The Nutrient Reduction Strategy: Creating A More Resilient Iowa

Have you ever fallen in love with a new car at the dealership and wanted to take it home until you look at the sticker price? Well, as I travel around Iowa, it seems like folks are pretty enthusiastic about the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS) until they hear the “sticker price,” i.e. the scale of practice implementation and cost.

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One example scenario to reach the nitrate-N reduction targets of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy includes 60% of corn-soybean and continuous corn acres having cover crops (~12.5 million acres), 27% of all agricultural land being treated with a wetland, and 60% of the tile-drained acres being treated with a bioreactor.

For wetlands, it was assumed that each wetland (10 acres of wetland surface area with 35 acres of buffer) treats 1,000 acres of agricultural land, which would result in approximately 7,600 wetlands for this scenario. For bioreactors, it was assumed that each bioreactor treats 50 acres of subsurface-drained land, which would total approximately 120,000 bioreactors in Iowa alone.

See what I mean – quite a sticker price!

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But, while the scale of implementation and costs associated with reaching the NRS goals seem daunting, it is important to recognize the additional benefits that could come from pursuing nutrient reduction such as the economic benefits of cleaner water as well as the employment and labor opportunities to implement the various strategies.

Throughout the Midwest, discussions have begun on resources needed to implement the various state nutrient reduction strategies. While this is encouraging and exciting, most of the discussion has focused on the resources needed to implement the practices. There is very little discussion of the labor needed to successfully scale up the practices.

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I believe that for large-scale implementation of the NRS to be successful, we need to make the necessary investment in people. We need trained individuals that can work with farmers and landowners on implementing these practices. We need them both in the private and public sectors. Developing and delivering programs and classes that can train individuals to promote and assist in NRS practice implementation is crucial if we are going to make significant progress on reaching our nutrient reduction goal. There will be a significant increase in job opportunities for individuals who are trained and willing do this work.

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I firmly believe that if we accelerate the rate of practice implementation, we will see numerous small business opportunities throughout rural Iowa to site, design, and maintain these various practices and provide technical assistance to farmers and landowners.

 

It is a win-win for our state. Yes, it is a big investment, but it could stimulate our economy and make for a more resilient Iowa in every way.

Matt Helmers

Matt Helmers is an Iowa Learning Farms team member and Professor of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering at Iowa State University. To hear more about implementing Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, listen to Matt’s Conservation Chat with ILF Program Director Jacqueline Comito.

Working Within Our Current System: A Conservation Chat with Eileen Kladivko

Cover kladivko_creditHost Jacqueline Comito sat down with Dr. Eileen Kladivko, Professor of Agronomy at Purdue University and founding member of the Midwest Cover Crops Council (MCCC), for the most recent episode of the Conservation Chat podcast.

Eileen Kladivko’s chat covered many issues areas that she has studied for decades surrounding soil health, cover crops, earthworms and drainage. To start the chat off, Eileen wanted to make something clear: drainage is essential.

“I like to remind people that we wouldn’t be growing crops at all on some of our most productive lands in the Midwest if we didn’t have tile drainage.”

Tile drainage is essential if we want to farm much of the land that we currently farm – especially in Iowa. While there are benefits to tile drainage, a drawback of the system is the movement of nitrate with water that flows out of tile lines and into the surface water. How can we begin to solve this challenge? Mimic nature and the system that we replaced, Eileen suggested.

We’ve got agriculture, we’ve got lots of human beings here, and we want to be productive. We want to mimic nature where we can, but we’re not going back to pre-settlement conditions. That’s impossible. But let’s see if there are some things we can learn from what the vegetation cycles were, and the hydrology cycles, that can help us with our current system.”

Adding cover crops to our current system is one way to address our nitrate challenge and to mimic the natural vegetation cycle that once existed on the land. Cover crops have seen a steady increase in popularity, and for some farmers, the desire to grow something comes naturally.

