Inspiration through Exploration

Today’s guest blog post comes from student intern Kaleb Baber, majoring in Agronomy and minoring in Geology at Iowa State University. Kaleb grew up on a family farm near Weston, MO, where he grew sweet corn, raised beef cattle, and was actively involved in FFA. We’re thrilled to have Kaleb back for a second summer in the Water Resources Internship Program!

For every classroom visit, the Water Rocks! team makes sure to leave time for students to ask us questions. On a visit near the beginning of my internship this summer, we had just finished presenting a lesson on watersheds when a student posed a question that caught me off guard. He asked, “What inspires you to do this?”

My coworkers and I all stared at each other like deer in headlights. It was a simple question, but one none of us had given much thought to. What did inspire me? Why did I care so much about water resources? Panic began to set in. I wanted to give a thoughtful answer to the student, but my mind was drawing a blank. With a room full of fifth graders starting up at me, I finally came up with something.

When I think about water, some of my favorite memories come to mind. I love being outdoors, so naturally I am outside whenever I have the chance. Growing up, it was a summer tradition for my family to go fishing in Ontario. I did not realize it at the time, but looking back now I realize that those family vacations when I was little helped shape my interests going forward.

Since those fishing trips, I have been fortunate enough to travel to some truly amazing places. In some places, like Yosemite Valley, the role of water in the landscape is obvious as waterfalls tumble over the towering walls of granite forged by massive glaciers. In other places, like the endless red sandstone of southern Utah, water is rarely seen. However, its effects have made a lasting impression by sculpting incredible rock formations through weathering and erosion.

From the secluded lakes of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to the powerful Colorado River that carved the Grand Canyon, water and its influences are all around us. Water is one of our most important natural resources, and I firmly believe that the best way to understand that is to go experience it firsthand. I am so grateful to have had these adventures, and I know for a fact that my passion for the outdoors began as a child on my family’s fishing trips to Ontario.

So to answer the student’s question, what inspires me to intern for Water Rocks! and Iowa Learning Farms is the memories I have made thanks to our water resources. Those memories inspire me to go outside and get up close and personal with nature. They inspire me to do my part in conserving our natural resources. And most of all, they inspire me to share the importance of clean, healthy water with others in hopes that they will make memories of their own.

Kaleb Baber

 

Introducing Conservation Station ON THE EDGE!

There’s a whole lot of interest and excitement these days in edge-of-field conservation practices like woodchips bioreactors and saturated buffers. But how do you tell the story of these conservation practices, hidden underground, that reduce nitrate loads and benefit water quality?

Combine an empty cargo trailer, engineering prowess, mad graphic design skills, some superb printers, and creative, out-of-the-box thinking that Iowa Learning Farms is known for, and you get the Conservation Station ON THE EDGE!

The trailer fleet actually dates back more than ten years now. Back in 2007, there was the Iowa Learning Farms Conservation Systems Portable Rainfall Simulator (that’s a mouthful!). The trailers as we now know them were launched in 2010 with the original big blue Conservation Station (infamously referred to, by me, as a “conservation circus” in a news interview).  The name resonated and the demand continued to grow … to the point of eventually having three Conservation Station trailers on the road, showcasing different land management practices, both agricultural and urban, and their impacts on water quality and soil health.

Fast forward to 2017. As more and more attention has been drawn to edge-of-field conservation practices, Jackie Comito and Matt Helmers proposed the idea of creating a new portable display that would specifically highlight these edge-of-field practices. And thus, in summer 2017, the idea for Conservation Station ON THE EDGE was born.

It would be almost a complete year before the trailer was fully functional and road ready, but it was worth the wait!  Take a look at the timeline and several of the behind-the-scenes steps to make it all happen …

First things first, the trailer was re-wrapped to show off its rebranding as Conservation Station ON THE EDGE. It was designed to be visually harmonious with the existing Conservation Station trailer fleet, yet have its own identity for promoting edge-of-field practices.

