Wetland Ecosystem Services: How Wetlands Can Benefit Iowans

On Wednesday, Iowa Learning Farms hosted a webinar about the importance of wetlands in Iowa. Kay Stefanik, Assistant Director of the Iowa Nutrient Research Center, described what makes a wetland a wetland, the different types of wetlands found in Iowa and the ecosystem services that wetlands provide.

Wetlands need to have saturated soils or standing water for enough of the year that hydric soils and hydrophytic vegetation establish. The hydric soil of wetlands is different than that of upland areas. Upland soils will have water and oxygen gases in the pore spaces between the soil particles, while wetlands soils will have water in its pore spaces, with either very little or no oxygen gas. The figure below shows the different in the pore spaces of upland and wetland soils (Raven P.H. et al. 2011. Biology, 9th edition). Finally, wetlands feature hydrophytic vegetation (water plants), which can grow in these saturated soil conditions.

Stefanik described four common types of wetlands that naturally occur in Iowa. Prairie potholes are found predominantly in the Des Moines Lobe and are depressions that collect water during wet periods of the year. Riverine wetlands occur near streams or rivers on floodplains or as oxbow (old meanders of a stream channel that have been cut off from the main channel over time) wetlands. Fens are typically groundwater fed and feature low vegetation. Emergent marshes have herbaceous vegetation, open water areas and algae.

Throughout the entire state of Iowa, about 89% of the original wetlands have been removed or lost as land use has changed. In the Des Moines Lobe region, which used to be known as the “1000 Lake Region”, 99% of the wetlands have been lost. This loss of wetlands matters to us all, due to the ecosystem services that wetlands provide.

To learn more about these ecosystem services that wetlands can provide, watch the full webinar here!

If you want to learn more about wetlands in Iowa, tune in to the Celebrating Iowa’s Wetlands Virtual Field Day on May 28.

Please join us on May 27 for a webinar with Paul Miller, Urban Conservationist at the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS), titled “The Importance of Urban Conservation and Useful Stormwater Management Practices for Homeowners”.

Hilary Pierce

May 28 Virtual Field Day: Celebrating Iowa’s Wetlands

Iowa Learning Farms, in partnership with the Iowa Nutrient Research Center and Conservation Learning Group, is hosting a free virtual wetland field day on Thursday, May 28th at 1pm CDT.  

From fens to oxbows to prairie potholes, each wetland has a role to play. Within a row crop system, these areas offer an opportunity to improve water quality and field profitability when allowed to function as wetlands rather than cropped areas. The wetland plants also provide a great habitat for a variety of pollinators.

May is American Wetlands Month and to celebrate, the event will take you on a tour of the diversity of wetlands found in Iowa. The event will include video footage from a variety of wetlands in north Central Iowa and live interaction with Kay Stefanik, Iowa Nutrient Research Center Assistant Director and Adam Janke, Iowa State University Assistant Professor and Extension Wildlife Specialist. Together they will discuss how these sites were formed, identify features that make each wetland unique – including the wildlife and plants, and answer questions from attendees on how farmers and landowners can work with and around the wetlands.

“Most people are familiar with created wetlands used to treat agricultural runoff but may not know that natural wetlands benefit us too”, says Stefanik, a wetland and aquatic ecologist who has studied plants and nutrient cycling in freshwater ecosystems. “Natural wetlands improve water quality, help to retain floodwaters and potentially minimize downstream flooding, as well as provide critical habitat for plants and animals.”

“Because of the diverse geologic history of Iowa’s landscapes, we have a large variety of interesting and unique wetland types found throughout the state” says Janke, whose research has focused on understanding how birds use different types of wetlands. “The area in north-central Iowa we are featuring during this virtual field day is really remarkable for the diversity of wetland types it has within a small geographic area.”

Make plans to join us and participate in the live field day. Shortly before 1:00 pm CDT on May 28th, click this URL, or type this web address into your internet browser: https://iastate.zoom.us/s/315189792

Or, join from a dial-in phone line:

    Dial: +1 312 626 6799 or +1 646 876 9923

    Meeting ID: 315 189 792

The field day will be recorded and archived on the ILF website, so that it can be watched at any time. The archive is available at https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/events.

A Certified Crop Adviser board-approved continuing education unit (CEU) has been applied for, for those who are able to participate in the live webinar. Information about how to apply to receive the credit (if approved) will be provided at the end of the live field day.

Liz Ripley

ILF Scores Quickly with Virtual Field Days

When plans for the spring series of field days were scrapped because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Iowa Learning Farms (ILF) team pooled their collective creativity and experience to quickly develop a method for effective delivery of a field day via online tools. With this effort, the ILF Virtual Field Day went from idea to reality in the space of a few weeks. And it worked out great!