A subject that Eileen Kladivko is most passionate about is soil health. Soil health is a popular topic because we want our soil to function to full capacity for crop production, but we understand relatively little about the soil biology that can shape the physical and chemical properties of soil. In recent years, the soil health conversation is shifting to research about soil biology. The downside is that soil health research takes time.

“That’s one of the challenges with the whole soil health thing . . . we’re trying to look at some of the commercial soil health tests that are available right now and see which of those might actually be able to detect changes with time in some of our Indiana sites. It’s quite challenging because the tests are quite variable. Soil health does take time to improve, and sometimes those tests just don’t show it over the short term.”

Without lab tests to show short-term gains in soil health, there is one indicator that can give farmers a short-term pat on the back: earthworms! Earthworm populations are highest in systems with limited tillage and high levels of crop residue. Eileen has spent much of her career counting earthworms.

“I didn’t think that was going to be a long-term commitment of mine,” said Eileen. Decades later, Eileen has developed a foundation for research on the physical and chemical properties of soil as they relate to soil health and good soil biology.

What are your chances of having a high earthworm population within a system that includes tillage? Not likely. Switching to no-till and adding a cover crop will increase your chances to see early signs of soil health and good soil biology before other commercial soil health tests are able to show results. Iowa Learning Farms has seen similar results when counting earthworms under different tillage and cover crop systems here in Iowa.

Listen to the full Conservation Chat episode! If you’re on the go, take the Conservation Chat podcast with you – find it on iTunes or search for “Conservation Chat” on the podcast app of your choice!

Julie Whitson

Your Personal Invite to the Soil and Water Conservation “Emmys” on July 17 & 18

Today’s guest post is by Clare Lindahl, Executive Director of Conservation Districts of Iowa, a member of the Iowa Learning Farms Steering Committee.

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It was July 15th last year and I stood before the National Association of Conservation District’s Executive Board, both nervous and excited. I knew I was prepared for the pitch I was about to deliver to bring the first National Soil and Water Conservation District event to Iowa. I had been working on it for months. I also knew I was about to embark on the biggest event planning endeavor our office of two staff at the time had ever experienced.

Iowa’s 100 Soil and Water Conservation Districts and 500 elected Commissioners are part of a national effort to protect and enhance natural resources. Just like Conservation Districts of Iowa represents and supports Iowa’s Districts and Commissioners, the National Association of Conservation Districts represents America’s 3,000 conservation districts and the 17,000 men and women who serve on their governing boards.

After the pitch, I looked around the room and I knew I had landed it! One Executive Board member stated, “Heck, I might just move to Iowa!”  Full disclosure, he was from Oklahoma. : )

I felt in that moment I knew just a little how Hugh Hammond Bennett felt when he nailed his presentation 82 years ago, passing the conservation bill that established the Soil Conservation Service as a permanent agency in the USDA. The bill authorized them to assist farmers to conserve soil and prevent erosion without a single dissenting vote. I said just a little!

In my pitch to come to Iowa, I touted Iowa Learning Farms and their award-winning, innovative conservation education programming. They have the ability to make conservation education and outreach a science, and to quantify the impacts they have after a farmer leaves one of their field days.

June_Summer-Meeting-Logo2017So on July 17-18, 2017, the National Association of Conservation Districts Summer Forum and Tour will be held in conjunction with the Iowa Soil and Water Conservation District Commissioners 71st Annual Conference.  Hundreds of Conservation District Commissioners and partners from across the state and nation will descend on Prairie Meadows Conference Center in Altoona, Iowa, and participate in tours across the state.

The forum, which will start with lunch and Iowa awards after the Iowa and national business meetings, will include invited speakers Governor Kim Reynolds, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey, and United States Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Purdue. We will follow up with an inspirational speaker and then break into simultaneous panels on public-private approaches to conservation planning and community and agriculture working together for clean water.

