liberty.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” is her establishing the right of our democracy to find an American way to steward land while retaining the privileges of private ownership enjoyed by a wide cross-section of society.

This diffuse, private ownership creates a challenge, and the solution is offered in the next few lines. “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddle masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore” is her playbook for conservation; a tool to be applied with precision where land needs to heal. The huddled masses and wretched refuse are just as valued a feature of the land as any other.

Opportunity areas figure

Finding paces where land needs to heal is the key focus of precision conservation.

“Send these, the homeless, tempest tost to me” to improve the system by cleaning water, providing wildlife habitat, reducing inputs and improving the value of acres that remain. Here she insists we’re all made better by embracing the diversity of our lands and working with the system, not against it.

“I lift my lamp beside the golden door” to light the way to a sustainable future of land stewardship, one that creates profits for individual landowners while protecting air, water, soil, and wildlife for today and future Americans.

No democracy would ever survive without its natural resources. I think Lady Liberty’s vision for land is one that acknowledges that reality and is poised to light the way to a long sustainable future for ours.

Liberty for land and all of us that love her: that’s a vision consistent with the ideals of this nation.

Adam Janke