Juchems Receives Outstanding New Professional Award at ISU

It’s May and that means it is American Wetlands Month. Normally, I would want to try to make my argument once again about how landowners should consider giving wetlands a second look on their land. Wetlands are a key component to Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy (learn more in Jake Hansen’s blog post titled Iowa CREP Wetlands) and often when farmed aren’t profitable (Should prairie potholes and other wet areas be farmed?). I know there is a history between landowners, wetlands and government regulation that sticks in many craws. But if we care about a sustainable and healthy Iowa, we need to rethink those issues going forward. Wetlands have important jobs to do in Iowa.

Instead of writing that column, I am dedicating this space to Iowa Learning Farms staff member, Liz Juchems, for recently receiving an Iowa State University Professional and Scientific Outstanding New Professional Award. This award reflects Liz’s commitment to Iowa State, her professional reputation and her esteem among her peers.

I have known Liz since she began working for the Iowa Learning Farms in 2008 as a student hourly employee while a freshman at ISU, and have been fortunate to work with her as our events coordinator since 2013. If you have been to any ILF field days over the last four years, you have Liz to thank for their quality and effectiveness.

Liz joined the team at a time when the ILF and Water Rocks! programs were starting to see substantial growth. Liz assumed not only the responsibility for coordinating farmer field days, but also coordinating all incoming requests for Iowa Learning Farms/Water Rocks! community outreach events (school visits, camps, youth outdoor classrooms, farmers markets, festivals and more) that are received annually – no small task with hundreds of event requests each year.

Over the last four years, the Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks! programs have grown significantly and have become widely recognized flagship conservation programs across Iowa. This is due in large part to Liz’s tremendous ability to keep track of details and ensure positive, clear communication internally and externally. We now average 30+ field days and 200+ outreach events each year, reaching 20,000+ people each year in quality educational encounters across Iowa!

With Iowa Learning Farms, Liz has also been instrumental in taking on a leadership role with field research/demonstrations, data collection, communications and outreach delivery. Since her hiring in 2013, the field research/demonstration arm of the Iowa Learning Farms has seen significant expansion and diversification, thanks in large part to being awarded multiple new research/demonstration grants. Each of these funded proposals involved the establishment of different cover crop trials across Iowa, collectively adding 20 new field research/demonstration sites statewide. Liz took the reigns as the farmer liaison, coordinating all project details with participating farmer-partners and research farm staff, as well as coordinating field data collection efforts with Iowa Learning Farms staff and student interns, training her co-workers on the appropriate protocols to follow both in the field and in the lab to ensure successful data collection.

However, data collection is just one portion of the job –another major component is how that content is delivered to the general public, making often complex science, social science and economic data accessible to farmers, other conservation stakeholders and youth across the state. A good example of her work is the ILF publication series titled Talking With Your Tenant that offers talking points and relevant research findings about a number of different conservation practices. Liz has grown into the role of being one of our team’s key educators on conservation issues in the state of Iowa.

For these and so many other reasons, Liz is more than deserving of this prestigious university honor. Quite simply, she is excellent! We are grateful to have her as a member of our team. Congratulations, Liz!

Jacqueline Comito

Working Together to Educate Youth in Dubuque

A few weeks back, the 4th and 5th students at St. Anthony and Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Schools in Dubuque were treated to high energy, highly interactive presentations from Water Rocks! … but these presentations were particularly special in that they featured a couple of local rock stars in the conservation world!

The Back Story:
As our Water Rocks! visit to St. Anthony & OLG was approaching, I realized it was going to be a pretty tight week for our small staff, and I’d likely be handling the event solo. However, situations like this also present the opportunity to partner with other conservation stakeholders across the state, and even better when it’s someone that’s already been trained on Water Rocks! materials.

Bev Wagner, with the Dubuque Metropolitan Area Solid Waste Agency, has participated in multiple Water Rocks! workshops in the past, including the Water Rocks! Summit, so she has been trained on a variety of the unique hands-on games and activities that we utilize in the classroom. Knowing I was headed to Dubuque, I knew exactly who to call upon!

