Burnin’ grass at the University of Iowa

CLGHeaderEmily Heaton | Assistant Professor of Agronomy, Iowa State University and co-authors: Collin De Graaf, Valeria Cano, Perla Carmenate, Tyler Donovan, and Danielle Clark

If you have been driving in rural eastern Iowa and noticed a lot of choppers and wagons, you might have been seeing the UI Biomass Fuel Project Miscanthus harvest.


What the what?

Figure 1

Figure 1. Miscanthus harvest in eastern Iowa, where more than 1000 acres are being grown for the University of Iowa power plant. Photo credit: Nicholas Boersma

Miscanthus (Miscanthus × giganteus) is perennial warm-season grass used for energy and products in Europe, and increasingly, in the US. The University of Iowa (UI) has been developing Miscanthus as a replacement for coal in the UI power plant since 2013 as part of the Iowa Biomass Fuel Project (BFP). Using Miscanthus, wood chips, and oat hulls from Quaker oats, the UI plans to be completely off coal by 2025! The Heaton Lab and CLG partner with UI to provide agronomic and extension support to the BFP.


Why Miscanthus?

Miscanthus is a good choice for the UI because it is one of the most productive crops that can be grown in temperate climates like Iowa (producing ~8 tons of dry biomass per acre per year) and it does it without much need for fertilizer or pesticides, making it a very environmentally friendly crop. It has a big root system, like other perennial grasses, so it is great for holding soil and cleaning water, as well as providing a home to critters above and below ground (Figure 2). In addition to energy, Miscanthus is also being used for poultry bedding, mulch, and erosion control.

Figure 2

Figure 2. Miscanthus (left) has been shown to improve water infiltration and protect soil better than annual row crops like corn (right). Photo credit: Emily Heaton

So why is Miscanthus being harvested at the end of winter? A few reasons:

1) it needs to be dry if it is going to be efficiently burned, so the crop dries all winter in the field.
2) Leaving it in the field saves on storage.
3) Letting the plant fully senesce lets the crop to recycle nutrients from the shoots back to the below-ground rhizomes for use the following season.
4) Over the winter Miscanthus slows blowing snow, holds soil and provides shelter for wildlife.

Now that the crop has been harvested, new miscanthus shoots will start emerging when soil temperatures reach 50 ℉, so hopefully any day now!


Harvest Methods

Silage Chopping:A silage harvester can harvest whole plant material after it dries down in the field (Figure 1). Chopped material is blown into carts or traditional trailers similar to corn silage harvesting. If a cart is used, a tractor trailer stationed at the edge of the field can transport the miscanthus to storage or directly to the plant for energy generation (Figure 3). Check out a harvester in action here.

Figure 3

Figure 3. University of Iowa Miscanthus harvest. The fluffy biomass is hauled by truck to storage in plastic silage bags before use. Photo credit Emily Heaton

Mowing and baling: Miscanthus can be baled into round or square bales (Figure 4) similar to corn stalks. Travel and transport can be greatly improved with baling to increase crop density.

Figure 4. Miscanthus in round or square bales. Photo credit: ISU Biomass

Our research indicates a little of these crops can go a long way: replacing consistently low-yielding corn/soy with a perennial grass can meet Iowa’s water goals (reduce N in water by ~40%) while making farmers more money. That’s a refreshing alternative to the billion-dollar price tag we usually hear for improving agriculture’s water quality impact in Iowa! Stay tuned to CLG and @ISUBiomass to learn more about putting perennials like Miscanthus into underperforming row crop fields.

Why Improving the Soil Will Pay Dividends

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What does it take to weather-proof a cropping system? Yesterday, during an Iowa Learning Farms webinar, Dr. Jerry L. Hatfield suggested that the answer to that question lies in our soil. He shared research findings that show the importance of soil quality in rain-fed agricultural systems to reduce variation in crop yield and increase yield overall.

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Dr. Jerry L. Hatfield

Hatfield, who is Laboratory Director and Supervisory Plant Physiologist at the USDA National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment in Ames, IA, conducts research that focuses on understanding the dynamics of the G x E x M (genetics x environment x management) complex to evaluate the role of soil, with the changing weather, on crop performance. 

