Farmed Prairie Potholes: Consequences & Management Options

ILFHeader(15-year)

Yesterday, during an Iowa Learning Farms webinar, Amy Kaleita discussed current research being carried out at Iowa State University on the hydrology, water quality implications and management options of prairie potholes in Iowa farm fields.

Prairie potholes are enclosed depressions with no natural drainage, until a spill point is reached, that retain water for some portion of the year. Forty-four percent of the Des Moines Lobe drains to potholes and they are a common feature in row crop fields. Potholes are a nuisance to farmers because they are usually the last places in the field to dry out and spring rains can cause ponding in the potholes, which can drown young row crops in as few as 3-5 days (for total yield loss).

feb webinar potholecloudy

Despite efforts to drain potholes using subsurface drainage systems (95-99% of potholes in Iowa are drained), there has been very little research done on the effectiveness of these drainage systems for potholes. In less than ideal conditions, water can actually enter the pothole through the drainage system instead of leaving the depression. Potholes also have water quality implications due to having higher soil nitrate stocks than uplands and studies have shown an increase in dissolved reactive phosphorus concentration in potholes over the course of an inundation event.

Management solutions that are being studied include conservation tillage, retirement of the pothole, planting the pothole with flood tolerant crops and improving pothole drainage. These solutions are being tested using a small watershed model, which is calibrated to reflect the monitored conditions and then changed to reflect the new management practices. Upcoming data results will show the effects of management changes on the studied potholes, some of which are being changed to grass, while others will remain in row crops. 

If you’re interested in learning more about the research being done at Iowa State on prairie potholes in farm fields, you can watch the full webinar here.

Join us live for the next Iowa Learning Farms webinar on March 20 at 12:00 pm when Dr. Mark Rasmussen (Director, Leopold Center) will discuss the topic “Are Cattle Really Wrecking the Planet?”.

Hilary Pierce

February 20 Webinar: Farmed Prairie Potholes – Consequences & Management Options

ILFHeader(15-year)On Wednesday, February 20th at noon Iowa Learning Farms will host a webinar with Dr. Amy Kaleita, Professor of Agricultural & Biosystems Engineering at Iowa State University about the consequences of farming prairie potholes and management options for these common Iowa landscape features.

feb webinar potholeskyIn Iowa, many of the features known as prairie potholes are actively farmed. Because of their position in the landscape and their topographic and soils characteristics, prairie potholes flood frequently after rain events, even with artificial drainage. Kaleita will explain this flooding behavior, and the effects it has on crops and watersheds. She will also discuss options for managing these features to decrease the frequency of negative impacts.

“Some research has shown that farmed prairie potholes lose money more often than they make a profit. Because they also have significant environmental impacts, conservation-minded management of these features may provide benefits at a lower cost than changes in more productive parts of the field,” said Kaleita, whose research on precision conservation focuses on how to use publicly available or low-cost data to improve conservation decision-making within production agriculture.

Don’t miss this webinar!
DATE: Wednesday, February 20, 2019
TIME: 12:00 p.m.
HOW TO PARTICIPATE: www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars and click the link to join the webinar

More information about this webinar is available at our website. If you can’t watch the webinar live, an archived version will be available on our website:
https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars.

Hilary Pierce

When it comes to Nitrogen Application, more is not always better!

CLGHeaderMatt Helmers | Professor in Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering and Extension Agriculture Engineer, Iowa State University and Director, Iowa Nutrient Research Center

While there has been an increased emphasis on edge-of-field practices for nitrate-N reduction, we cannot forget the importance of nitrogen management on reducing nitrate-N loss. No matter the situation we need to try to do the best we can with nitrogen management. Nitrogen management is a win-win management strategy. It has the potential to improve water quality while increasing profitability.

To illustrate an example of this we can use estimated nitrogen application rate from the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy Non-point Source Science Assessment (INRS-NSSA). The estimated state-wide average nitrogen application rate in the INRS-NSSA was 151 lb-N/acre to corn in a corn/soybean rotation with a high application rate of 184 lb-N/acre for the Major Land Resource Area in Northwest Iowa. Using the Corn Nitrogen Rate Calculator as one estimate for recommended Nitrogen Application rate the Maximum Return to Nitrogen (MRTN) for corn following beans with $4.00/bushel corn and $0.40/lb nitrogen is 140 lb-N/acre with a profitable range from 126-152 lb-N/acre.