I connected with Bev right away to see if she might be available to help out and co-present with me, and within a matter of minutes, she responded, “I am available the whole day and would love to help out.” With a smiley face. :)

A few days in advance of my trip to Dubuque, Bev contacted me and asked if her student helper, Ruth, an education student at Loras College, could also come and help out. YES, absolutely!

Fast Forward to Game Day:
Bev, Ruth and I met 30 minutes ahead of time, getting everything loaded into the classroom, set up for the interactive presentation, and we quickly talked through the content. Our topic of the day was The Wonderful World of Wetlands (read more about it in our earlier blog post Wetlands Outreach: Tools of the Trade). The first class of the day, I took the lead in presenting; Bev and Ruth observed while also actively assisting with handing out materials to the students, awarding prizes, etc.

With one class under our belts, Bev and Ruth were both feeling more comfortable with the content, so from that point forward, we tag-teamed the entire 50-minute presentation. We started off with an audio listening tour of wetlands, describing the creatures that live there and what the environment might look like. Ruth showed the class an image of wetlands as we connected that with the listening field trip the students had just gone on. Bev guided the students in talking through all of the different names that wetlands go by, calling on students to share one of the names and then saying it out loud together as a class.

We then jumped in with the characteristics that make wetlands unique (hydric soils, presence of water, and vegetation). That was followed by the 3 jobs that wetlands perform – there were 3 of us, so each one took a job (and its corresponding prop) and explained it to the class!  I started off with a filter (water purification), Ruth followed with a sponge (water storage), and Bev concluded with the house (representing habitat).

Bev and Ruth led the classes in discussing the amazing diversity of plants, animals, microorganisms, and other life found in wetlands – as much biodiversity in Iowa’s wetlands as is found in the Amazon rainforest!  We talked about how wetlands are especially important to migratory creatures – birds and butterflies.

Students then got the opportunity to summon their inner birds for an intense game of Habitat Hopscotch!  Bev was the keeper of the (infamous) “situation jar” which housed different situations that impacted wetlands, while Ruth and I acted as the “bird police,” ensuring that students were landing in the correct squares and sending them to bird prison when they stepped out. Being a Catholic school, one of the 4th grade students asked if instead of bird prison, could we call it “bird heaven”? Priceless!

After 5-6 rousing rounds of Habitat Hopscotch, it was pretty clear that the loss of wetlands has a serious impact on migratory birds. Iowa has lost ~90% of its original wetlands, so that means protecting the remaining 10% of wetlands is critically important!

One 5th grade student responded, “I think we all need to #(HASHTAG) Save The Wetlands!

It was then time to move on to our other big game, Wetlands BINGO!  Again, Bev and Ruth were awesome helpers. Bev was our official BINGO caller, while Ruth and I called out the names of corresponding creatures found in wetlands. Each one of us chipped in with fun facts about the different creatures, as well as sharing which ones were our favorites. When a student got a BINGO, we worked together to come up with a simple trivia question to test their knowledge before awarding a prize from our treasure chest. The 50 minutes with each class passes by so quickly with all the games and hands-on activities involved!

By the end of the day, we had presented to five different classes of students, and I’m pleased to say that not only did the students have a whole lot of fun, they also learned a whole lot about wetland ecosystems and their importance on our landscape. Further, this school visit was a great success in terms of the collaborative teaching effort – a win-win all around!  Bev and Ruth were awesome to work with, and it was fantastic to have local conservation personnel involved helping out with Water Rocks! as well as connecting with the local teachers and students. We look forward to more opportunities like this in the future. All in all, it was a great success —  one of those days when you go home really feeling like you made a difference. And that’s a great feeling.

Ann Staudt

Iowans Walk on the Wild Side

In my first year in Iowa, I’ve found an engaged and motivated citizenry that values wildlife and their habitats. No wonder – Iowa has produced a disproportionate number of 20th century leaders in wildlife conservation, including William Hornaday, Jay “Ding” Darling, John Lacey, and Aldo Leopold. Proof of this commitment lies in Iowan’s support for each of our 99 locally funded County Conservation Boards, a model unique and perfectly suited for the state.

