Chatting with Seth Watkins: Curiosity, Creativity and Happy Cows

The latest episode in the Conservation Chat podcast series features an engaging interview with Seth Watkins of Pinhook Farm, near Clarinda in southwest Iowa. Watkins has a 600-head cow-calf enterprise and takes a whole farm approach to conservation: rotational grazing, wetlands, late season calving, and row crops integrated with prairie strips and cover crops.

Program Director Jacqueline Comito interviewed Watkins earlier in May after we had completed a farm tour-slash-field trip with a small group of Corning Elementary students (read more about it in our blog post ILF Partner Seth Watkins hosts 3rd Grade Field Trip).


This Conservation Chat episode is enjoyable and thought-provoking throughout– it’s a fascinating discussion about agricultural production, sustainability, curiosity, continual learning, and striving to make rural Iowa a better place to live.

“When you invest in the land, your community prospers.”

What really stood out to me is Seth’s spirit of innovation, determination, and constant learning. Grandson of Jessie Field Shambaugh, widely known as the Mother of 4-H, Seth is truly a modern-day Renaissance man!

“So much of what I’ve learned, and I continue to love to read different aspects of history, economics, things about art, about thinking… those are what have really driven the success of my farm business.”

Listen to the full interview with Seth Watkins on the Conservation Chat website, ILF website, or iTunes.

And for another fun perspective on Seth’s farming operation, check out Episode 23 in the Adventures of the Conservation Pack! Conservation dog Charlie gets to go on an adventure exploring Seth’s pond and learning about how it reduces erosion, filters water, and provides habitat.

Ann Staudt

Meet Our Interns!

We have a fabulous crew of interns in the Iowa Learning Farms/Water Rocks! water resources internship program this summer, so without further ado, we’d like to introduce our college student interns to you!


Pictured above from left to right:

Nathan Waskel, originally from Altoona, IA, is studying Computer Science at ISU. He has been working with Dr. Helmers and the STRIPs team for a year-plus, and will be helping out with Iowa Learning Farms/Water Rocks! outreach this summer in addition.

Megan Koppenhafer, a native of Williamsburg, IA, is double majoring in Environmental Science and Community and Regional Planning at ISU. We are thrilled to have Megan back with our program for a second summer, serving as our student/staff liaison!

Hannah Corey is originally from Lake City, IA, and is double majoring in Agronomy and Environmental Science at ISU.

Sam Phillips hails from Manchester, IA, and he is studying Agricultural Engineering (Land & Water Resources Option) at ISU.

Kate Sanocki represents the great state of Wisconsin! Growing up in Hudson, WI, Kate headed south to ISU to pursue a degree in Biological Systems Engineering.

Amanda Marlin is originally from Dallas, IA, and is currently studying Agricultural Engineering (Land & Water Resources Option) at ISU. Amanda started working in Dr. Helmers’ lab during spring semester of this year.

There will be several chances to meet and interact with this great group of students as the summer goes on. They will be traveling to all corners of the state with our fleet of Conservation Station trailers as we visit county fairs, farmers markets, field days, festivals, camps, and more. Stay tuned to the blog, as well – starting next week, each intern will be sharing a guest blog post about their experiences over the course of the summer!

We also have four high school students that will be participating in the water resources internship program. They’ll be starting in June, so we’ll give them a shoutout in a few weeks when they’re officially on board.

Ann Staudt

Wetlands and Water Quality

Wetlands are often viewed as filters, or kidneys of the landscape, and that’s for good reason as they have great potential for improving water quality!  Today let’s dig in and investigate how wetlands help to improve water quality and the mechanisms at work to make that happen.

Wetlands can be strategically placed to improve water quality through the removal of nutrients, specifically nitrate, like the wetlands in the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP). Water enters these nutrient removal wetlands coming from a series of tile drains, often carrying a substantial load of nitrogen in the form of nitrate.

As water moves slowly through the wetland, microbes breathe in and consume nitrate (NO3), the way humans use oxygen when we breathe and respire, converting the nitrate to inert N2 gas (comprising 80% of the atmosphere).  This process is called denitrification. In turn, cleaner water is sent downstream. 


Put simply, these wetlands are strategically designed and placed to allow the natural microbiology to happen – the microbes are doing all of the heavy lifting! These nitrate removal wetlands are ideal locations for denitrification to occur because they provide saturated anaerobic soil conditions, and the system is supplied with a source of nitrate from agricultural drainage water. Aquatic plants and wetland soils provide surfaces on which those microbes live, in addition to providing organic carbon to help maintain growth and metabolism of the denitrifying microbes. Strategically designed and sited wetlands can reduce nitrate loads to downstream water bodies by 40-70%.