In fall 2017, the bioreactor and saturated buffer models and turntable were constructed by Agri Drain Corporation. Operation of the models was finalized here on campus by Matt Helmers and Carl Pederson in the Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering – as this type of project often is, it was a last minute push to get it finalized in time to be debuted at ISU’s Watershed Academy.

And on October 24, 2017, Conservation Station ON THE EDGE made its maiden voyage!  The watershed coordinators were excited about the models and the potential for helping farmers and landowners better understand how these edge-of-field conservation practices work.

The watershed coordinators in attendance also offered some outstanding suggestions for improving the models – like adding a center divider to differentiate between the bioreactor and saturated buffer, and integrating some additional graphics. At this point, the models were functional, but certainly had room for improvement in terms of enhancing their educational value. We were just glad to have the models working, even if they were being held in place by bungee cords!

However, we took the watershed coordinators’ feedback to heart over the next several months. Our Iowa Learning Farms graphic design team went to town this spring designing new posters that would help visitors take a step back and see how nitrates actually move … why these edge-of-field practices are important in the “suite of practices” needed to improve water quality.

Scientific illustrations were created in house (big shout out to Nathan Stevenson!) to visually depict the inner workings of these practices, down to the microbial scale (denitrification), to be shown on the inside of the bioreactor and saturated buffer models. We worked with Country Plastics to add a center divider between the models, which provided an outstanding “canvas” for additional text and graphics. The models were completely re-plumbed to accommodate these additions.

When it came time to install the graphics, ISU Printing & Copy Services was a critically important partner in making this all happen!  The graphics themselves looked good on screen, but it wasn’t until we saw them printed full scale on adhesive vinyl car wrap that it really all came together! Lorraine and Dan with ISU Printing Services came out to the trailer in mid-May to install the graphics on site. It was fascinating to watch the process – the backing was peeled off, then each individual graphic was carefully installed with soapy water.

Finally, it’s the little details that make all the difference!  Fake turf grass was added on top to illustrate that bioreactors and saturated buffers are actually found underground. Arrows were added to the PVC pipes, indicating direction of flow and what was found in each pipe.

 

And with that, Conservation Station ON THE EDGE was road ready for its second “maiden” voyage – back to the spring version of ISU’s Watershed Academy!  We, along with the watershed coordinators, were thrilled with the improvements, and we are excited to be presenting at events all across the state this summer. Keep an eye out for the trailer at an event near you!

Would you like to request Conservation Station ON THE EDGE for an event you are planning?  To request Conservation Station ON THE EDGE, email Liz Juchems at ejuchems@iastate.edu. We are currently accepting requests for fall 2018 and beyond.

Conservation Station ON THE EDGE is a collaboration of:

Ann Staudt

Pollinator Power

Today’s guest blog post is provided by Megan Koppenhafer, part of the Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach program, serving with Water Rocks! in 2017-2018.

Lawn care consumes many families as the weather warms and things start to green up. This year as you foster your lawn we would like to encourage responsible lawn care to support our precious pollinators. Pollinators help keep our crops and gardens growing. You may have heard a lot of conversation about planting pollinator gardens to provide habitat and food for these little critters. These gardens are a great solution for protecting our pollinators, but a more holistic approach is even better.

Lawn mowing frequency was explored in a study titled To mow or to mow less: Lawn mowing frequency affects bee abundance and diversity in suburban yards by Susannah B. Lerman, Alexandra R. Contosta, Joan Milam, and Christofer Bang.

The researchers found that mowing the lawn less frequently, every two or three weeks as opposed to every week, provided more grass biomass and flower abundance for the bees in an herbicide free yard. Three weeks provide a more ideal diversity in bee species, while two week mowing regimens led to the highest overall abundance of bees.

What does all this mean for the average lawn grower? Well, it shows that there is a low cost alternative for those lawn mowers looking to preserve bee habitat. Not applying herbicides or insecticides will benefit those bees by preserving the habitat and by directly removing a pollinator exterminator. Here’s your excuse to mow a little less often and enjoy the spontaneous lawn flowers a little more!

