A Challenge for the New Year

CLGHeaderJamie Benning | Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Water Quality Program Manager

Late last month, farm advisors, consultants, agronomists and farmers gathered for the 30th annual Integrated Crop Management Conference.  Over these years, participants have been able to choose from well over 100 sessions on the latest research and recommendations for soil management and water quality from the field to watershed scale. Since the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (INRS) was introduced in 2013, there have been additional sessions focused on reducing nitrate-nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) loss.

ICM 2018This year, Matt Helmers, Mark Licht and I led two interactive sessions with about 60 participants each with the objectives of reinforcing the goals of the NRS, discussing specific practices and their costs and effectiveness, and encouraging dialogue and deeper thinking about the challenges to meeting these goals. We used an online tool called Kahoot and participants responded to each question anonymously using their smartphones.

The groups did a great job identifying the major sources of nitrate-N and P loss from agricultural systems and selecting practices that will most effectively reduce loss within the field and at the edge of field.  This is positive feedback for ISU Extension, Iowa Learning Farms, and many other agriculture and conservation organizations that have developed and delivered outreach and professional development opportunities for this audience over the past five years.

Understanding and ranking cost effectiveness was a bit more challenging for the group, indicating that we need to double down on our outreach and education on recent research and scenarios to better reinforce this information as it is critical for decision-making.

As we moved into discussing the challenges of reaching the INRS goals, one of the discussion questions asked the participants to identify THE major barrier to adopting wetlands, saturated buffers, and bioreactors, three major edge-of-field nitrate-N reduction practices.  The four options we gave the groups are four very common barriers to adopting practices:

  1. Costs are too high
  2. It is too time consuming to work with agencies to install practices
  3. Landowner-tenant relationships are challenging
  4. Farmers and landowners are not feeling a sense of urgency to install these practices.

I was very surprised that 38% of both groups selected the lack of a sense of urgency as the top barrier to adoption. 

The costs of practice installation came in nearly tied with 33% selecting it as the top barrier. In discussions with similar groups and with conservation colleagues, I hear the cost limitations much more frequently, especially in the past few years of low commodity prices, along with the other two choices.  In response to the other three barriers, significant outreach and incentive programs have been developed and modified to address these concerns. Farmers’ sense of urgency is rarely discussed.

The response to this question caused me to reflect on how our outreach programs may be influencing this lack of urgency.  Leaders agree that we have measured increases in funding and technical assistance, the number of learning opportunities available to farmers, landowners and stakeholders, acres of implemented practices and many other indicators of progress but that we have a huge amount of work yet to do to reduce the size of the hypoxic zone.  The Hypoxia Task Force has set an interim goal of a 20% load reduction in both nitrate-N and P by 2025 and a 45% reduction by 2035.


river restorationMy goal for the New Year is to bring the timelines front and center to convey that the INRS, while voluntary, is not optional and we need to increase our efforts.  I also want to illustrate the relationship between reducing the size of the Gulf Hypoxic Zone and local drinking water quality protection, better habitat and quality of life that result from cleaner rivers and lakes, and the economic development opportunities for small businesses that design and install conservation practices, grow and sell cover crop seed, and beginning farmers seeking to grow their pasture-based livestock operations.

As you reflect on the 2018 growing season and think about goals for next year, I challenge you to set at least one goal related to improving the water quality leaving your farm.  To increase the chances that you will achieve this goal, write it down and talk to someone about it!

Here are a few draft goals to get you started:

  • Stop by your Soil and Water Conservation District office and meet with your local watershed coordinator, they may have financial and technical assistance opportunities for you
  • If you have tile on your farm and have easy access to an outlet, start measuring nitrate-N leaving in the tile.  There are several programs available to help you with tile monitoring, call 515-294-6038 or email me, benning@iastate.edu, and I can help you get started
  • Set a time to meet with farmers in your area that have tried cover crops to discuss their experiences and learn from them
  • Set an appointment with your NRCS District Conservationist to review your conservation plan and discuss changes that could be made to improve water and soil quality

To demonstrate to the public that the voluntary system can work, acres of cover crops, numbers of wetlands, bioreactors, and saturated buffers, acres of no-till and many other practices all need to increase sharply over the next few years.  Making one of the commitments I listed or setting your own unique water quality goal will lead to water quality improvement and may make your farm more profitable in the process.

