Getting the dirt on soil health in Soil Health Style


Soil often gets a bad rap, we dismiss it as just “dirt” that needs to be kept off of ourselves and the surfaces around us. What we don’t usually think about when we are doing this is soil is alive, breathing, and gives us life. That’s the message the Water Rocks! creative team wanted to send when writing the song “Soil Health Style” and making the subsequent video.

Backed by a good beat, the song is a catchy mash-up of sung and spoken phrases relating to soil health. Inspired by the Korean artist Psy and his crazy infectious song “Gangnam Style” this is not a tune you can listen to and quickly forget. Phrases such as “grow with it,” “unlock the secrets,” and “infiltration syncopation” particularly jump out. Jacqueline Comito, Water Rocks! program director came up with the song’s initial concept then tasked Todd Stevens, one of Water Rocks! resident songwriters, to run with it and have fun.

Stevens started with the base beat, going for a modern and electronic feel that was also dance worthy. When asked what his litmus test is for knowing when he’s got a hit on his hands Stevens immediately mentioned his two youngest children.

“I have a five-year-old and seven-year-old in my home,” he explained. “They are great for testing my songs. After I have the music to a particular song ready I will take it out to the living room and blast it on the stereo. If the kids start dancing, it’s a hit.”

So what happened when Stevens played “Soil Health Style” for his kids the first time?

“Kids were dancing!” Stevens gushed.


For those who are familiar with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Unlock the Secrets in the Soil campaign this song may sound familiar as many of the phrases in “Soil Health Style” are also key phrases in the campaign. The NRCS has been a longtime partner of Water Rocks! so it felt right for the team to give the campaign a nod in the song and music video.

As Comito said, “we do a lot of work with the NRCS and this was our way of celebrating what they do.”

The song and video certainly feel like a celebration of soil and all the wonderful things it does for us.

The whole concept for the Soil Health Style video took shape with the help of filmmaker Alyssa Dreeszen.

The visuals are particularly striking, shifting from three Ames area high schoolers performing choreographed motions to symbolize the unlocking of soil health, to time lapse images of some amazing soil processes, then back to the trio pushing and pulling the song’s key phrases. Dreezen wanted the themes of unlocking and growing to be expressed in the movements of the actors, so when Rachel Glaza, a dancer and Iowa Department of Natural Resources employee, stepped in to do the choreography it all came together.

This week is Soil and Water Conservation Week in Iowa, so Soil Health Style is the perfect reminder of how critically important soil is to nearly everything we make, see, and do.

Comito was asked what her ultimate hope is for the message people take home after watching Soil Health Style and she had this to say: “Soil is alive and precious. We need to do everything we can to keep it healthy. We couldn’t live without it. Everything we are comes from soil and water.”

Need even more reasons to celebrate Soil Health Style? Here are two more: Soil Health Style received two Awards of Achievement from the Iowa Motion Picture Association for original music score, and corporate and community marketing!

To watch Soil Health Style head over to the Water Rocks! YouTube Channel, and be sure to check out more Water Rocks! content about soil and water conservation on the Water Rocks! website.

Helmers featured on Conservation Chat


As we celebrate Soil & Water Conservation Week, it’s time for another episode of the Conservation Chat podcast! April’s episode features an interview with our own Dr. Matt Helmers, visiting with host Jacqueline Comito about the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy and the variety of conservation practices, both in-field and edge-of-field, that will help contribute to reducing nutrient export from our state.

Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, released in 2012, calls for 45% load reductions in total nitrogen and total phosphorus leaving our state. Helmers was instrumental in development of the Nonpoint Source Nutrient Reduction Science Assessment component of the strategy, specifically looking at the nitrogen side of things.

Since the Nutrient Reduction Strategy was released, Helmers estimates that he’s given over 100 talks about the Nutrient Reduction Strategy at field days, workshops, conferences, and more. Reaching the Strategy’s 45% reduction goals will require incredibly high levels of conservation implementation across the state, and it will require a suite of practices as well. Tune in to the Conservation Chat to hear his perspectives on how we get there!

A few highlights:



The Chat is not all technical – far from it! Much of the engaging conversation is focused on changing attitudes and perceptions about water quality issues, the larger paradigm shifts occurring in our state, and the great economic opportunities available related to the nutrient reduction strategy, for instance, the design and construction of 7600 wetlands.

As a fun side note, I was also entertained by Helmers’ account of his early interests with water:
“I do still remember, as a kid, playing in the water and building dams to stop water flow. OR, even better, busting the dam and watching erosion!”

For more, tune in to the full episode of the Conservation Chat as Helmers and Comito dig in and visit about how we work together to promote conservation practices statewide and strive to reach the Nutrient Reduction Strategy goals! And for another fun spin on nutrient cycling and water quality, tune in as Helmers and the Water Rocks! team Slow Jam the Nitrogen Cycle.