Hear more about this process from Dr. Bill Crumpton and others in our award-winning video Incredible Wetlands:

Sediment Capture
Wetlands can also improve water quality by slowing the flow of water and capturing sediment, if the contributing water is coming from overland flow.  When the velocity of water slows down, as in wetlands, sediment is unable to stay suspended.  Think of it like a salad dressing with herbs and spices … when you give it a good shake, it gets well mixed throughout, but after letting it sit for some time, the herbs/spices sink to the bottom.

The same thing happens in wetlands.  When the speed of the water slows down, the suspended sediment (soil) particles gradually settle to the bottom where wetland plants hold the accumulated sediment in place, again sending cleaner water downstream.


Role of Wetlands in Nutrient Reduction Strategy
Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy lays out several different scenarios of conservation practices in which the targeted 45% reduction in nitrogen and phosphorus can be achieved.  Wetlands play a really key role in reaching those goals, particularly on the nitrogen side of things!  One of the combined scenarios of practices calls for ~7,600 wetlands strategically placed for nitrate removal.  There are currently 77 CREP wetlands across the state of Iowa, with others in the works.


The amount of human and financial capital to reach these goals is huge, but we continue to make forward progress in increasing the number of wetlands acres (see last week’s blog post, Wetlands: By the Numbers, for more information about ongoing wetlands restoration efforts).

Check out our previous posts celebrating American Wetlands Month:

Stay tuned next week for the fun tools and techniques we use to help teach young people about the amazing benefits of wetland ecosystems on our landscape!

Ann Staudt

Talking About Monarch Butterflies with Steven Bradbury

Did you miss the Iowa Learning Farms webinar this week? Steven Bradbury spoke about monarch migration, monarch status in Iowa and the nation, and the work that is being done in Iowa and beyond to maintain monarch habitat and to help monarch numbers climb.

You may have heard about monarch decline. Bradbury emphasized that monarch decline is real. His graph shows a shocking decline of monarch butterflies in the last few years that is unprecedented.

Monarch graph

Monarch numbers can vary from year to year, and a big reason for that is because of monarch migration and the cyclical nature of that migration. It takes four to five generations of monarchs to make the journey north in the spring: one generation in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas; two or three generations in the summer in the upper Midwest; and then a final generation that migrates south to overwinter in Mexico. Each of those generations of monarchs can be affected by general stressors, weather events, and lack of habitat along their migration journey.

monarch migration

Iowa fits into the conversation in a big way, as 50% of the migrating monarch generations breed in the Corn Belt. And, of all of the environmental stressors for monarchs, Bradbury ranks habitat loss as the largest reason for monarch population decline. In Iowa, much of our habitat loss is directly connected to our agricultural economy.

Bradbury’s main question for us is
“How do we figure out how to grow crops and monarchs
in the state at the same time?”

Watch the archived webinar to see Steven Bradbury’s energized talk on monarch conservation in Iowa and beyond. There is much work already being done on this issue, but there is still more to do. If you are a farmer, landowner, or even a private citizen with a small amount of yard space, there are ways that you can get involved. There are ongoing projects that are studying monarch habitat as a compliment to other land uses, including within saturated buffers, over bioreactors, in underutilized grass areas, and near swine production sites.

If you want to get involved or have questions on how to help, you can go to the Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium or give them a call at 515-294-9980.

To watch the webinar, check out our archived version here.

Julie Whitson

Wetlands: By the Numbers

Iowa (and much of the Corn Belt) was once characterized by extensive wetlands dotting the vast prairie. As the land was settled, wetlands were drained for agriculture, as well as development of railroads and early community settlements. While wetlands can be found across the state, the majority of Iowa’s wetlands were located in the north central part of the state (Des Moines Lobe).

Created by the last glacier to cover the state 10,000-15,000 years ago, this area was left flattened with thousands of indents when the ice receded. Deep indents became lakes, while the more shallow recesses became prairie pothole wetlands. In some places within the Des Moines Lobe, it is estimated that as many as 200 potholes could be found within a one square mile section of prairie!


Where have all the wetlands gone?
It is estimated that over 90% of the original wetlands in Iowa have been lost. In the Des Moines Lobe specifically, that number climbs — approximately 99% of wetlands had been lost on the Des Moines Lobe as of the 1970s (Wetland Restoration in Iowa: Challenges and Opportunities/Iowa Policy Project).


After bottoming out in the 1970s, the tide has slowly and steadily changed. Beginning in the 1980s and continuing through today, more and more citizens across the state are seeing the true value that wetlands provide out on the landscape and have acted towards increasing wetlands acres. Numerous restoration programs have strived to support this momentum, working collaboratively to bring back these vibrant ecosystems on our landscape.