The task came with some fundamental challenges; 1) How to generate content, 2) How to script and produce compelling and interesting programs, 3) Finding and using the right delivery platform, and 4) Technology.

ILF program director Jacqueline Comito, proposed the idea of interleaving short video segments with live commentary and discussion between the virtual meeting host, presenters, and the audience to help keep the audience engaged and the program moving. Understanding that an audience watching on computer screens does not have the same attention span as one gathered on a farm, the virtual events would only run one hour.

These video segments would also provide a great deal of flexibility by transporting the audience to multiple sites without getting their boots muddy.

Getting the Content

As you all know, Iowa can be fairly windy, so getting good sound quality while outdoors can be challenging. After a few early experiments that failed, Comito settled on using her iPhone X with a Beastgrip Pro, tripod, Samson wireless microphone system, and Lightning-to-USB camera adapter. This combination delivered excellent video and audio quality, and provided production agility, enabling quick set up and tear down in multiple locations around the farm. The wireless microphone also facilitated social distancing for all participants in each shoot.

A helpful tip is to shoot more video and b-roll (video without a presenter which is used in editing to smooth transitions and add interest) than you think you could possibly use. This simplifies editing offers more options for creativity.

Production and Editing

Our video production goal is producing multiple visually meaningful video segments to reinforce the live presentation content. Just like agenda items for an in-person field day, each video segment contributes to the flow of the field day and must have a clear purpose. The videos bring the field to the virtual audience in ways that cannot be done with still photographs. Cutting together shots of the presenter speaking with close-ups or b-roll showing what they are talking about will keep the audience hooked and visually reinforce the message.

Since no one on staff had days to dedicate to the editing of the video material, we needed an editing program that was simple to use with professional features and a reasonable price. With this in mind, we selected Movavi. It is intuitive for beginners yet has some nice advanced features for people with more experience and time.

Delivering the Program

We chose Zoom as the delivery platform. A major advantage of Zoom is its integrated participant registration. ILF offers CCA credits to participants, but must have appropriate registration records to validate submissions. Registration also provides us with a ready-made list for sending follow up evaluations – a hallmark of the ILF program and fundamental tool for assessing the success of the event.

We have also experimented with different approaches during the live event to encourage natural and dynamic interactions between presenters and participants. These field days are not meant to be a one-way presentation such as a webinar, but an opportunity for discussion and back-and-forth conversations. We actively encourage participants to ask questions directly or through the Zoom chat feature. However, we have learned that it is more effective for a field day host to read the questions to the presenters to keep the conversation flowing.

Technical Lessons Learned

Moving quickly while breaking new ground, we ran into some technical challenges with the virtual field day productions. Things such as the recording issues noted earlier were quickly resolved. Others took more experimentation and research. Immediate and survey feedback was crucial in helping us understand and resolve the issues.

Despite performing technology tests before each of first two events, we got feedback that the video was choppy, and the motion didn’t sync with the sound. We consulted experts and tested multiple configurations before finding what we believe to be the golden ticket for reliably delivering the program. It certainly isn’t point-and-click, but it delivers the result we want.

  • Record at 720p and compress during the export process
  • Upload the video to YouTube
  • Embed YouTube video into PowerPoint
  • Share PowerPoint screen via Zoom using a dual monitor computer set up

A word of caution – when streaming YouTube embedded in PowerPoint, the screen sharing host cannot click anywhere while the video is playing. If they do, it will cause the video to stop and will resume at the beginning of the video when they hit play. So be sure to mute and turn off the host camera before hitting that play button!

Assessing Success

After getting past all the technical parts of virtual field days, we are left with two additional challenges: 1) Assessing the educational impact of the event, and 2) Reaching more farmers and producers. As with the technical side, we are experimenting with effective evaluation and promotion practices.

Adapting our standard field day survey strategy to the virtual environment, we send a brief online survey to all participants immediately after the event using Qualtics XM. An email reminder is sent one week later. Response rates to the three virtual field day evaluations have been about the same as we typically receive for our standard two-week evaluations.

We are actively working to increase participation from farmers and landowners by sending direct mail and electronic invitations to field day participants from the past three years. We hope that by reaching out directly, we will be able to encourage increased participation in future events.

As we continue to improve the virtual field day experience, we are excited about the positive feedback we’ve heard. Virtual field days will not replace in-person field days but the ability to visit multiple sites and opening attendance to those beyond driving distance make them a good addition to the full outreach program. We do look forward to getting back into the fields. Until then, stay safe and we look forward to seeing (or hearing you) online!