Jamie Benning

December Webinar – Saving time and money with #NoTillb4Beans and #CoverYourBeans

ILFHeaderOn Wednesday, December 12 at noon Dr. Mark Licht, Assistant Professor of Agronomy and Extension Cropping Systems Specialist, will be discussing the #NoTillb4Beans and #CoverYourBeans campaigns launched by the Conservation Learning Group to highlight the potential for time and money savings with no-tillage and cover crops ahead of soybean.

Licht’s extension, research and teaching program is focused on how to holistically manage Iowa cropping systems to achieve productivity, profitability and environmental goals. No-tillage and cover crop adoption are two practices that provide large environmental benefits for reducing phosphorus and nitrogen losses. The #NoTillb4Beans and #CoverYourBeans campaigns focus on how these practices ahead of soybean as an easy entry point with no adverse effects on productivity.

“If Iowa’s nearly 10 million acres of soybean were no-till planted into a cover crop we would nearly reach the 10.5 million no-tillage and 12.5 million cover crop acres called for in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy,” stated Licht. “Cover crops ahead of soybean can lead to an average 8 bushel/ac yield advantage and no-till planting lowers input costs and saves time.”

Don’t miss this webinar!

DATE: Wednesday, December 12, 2018
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.

Liz Juchems

Water Rocks! Launches New Pollinator Classroom Presentation

The Power of Pollinators classroom education module extends the Water Rocks! portfolio designed to assist teachers in teaching about environmental science in Iowa

Water Rocks! has announced the launch of “The Power of Pollinators, its newest conservation-focused, interactive classroom presentation for upper-elementary and middle school classrooms. The new Pollinators module was developed with assistance and input from Iowa State University experts as well as classroom teachers across Iowa. Water Rocks! piloted the programming with Turkey Valley Schools fourth and fifth grade classes in late October.

“Turkey Valley Schools have shown leadership in conservation thinking through the establishment of native prairie and butterfly garden projects, and inclusion of critical conservation lessons in multiple grade levels across the district,” said Ann Staudt, director of Water Rocks!. “The pilot experience allowed us to learn as much as we taught. The teachers and students were very motivated to help fine-tune the learning modules.”

Turkey Valley 4th grade students and teacher Robyn Vsetecka show off their school garden plot. The students chose to plant a mix of vegetables and flowering plants to attract pollinators.

Conservation takes center stage at Turkey Valley Community Schools; their native prairie plot was established over twenty years ago on school grounds.

Water Rocks! classroom education modules are designed primarily for grades four through seven. Content is adjusted in collaboration with each classroom teacher to ensure the best outcomes. And, each module is aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards.

“The Water Rocks! team really grabbed the attention of the students and helped them quickly learn new vocabulary and scientific concepts in a high-energy and fun way,” said Robyn Vsetecka, fourth grade teacher at Turkey Valley Schools. “They covered a lot ground, but the approach wasn’t overwhelming for those students unfamiliar with pollinators, yet still informative and engaging for the ones who already had some experience.”

Students eagerly listen to instructions as they prepare to compete in the Monarch Migration Madness game.

Pollinator Jenga was quite a hit with the students and teachers alike at Turkey Valley!

The Pollinator module uses a variety of visual aids, interactive games and on-your-feet activities, to facilitate age- and grade-appropriate learning for all learners. Favorites among the students were the Pollinator Jenga game, Monarch Migration Madness game, and seeing bee houses.

“We were delighted to see the students’ faces light up when we helped them realize that each could make an impact on supporting pollinators by doing things a simple as planting wildflowers or even adding potted plants on a patio or balcony,” noted Staudt.