Through programs such as CREP (Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program) and CRP (Conservation Reserve Program), wetland areas are being maintained and restored as we speak. These state and federal programs work with farmers and landowners who would like to voluntarily transition land use from agricultural production to wetlands production.


Iowa is currently ranked 4th in the country in CRP wetland restoration, behind only Minnesota and the Dakotas (December 2015 USDA-Farm Service Agency Monthly Summary).  Wetlands restoration is making forward progress — good news!  There’s also still quite a ways to go.

Depending upon their placement on the landscape, restored wetlands can offer benefits for water quality (more information coming in next week’s wetlands feature!), wildlife habitat, flood storage, and more. Every additional wetland out there helps!  As Rebecca Christoffel, Wildlife Specialist with the Snake Conservation Society, emphasizes in the video Incredible Wetlands,

“Iowa has already somewhere between ninety and ninety-nine percent of its wetlands. In my view whether it’s a recreated wetland, if it’s a restored wetland, or if it’s a constructed wetland, that’s still a positive move.”

Catch up on our previous features celebrating American Wetlands Month:

Ann Staudt

Working Together – Nutrient Reduction Practices and Tax Implications

A recent post by the Center for Agricultural Law and Taxation shed some light on the tax implications of various water quality measures including those addressing nitrogen reduction. Read the original version here.

Using the Iowa State University Publication, Reducing Nutrient Loss: Science Shows What Works as a guide, they reviewed a few common practices for their tax consequences and provided the general overview below.

Cover Crops
Cover_crop_April_Berger_FarmOne of the key strategies for reducing nitrate concentration in row crop farm ground is to plant cover crops. If a farm operator plants cover crops, they may deduct the cost of the seed and/or fertilizer as a trade or business expense in the year they plants the cover crop.[i]

            Cost Share: Often, cost sharing programs are available to fund these practices. If a farmer receives an EQIP payment, for example, to cover the cost of the cover crops, that payment would be treated as ordinary income, subject to self-employment tax. Cost-sharing payments are only eligible for income exclusion under the tax code if the payment is not associated with a deductible expense.[ii]

Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)
Another option for improving water quality is to enroll targeted lands in CRP. Under this program, farm operators or landowners receive annual payments for contractually agreeing to keep enrolled acres out of production. CRP payments are typically reported as Schedule F Income, subject to self-employment tax. (more information)

             Cost Share: Cost-share payments received under the CRP may be eligible for income exclusion to the extent permitted under IRC §126 (see full article).

Conservation Easements
Conservation easements can be an effective method of enhancing or maintaining water quality. These binding agreements implementing permanent land use restrictions can be purchased or donated or they may be implemented through a combination of both.

A purchased easement would include a Wetland Reserve Easement purchased by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Permanent and 30-year easements are treated for tax purposes like a sale of the property.

  • The landowner would reduce his or her basis in the property in the amount of the purchase price of the easement.
  • Any amount below zero would be IRC § 1231 gain reported on Form 4797. It is taxed at long-term capital gains rates as long as the property was owned for more than one year.
  • Easement payments offered for easements in place less than 30 years are taxed as ordinary income.
  • Easement payments are not subject to self-employment tax.
  • Easements granted for 30 years or more can qualify for like-kind exchange treatment under IRC § 1031.

Landowners can also donate conservation easements for the purpose of improving water quality. Such an easement, for example, might allow for the implementation of a wetland on a portion of current crop ground.  If tax code requirements are met, the landowner can claim the deduction as a charitable contribution and recognize significant tax savings. This is a complex area of tax law that requires the assistance of an experienced tax practitioner.

Saturated Buffers, Diversion Ditches, Filter Strips, Grade Stabilization, TerracesDSCN9206
Active farmers may be able to presently deduct the cost of conservation practices implemented as part of an NRCS (or comparable state)-approved plan.

Farmer Landowners:
The IRC § 175 soil and water conservation deduction (which is taken in the year the improvements are made) can be elected for conservation expenditures in an amount up to 25 percent of the farmer’s gross income from farming. The deduction can only be taken for improvements made on “land used for farming.” Excess amounts may be carried forward to future tax years.[ix]

Non-farming landowners:
Those who cash rent their ground) must capitalize these expenses (add the cost of the improvement to the basis of the property) because the IRC § 175 deduction only applies to taxpayers “engaged in the business of farming.”

           Cost share: Cost sharing or incentive payments received to implement these conservation programs would be taxed as ordinary income.

Drainage Water Management
Drainage tile modifications or installations are generally depreciable over a 15-year period. This should include the cost of most water control structures that are part of the system and the cost of the installation. Farming operators would also be eligible for IRC § 179 expensing and 50 percent bonus depreciation for the cost of new tile installation. Non-farming landowners could also depreciate the cost of the drainage tile improvements over a 15-year period. Although they would not be eligible for IRC § 179 expensing (since they are not in the business of farming), they would be eligible for 50 percent bonus depreciation for the cost of new tile.