Further proof lies in the outcome of a 2010 vote where 63% of Iowans voted in favor of a self-imposed tax and constitutional amendment to provide permanent funding for natural resource conservation and education. Additionally, a survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that 1.3 million people in Iowa participate in wildlife-associated recreation and spend $1.5 billion doing so annually. Wildlife and wildlife habitats matter to Iowans, our economy, and our land.

Plenty of challenges remain. The meritorious work of public and non-governmental entities to preserve unique habitats in our state only amasses to about 3% of the land area.  Between one and two million acres are annually enrolled in federal conservation practices that provide wildlife habitat. But even when combined with lands in public ownership, these conservation lands are only a drop in the bucket of Iowa’s 36 million acres. Thus, the challenge of preserving our rich wildlife heritage rides on the backs of the collective impact of small actions taken by all landowners in our state.

Wildlife conservation challenges are driven by changes to natural ecosystems in our agricultural landscapes. This is where the opportunities lie, because just as wildlife populations track changes in natural ecosystems, so too do many other important ecosystem services. Wildlife are thus one additional beneficiary of sustainable land use practices and should therefore serve as one more bargaining chip in extolling the benefits and promise of conservation efforts that unite every sector and every resident in Iowa.

We’ve all got a stake in this, and as we see improved soil health and water quality, we’ll see more pheasants and meadowlarks. That sounds like a win-win to me and I’m excited to learn how I can collaborate with the Iowa Learning Farms in the years to come.

Adam Janke

Dr. Adam Janke recently joined the ILF team in an advisory role, and will be a regular contributor to the ILF blog. Hear more of Janke’s perspectives on conservation and wildlife issues on the Conservation Chat podcast!

5 More Lessons Learned with Rye Cover Crops

A cereal rye cover crop is one of the few cover crop species that has been consistently successful in Iowa in corn-soybean rotations because it can be planted late in the fall and survives Iowa winters. A month or so ago, we shared 5 Lessons Learned with Rye Cover Crops, highlighting key findings from our Iowa Learning Farms long term rye cover crop study.

However, there have been very few long-term studies that have demonstrated improved soil health with rye or other cover crops in corn-soybean rotations in Iowa or the Upper Midwest (including our Iowa Learning Farms’ long term rye study, which has documented yield neutrality but has not shown definitive soil health improvements).

Dr. Tom Kaspar, soil scientist with the USDA-ARS National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment and recent winner of the 2016 Spencer Award for Sustainable Agriculture, has been researching cover crops in Iowa since 1990, long before cover crops were trendy! Kaspar and his team are conducting one of, if not the, longest running cover crop studies in the state of Iowa. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Tom Kaspar and have a conversation about some of his long term cover crop work, which is conducted on one of the same fields where we’re conducting earthworm midden counts. I’d like to showcase a few of his findings that document some definitive improvements in soil health thanks to cover crops!

The experimental site for this project is in central Iowa (ISU Boyd Research Farm, outside of Boone). A corn silage-soybean rotation with no till was established in 2001 and both phases of the rotation were present in each year. Two treatments were evaluated: a rye cover crop following both corn silage and soybean and a no rye (control) treatment. The rye cover crop was planted after silage or soybean harvest with a grain drill and killed with glyphosate in the spring.

Thanks to Dr. Kaspar and his team, here are 5 more lessons learned with rye cover crops:

 

 

1. Over time, cereal rye cover crops increase soil organic matter.

After 10 years the rye cover crop had increased soil organic matter, particulate organic matter, and potential N mineralization particularly in the top 5cm of soil. Soil organic matter was also increased significantly in the 5- to 10-cm layer.

It is important to consider that these were difficult measurements to make, with over 600 cores taken over two years in the treatment strips, which covered a total of about 1 acre – that’s some truly intensive sampling!

Kaspar’s team was careful not to sample in wheel tracks or old crop rows because samples taken from these areas can obscure the cover crop effect. The team also sampled in both soybean and corn silage plots each year.  Kaspar says that many studies in either farmers’ fields or research plots do not take enough samples to detect changes in soil organic matter because of soil variability, year-to-year variations, or the slow rate of change.

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2. Soil aggregation is better with rye cover crops.