Hatfield’s research has found that in rain-fed systems, better soil means a better crop yield, when looking at counties in three Midwestern states. Nebraskan counties, which all used irrigation, were an outlier in the data showing that if you can control the water, the quality of soil is less important. In rain-fed agricultural systems, like we have here in Iowa, the soil quality is very important since the water cannot be controlled—having higher quality soil will lead to higher yield amounts and less variation in yield.

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A figure from Hatfield’s presentation, “Good Soils = Good Yields”, showing soybean yields across Iowa, Kentucky and Nebraska counties. (NCCPI = National Commodity Crop Productivity Index)

How can you improve your soil quality? Hatfield suggested the use of strip-till or no-till in the place of traditional tillage. Crop residue on the surface has benefits for the soil—providing food for the complex soil biology and stabilizing the soil micro-climate. Cover crops are another way to improve soil health and further research is being conducted on the benefits of different types and combinations of cover crops. In addition to the benefits to soil quality that no-till and cover crops can provide, they can also sequester carbon, reducing the amount that is released to the atmosphere.

To learn more about how improved soil quality can weather-proof your cropping system, and the use of no-till and cover crops to improve soil quality and reduce carbon loss to the atmosphere, watch the full webinar here.

Tune in next month, on Wednesday May 15 at noon, when Emily Waring, Graduate Research Assistant at Iowa State University, will present an Iowa Learning Farms webinar titled “Cover Crop Impact on Crop Yield and Water Quality: Single Species vs. Mixtures”.

Hilary Pierce

Cover Crops Taking Flight

Nate Voss started out a cover crop skeptic. He’ll openly admit that.

“I’ll be honest with you, I really wasn’t sure about this whole [cover crop] thing startin’ out 6 years ago. Now we’re getting a lot better at it!”

After 6 years of cover crop experience, I think it’s safe to say he’s now a believer, sharing his cover cropping experience at an Iowa Learning Farms field day yesterday hosted by Steier Ag Aviation near Whittemore. Voss farms near LuVerne in north central Iowa and also works with Steier Ag Aviation.

Voss’s experience with cover crops includes flying on oats, and some radish, into standing crops in late August/early September.  He is also just starting to get his feet wet with cereal rye.  One of the first things he noticed with the integration of a cover crop was at harvest – “it gives you great field conditions combining into beans.”


Voss goes on to share with field day attendees all the benefits he has observed with using cover crops as part of his cropping system.

“There’s lots of different angles you can take with cover crops:

  • A lot of guys like it for erosion, keeping soil in place. In the winter when I’m driving around, my ditches are not filled with dirt like a lot of them are.
  • I personally like cover crops for holding nitrogen in place, not sending it down the creek. Maybe I can do something about the water quality challenges we face—I’d rather be proactive, get a head start on this thing.
  • After 6 years, I’m really starting to see improvements with soil structure. My soil microbiology is really firing back up!
  • Some folks also are going into cover crops for grazing.
  • My ultimate goal is I want to have something living out there all year round.”


For Voss, the integration of cover crops also served as a springboard into strip till:

“I get bored pretty easy and the wheels start turnin’… a couple beers and some pizza later [with a neighbor who was a long-time strip-tiller], and we were pulling strips out in the field.

“I think we can all acknowledge that last fall was not great.  But my best yielding corn was in the field with strip till and 5 years of cover crops.

“I loved it so much, I called my banker to buy a strip till bar!”


On the fence about taking the plunge and trying out cover crops or strip till?   Consider Voss’s top tips for success along the way:

  • Go to field days and workshops to learn. You’ve taken the first step just by being here today—opening your mind to something new.
  • Be willing to get outside your comfort zone and give it a shot. [My grandfather is my biggest critic. Now I just like to get out there and prove him wrong!]
  • Ask questions.
  • Talk to others that are also givin’ it a try. Get together over coffee. Or pizza and beers. Talk to them about their failures so you don’t make the same ones.
  • Sometimes you’re gonna question yourself along the way.
  • There are tons of great resources out there for everyone—the big guys down to little peons like me.
  • Head in to your NRCS office to learn about cost share options.
  • Weather is always an uncertainty. Think about how you can best work with Mother Nature.

