Incubating New Ideas at the Drainage Research Forum

Matt Helmers | Professor in Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering and Extension Agriculture Engineer, Iowa State University 

In my last column, I wrote about how we needed to scale up the human resources significantly in order to meet some of the goals of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. This month, I would like to assert that it is also critical we continue efforts on new technology development and research on the performance of practices – specifically new practices.

05-17 Bioreactor

Bioreactor Installation in Monroe Co. Iowa

One outlet for developing new ideas is the Iowa-Minnesota Drainage Research Forum. While edge-of-field nitrate reduction practices such as controlled drainage, bioreactors, wetlands, and saturated buffers are now household names, they were first discussed at the Drainage Research Forums when they were just preliminary ideas with some preliminary data. This event serves as an incubator for innovation to help us get feedback about how these practices might work.

The Drainage Research Forum is in its seventeenth year and was held in Ames this year. I have been attending these forums since I stated at Iowa State. The Forum averages around 75 people, mainly engineers and researchers from across the Midwest. Basically, when we present the new idea or practice at this forum, we are asking our colleagues to give us input on whether they think it will work on a larger scale and to see if anyone in the room can point out our flaws or give us another way to approach it. They can be really engaging and important discussions.


You can download most of the past Forum presentations from the Drainage Outlet website through University of Minnesota Extension.


Much of the initial funding for these types of unknown practices were from state agencies and local centers such as the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. These groups could be nimble and see the need and understand that small initial investments could lead to great outcomes and larger research funding which has happened in almost all cases.

So while we continue working on implementation of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy and continue with efforts to education farmers and other stakeholders about practices they can use to reduce downstream nutrient loss, we need to continue the behind the scenes efforts to develop new practices for nutrient reduction, conduct research to refine recommendations for practice implementation, and conduct research to enhance the performance of practices.

Drainage Forum 2017

Drainage Forum held in Ames, Iowa on November 15, 2017

In order to do this, we need forums like the Drainage Research Forum to help develop the innovation needed to develop practices or different approaches to old ones. Forums that bring together smaller groups of people with initial ideas and data to help them see how that information will work on the land.

The Iowa Learning Farms team likes to tease me about how excited I get to attend the Drainage Research Forum. They are right. It is one of my favorite gatherings. Some or much of that excitement comes from knowing I will get to learn about cutting edge practices, technology or management approaches that are in their early stages. I look forward to hearing what new ideas are discussed at the next seventeen (or more!) Drainage Research Forums. You are welcome to join us in 2018.

Matt Helmers

Time for your Soil Health Check Up!

Today’s guest post is by Marty Adkins, Assistant State Conservationist for Iowa Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), a member of the Iowa Learning Farms Steering Committee.

I had my yearly medical check-up last week.  It was a routine visit, time to have prescriptions refilled and get my flu shot.  It was also a good time to chat with my doctor about my overall health and to ask questions.

Check up clip boardAs we round the corner from one crop year to the next, it’s a good opportunity to conduct a “check-up” of soil health, too.  Only living things can have health, and soils are amazing, complex living ecosystems.  Soils are home to organisms that cycle nutrients, build water-holding capacity and help make soils “spongy” to capture precipitation.  And remember, the health of the soil on your farm will affect the health of your bank account, now and in the future.

The Iowa Soil Health Assessment Card is a helpful tool for assessing soil health. Soil Health Assessment Card

Use the Card, and a spade, to check on some key soil health indicators this fall:

  • Root growth – Are roots growing vertically and penetrating into the soil with lots of fine roots?  That’s a good sign.  Roots traveling horizontally signal soil compaction which limits root growth and crop yields.
  • Soil structure – Does your soil have the look of cottage cheese, with stable aggregates and lots of pore space?  If so, great!  On the other hand, hard, massive clods indicate your soil structure needs attention.
  • Water holding capacity – Did water soak in or run off this past year?  Did you have fields that experienced drought stress earlier than expected?  If so, it’s likely time to re-think tillage practices that burn off water-storing organic matter.

To build soil health, keep in mind the following principles:

  • Minimize soil disturbance – Over time, tillage reduces soil’s ability to soak in and hold water.  It also leaves soil susceptible to erosion and nutrient loss.
  • Maintain plant diversity – through crop rotations and cover crops.  Plant diversity leads to more diversity in soil microorganisms, and also helps break up disease and pest cycles.
  • Living roots growing throughout the year – to feed soil microorganisms and keep nitrates in the root zone where they can be used in the next crop.
  • Keep the soil covered to help prevent erosion and to moderate root zone temperatures.  Crop residues left on the soil surface will decompose in place, helping to build soil organic matter.

Check-ups aren’t just for people.  Monitoring and working to improve soil health is important for your farm, too.

Marty Adkins

Cover Crops & Risk Management Field Days Set for Nov. 13 and Nov. 21

In addition to our cover crop field day series, be sure to attend one of the upcoming cover crops and risk management field days!