Based on the curves in the figure below if we moved from the state-wide average N application rate to the MRTN, the average nitrate-N concentration in water moving through the soil profile would be reduced about 7% and the return to nitrogen would increase by about $1/acre. However, if the application rate for a field was similar to the average in Northwest Iowa of 184 lb-N/acre and we moved to the MRTN, the average nitrate-N concentration would be estimated to be reduced by about 26% with a return to nitrogen increase of about $10/acre. For this situation even if we reduced from 184 lb-N/acre to the upper end of the profitable range of 152 lb-N/acre, we would estimate a 20% nitrate-N reduction with a maximum return to nitrogen increase of about $9/acre.

As you can see, there are opportunities for substantial nitrate-N reductions and improved profitability for producers who are applying nitrogen well above the MRTN. This spring as you establish your nitrogen management protocol keep in mind that you can improve your profitability and also decrease the risk of nitrate-N loss on your fields by simply staying close to the MRTN. More is not always better!

n concentration and profitability

Nitrate-N concentration in water moving through the soil and return to nitrogen as a function of nitrogen application rate.

Matt Helmers

The Fabulous World of Wetlands

Today’s guest blog post is provided by Joshua Harms, part of the Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach program, serving with Water Rocks! in 2018-19.

As a continuation from last month’s blog, I will be explaining another one of our great modules with Water Rocks!. Our presentation over wetlands has many interesting and important facts along with a few games as well. The module is meant to feel like the students are on a game show and we are their game show hosts. This presentation, like all the others, has been fine-tuned by our team to make it run super smoothly in the classroom with elementary and middle school students.

Our Fabulous World of Wetlands module starts with an audio “field trip,” where we have all the students close their eyes as we play some sounds from out in nature. We then ask them what different sounds they heard. After they have given us some of the different creatures they heard, we ask them where they think the sounds were recorded, hoping that they eventually answer wetlands. We then ask them to answer a trivia/evaluation question to establish their baseline understanding of the subject.

We then continue into our first game, a guessing game in which the students have to try and guess what the three main characteristics of wetlands are (hydric soils, presence of water, and water-loving plants). After the students eventually get all three things, sometimes with the help of some hints, we move on to show them three objects that represent the three main jobs of wetlands. The first object is a coffee filter and we explain that wetlands filter the water and leave it cleaner after it passes through the wetlands. The second object is a sponge and we explain that hydric soils store water like a sponge would if it was dropped in a bucket of water. The third and final object is a small house, which we use to explain that wetlands are a habitat to many different creatures. After we get done explaining the three jobs we have the students repeat them to lock the knowledge into their brains.

We then transition to talking about some certain creatures that rely on wetlands, particularly migratory birds and butterflies. We ask the students to think about if we were all to get on a bus and take a long journey down to Texas, what would be some reasons that we would stop on our journey? They usually answer with things such as food, water, bathroom, sleep, etc. We then explain that for those same reasons that we would stop, birds and butterflies need those same things and they stop at wetlands to take care of all of it along their journeys. This leads us into the next game which is Habitat Hopscotch. This game involves different states that are on the birds’ and butterflies’ migratory paths, as pictured above. But there is a twist—there are some situations that remove wetlands in certain states, which means we remove that state from the game. We then go through all the situations one-by-one, and by the end of the game, there are only three of the original ten squares remaining. That means there are not many wetlands left for the birds and butterflies to stop at!

After the completion of Habitat Hopscotch, we show two maps of Iowa, one of what Iowa looked like 200 years ago and the other one of present day Iowa. What we are showing the students is that our state used to be almost all prairie and wetlands but now the state is mostly covered by corn and beans. We then let them know that 90% of our original wetlands have been converted into other things. We also tell them that 99.9% of our state’s prairie land has also been converted. But it’s not all bad news—there has been good work with farmers to restore both prairie and wetlands on part of their land, which is great for all the creatures that call wetlands home.

This leads us into our game of Wetlands Bingo, which allows the students to see many more of the creatures that live in wetlands. After each wetland bingo, we ask that student a trivia question that gives them a chance to win a prize. When we have had multiple winners, we then finish with the same trivia/evaluation question that we did near the beginning of our presentation. We also leave each classroom teacher with a set of Wetland Bingo cards, so they and their students can continue learning about the Fabulous World of Wetlands and all the amazing creatures that call wetlands their home!