Now is the time to be planning ahead for cover crop seeding this coming fall!   Check out our Iowa Learning Farms Cover Crop Resources page and YouTube channel to learn more, along with reaching out to your local ISU Extension and Outreach field agronomist and USDA-NRCS staff—they are the local “boots on the ground” ready to help you out with making conservation practices happen!

Ann Staudt

Do you have “cottage cheese” soil?

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It was a beautiful evening yesterday to spend learning about the benefits of cover crops and no-till at Rob Stout’s farm in Washington County.

Rob Stout talking to a group of people in a field with cover crops growing

Rob Stout discusses cover crops at the field day

“There’s a learning curve. You just need to step up your management a little bit,” Stout explained, when discussing implementing cover crops for the first time.

He went on to talk about the benefits he has seen on his farm: an increase in earthworms and microbes, erosion control, water quality benefits and improved soil health.

A close up of no-till residue with rye growing

Cover crops and no-till on one of Rob Stout’s fields

“Rye is my go-to – I like it best,” said Stout, “Where we have the rye we don’t have any winter annual weeds. There’s no Marestail on any of these fields with the cover crop.”

Hands holding a clump of soil with green rye growing over a shovel

Soil structure under the cover crops

Attendees also heard from Jason Steele from the NRCS. Steele described the soil health benefits of implementing no-till or cover crops.

“If it looks like cottage cheese or Grape Nuts cereal, that’s what we want our soil to look like,” Steele said, “We want that granular structure. We don’t want it looking like concrete – if you do too much tillage it starts to look like concrete.”

Steele went on to say that despite the very wet fall we had last year, there were no ruts visible in Stout’s fields due to the fact that the fields were not tilled. The combination of no-till and cover crops reduced compaction and kept the top two inches of soil light and fluffy, with good soil structure and infiltration and the most biological activity.

Rounding out the program were Liz Juchems from Iowa Learning Farms, who shared research updates; Tony Maxwell from the NRCS, who talked about cost share; and Matt McAndrew and Paul Brandt from MB Water, who discussed testing water quality in tile drains.

Check out the events page of our website to find out about upcoming field days and workshops in your area!

Hilary Pierce

Rockin’ Carroll County with Water Rocks! Days

It’s always exciting to see the Water Rocks! messages and lessons create a ripple effect to reach well beyond the direct activities of our small team. In Carroll County, under the guidance and creative leadership of Anjanette Treadway, human services program coordinator in the Carroll County Extension Office, the ripples are gaining momentum and turning into a tidal wave of activities for elementary and middle school students across the county.

Anjanette is responsible for supporting STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education for kindergarten through third grade in county schools. She is also the “conservation education” champion for all students up through the sixth grade.

She uses the Water Rocks! programming and materials to make waves in classrooms and beyond. Two major events that she produces in Carroll schools are a field day for third-graders, and a sixth-grade environmental field day.

During the summer of 2018, Anjanette also coordinated a six-hour day camp program open to all fourth- through sixth-grade students in Carroll County. She anticipates continuing this in future summers to provide education and outreach to students regarding the importance of environmental awareness and conservation.

Anjanette learned about Water Rocks! from a colleague in 2015. “My co-worker brought me some of the materials from the program and encouraged me to get involved with Water Rocks! to learn more,” said Anjanette. “I’m certainly glad I did. Water Rocks! provides an expansive set of activities and content which is applicable for all elementary and middle-school grades.”

She continued, “The Water Rocks! team has done an excellent job of aligning programming and educational resources with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and statewide curriculum requirements for STEM advancement. And the materials provided in the workshops and summits are ready to use in the classroom – something that is very helpful for teachers who are time-stressed and in need of creative and innovative ways to engage students.”

The third-grade conservation field day has become Water Rocks! Day, comprising hands-on outdoor activities and games as well as participation from key specialists and teachers. The next Water Rocks! Day will be held in May 2019.