To learn more about Water Rocks! classroom education modules, or to request a free school visit, please go to https://www.waterrocks.org/classroom-visits/.

 

The Adventures Down Your Gravel Road

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.

Taking adventures adds lots of new life experiences. Many people think that those adventures involve lots of money and traveling to different states or countries. However, people miss out on a lot of experiences in the natural world that could very well be right down the nearest gravel road.

I think we could all benefit from learning to love the places we live instead of always wanting to live somewhere else. The beauty of this world we live in is endless. I encourage you to go explore the areas around you because you may just find some of that beauty closer to you than expected. Each of the four seasons here in Iowa bring a different type of beauty along with them. Spring brings lots of blooming flowers, summer brings some bright sunsets, fall comes with the beautiful change of color within the leaves, and finally winter brings a snowy wonderland.

At the end of October I took an adventure of my own down some gravel roads in my area looking for cool photos to be taken, and I found some places that I didn’t even know existed before. Here are two of the photos I took while on this expedition. Myself and a friend of mine explored some of the very little remaining prairie land. This land was quite difficult to find as it is very hard to see from the road. So if you were looking to find this area of prairie, good luck!

I encourage you to explore the area around you, because there very well may be some amazing things around your area that you never knew about. Iowa is a truly amazing state, but the beauty thereof may just be a little more hidden than it used to be. By all means go out and explore the world we live in to find some of that hidden beauty. Get out in nature and take in the sights and sounds of our great state – adventure awaits!

Joshua Harms

Finding the right seeding method – which option is best for you?

ILFHeaderJust ask Clayton County farmers Mark Glawe, Dan Keehner and Brian Keehner! Each have explored different seeding methods and shared their tips for successful cover crop management at our field day on November 29th in Luana. Although their soil types, crop rotations and seeding method vary, they share similar goals for using cover crops in their operations – improved soil health and reduced nutrient losses.

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Left to Right: Farmer Panelists Dan Keehner, Brian Keehner, Mark Glawe, and Eric Palas, Clayton County SWCD Project Coordinator

Mark Glawe began using cover crops in his no-till system near Elkport in 2006 to address soil erosion concerns on his steep slopes. In early September, he seeded about 2/3 of his acres aerially with oats, rye, radishes and rapeseed. These acres are grazed by his cattle herd following harvest and again in the spring. This year, Mark turned his cattle out in October and estimates his additional forage value at $35/acre. In addition to the aerially seeded acres, Mark’s son follows the combine on the remaining acres to drill cereal rye to keep the steep slopes covered between crop seasons.


Dan Keehner first started with aerially seeded cover crops in 2013 on his ground near Monona. Noting disappointment with the consistency of the stand, he hired the cereal rye cover crop to be drilled after harvest in 2014. Similar to this fall, harvest was delayed and the drilling wasn’t completed until mid-November. With limited fall growth but more consistent stand, Dan decided to set up his own cover crop seeding rig for 2015.

Using his vertical tillage implement, Dan mounted an air seeder to seed the cover crop himself following harvest and has covered all of his acres with a cover crop since 2016. He uses both cereal rye and winter wheat to keep the ground covered until planting of his cash crop in the spring.

“I love seeing one crop (cover crop) go down and another (corn/soybeans) come up. You know when you get the rains, that soil is protected,” stated Dan.


Similar to his cousin, Brian Keehner has tried multiple seeding methods but wasn’t satisfied with the results. Through custom innovation, and discussion with a cover crop user in Indiana, Brian has modified his combine with an air delivery system on his corn and soybean heads to seed the cover crops while harvesting. This method fits the needs of his operation by saving time, labor and fuel by combining passes. His next goal for the system is to increase his seed carrying compacity to reduce the number of refill stops.

Regardless of how they seeded their cover crops, all three producers reported 0.5-1.2% increases in their soil organic matter over a five year time-frame. The combination of no-till and cover crops has led to the retention and building of soil organic matter on their lands. The building of organic matter helps improve water holding capacity and retention of soil micro-nutrients needed for crop production. With healthier soils, we have healthier crops and water!