 

Join farmer hosts, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey and conservation partners for an upcoming Cover Crops and Risk Management Field Day on Monday, November 13, near Corning or Tuesday, November 21, in Slater. These events will highlight the benefits of cover crops and discuss potential for ideas to incentivize cover crops through crop insurance. Speakers will also include Sarah Carlson of Practical Farmers of Iowa.  

 

Monday, November 13, Ray Gaesser Farm
2507 Quince Ave, Corning, Iowa. 
Lunch provided at noon, followed by program at 12:30. Rain or shine. 
Click here for more details and to RSVP 

 

Tuesday, November 21, Aaron Lehman Farm
Starts at Nelson Park Cabin, 305 Benton St., Slater, Iowa
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Lunch provided at noon, followed by program at 12:30. Rain or shine.   
Click here for more details and to RSVP 

 

Sponsors include Iowa Farmers Union, Practical Farmers of Iowa, the Iowa Environmental Council and Iowa Soybean Association. Thanks to additional support from the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship and Natural Resources Defense Council.

 

RSVP requested for lunch (but not required). Contact Ann with questions, at robinson@iaenvironment.org or 515-244-1194, ext. 211.

Post-Harvest Field Day Series Heading Your Way!

As the crop year is coming to an end, cover crop season 2017 is starting to take root! This fall Iowa Learning Farms is co-sponsoring nine cover crop workshops.  Be sure to mark your calendars and plan to attend one near you.

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November 7, Gordon Wassenaar Cover Crop Field Day
3:30-5:30pm

8718 West 109th St S
Prairie City, IA
Jasper County
Press Release
Flyer
RSVP to Jasper SWCD:641-792-4116 Ext. 3 or jessica.rutter@ia.nacdnet.net

November 8, Jim Lindaman Cover Crop and Soil Conservation Field Day
12:00-2:00pm

16969 310th St
Aplington, IA
Butler County
Press Release
Flyer
RSVP to 515-294-5429 or ilf@iastate.edu

November 15, Lucas Bayer Cover Crop Field Day
4:00-6:00pm

2310 430th Ave
Guernsey, IA
Poweshiek County
Press Release
Flyer
RSVP to 515-294-5429 or ilf@iastate.edu

November 16, Ben and Andy Johnson Cover Crop and Strip-Tillage Field Day
10:00am-12:00pm
1170 Hwy 218
Floyd, IA
Floyd County
Press Release
Flyer
RSVP to 515-294-5429 or ilf@iastate.edu

November 21, Jacob Groth Cover Crop Field Day
12:30-2:30pm
Winneshiek County NRCS Office
2296 Oil Well Rd
Decorah, IA
Winneshiek County
RSVP to 563-382-8777 ext 3 or Matt.Frana@ia.nacdnet.net

November 28, Walnut Creek Watershed Cover Crop Field Day
TBD
Montgomery County

November 30, Conservation Learning Lab Cover Crop Field Day
5:30-7:30pm

Roland Area Community Center
208 Main St
Roland, IA
Story County
RSVP to 515-294-5429 or ilf@iastate.edu

December 6, Elk Run Watershed Cover Crop and Soil Health Workshop
TBD
Sac County

December 13, Cover Crop Workshop
TBD
East Pottawattamie County

Liz Juchems

Got a Gully? Fix It, Don’t Disc It.

Iowa NRCS has launched a new campaign, “Fix It, Don’t Disc it” to help inform Iowa farmers about a conservation compliance change that requires treating ephemeral gully erosion on highly erodible land (HEL).  Continue reading for their recent newsletter article regarding the rule change.

If you discover areas of ephemeral gully erosion this fall, visit your local Natural Resources Conservation Service office before discing any areas of highly erodible fields.  Iowa famers who participate in USDA programs will now be required to provide additional control of ephemeral gully erosion on their highly erodible fields after recent changes in conservation compliance requirements, State Conservationist Kurt Simon said.

 

This change is in response to a recent Office of Inspector General (OIG) report comparing compliance review procedures in several states. OIG recommended modifications to NRCS’ compliance review procedures to provide more consistency across the nation. Thus, Iowa NRCS has made compliance review procedure adjustments that might impact farmers.

Since the passage of the 1985 Farm Bill, farmers have been required to control erosion on fields that are classified as highly erodible. Each spring, NRCS conducts compliance reviews on a random selection of highly erodible fields to determine if erosion has been adequately controlled. A non-compliance ruling can affect benefits that farmers receive from USDA agencies in a number of ways—from Conservation Reserve program payments to Price Loss Coverage.

“Affected farmers will need to consider installing additional conservation practices to better control ephemeral gully erosion,” Simon said.

Typical practices used to control ephemeral gullies include no-till farming, cover crops, grassed waterways, and terraces. Simon said NRCS employees will work closely with farmers to help them meet erosion-control requirements.

 

“We are available to help farmers identify ephemeral erosion in their fields or where it may occur in the future, and assist them with applying the conservation practices that best fit their farming operations,” he said.