After fifteen years of cover crops, soil sampling indicated that wet aggregate stability for all aggregate size classes above 0.25 mm increased with the rye cover crop.  Better aggregate stability means that aggregates don’t break down when hit by raindrops or covered with water. When aggregates break apart the small soil pieces can clog the pores or holes in the soil and this causes a crust to form at the soil surface, severely limiting water infiltration.

Large stable soil aggregates and a mixture of aggregate sizes are important for healthy soils. Together they create spaces and channels that allow movement of air and water. Further, water, organic matter, and nitrogen are often stored inside aggregates. Thus, by improving aggregation cover crops can help to retain soil moisture and nitrogen, which can add resiliency for crops in times of highly variable precipitation patterns.

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3. Rye cover crops decrease runoff and erosion.

Thirteen years after the first rye cover crops were planted, a simulated rainfall was applied to evaluate cover crop effects on runoff and erosion. In the presence of a living rye cover crop (fall), it took longer before runoff began to occur and there was less runoff and sediment (erosion) after an hour of rainfall compared with no cover crop strips.  The longer time to first runoff and less total runoff in the rye cover crop strips indicates that more of the rainfall infiltrated (more of the rainfall soaked into the soil rather than ran down slope).

Kaspar speculates that the rye cover crop plants protect the soil from being dislodged by raindrop impact and that cover crop roots help to hold soil particles in place.  Additionally, the improved soil structure from soil organic matter, aggregation, and earthworm activity create more channels and spaces in the soil, which allows the soil to soak up and store water more rapidly.

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4. Earthworm populations respond to cover crop as a food source and reflect improvements in soil health, serving as an early biological indicator.

Earthworms love the year-round food source that cover crops provide.  Our ILF team found the common nightcrawler, Lumbricus terrestris, to be present in significantly greater abundance in Kaspar’s fields in the strips with a cereal rye cover crop. Not all corn and soybean fields have nightcrawlers, but in fields that do, nightcrawler populations can be estimated by counting their middens (read our previous blog Earthworms serve as Indicator of Soil Health for more details).

Kaspar’s team also counted earthworms (L. terrestris and Aporrectodea spp.) by “encouraging” them to come to the surface using a device to pass an electrical current through the soil.  Counts and weights of worms collected this way also showed higher numbers and mass of worms in the cover crop strips than in the no cover crop strips. Earthworms improve soil health by chewing up and partially digesting residues, by mixing soil and residues to form aggregates, and by leaving channels through the soil.

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5. Cereal rye following corn silage (vs. corn harvested for grain) allows for early fall planting and maximum cover crop growth.

Planting cereal rye following corn silage is a win-win. Thanks to early fall harvest of corn silage, cover crop drilling can take place much earlier than after corn grain harvest and there is a longer window for more fall cover crop growth.  In this study, removal of most of the corn residue with silage harvest likely accentuated differences in soil health due to cover crops and made differences easier to measure. Cover crops following silage = a match made in heaven!

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With proper management, cereal rye cover crops can be successfully integrated into Iowa’s corn and soybean cropping systems. Further, rye cover crops with good growth over many years can protect and improve or maintain the health of our good Iowa soils for future generations.
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Ann Staudt

Wildlife Specialist joins ILF Team

Iowa Learning Farms is thrilled to announce the newest addition to its team, Dr. Adam Janke, joining the ILF team in an advisory role. As an Assistant Professor and Extension Wildlife Specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, Janke offers unique perspectives on conservation, wildlife, and working lands that will compliment the work ILF is doing across the state to build a culture of conservation.

Growing up in a duck hunting family, his conservation ethic and passion for wildlife, especially waterfowl, certainly run deep.

Janke has Midwestern roots as a native of Indiana, and his educational pursuits have taken him on a journey across much of America’s heartland, including stops at Purdue University (BS), Ohio State University (MS), and South Dakota State University (PhD). Having recently completed his first full year at Iowa State University, Janke is now the GO-TO GUY for all things wildlife in the state of Iowa, whether it be bats in the attic, chronic wasting disease in deer, or managing for habitat within our vast working lands across Iowa.