Jackie Comito and Liz Ripley

May 20 Webinar: Wetland Ecosystem Services: How Wetlands Can Benefit Iowans

May is American Wetlands Month and Iowa Learning Farms will host a webinar on Wednesday, May 20 at noon about the importance of wetlands in Iowa.

Wetlands are important for all life in Iowa, due to the many ecosystem services they provide, such as water quality improvement, flood control and wildlife habitat. Since European settlement, Iowa has lost almost 90% of its wetland habitat, making it imperative that we both protect the wetlands that are left and find ways to create and restore critical wetland habitat. Kay Stefanik, Assistant Director of the Iowa Nutrient Research Center, will highlight the importance of wetlands and will introduce the different types of natural, created and restored wetlands that can be found in Iowa.

“I hope that webinar participants will take away a greater appreciate for wetlands in Iowa, as well as a desire to better protect wetland ecosystems from future harm,” said Stefanik, whose expertise is in wetland and aquatic ecology, where she has studied vegetation succession in created and restored wetlands, as well as nutrient cycling.

To participate in the live webinar, shortly before 12:00 pm CDT on May 20:

Click this URL, or type this web address into your internet browser: https://iastate.zoom.us/j/364284172

    Or, go to https://iastate.zoom.us/join and enter meeting ID: 364 284 172 

Or, join from a dial-in phone line:

    Dial: +1 312 626 6799 or +1 646 876 9923

    Meeting ID: 364 284 172

The webinar will also be recorded and archived on the ILF website, so that it can be watched at any time. Archived webinars are available at https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars.

A Certified Crop Adviser board-approved continuing education unit (CEU) has been applied for, for those who are able to participate in the live webinar. Information about how to apply to receive the credit (if approved) will be provided at the end of the live webinar.

Hilary Pierce

Can I add or improve a wetland on my farm?

To celebrate American Wetlands Month, I wanted to highlight how important they are here in Iowa and share how the Whole Farm Conservation Best Practices manual can helps match your goals with the right edge of field practice – like wetlands! Several types of wetlands can be used in agricultural settings, depending on your objectives.

Wetlands are crucial to meeting our Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy goals of reducing nitrogen and phosphorus losses. Beyond acting like a filter cleaning the water, these wetlands act like sponges absorbing and storing water aiding in both times of flooding and drought. Lastly these wetlands are incredible habitats to migratory and endangered species.

Considering improving and adding a wetland?

Some must-have pieces of information for determining if a wetland could be a suitable edge-of-field practice for the site include a soils map, profitability maps, and knowledge of relationships to district infrastructure if the site is in a drainage district. The decision tree below is a great place to start the planning process.

If the primary goal of a wetland is for water quality improvements, treatment wetlands help to remove nitrogen through conversion of nitrate-nitrogen to nitrogen gas by microbial activity and through plant uptake. Ideally, treatment wetlands should have a pool footprint greater than or equal to 1 percent of the watershed area to be treated. The topography of the site should allow for a drop in elevation from the tile outflow to the surface of the standing water in the wetland to prevent backflow of water into the tile drain system.

Additional land is needed to allow a diverse buffer of wetland vegetation to develop around the shallow water pool. If the wetland footprint is in an area that could experience high sediment flow, a sedimentation basin or other structure will need to be considered. It is also important that treatment wetlands remain fish-free to reduce sediment disturbance and prevent unwanted loss of sediment, phosphorus, and nitrogen from the system.

If the primary goal is to provide additional wetland habitat, identifying low-profitability wet zones within the field can reveal locations that could be planted in perennial wetland vegetation.

Be sure to tune in to our upcoming events featuring wetlands:

-Liz (Juchems) Ripley

Exploring the Case for Retiring (Or at Least Down-Sizing) the Mower on Farms and City Lots

On Wednesday, Iowa Learning Farms hosted a webinar about the benefits of reducing mowed land area across rural Iowa. Adam Janke, Assistant Professor and Extension Wildlife Specialist, discussed a project which considered the economic, ecological and aesthetic impacts of managing idle spaces differently.

Three different management scenarios were compared: traditional turfgrass, the “lazy lawnmower” and pollinator habitat establishment. In the traditional turfgrass management scenario, the space is planted to a monoculture and mowed weekly. In the “lazy lawnmower” scenario, mowing is done less frequently, about once every three weeks. Finally, in the pollinator habitat scenario, pollinator habitat is established in the area and managed to create a diverse source of nectar resources for pollinators.