That evening, we will have an exhibitor social with hors d’oeuvre preceding our banquet with awards and a live auction with father-son auctioneer team Jeff and Dylan Webber. Leadership from the National Association of Conservation Districts and the Natural Resources Conservation Service will deliver talks as well.

wqThe next morning, after breakfast and an Iowa Natural History Primer, we will divide up into two tours. The water quality tour will feature urban conservation practices in Ankeny, a visit to Iowa’s Land Improvement Contractors Farm to view conservation practices, a water quality monitoring demo, a driving tour of Iowa State University and a visit to Alluvial Brewing Company.

soilThe Soil Health Tour will feature the Badger Creek Lake Watershed Project, a talk on Palmer Amaranth, a drive by a Madison County Covered Bridge, lunch at historic Keller Brick Barn and a presentation from the Dallas County Soil and Water Conservation District and a demonstration of soil health – in town and on the farm.

If this sounds as fun to you as it does to me, consider this your personal invite to the Soil and Water Conservation event of the century – register here.

Clare Lindahl

Field Days to Help Participants Improve Profit and Water Quality

Five field days are being offered as part of Iowa State University (ISU) Extension and Outreach’s Nitrogen and Water Week, which runs from June 27-29.

June_FieldDay140The purpose of these field days is for farmers and their consultants to learn the research related to profitable nitrogen management and water quality. They will also allow participants to visit the sites where research is occurring relating to nitrogen management and water quality.

The field days will be held throughout the state at ISU Research and Demonstration Farms, providing an opportunity to learn about the university’s research facilities that evaluate nitrate loss. A tour of plots where ISU researchers study the effects of fall application, cover crops and nitrification inhibitors is included in the event. The field days will also provide an opportunity to learn about factors that are used to make nitrogen fertilizer recommendations and nitrogen deficiency in corn and how to correct it.

Participants will leave the field day with a better understanding of research and the breadth of projects and practices that they are evaluating. They will also receive a better understanding of tools that are available to them like the N Rate Calculator and how they can help farmers be more profitable while minimizing impact on water quality.

Each field day will provide the same format and program, with ISU Extension and Outreach field agronomists and agricultural engineering specialists providing instruction. Registration at the research farm meeting room begins at 9:15 on the day of the event, with the program beginning at 9:45. The program concludes at 12:15 p.m. with lunch following.

The format provides for four 30-minute sessions during the field day, discussing how a water quality research site works, what practices are being studied, how effective the various management practices are in reducing nitrogen loss, and the impact of those practices on farm profitability.

2017 Nitrogen and Water Week Field Days

There is a $25 registration fee for the program that includes lunch, refreshments, and course materials and publications. Attendees are asked to pre-register to assist with facility and meal planning. For additional information or to register online visit www.aep.iastate.edu/nitrogen.

Jamie Benning

Jamie Benning is an Iowa Learning Farms team member and Water Quality Program Manager at Iowa State University.

Meet Our 2017 Water Resources Interns!

We are happy to introduce a great crew of interns this year! You can catch our interns out this summer at county fairs, farmers markets, field days and festivals across the great state of Iowa as they travel with our fleet of Conservation Station trailers. Our interns will also play a large role in field work and data collection for research projects with Iowa State University Extension’s Iowa Learning Farms program and Iowa State’s Ag Water Management research group.

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Pictured above from left to right:

Elizabeth Schwab, hailing all the way from Levittown, Pennsylvania, is double majoring in Agronomy and Environmental Science at Iowa State. Elizabeth will begin her senior year this fall.

Chase Bethany, representing northeast Iowa, grew up in Chickasaw County in New Hampton. Chase is studying Agricultural Engineering (Power and Machinery Option) with a minor in business at Iowa State and will be a junior this fall.

Kaleb Baber represents the great state of Missouri. Kaleb grew up in Weston, Missouri, and headed north to pursue a degree in Agronomy at Iowa State. Kaleb will be a junior this fall.

Andrew Hillman hails from eastern Iowa and is a native of Bettendorf. Andrew is studying Biological Systems Engineering at Iowa State and will begin his junior year this fall.

Laura Lacquement, originally from Martensdale, Iowa, in Warren County, is studying Environmental Science and heading into her senior year this fall.