You can get to know Adam Janke and his vision for wildlife habitat integrated within agricultural working lands through the Conservation Chat podcast.  Tune in to Episode 29 of the Conservation Chat, just recently released, to hear Janke’s perspectives on wildlife habitat, conservation and more.

Janke addresses the connections between hunting and wildlife conservation, a rich legacy across North America of sustainably managing populations and sustainably managing the lands they live on. He also shares perspectives on how ducks and other waterfowl, over the years, have been great catalysts for wetland protection and practices that support water quality. While still early in his career, Janke shares long-term goals for increasing wildlife habitat across Iowa, in partnership with ILF and beyond …

When listening to the podcast, it’s pretty clear that Dr. Janke is super enthusiastic about what he does! And we are super enthusiastic about him joining the ILF team. Keep an eye out for his friendly face at upcoming field days, on our blog and E-newsletter, and we’ll also be working together on the Master Conservationist program (and more) in the coming months.

Welcome, Adam!

Ann Staudt

Cover crop researcher Tom Kaspar receives Spencer Award

Congratulations to our friend and collaborator, Dr. Tom Kaspar, on receiving the Spencer Award for Sustainable Agriculture yesterday!

Long regarded as the grandfather of cover crops here in the state of Iowa, USDA-ARS plant physiologist Tom Kaspar is certainly one of the leading voices on cover crops across the Midwest.  He was one of the “founding fathers” of the Midwest Cover Crops Council, and his collaborative work over the years has investigated and documented the benefits and challenges of cover crops in corn and soybean cropping systems, ranging from impacts on water quality, soil health, nutrient cycling, and more.

We are grateful to Tom for serving as a guest speaker at countless Iowa Learning Farms field days and workshops over the years, sharing his findings with farmers, landowners, and other ag partners across the state. We are also grateful for his efforts in guiding the work of the Iowa Cover Crop Working Group, including our long-term on-farm rye study and our study of earthworms and cover crops.

Kaspar has amassed years of experience investigating not only soil health and cover crops, but also connections with no till, minimum tillage, climatic variations, disease, pathogens, and more. To hear some great perspectives from the man himself, check out Episode 6 of the Conservation Chat podcast, in which host Jackie Comito talks cover crops with Dr. Tom Kaspar.

Kaspar was also featured in our August 2015 Iowa Learning Farms webinar, presenting on Reaching the Full Potential of Cover Crops in Iowa.  Stay tuned to the blog, as well — we’ll be highlighting some of Kaspar’s cover crop findings here in the next week or so.

In the meantime, congratulations to Tom for an honor that is very well deserved!

Ann Staudt

 

From the Director: The Best-Kept Secret in Iowa

You know what I learned from the 207 people who attended one of our five  Iowa Learning Farms regional workshops this winter? Wetlands are one of the best-kept secrets in Iowa in terms of their benefits! Not one single person mentioned them in response to the question “What are the practices that are most effective for improving water quality in your area?”

Matt Helmers said to me after we were leaving the third of five meetings, “Golly, we still have a lot of education and outreach to do about wetlands.”

I would agree. Wetlands play a key role of reducing nitrogen in Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Strategically designed and sited wetlands can reduce nitrate loads to downstream water bodies by 40-70%. Currently we have around 80 of the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) wetlands in the state. The NRS calls for 7,600 of them if we hope meet its goal. To read more about the importance of wetlands, check out Ann’s blog Wetlands and Water Quality.

That calls for a HUGE amount of human and financial capital. It also opens amazing economic and job creating opportunity for us. As Matt told me, “I would love to be training our ISU students to be out there designing and building CREP wetlands throughout the state.”

Beyond the water quality benefits and the job opportunities from siting 7,000 wetlands in our state, wetlands and the lands surrounding them will help bring needed pollinators and other biodiversity to our state.

Finally, as Matt argues in his blog earlier this week about returning to pasturelands, wetlands add beauty to our landscape. If you don’t believe me, screen our award-winning documentary Incredible Wetlands.

Keep your eye on our blog to hear more of what we learned from participants during the regional workshops. We hope to create a more positive learning experience through a Rapid Needs Assessment and Response (RNR) technique. To read more about our unique approach, check out Brandy’s blog RNR is a Favorite for Conservation Workshops.

Jacqueline Comito