The economic analysis of the three different management scenarios showed that both the “lazy lawnmower” and establishing pollinator habitat saved landowners money (and time, since their time was also valued in the analysis). Out of the three, the establishment of pollinator habitat had the lowest per acre cost per year. Janke also showed that, ecologically, there are no benefits to increased mowing.

Why maintain turfgrass when is is expensive and lacks environmental benefits? Literature on the subject acknowledges that this behavior might not be rational, but that it is part of our cultural norms. Worrying about what the neighbor might think of how you manage your land plays a big role in behavior. In order to increase adoption of different management scenarios for idle land, we need innovators who are trying out the practices and showing people that they can work.

Janke shared examples of three places that have adopted pollinator habitat instead of traditional turfgrass in idle areas. The image on the left shows a farmer who is a champion of monarch conservation who converted an idle area on his farm where to pollinator habitat. The middle image is from a farm that was part of a project with the Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium who partnered with pork producers to convert idle areas outside of livestock barns. Check out this video to learn more about this project. The image on the right shows pollinator habitat on idle land at Workiva in Ames, shortly after it was burned this spring as part of the management of the area.

To learn more about the benefits of managing idle land for pollinator habitat, or at least reducing how frequently they’re mowed, watch the full webinar here!

Be sure to join us next week when Kay Stefanik, Assistant Director of the Iowa Nutrient Research Center, will present a webinar titled: “Wetland Ecosystem Services: How Wetlands Can Benefit Iowans”.

Hilary Pierce

Wetland Ecosystem Services: How wetlands can benefit Iowans.

Kay Stefanik | Assistant Director, Iowa Nutrient Research Center

              Iowa was once a mosaic of prairies, wetlands, rivers, and forests.  Today, Iowa looks drastically different as agriculture now dominates the landscape.  Fertile prairie and wetland soils, which are ideal for row crop agriculture, have paved the way to a booming agricultural industry and led to Iowa being one of the top corn and soybean producing states in the country. 

              While agriculture is vital to the regional economy, all things in life come with trade-offs.  The rise of agriculture came at the expense of nature. Of Iowa’s natural ecosystems, wetlands have been particularly hard hit.  Prior to European settlement, wetlands made up almost 4 million acres of Iowa’s landscape.  Today, there are only about 422,000 acres of wetlands remaining; this is an 89% loss in wetland habitat.   

              At this point, you may be wondering “why does wetland loss matter”?  When a wetland is lost, we do not just lose a physical space.  We also lose the wetland’s ecosystem services – the essential direct and indirect benefits that nature provides to humans.  Even though wetlands are much harder to find today, the wetlands that do exist are still providing a variety of ecosystem services.  These ecosystems services include:

  • Flood prevention
  • Water quality improvements through nutrient and sediment removal
  • Wildlife habitat
  • Recreational opportunities
  • Food and fiber

              I am in no way implying that sides need to be taken, that it is agriculture or nature.  What I am suggesting is that not only can agriculture and nature coexist, but that nature can be used to improve agriculture.  By protecting wetlands already on the landscape, as well as strategically creating and restoring wetland habitat, we can increase the impacts of wetland ecosystem services.  Of interest in Iowa are the ability of wetlands to help with flood prevention and to improve water quality. 

              Flooding has become a major issue throughout Iowa over the last decade.  Wetlands placed along streams and rivers have the potential to capture surface runoff before stormwater reaches the stream and can also act to hold water from a river that spills over its banks.  This holding capacity prevents some of that floodwater from being immediately transported downstream.  By holding floodwater in place, downstream fields and developed areas may be spared from extreme flooding events and severe economic loss. 

              In addition to flood prevention, wetlands also help to improve water quality.   Wetlands receiving surface runoff can reduce phosphorus concentrations through the settling out of soil particles in the water column. The settled-out phosphorus becomes trapped in the wetland sediment and thus held on the landscape.  Wetlands that receive water with high dissolved nitrogen concentrations, usually ground water or tile line water, can reduce nitrogen through microbial conversion to nitrogen gas.  This nitrogen gas is then lost to the atmosphere, which is already about 78% nitrogen.  The ability of wetlands to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus can help us meet the 45% nutrient reduction goal laid out in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

              These wetland ecosystem services – flood prevention, water quality improvement, wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities, food, and fiber – give wetlands both instrumental and intrinsic value.  Wetlands have great potential to benefit the lives of all Iowans, but only if wetlands are allowed to exist in Iowa’s landscape.

Kay Stefanik

@kay_stefanik (Twitter)