Before Water Rocks! Day, Anjanette visits the classrooms and provides introduction to the Water Rocks! conservation lessons and plants some seeds with the students. “The students and the teachers get very excited about the music and the lessons from Water Rocks!,” she noted. “One teacher loved the musical element enough to provide copies to the school’s music teacher to suggest they explore using it in the music classroom as well.”

The introductory lessons get students up and moving as well. The students are outside, running, getting dirty, investigating such things as where water will run off from the playground and other tangible lessons which tie in to the classroom instruction.

On Water Rocks! Day, Anjanette sets up many of the fun Water Rocks! activities including Biodiversity Jenga, Creature Cache, Habitat Hopscotch, Wetlands Bingo and the Poo Relay. The Water Rocks! team presents its We All Live in a Watershed module, and other specialists present related material. In addition, the students participate in nature walks to extend the lessons beyond the classroom to incorporate their own observations.

For the sixth-grade Environmental Field Day, the lessons are more intensive, incorporate water quality topics as well as the core conservation message and involve guest presenters. At the most recent event, presenters included the naturalist from the Carroll County Conservation District, a speaker from Saving Our Avian Resources (SOAR), a raptor rehabilitation center, the Water Rocks! team from Iowa State University, and teachers – who were delighted to get a chance to step out of the classroom and teach in a different style.

Starting in 2018, the Environmental Field Day now also includes a Water Rocks! Assembly program with live music and skits. “The field day started with different presentations and lessons, leading to the capstone of the day, a ‘rock concert’ assembly program. Of course, it’s not all rock music, but the atmosphere among the performers, kids and teachers sure made it feel that way,” she commented.

Ann Staudt
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Looking to book a Water Rocks! Assembly in your neck of the woods? Limited openings remain for May, and we are also booking for the summer months!

Dig Into Soil

Today’s guest blog post is provided by Joshua Harms, part of the Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach program, serving with Water Rocks! in 2018-19.

As a continuation of my monthly blog series highlighting our educational approaches working with youth, today I will be explaining our “Dig Into Soil” module which we present in classrooms with Water Rocks!. We start off our soil module with a trivia question as we always do. Next we explain the definition of natural resources and then ask students for some examples. Then we let the students know that Iowa has some of the best soil in the entire world.

Our next step in this module is to define soil – how is it different from dirt? Soil is alive! It supports us here on earth and we could not live here without it. Next we show the students a poster with pictures of different items to help them guess the different ways soil is used, including food, clothing, habitat, and filter (filtering our water).

Now that we have explained some of the very important things soil does, we move on to see how soil is formed. We go old school for this part, using a felt board to help show the different layers of soil. This includes bedrock, subsoil, top soil, many different species that live in the top soil, and many different things that grow out of the soil.

We continue by explaining that soil is endangered here in Iowa because it takes the earth 500-1,000 years to form 1 inch, but we are losing that inch in 20 years. The reason we are losing soil so fast is because of erosion, the process of soil being moved by wind and water.  Soil is most valuable in place, in our fields and gardens – it becomes a problem when it makes it to the water.

There are a few very important things that should be done to protect the soil. Keeping the soil covered is key, which can be done through mulching, planting trees and grasses, plus farmers can do no-till and cover crops.

Next we transition into a game that shows how important soil is, considering that nearly everything that we use comes from the soil. The game is called Six Degrees of Soil. In this game, we give the students an item and they have to work together in teams to figure out how to get from soil to said item in no more than six steps. An example that always makes students laugh is underwear. One would start with soil, next plant some cotton, then pick the cotton, then process that into thread, and lastly send it to a factory so they can sew it into underwear.

The last important topic we cover related to soil is decomposition. This process takes place when the different organisms break things back down into soil.  We explain that certain items get broken down quicker than others. To help the students understand this topic even better, we play another game. In the decomposition game, we give the students 5 different items and they must put these items in order from fastest to slowest in terms of decomposing.

We wrap up by asking the students for ways we can help protect the soil and protect the larger environment around us. Common conversation points include planting grasses and trees, no-till farming, reusable water bottles, taking your own bags to the grocery store, setting up a compost pile, organizing a trash pick-up day, etc. Finally we finish with the same trivia question that we asked at the beginning of our presentation.