Joshua Harms

Learning Life Lessons as ISU Water Resources Interns

Both Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks! owe a lot of their successes over the past decade to the energy and enthusiasm of student Water Resources Interns. Each summer the young people in these positions have become the faces and voices of water and land resource management, conservation, and agricultural practices which benefit Iowa’s environment. The programs are closely affiliated with the highly-regarded Iowa State University (ISU) Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering which provides research opportunities as well as much foundational science for the outreach efforts.

Interns come from different degree programs, backgrounds and even states. (Know a college student who might be interested? Applications are open now through Jan. 31 for our 2019 Water Resources Internship Program!) The common thread among them is enthusiasm for engaging with members of the community through different learning and demonstration opportunities. Forty-five individuals have served in this important role over the years. We asked them to reflect on what they gained and learned from the experience, and were quite pleased with the responses.

Eleven Years and still going strong
From a relatively small beginning as student research assistantships in 2007, the internship program provided resources which enabled Iowa Learning Farms to respond to research needs, programming opportunities and expansions of outreach. From humble beginnings in 2007 with a single trailer-mounted rainfall simulator, to the addition of a second and the launch of the Conservation Station fleet in 2010, interns were integral to the program. Today there are three Conservation Stations in regular use, and the teams of interns go out with them for nearly every visit.

My favorite intern memories were taking the Conservation Station to field days. It was a neat experience to see communities bonding over conservation and their love of the land. –Emily Steinweg, 2011


Jumping in with both feet
As summer interns, there is no warmup period, the work starts on day one and keeps going throughout the ten-week term. Research projects are ready to go, Conservation Station events are booked, and since the university summer overlaps with the primary and secondary school spring semester, lending a hand with Water Rocks! school visits fills up the initial weeks.

Interns are expected to know some, learn a lot of new, and be able to put new knowledge and skills to work immediately. Flexibility and learning on your feet are fundamental requirements. Some interns have noted that it’s about learning how much you don’t know and having fun filling the gaps. Over the years many have contributed to the ILF blog sharing their experiences.

Intern duties include collecting water and soil samples, working under the direction of staff, faculty and graduate students, tabulating data, driving – and parking – trailers, participating in video projects, and staffing the Conservation Station. As representatives of Iowa Learning Farms in many venues, interns quickly become experts at listening, communicating and educating.

The Conservation Conversation
A common theme we heard from our former interns was their development of stronger public speaking and communications skills. Leading or participating in a public event, county fair, or field day would bring them face to face with people of different ages and backgrounds. The audience diversity kept them on their toes in shaping the information to make sure they connected with the audience.

The internship for me was a lot about public speaking and being able to interact with any age group or demographic. – Ryan Nelson, 2009, 2010

The biggest, perhaps most important, skill I developed was communication with the public. As a farmer myself, it’s relatively easy to communicate with other farmers. But with the public, one has to explain the basics in a way that a non-farmer can understand. –Mikayla Edwards, 2015

Working with ILF provided many of our interns with valuable experience that they continue to use in their careers – even in fields beyond conservation and water quality. From teachers to manufacturing engineers, being a part of a team and communicating information, ideas and solutions are universal skills.

I was exposed to people ranging from a farmer who thought cover crops were ridiculous to a sixth-grader learning about soil and water interactions. Understanding how the message needs to be tailored or modified to a specific audience has greatly benefited me in my career. –Brett McArtor, 2012

The majority of problems that I work on in my career necessitate a team to be involved; however, the expectation is that I will be able to problem solve and troubleshoot to contribute toward the solution. The combination of teamwork and independence that I exercised as a student intern for ILF prepared me well for this type of environment. –Patrick Kelly, 2012, 2013

The biggest benefits of being a part of ILF for me professionally would have to be the experience of giving short, informal presentations, and the importance of honestly saying, I don’t know. There is considerable skill in taking a message, condensing it into something manageable, wording it in such a way that others without background knowledge can understand, and presenting it in such a manner to grab and hold the attention of your listeners. This is something helpful for me as a software engineer as pitching ideas to clients or management needs to undergo this process in order to be effective. –Nathan Waskel, 2016, 2017


Making a Connection
One thing we’ve repeatedly observed at Conservation Station stops is that many of our adult audience members will seek out the interns just to talk. They seem drawn to the enthusiasm shown by these young adults in sharing their stories and connecting to people through excitement and hopeful messages. Many of these folks have a genuine interest in learning about the interns’ backgrounds, how they are doing in school, and where they see themselves after graduation. In fact, older citizens seem to prefer watching the young people present than the ISU-based professionals. And the interns truly appreciate the conversations and audience interactions as well.