Ann Staudt

ILF Webinar Recap: Women, Land, & Legacy


April’s Iowa Learning Farms webinar featured guests Tanya Meyer-Dideriksen and Wren Almitra discussing the Women, Land, and Legacy (WLL) program. Women, Land, and Legacy is a statewide outreach program focused on empowering Iowa’s farm women.

Spurred by the increase in the numbers of women finding themselves in decision-making positions on farmland, the USDA Outreach Council in 2003 determined there was a need for an outreach program aimed at reaching these women. A committee was formed and in 2004 Women, Land, and Legacy officially kicked off. For 10 years a state team guided efforts across Iowa, after which it has since been led by a state coordinator.

Women, Land, and Legacy’s outreach is locally led at the county level by teams of women from USDA agencies, conservation districts, Iowa State Extension, as well as farmers, and other community leaders. The local teams host listening sessions which are meant to provide women with a networking opportunity, a place to voice their concerns, and an opportunity to discuss issues most important to them in regards to farming and land management.

The listening sessions then guide the efforts of the local team and shape topics for learning sessions. Learning sessions are informative and educational events that build on those topics. They often include local presenters and site visits, but more than anything the learning sessions provide a time for additional dialogue and opportunities to connect to local resources.

WLL is currently active in 24 counties , with 18 local teams working hard to reach women farmers and landowners. Since 2004, over 45 counties have participated, and local teams have reached 3,000 participants.

If you’d like to learn more, watch the archived version of the webinar on the ILF website here. If you’d like to watch any of our past webinars, the full archive can be found here.



Cover Crops: Tips for Termination

CC-TipsForTerminationHere at Iowa Learning Farms, we love seeing those fields of lush green cover crops out on the land! Across the state, planting is underway or slated to commence soon, which means that it’s also prime time for cover crop termination.

First things first — you want to make sure that cover crop will indeed be killed. Failure to completely control cover crops results in them acting as a weed and competing with your crop.

We’d like to take this opportunity to share a few reminders and pointers to make termination as effective as possible. The tips included below come from Terminating Cover Crops – What’s Your Plan?, prepared by Meaghan Anderson, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach field agronomist in east central Iowa.


Iowa State University researchers generally recommend terminating the cover crop with herbicide 10 -14 days prior to planting corn. Prior to soybeans, hold off on cover crop termination as long as possible… terminating just one day prior to planting offers big benefits in terms of biomass production and nitrogen retention (see our previous blog post Let it GROW, Let it Grow!). Always check with your crop insurance agent for their cover crop termination requirements prior to planting corn or soybeans.



You’ve got choices… regardless of the method chosen, the effectiveness of termination depends on the cover crop species and its growth stage as well as the conditions in the surrounding environment.

Herbicide Termination
Burndown with an herbicide is the most common termination method across the state. Translocated herbicides, like glyphosate, are most commonly used for terminating overwintering cover crops.

For the most effective herbicide application, spray on a sunny afternoon when temperatures are above 60°F, plants are actively growing, and nighttime temperatures stay above 40°F. Avoid spraying in the early morning or evening hours.

Alternatively, contact herbicides like paraquat and glufosinate can be utilized. However, these contact herbicides only affect the parts of the plant they come into contact with. Overwintering cover crops may not be well-controlled with early applications of contact herbicides; this could be because the plants are already too large or growing too quickly (i.e. contact herbicides could be a big challenge with the abundant cover crop growth that was observed this year!).

Check out Anderson’s article for additional information on herbicide rates, formulations, and more.

Termination via rolling or roller-crimping can reduce dependency on herbicides during corn and soybean production. Effective termination with this method is dependent upon the proper timing of the crimping for the cover crop species present. Examples of cover crops that can be controlled with rolling/crimping include hairy vetch (at full bloom), barley, triticale, or cereal rye (all at milk or dough stage). For cereal rye, it is recommended to wait until the rye has shed pollen to get a consistent kill with a roller/crimper.

Tillage is another alternative. However, multiple tillage passes may be necessary to terminate the cover crop, which can negate the benefits the cover crop is providing to soil health and can leave the land more vulnerable to erosion.


Regardless of termination choice, it is important to have a plan in place to minimize problems this spring. Following termination, be sure to check fields for regrowth or skipped areas that need further attention. This will allow for a successful cover crop termination, and, hopefully, a successful cropping season this summer. Read more at Terminating Cover Crops – What’s Your Plan?.