Liz Juchems

Water Rocks! Conservation Education Programs Reach 36,000 Iowan Students

The annual report from Water Rocks! highlights increases in comprehension scores and curriculum adoption of watershed concepts across the state

Water Rocks! recently published its 2017-18 Annual Evaluation Report, detailing the impacts Water Rocks! visits had on students, teachers, and conservation education during the 2017-18 academic year. Reaching a cross section of Iowa’s youth, Water Rocks! delivered classroom presentations, outdoor classroom programs, and school assemblies to audiences comprised of more than 36,000 students. Feedback and evaluation metrics gathered during the year show significant increases in student comprehension as well as more adoption of conservation topics in classroom discussion both before and after program visits.

Water Rocks! delivers lessons about watersheds, wetlands, soil, pollinators and biodiversity to students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Within each 45- to 50-minute program, Water Rocks! strives to achieve its educational goals through a combination of hands-on games, interactive activities, music, plays, discussion and energetic presenters.

“Together with Iowa’s classroom teachers, Water Rocks! is helping students increase environmental literacy on timely natural resources issues, with high-energy programs that make a lasting impact,” said Ann Staudt, Water Rocks! director. “In compiling the annual report, we were also delighted to note that more teachers reported introducing students to watersheds and water quality topics before our visits and indicated desire to promote follow-up discussion and activities with their students.”


Key findings in the report include:

  • Presented in 180 schools and 12 outdoor classrooms, reaching over 36,000 students
  • Watershed identification comprehension increased from 36 percent before, to 95 percent after, the lesson
  • Some 88 percent of teachers planned to hold follow-up discussions with students covering the Water Rocks! materials and information

The report also includes the results of new evaluations conducted with peer helpers, students selected by school principals to assist in Water Rocks! assembly productions. These students were asked a more detailed set of before and after questions. The results reinforced the general trends in comprehension noted in the large groups, but also provide new insights which may help enrich future programming.

“Through Water Rocks! lessons, it is evident that the peer helpers are learning much more than just vocabulary, they are learning about the interconnectedness of natural resources and possible solutions to the environmental challenges in the world around them,” noted Staudt.

To learn read the report or to view comments from students and teachers, please visit https://www.waterrocks.org/201718-water-rocks-evaluation-report.

A Legacy of Conservation

Conservation is a legacy that runs generations deep with the Whitaker family. Go back 165 years, and there were Whitakers farming this same ground, now recognized as a Heritage Farm, in southeast Iowa.

As nearly 50 farmers and landowners gathered in Hillsboro earlier this week for a conservation field day, area farmer Clark Whitaker shared the importance of conservation to the family over the years, and how that has carried through to their farming operation today. His father had been a district conservationist with the Soil Conservation Service in the 1970s, brother John has been actively involved with conservation through USDA-FSA and Conservation Districts of Iowa, and today Clark is the “boots on the ground” guy making conservation happen on their land.

Clark commented, “The land needs to be cared for and maintained.  Part of that care is trying to keep the soil on the farm instead of road ditches and waterways.”

Back in the 1970s, that meant installing broadbase terraces. In the 1980s, the Whitakers’ conservation focus transitioned to no-till. Today, the Whitakers’ approach to conservation includes variable rate technology, prescription planting, cover crops, and they have also recently installed a saturated buffer to help reduce nitrate levels in drainage water.

Cover crops were the main focus at the Hillsboro field day, where Clark shared that his goals in using cover crops are two-fold: keeping the soil in place, while also raising levels of organic matter in their soils. He has experimented with cereal rye, oats, and radishes thus far.

For best results with cover crops, Clark made several recommendations to the group based on his experience in southeast Iowa:

To learn more about cover crops and how to integrate them into your farming operation, check out Cover Crop Videos and Cover Crop Resources on the Iowa Learning Farms website.

Ann Staudt

This field day was a partnership of Iowa Learning Farms, Lower Skunk Water Quality and Soil Health Initiative, and Henry County Soil and Water Conservation District.