The knowledge I gained from community members teaching community members helped me make the decision to continue in the course of community education and engagement. –Megan Koppenhafer, 2015, 2016, and 2018 AmeriCorps Service Member

It always felt nice to have people come up and talk about their own experiences with conservation. –Nathan Waskel, 2016, 2017

While visiting the Conservation Station one dad said to me, “I want my kids to know about this stuff; a lot of people don’t realize how important it is.” It was rewarding to make that connection. –Wyatt Kaldenberg, 2018

The other strong connection we see is with children in the audience. At field days and fairs young people are drawn to the goofy games and hands-on activities – but we see the parents and grandparents leaning in and learning along the way. And when they get into schools for Water Rocks! assemblies and outdoor classrooms, the interns have a chance to teach – and sometimes get stumped – by the next generation.

Teaching youth during outdoor classrooms opened my eyes to youth development and education. I loved seeing things click and watching their excitement grow as they understood how their actions could impact the environment either negatively or positively. –Brittney Carpio, 2012

I was caught off guard when a fifth-grade student asked, “What inspires you to do this?” After a long moment of panic, and a room full of fifth-graders staring up at me, I finally came up an answer. The experience made me think and quickly translate my passion for conservation into words I hope made an impact on another generation. –Kaleb Baber, 2017, 2018


Hands-on Research
When not on the road with the Conservation Stations, the interns also spend a good deal of time conducting hands-on research. Tasks range from taking water and soil samples to things such as counting earthworms. While these simple tasks are beneficial to ongoing research, there is also a lot of learning going on. Interns learn research techniques and gain an understanding of the importance of research processes and protocols to obtaining verifiable and repeatable results.

Earthworm counting is exactly what it sounds like. We head to test plots all over the state to look at the number of earthworms within a 19” x 30” frame between the rows of crops, corn or soybeans. – Donovan Wildman, 2018

Understanding the theory or research behind a process is an important first step, but a project is far from complete at this stage. Once the system is operating in the ‘real world’, such as the working bioreactors in the ILF program, there are many unpredictable factors that can arise. –Kate Sanocki, 2016

In addition to the field research, interns have also helped conduct various social science research through the years helping with survey mailings and data collection as well as event evaluations. The event evaluations, in particular, demonstrate to the interns the importance of documenting impact on an event by event basis.


A Bidirectional Impact
Water Resources Interns are crucial to the ongoing success of ILF and Water Rocks! outreach and education activities. Every year they infuse the team with new energy, perspectives and ideas. The interns are there to learn and gain valuable career experience, but their contributions over the years have also helped make the programming and content better and more impactful for all constituencies.

What does it take to become a Water Resources Intern?
In a word, Enthusiasm.

Enthusiasm to learn, enthusiasm to teach, and enthusiasm to engage with Iowans from all walks of life. We can teach them the content, but the spark and passion for sharing what they know and learning what they don’t is what makes for great interns and great experiences.

Interns will be challenged with new ideas, new tasks and some exhausting days. We seek people who are passionate about conservation, the environment, water or soil quality, and agriculture. To learn more about the Water Resources Internship program, and for application instructions, please visit our 2019 Water Resources Internship Program page — applications close this Thursday, Jan. 31!

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This story was first published in Wallaces Farmer in December 2018.

A Conservation Chat with Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig

ILFHeader(15-year)Jacqueline Comito| Iowa Learning Farms Program Director

naig_comito_frame_webIowa’s Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig joined me for a live Conservation Chat as a part of the monthly Iowa Learning Farms (ILF) webinar on January 16. Secretary Naig was elected to office in November 2018, but has been in the role since spring of 2018 when he was appointed to fill the post when Bill Northey was confirmed as the U.S. undersecretary for farm production and conservation.

