Conservation, Recreation, & Rhubarb Meet on the River

You were first introduced to our summer student interns in a blog post earlier this week (Meet our 2017 Water Resources Interns) – now it’s time to hear from them in first person!  Each student in our Water Resources Internship program will be blogging at some point over the course of the summer, so you can get a sneak peek into the many different projects they are involved with, from school visits, camps, and community outreach, to all kinds of field work related to soil health and water quality.

Our first student guest blog post comes from Kaleb Baber, who has just completed his first year of studies at Iowa State University, majoring in Agronomy. Kaleb grew up on a family farm near Weston, MO (north of Kansas City), where he grew sweet corn, raised beef cattle, and was actively involved in FFA. We’ll let Kaleb take it from here!

This past Saturday, June 3, I had the pleasure of traveling with the Conservation Station to Rhubarb on the River, an event held in Manchester, Iowa. This was the first community outreach event I have been to for Water Rocks!/Iowa Learning Farms. It was a fun-filled day of tasty rhubarb creations and great live music – all just a stone’s throw away from the beautiful Maquoketa River.

We left Ames around 6:30 in the morning, Conservation Station in tow (and coffee in hand). We arrived in Manchester around 9:00 and set up the Rainfall Simulator, Enviroscape, and Poo Toss game just in time for the event to start.

Families soon began to visit the Conservation Station. We spoke to over 180 people, ranging in age from babies to seniors. Children got a kick out of tossing (fake) dog poo and making it rain at the Enviroscape (what we call the Watershed Game), while their parents learned about land management practices, soil health and water quality at the Rainfall Simulator.

One conversation I had with a couple from Marion stood out in particular. They were interested in permeable pavers since it is a practice they could potentially implement on their patio. I told them about all of the benefits, such as improving infiltration, potentially reducing the impacts of flash floods and improving water quality. After that, they began asking about the agricultural practices represented by the other trays. The husband showed particular interest in cover crops. I explained the benefits of having the soil surface protected by the plant matter. The wife was curious about the role of nutrients and how they are lost from agricultural landscapes. I told her how the two main nutrients of concern, phosphorus and nitrogen, move through the environment and how cover crops are important since they have shown to reduce losses of both nutrients. The interest the couple had in the steps farmers are taking to improve Iowa’s soil and water quality was very exciting to me. It was great to be teaching the community about Iowa’s water resources, and it was an added bonus that we were right next to the river that flows through the heart of Manchester.

The city has recently built a series of rapids on the Maquoketa River. People were kayaking, floating, and swimming down the river. Children shrieked as their tubes tumbled over the whitewater. One girl who had played Poo Toss game earlier in the day even brought over a baby soft-shelled turtle she had found along the bank. Everyone along the river looked like they were having a blast, especially when it began to heat up in the afternoon!

Another highlight of the day was the delicious food the Manchester Chamber of Commerce was selling. I took a quick break to go grab a rhubarb bratwurst and a slice of rhubarb pie. Both were fantastic! Along Main Street, vendors were selling other rhubarb treats, such as ice cream and wine, as well as quilts and other handmade crafts.

Overall, Rhubarb on the River was an outstanding community event. The City of Manchester did an excellent job organizing it, and their hard work was rewarded by a beautiful day and a great turnout from the area residents. The interest that the public showed in making meaningful strides to cleaner water for the state of Iowa encouraged me, and I am excited to travel to more events like this throughout the rest of my time here as an intern.

Kaleb Baber

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.

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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

ICYMI – Can Cover Crops Clean the Corn Belt?

There are many news headlines competing for our attention every day and while some fade into the background, water quality and conservation practices remain in the forefront as we work to meet the goals of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.  A recent article written by Laura Sayre for New Food Economy asks the question: Can Cover Crops Clean the Corn Belt? and I strongly encourage you to check it out!

Cover crops provide a multitude of benefits including: helping improve water quality by reducing the losses of both nitrates and phosphorus, minimizing soil erosion, improving soil health and mimicking diversified crop rotation benefits by keeping the fields green in the winter.
Tobin Rye 2017

Biomass sampling cereal rye in Taylor County spring 2017

A key practice in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy toolbox, cover crops are able to help reduce both nitrogen and phosphorus leaving the field and entering water bodies.  In addition to practices like wetlands, bioreactors and nutrient management, one of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy scenarios calls for 65% of Iowa row crop acres (about 15 million acres) to be seeded with cover crops.  At just over 600,000 acres seeded in 2016, we still have a long way to go to reach that level of adoption. However, there are a variety of economic opportunities that accompany that goal including cover crop seed growers and dealers, co-op, and equipment manufacturers.

Whether or not cover crops can indeed help clean the Corn Belt is up to all Iowans.  This includes, but not limited to those mentioned in the article: researchers like Dr. Matt Liebman with Iowa State University, farmers and landowners like ILF farmer partner Tim Smith, non-profit organizations like Practical Farmers of Iowa, our state agency partners, and urban residents, like myself, all doing our part to help keep the water clean and supporting the efforts of others working towards meeting the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy goals.

Liz Juchems

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

Cover Crops: One Piece of the Puzzle in CLL Project

Cover crops are an important tool for helping keep soil, nitrogen and phosphorus in the field – instead of our water bodies. Because they grow outside the typical corn/soybean growing season, cover crops help reduce soil erosion and take up nutrients that could otherwise leave the field. It is also the most popular practice among our Conservation Learning Lab (CLL) farmer partners.

The CLL project is studying the impact of conservation practices implementation at the watershed scale in Floyd and Story County.  The conservation planning process within the watersheds has yielded cover crop contract enrollment of 675 acres and 1,081 acres, respectively, starting this fall covering 50-68% of the crop acres within the watershed.

Cover_crop_April_Berger_FarmThe farmer partners chose to seed either winter cereal rye and oats.  These grass species are easy to establish, relatively inexpensive and are the leading biomass producers in our cover crop research projects – keeping that soil covered (reducing the loss of phosphorus) and taking up nitrogen.

The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy team reviewed cover crop research results from across Iowa and the Midwest and found that cereal rye and oats reduced nitrogen loss by 31% and 29%, respectively.  Similarly, the reduction of phosphorus when adding cereal rye is about 29%, primarily as a result of reduced soil erosion. According to our RUSLE2 calculations, a cereal rye cover crop added to a no-till system can reduce soil erosion by 30-80% and can be even larger when transitioning from a conservation tillage system.

Be sure to keep checking back as we will be providing updates as the cover crops are seeded this fall!

The project is funded by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) and the United States Department of Agriculture – Natural Resources Conservation Services (USDA-NRCS) of Iowa.

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Julie Whitson