Joshua Harms

Conservation Stations Crisscross Iowa to Deliver Conservation Messages

If you’ve been to an Iowa county fair or attended an Iowa State University (ISU) extension field day covering water quality, conservation, cover crops, edge of field practices or a range of other topics, there’s a good chance you’ve seen or even visited a Conservation Station operated by Water Rocks! and Iowa Learning Farms. Last summer we hit the milestone of attending all 100 county fairs in Iowa – (yes 100, Pottawattamie County holds two.) The trailers also make appearances at community events, farmer’s markets and other settings.

The Conservation Stations are traveling resource centers and classrooms, staffed by ILF and Water Rocks! team members and interns, providing water quality and conservation education and outreach activities built on a foundation of science, research and best practices. These events also provide great learning opportunities for the team to sharpen trailer pulling and backing skills.

Rain, Rain, Don’t Wash our Soil Away
The idea for the first Conservation Station was germinated in the early years of Iowa Learning Farms (ILF) – which is celebrating 15 years in 2019. The precursor was a trailer equipped with a simple rainfall simulator for demonstrating soil erosion.

It was a good start, but frankly, it was a limited demonstration and the team quickly realized that they needed a more sophisticated rainfall simulator. In addition, ILF saw the potential to expand its impact by providing a broad canvas for education through visual, interactive and multimedia displays.

“We were awarded funding to purchase and develop a larger trailer and knew how to make a better rainfall simulator,” said Jacqueline Comito, executive director of Water Rocks! and ILF program director. “We just didn’t know how to realize our vision of a traveling and flexible unit. Ann Staudt joined the team to help us, and with her fresh ideas and creativity, the Conservation Station was born.”

The trailer, dubbed the Big Conservation Station, allowed space for an improved rainfall simulator as well as a walk-through learning lab. To facilitate use in different environments such as field days, outdoor classrooms and county fairs, the trailer accommodates interchangeable displays. Inside the learning lab, visual and multimedia presentations are designed to engage audiences in conversations and to elicit questions about conservation practices.

The learning lab was updated in 2018 to incorporate mixed-media artwork and enhanced messaging with the purpose of eliciting visitors’ hopes for Iowa.

ILF faculty adviser Matthew Helmers developed the new rainfall simulator which more accurately models both surface runoff and subsurface flow or drainage in tiled environments and uses soil blocks extracted from field environments to best parallel actual soil conditions in Iowa fields.

“The complexity of the new rainfall simulator was a challenge, but it also enabled us to tell a much more realistic story that farmers in Iowa could relate to,” noted Staudt.

A smaller trailer referred to as Conservation Station 3 was built specifically for outdoor classrooms and other youth activities. Along with a rainfall simulator, it is also equipped with the space to carry enough tables and chairs for students as well as a full complement of displays and activity resources.

Edge of Field Practice Demonstrations Expand Education Opportunities
In 2018, the original rainfall simulator trailer (which we called the Lil’ CS) was redesigned to become the Conservation Station on the Edge, addressing best practices for nutrient mitigation at the edge of tile-drained fields. Equipped with working saturated buffer and bioreactor models, this trailer takes the story of nutrient reduction to a deeper level. The demonstration stations allow the audience to see what happens within structures –that when implemented in a field are completely underground and out of sight.

Each Conservation Station includes interactive demonstrations that appeal to all backgrounds, ages and walks of life. Games such as the Poo Toss tend to appeal to youngsters but provide tangible lessons about waste runoff that pertains to everyone –whether they live on a farm or in a city. The Watershed Game is another highly visual interactive game that helps make the concepts of a watershed and how pollution moves with water easy to grasp.

“The Conservation Stations are filling a tremendous need by providing easy-to-understand information about water quality, conservation, agricultural best practices, and other topics of importance to all Iowans,” concluded Staudt. “We intend to continue to share this knowledge as frequently and in as many venues as we can.”

Find out where to see a Conservation Station near you
The Conservation Stations are used April through October. Check out the Water Rocks! website to request a visit (requests for summer events are being accepted now!).  In most circumstances, a Conservation Station can join an event at no cost, due to the generous funding received from our partners.