Mike joined the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship five years ago as deputy secretary. He noted that the opportunity to get involved in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy from inception was one of the key reasons he moved from the private sector into government.

Mike grew up on a farm in Palo Alto county during the 1980s and saw the farm crisis firsthand. His parents and other farmers of their generation encouraged their children to find careers off the farm – so they would not have to experience the same challenges later in life. Mike took these sentiments to heart and continues to work to help ensure farmers in Iowa have the resources and opportunities to build successful and sustainable businesses.

When asked about his connection to the land, he expressed delight in the broad diversity of landscapes and natural settings across Iowa. He and his family love to explore the outdoors and enjoy everything Iowa has to offer. It also provides an opportunity to teach his three young sons about the importance of our natural resources and conservation.

Mike made it clear that it was time to significantly scale up implementation of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy. He noted “We are five years into implementation of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy. I am proud of what we’ve accomplished, but if we only do the same for the next five years, we will be seriously behind. This is the time to start scaling successful approaches so we can protect, preserve, and promote Iowa’s productivity and its most abundant natural resource – Texas has oil, Iowa has soil.”

We talked about urban and rural mindsets and how to bridge the understanding gap. “Pointing fingers and assigning blame does not move anyone in the right direction. Fostering mutual understanding of the impact any individual can have, regardless of whether they own a quarter acre lot in Ames or a quarter-section plot in northwest Iowa, is crucial to building a culture of conservation statewide.”

With new funding in the current budget year, the Department of Agriculture has hired additional employees to address conservation practices in several major watershed areas. They are also working with private-sector organizations and partners to expand conservation efforts, outreach and education. Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks! are examples of partners in conservation and education that help deliver these messages. “We partner and contract with organizations such as Iowa State University to take advantage of the innovation, skilled minds, and advanced research that isn’t available elsewhere. The allow us to do the most with what we have and continue to move toward our goals.”

Mike stressed that farmers needed to look at conservation practices with a broad lens. “You can’t just look at cover crops or tiling or bioreactors and saturated buffers as individual things, you must look at the full scope of improving soil health, employing edge of field practices in combination with tile, and ultimately maintaining or improving productivity and water quality.”

I noted that he had appropriated ILF’s Culture of Conservation tagline during his campaign and asked what that means to him. “It means thinking about conservation as priority. If Iowa wants to continue to be a global production leader, it’s crucial to protect and conserve what makes that leadership possible. And to do it through conservation, not regulation.” Mike agreed that youth education is an important piece of the culture of conservation puzzle, and changing the mindset and approach in Iowa will take a long time and must become inherent to the thinking of current and future generations. “You’re not going to reach everyone right away, just like in marketing any idea or product, there will be early adopters through late adopters. Our challenge is to build out a message to entice and encourage adoption of a lasting change over time.”

More Conservation Chats

Be sure to view the archive visit with Mike Naig on our website.

Our conversation will also be released as a Conservation Chat podcast available at the Conservation Chat website and here on iTunes. New Conservation Chat podcasts will be released every month. February’s Chat will be a conversation with Dr. Matt Helmers, Director of the Iowa Nutrient Research Center and Jamie Benning, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach water quality program manager.

Please join us live for next Iowa Learning Farms Webinar February 20 at 12:00 PM with Dr. Amy Kaleita, Iowa State University professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering. The topic will be: Farmed Prairie Potholes – Consequences and Management Options.

Jacqueline

January 16 Webinar – A Conservation Chat with Secretary Naig

ILFHeader(15-year)Wednesday, January 16th at 12:30pm Iowa Learning Farms will kick off our 15th anniversary by hosting a webinar with Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig.

Naig_Central Iowa Fair 2018The webinar will feature ILF program manager Dr. Jacqueline Comito and Secretary Naig discussing conservation, water quality and the Secretary’s vision for Iowa.  They will also discuss the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy and how Iowans are working to meet the nitrogen and phosphorus loss reductions outlined in the Strategy. Webinar participants will be able to submit questions for Secretary Naig during the webinar through the Zoom Webinar software.

Don’t miss this webinar!
DATE: Wednesday, January 16, 2019
TIME: 12:30 p.m.
HOW TO PARTICIPATE: www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars and click the link to join the webinar

More information about this webinar is available at our website. If you can’t watch the webinar live, an archived version will be available on our website:
https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars.

Liz Juchems