If erosion control issues are identified during compliance reviews, producers may be given time to make adjustments and install needed conservation practices. He said Iowa NRCS offers financial assistance to help farmers install or implement conservation practices across the state. Landowners can sign up for voluntary Farm Bill conservation programs on a continual basis.

When in doubt, visit your local NRCS office before performing any tillage that is not part of your conservation plan on any land classified as HEL. For more information, visit NRCS at your local USDA Service Center.

Midwest Climate Hub: Continued Dry Conditions for Fall

Today’s guest post is by Dr. Dennis Todey, USDA Midwest Climate Hub Director, with timely climate information for harvest 2017.

The latter part of summer presented a marked change from early summer. Cooler than average weather predominated over Iowa and the eastern Midwest since late July. This is sharp contrast to the June warmth and warm late winter/early spring. These conditions and new outlooks present some different issues for Iowa concerning crop development and moisture as we enter the fall.

Crop Development

The warm early season exacerbated the dry early season in much of Iowa leading to increased drought conditions. The warm temperatures also helped push crop development that had been slowed because of some delayed planting and cool late spring temperatures. The recent coolness has been a benefit for corn and beans allowing some better grain fill. However, the lack of Growing Degree Days is a problem for corn development, which is as much as 2-3 weeks behind in places in the state. The first fall freeze will need to hold off until near average or later to alleviate potential freeze issues on crops.

Rainfall/Drought

Conditions in parts of the state have flipped from early to late summer. Much drier than average conditions predominated much of the south to northwest parts of Iowa while the northeast to east central were moist to wet. Over the last 30 days rainfall has helped ease drought conditions in northwest Iowa while the eastern part of the state has dried showing changes in the US Drought Monitor. Most of the southern part of the state is still in some level of drought.

Todey Blog 9-2017Continued Dry Conditions

Dry conditions are likely to continue to affect much of the state into the fall given the current US Drought Monitor status. This is a positive for fall agricultural field work and completion of construction in the state because of the reduced chances for muddy conditions. But for dry areas impacted by drought, this is not good news (largely central and southern Iowa). Soil moisture recharge in these areas needs to begin in the fall to replenish soil moisture.

Cooler than average temperatures are still likely to impact the state for the balance of September. This will continue to slow crop development and increase the risk of freezing conditions earlier than hoped for many crops. Exact freeze dates will continue to be monitored.

Early Winter Outlook

Winter outlooks are largely impacted by having an El Niño or La Niña. Neither is likely to be affecting the winter outlook. Thus, our ability to say much for the winter is limited. The overall trend over recent years has been toward warmer winters. Thus, the outlook for the winter would lean a little more likely to be warmer. Precipitation chances are largely unknown at this point.

IDALS and Iowa Learning Farms: A Partnership on the Edge

Today’s guest post is by Jake Hansen, Chief of the Water Resources Bureau Division of Soil Conservation & Water Quality at Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS). 

The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship has a long history of working together with USDA-Natural Resource Conservation Services, Farm Service Agency, Iowa Department of Natural Resources, and numerous other state and federal partners.

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Water Quality Field Day in Wright County September 2015

Many of you have been partnering at the local level for years to such great depths that you may not consider your conservation team to be a collection of partners anymore. Local extension councils, county boards of supervisors, county conservation boards, and local Farm Bureau chapters throughout Iowa are working with soil and water conservation districts to share staff, complete outreach, and identify local priorities. Additionally, local retailers, particularly in the agronomic sector, are coming to the table to assist in promoting conservation plans and practices as they are seeing increased value in conservation practices, and taking advantage of growing markets for sustainable commodities. These local partnerships will be essential in taking new practices from concept to mainstream adoption through the Iowa Water Quality Initiative.

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Bioreactor installation in Monroe County July, 2015

IDALS is looking to take the next step in putting together a water quality program that can be scaled up quickly to put water quality investments to work for farmers and all Iowans. One way we are doing this is by showcasing new practices that work in targeted locations to improve water quality at the field scale. While IDALS has assisted in construction of some of these wetlands, bioreactors, and saturated buffers, we are now looking at ways to deploy these practices intensely at a watershed scale.

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Wetland and Cover Crop Field Day in Pocahontas County August 2017

Beginning in late 2017, IDALS will partner with Iowa Learning Farms to conduct watershed-scale planning and landowner outreach in high-priority watersheds. Our goal will be to develop a model for identifying suitable sites and working with landowners to complete edge-of-field practice installation. Iowa Learning Farms will conduct field days in the selected areas to showcase water quality practices, and will give landowners an opportunity on the spot to sign up for conservation planning assistance. It is our hope that together we will be able to create an efficient process for edge-of-field project development that can be replicated statewide as a key component of a long-term water quality improvement program.

The daunting task of improving water quality, soil health and environmental stewardship in Iowa is one that cannot be completed successfully by a single person or agency. Economic challenges and competing priorities will continue to change the way we are able to deliver programs at IDALS, which means that perhaps more than ever, we will have to find creative ways to partner at all levels. IDALS is excited to look to the future in our long-standing partnership with Iowa Learning Farms to continue to advance water quality efforts in our state!

Jake Hansen