Ann Staudt


Digging into Soil in the Classroom

As the spring rolls on and the temperatures continue to rise, so does the frequency of our school visits with Water Rocks!. Earlier in the year, I showcased several of the interactive games and lessons we utilize to teach young people about watersheds (see the blog post Making a splash with youth water(shed) education). While water and watersheds are central to everything we do, they’re not the only topics we cover in the classroom.

We actually offer 6 separate classroom modules on different conservation/natural resources topics (read more about them on our Classroom Visits page), each with its own interactive games, lessons, and activities. Today I’d like to give you a glimpse into our Dig Into Soil module!


What’s the difference between soil and dirt?
First things first, SOIL IS ALIVE!  We help students see the difference between soil – a dynamic, living ecosystem — and dirt, which gets tracked in the house and makes a mess.



How is soil formed?
We have two different activities we use in teaching students about soil formation …


With the felt board, on the left, students help build soil from the ground up, and we discuss how there are many different layers – much like building a layer cake. It’s great to see students’ reactions to the “magic” of an old-school felt board and how it all sticks together… something that is unique and often unfamiliar to students growing up in the generation of tablets and smartphones!

The other soil formation activity involves our soil cauldron, on the right, and students help to add the different ingredients that create soil – rocks (parent material), water, sunlight, organic matter, nutrients, worms, bugs, and microorganisms.

With both of these activities, TIME is a key ingredient that cannot be forgotten – 1” of soil takes 500-1000 years to form!  One of my favorite student reactions of all time was at Pekin several years ago – one particular student was blown away by this fact and he blurted out, “Man, Earth, you’re really slow!”

Soil is Endangered
Yes, our soil is endangered … it is being lost, via erosion, more quickly that new soil can be formed. On average, across Iowa, we lose 1″ of soil in 20 years … compare that to the amount of time it takes for a new inch of soil to form!


What can we do to protect our soil?
We challenge students to identify ways that we can protect the soil we have, covering both agricultural and urban options. As we tell them, any time we can keep the soil covered with plant material – whether it’s living plants or dead – that’s a great strategy for keeping soil in place.


Why does soil really matter?
Everything comes from soil!  Students are broken into teams to compete in the Six Degrees of Soil game. We reveal an object, and then students have 30-60 seconds (depending on age) to work with their team and, on their markerboard, document the steps that connect that item back to soil!  We have a wide variety of objects to choose from – food items, clothing, school supplies, household goods, sporting equipment, and more…    so no two games are ever the same!




After revealing their responses, a “thumbs up” from the Water Rocks! team means that team gets to roll their dice and advance their rain drop on the game board, infiltrating through the soil profile.

We also talk about decomposition, and how it all comes full circle. The final part of the game involves ranking five common objects in the order of how quickly they decompose out in the environment:  disposable diaper, leaves/residue, orange peel, leather gloves, and plastic soda bottle. Students are shocked to learn that a plastic soda bottle takes 500 years to decompose – the same amount of time it takes to make 1” of soil.


One of the other ways we can tell that students are excited about the presentation is through the questions that they ask. Here is a sampling of the great questions we were asked by 5th graders at Lovejoy Elementary School in Des Moines earlier this week:


As you can see, we have lots of fun with each of our classroom visits. It’s high energy, interactive, and highly educational, as well!

Would you like to have the Iowa Learning Farms/Water Rocks! team and Conservation Station visit your county fair, farmers market, or other community event this summer? Put in your request here. Visits are available free of charge, and we do our best to share the love across the state!

Looking ahead to fall, we’re also currently accepting requests for school visits, outdoor classrooms, and community events happening during the months of September – November.

Ann Staudt

The Challenge of Food Waste

We are what we eat. But what about what we don’t eat?

Food waste has long been a serious issue, both an economic challenge as well as an environmental one, impacting water, soil, and energy consumption. A recent study takes it a step further. Food Surplus and Its Climate Burdens, published in the Environmental Science & Technology journal, outlines the connections between food waste and climate change. In a nutshell, avoiding food loss and waste may counteract the increasing food demand and help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions across the globe.

Consider the following:


How can the food supply chain be made smarter and more efficient, and how can we as consumers be convinced to reduce food waste?  Food for thought on this Wednesday.

Ann Staudt

What will it take to get 14 million acres of cover crops in Iowa?

What will it take to get 14 million acres of cover crops in Iowa? We may not have immediate answers to this question, but the ball is definitely rolling on the discussion.

Earlier this year, Iowa Learning Farms hosted a group of 18 farmers and landowners in Ames to discuss issues surrounding the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy and what it will take to meet its goals of putting more soil conservation and water quality improvement practices, such as cover crops, to work on the land.

If your copy of Wallaces Farmer has yet to land in your mailbox and you’re curious about what this group had to say, along with their “Top 10 Conservation Messages for 2016 (and beyond), read the full story here.