We are happy to have our interns on board! Come meet them at a community event near you. Keep your eyes peeled on the blog and on our program social media pages as our interns author guest blogs, talk about their experiences and share what they think is important about water quality, conservation and our natural resources.

Iowa Learning Farms: Follow Iowa Learning Farms on Facebook and Twitter!
Water Rocks!: Follow Water Rocks! on Facebook and Twitter!

Julie Whitson

Dr. Bob Hartzler Talks Weeds on Conservation Chat Podcast

Bob_labelIn the latest episode of the Conservation Chat podcast, host Jacqueline Comito sat down with Dr. Bob Hartzler, Professor of Agronomy and Extension Weed Specialist at Iowa State University. Dr. Hartzler has spent decades studying weeds and helping Iowa farmers manage weeds. Most recently, Dr. Hartzler has been involved in the response to Palmer amaranth and its spread into 49 of Iowa’s 99 counties. The Palmer amaranth weed has been particularly difficult for farmers to control, as it has a similar appearance to waterhemp, a common weed in Iowa. Palmer amaranth, however, grows much more quickly than waterhemp, making early Bob_am_label2identification important (before the plant produces seed).

“We’ve gotten complacent with weeds, because, until recently it was so easy to control them with glyphosate and the other products. A lot of people don’t pay as close attention to the weeds as we would have 20, 30 years ago. If we want to stop Palmer amaranth, we need to pay attention to details again.”

The spread of Palmer amaranth is a reminder that we must implement more diverse weed management programs rather than relying exclusively on the power of herbicides. Dr. Hartzler speculated about whether the need for more comprehensive weed management plans might ultimately change our cropping systems.

“Whether we can continue the current production system relying solely on herbicides, I think that’s up in the air. We’re not discovering new herbicides like we were 20 years ago, so we’re running out of options. I think it is going to force us into a more diverse management program . . . It’s hard to believe that something as simple as a weed might force us out of the current production system that we have.”

Palmer vs waterhemp_labelIn the current management system, “We’re relying almost entirely on the herbicides, so that make it very easy for the weeds to adapt,” Hartzler commented. “A more diverse crop rotation would be the best route to go. . . [the weed] has to find a way to survive in a crop that it’s not adapted to.” Tillage is another tactic that farmers have historically turned to for weed management; however, there are many benefits to no-tillage or minimum disturbance of the soil.

larvae3_labelIt’s clear that Dr. Hartzler has a deep passion for weeds, and for helping Iowa farmers find tools to eradicate weeds now and into the future. Tune in to this month’s chat and learn about Palmer amaranth and so much more – cover crops and weed suppression, monarch butterflies and milkweed habitat, and even herbicide carryover related to grazing.

If you’re on the go, take the Conservation Chat podcast with you – find it on iTunes or search for “Conservation Chat” on the podcast app of your choice!

Julie Whitson

Do Crop Insurance Rules Put a Chill on Soil Health Practices?

An opinion piece by authors Ryan Stockwell and Jim Moseley argues that inflexible crop insurance rules are slowing the adoption of conservation practices that build soil health such as cover crops.

Practices that can improve soil health such as no-till, cover crops or multi-year crop rotations can decrease erosion, decrease nutrient loss, improve water infiltration and even provide added value in the form of fewer field passes and increased forage value for livestock. The authors argue, however, that crop insurance rules could force farmers to choose between crop insurance coverage and adopting practices that could improve their soil health:

“Yet, a significant barrier stands in the way related to crop insurance, which has become an absolute necessity in today’s weather extremes. To be eligible for crop insurance, farmers who use cover crops must meet specific management rules. No other agronomic practice includes such eligibility rules.”

While some rules have been changed in the past several years, confusion persists over rules and requirements. The article encourages policy to become more flexible by allowing local agronomic experts to guide best practices, as is the case with many other agricultural practices such as fertilizer application or weed management.

Read the article from Agri Pulse here. What do you think? Do you have a crop insurance question or story related to a soil health practice?

Julie Whitson