Example of a typical yard from the Lerman, et al. study. The minimal landscaping and bare patches in the lawns were common. The yard sign explained project objectives and informed neighbors about their role in improving the sustainability of their neighborhoods.

For more information please check out the full article, To mow or to mow less: Lawn mowing frequency affects bee abundance and diversity in suburban yards, by Lerman et. al. Also, check out this Proper Lawn Mowing guide by ISU Extension and Outreach to keep your yard looking green when you do go to mow it!

Megan Koppenhafer

Field Day Recap: Management Matters with Cover Crops!

Cover crops and conservation leases were the theme of an Iowa Learning Farms Women Landowners Cover Crop Workshop held in Marshalltown on June 7.  While cover crops offer numerous benefits out on the landscape, one common theme emerged clearly from the workshop presentations and discussion  — it all comes down to active management when integrating a cover crop.

Allen Burt, who farms 3 miles north of Marshalltown, kicked off the workshop by sharing his experience with cover crops and some of his key management considerations.

He emphasized, “Start with something easy.”  In Burt’s playbook, that means getting oats out on soybean ground as soon as you can in September (drill or broadcast), let them winterkill, and then plant corn into that in the spring.

On corn ground, he suggests starting with cereal rye and a little bit of starter fertilizer (something like a 10-23-23 mix) after the corn is harvested, ideally in early October. The cereal rye will survive over the winter, and then Burt recommends terminating in the spring with glyphosate.

Burt’s recommendations align nicely with the Iowa Learning Farms’ findings, as well, shared at the workshop by Liz Juchems, Conservation Outreach Specialist.

Juchems also shared findings about yield impacts following cover crops. Farmer-partners working with cereal rye reported that in 59 of 63 site-years, strips with cover crops were yield neutral compared to strips without a cover crop – no negative impact on corn and soybean yields. The only significant yield declines were in the first two “learning” years of this long-term study, when producers faced challenges regarding spring termination and planter adjustments to accommodate the additional residue from the cover crop. Over time, those management challenges were overcome to realize cover crop success.

Interwoven with the presentations was an earthworm midden counting hands-on demonstration, as well as lively discussion and dialogue from the 25 people in attendance, including area landowners, operators, and conservation/ag professionals.

One producer in attendance brought up, “The #1 problem in farming today is soil erosion.”  Another producer added to that, commenting that a close second in terms of challenges today is the perception of “This is the way we’ve always done it,” acknowledging there can be some resistance to new practices like cover crops, despite the benefits to reducing erosion, benefitting soil structure, etc.

Charles Brown, Farm Management Specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, noted, “When you talk about using cover crops, it’s a different management practice – you can’t just do the same thing you’ve always done.”  He shared with the group his own experience with growing cover crops, as well as numerous suggestions for landowners and operators to work together to integrate cover crops into a written conservation lease.

Farmer Allen Burt emphasized, “As a producer, my message for you is, ‘Get out there and try it!  If you have the right attitude, you can do it! … Cover crops are a small investment to make things better in the long run.”

Ann Staudt

This workshop was put on as a partnership of Iowa Learning Farms and Marshall Co. Farm Bureau.

The Crowd Goes Home: End of Assembly Season

Today’s guest blog post is provided by Jack Schilling, part of the Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach program, serving with Water Rocks! in 2017-2018.

The weather outside has warmed up (albeit a bit too fast) and students have headed home for summer vacation – that means another school assembly season comes to a close. These assemblies have been one of the integral parts of my service as an AmeriCorps service member, and it’s almost a sad farewell to see them end. I travelled all over the state to many different schools, from Council Bluffs to Decorah, even up into South Dakota for assemblies this year. But, what’s the point of the assembly program? What does it do that our classroom visits can’t?