            Cost share: Cost sharing or incentive payments would be taxed as ordinary income, unless determined to be excluded from income under IRC § 126. This might be especially useful for non-farming landowners not eligible for IRC § 179 expensing.

Stout bioreactor_installationBioreactors have become a very popular tool for removing significant amounts of nitrates from water passing out of a drainage tile system. These structures can cost thousands of dollars and don’t increase production or otherwise improve the bottom line of a farming operation. As such, economic incentives to implement bioreactors are particularly important.

A bioreactor does not show up on any MACRS table. It would likely be depreciated over a seven-year period. Materially participating producers installing a bioreactor would be eligible for Section 179 and 50 percent bonus depreciation. Non-farming landowners could likely depreciate the cost of the bioreactor over a 7-year period (as equipment) and would be eligible for 50-percent bonus depreciation.

           Cost share: Cost sharing or incentive payments could likely be excluded under IRC §126.This might be especially useful for non-farming landowners not eligible for IRC § 179 expensing.

To read the full article visit For questions, contact the author Kristine Tidgren at 515-294-6365 or

Liz Juchems


ILF Partner Seth Watkins hosts 3rd Grade Field Trip

On Wednesday of this week, we had the pleasure of traveling down to our friend Seth Watkins’ farm in southwest Iowa to help out with a special field trip. A small group of 3rd grade students in the Corning schools, working with TAG Instructor and STEM Coordinator Tabatha Klopp, have been studying water quality, pollution, animal waste, nutrients, and more, and she was looking for field trip ideas to engage this great group of kids.

The Iowa Learning Farms program works with farmer-partners across the state, so we called upon Seth Watkins, near Clarinda, to help out and serve as host – a great opportunity for these 3rd grade students to see a wide variety of good conservation practices all in one place!  We brought the Conservation Station trailer down, as well, and had an awesome morning touring Seth’s farm, talking about water quality, and doing some water quality monitoring. Continue reading for the highlights!

The rain had been pretty relentless across southwest Iowa over the past week, so when the skies cleared on Wednesday morning, we immediately hopped on Seth’s hayrack for the farm tour first.  After the recent deluge of rain, one might be leery to be out driving through any field. But thanks to cover crops and perennial cover such as alfalfa, it was no problem at all!



First we stopped to check out Seth’s grassed waterway. The students were in awe when Seth told us that the water moving down his grassed waterway eventually ends up at the Gulf of Mexico!  We worked together to trace the entire path of those raindrops, from Seth’s waterway, to the stream, to the 102 River near Bedford, to the Missouri River, to the Mississippi River, and ending up in the Gulf of Mexico. Before moving on, they collected water samples.

As the tour continued, we got to see several different types of cover crops, both living as well as recently terminated. We looked at the extensive roots of the cover crops and talked about how they make “tunnels” or pathways for water to move. As if on cue, an earthworm crawled out of the root bundle just as we were talking about soil structure!



We also got to visit Seth’s pond; while we didn’t get to see the beavers that have taken up residency there, we did see other creatures like birds, frogs, and fish. Seth emphasized the importance of providing habitat for these creatures out on the landscape, whether it’s in a filter strip or around the pond, and how each one is an important part of our ecosystem.

Finally, Seth shared his golden rule of agronomy, which is if you take something from the land, you have to put something back – e.g. protecting the soil however we can, growing cover crops and perennials that put nutrients back in the soil, grazing livestock, etc.

Back at the shop, we gathered around the Conservation Station’s rainfall simulator, giving students the opportunity to see up close how different land management practices affect where water flows and how clean or dirty it is. The 3rd graders saw erosion happening right before their eyes and learned how long it takes new soil to form – 500 years for just 1 inch.

One of the students replied, “500 years?!  I wouldn’t even be alive!”

We wrapped up the morning by trying out some water quality monitoring. We tested different water samples for nitrate, pesticides, copper, iron, and transparency.  Several of the tests required dissolving a tablet and then shaking for 5 minutes, which quickly turned into a Taylor Swift dance party (Shake It Off!) …

To wrap things up, here are the 3rd grade students’ take home messages from the field tour and the Conservation Station trailer:

Water from here ends up in the ocean
Soil can get into water and make it dirty
Water can get polluted pretty fast
Don’t till the land
And you should plant cover crops!


Thanks to Seth, Tabatha, and the Corning 3rd grade group for letting us spend part of the day with you. We had a great time!

Check out more photos on the Corning ELP & STEM Facebook page.

-Ann Staudt