One of the advantages that a Water Rocks! Assembly has over a classroom visit is the sheer number of students that can be taught at one time. Each classroom presentation we do is only one class at a time, but one assembly can be shown to half the school at once, hundreds of students at a time, allowing more students to get the Water Rocks! experience and learn about our soil and water conservation practices. Plus, with how the assembly program teaches, the larger crowds mean more energy from the students during the fun moments!

Another thing the assembly programs bring to the table is, of course, the singing and dancing. Every assembly starts with the Water Rocks! theme song, complete with singing and dancing from the audience. Each lesson is grounded in sound science, with break points built in for songs, where students can come up to the microphones and sing or help us with the dance moves. The main thing emphasized in assemblies is crowd participation. The more the audience wants to come up and have fun with us, the more likely they are to listen when we teach the natural resources lesson, especially when both go hand-in-hand.

All in all, what really does it for the assembly program is a combination of the singing and dancing, the engaging science lessons, and the scale of the assemblies themselves. Water Rocks! Assemblies truly provide a unique experience for the schools and the students that get to watch and enjoy – especially when we sing crazy songs like Scoop the Poop!

Water Rocks! is currently booking Assemblies for the 2018-19 school year!  The cost is $350 per school. Contact Todd Stevens, Music and Outreach Specialist at todds1@iastate.edu to get a date locked in for the upcoming year!

Jack Schilling

Water Rocks! On the Air!

Here at Water Rocks!, we’re thrilled to have been featured yesterday on Iowa Public Radio’s Talk of Iowa program. It was a fantastic opportunity to share the story of how Water Rocks! integrates music, science, and a whole lot of fun to engage youth on natural resources issues both in and out of the classroom! The radio spot also featured live music performed in studio by two of our own, Jacqueline Comito and Todd Stevens. They highlighted a variety of musical genres which embody the Water Rocks! spirit and are performed live with students in the Water Rocks! Music Assemblies, including “What Does a River Want To Do?” and “Watershed Rap.”

Check out the full story, A Lesson from Education Program, Water Rocks: “Don’t Treat Mother Earth like Dirt,” on the Iowa Public Radio website.  You can listen to the complete program there! Iowa Public Radio streams and stories are also available on three apps: the Iowa Public Radio app, Public Radio Player, and TuneIn.

Ann Staudt

Weather Permitting: Outdoor Classrooms Return

Today’s guest blog post is provided by Jack Schilling, part of the Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach program, serving with Water Rocks! in 2017-2018.

Spring has sprung in Iowa, finally. The state is warming up, and (weather permitting) will continue to do so. The transition from January 107th to spring has certainly been abrupt, but it’s finally time to enjoy the outdoors. I got my first chance to go out and deliver our Water Rocks! program outside with an outdoor classroom just recently, and the experience was a blast! But, what makes an outdoor classroom different than our normal indoor classroom visits?

For starters, the visit is outdoors (hence the name). The differences between being indoors and outdoors offer some unique pros and cons. One of the best pros is just being able to be outside and enjoy the weather, especially now that it’s cooperating. However, this can also be a big con if the wind tries to blow our supplies away! The pros of being outside, including having students in a location directly related to the environmental topics discussed in our lessons, greatly outweighs the cons.

Another key difference is how we present. Typically, an outdoor classroom will be in a rotating format with other activities for students to visit throughout the day. This all usually takes place at a local nature center or county park. The students tend to be with us for less time, but that allows us to rotate through and see more youth in a shorter amount of time than usual, and we are always able to compensate on time.

The last main difference is what we bring. We typically bring one of our Conservation Station trailers with us to outdoor classrooms. The trailers have chairs for us to set up for students to sit in, tables to set up our supplies, and other miscellaneous supplies we may need, depending on what lesson we teach that day.

All in all, outdoor classroom events are a great way for our team to get some new scenery for class visits, and is a great way for students to connect with nature in person while learning about the land in their home county, and it’s always a blast to be a part of it.

Jack Schilling