Going the Extra Yard

A few years ago, Liz, Matt and I attended the funeral of Barry Kusel, one of our dedicated ILF farmer partners. Barry had passed away unexpectedly right before Thanksgiving that year. Barry was always someone we could turn to when we needed a strong advocate for cover crops or no till. Attending his funeral was important. None of us knew the rest of his family but I kept thinking that Barry was always willing to go wherever we asked him to go in order to help educate others about cover crops. Since Barry was always there when we needed him, we needed to be there for his family when they needed us. I know it meant a lot to his mother and his wife that we would come from Iowa State to pay our respects.

Two people in my own life really stand out for helping me learn the lesson of going the extra yard for folks: Joe Gronstal and Steve Padgitt. They didn’t teach me so much by their words but by their actions.

Joe was an old friend of the family but I really got to know him when he invited me to spend the summer at his house on Spirit Lake years ago. I was young and sort of in between things. A summer on the lake sounded great. Joe was an “old school” guy. He had his own way of doing things around the house and he was good at getting everyone around him to do it his way. You knew you were in trouble when Joe would look at you with that twinkle in his eye and say, “Well, I was thinking maybe we should try…” That summer, I would go along with whatever he asked me to help out with. His kids still tease me about how he got me to sit in the canoe and paint the side of the dock. He thought it would be easier. Trust me, it wasn’t easier.

What really stands out to me from that summer was how generous Joe was with his time and resources. He would drive hours one-way to visit a sick friend or do a favor for a friend. He was always looking out for his neighbors. He would point out to me the importance of being there in person for other people. My parents also did that in their lives but Joe used to go to such lengths to be there for his friends and neighbors that it really impacted me.Steve Padgitt was the sociology professor who first hired me for the Iowa Learning Farms project in 2004. Steve was a really good guy and I was so lucky to get to work with him before he retired. He was incredibly generous with his time as he gave me a crash course in the social aspects of agriculture. He was a great listener. After decades of Extension work, he knew agriculture and rural Iowa but he was still interested in my insights.

In the beginning, our primary task with Iowa Learning Farms was to send out a baseline survey to assess the status of conservation practices in Iowa. We needed to report regionally and so we needed a large response rate. We sent out thousands of letters and surveys. Steve signed every one of those letters. He made it clear to me that I should always hand-sign the letters I sent with a survey. Steve said that if we were going to ask the person to take the time to fill out the survey, we could take the time to sign our names. In other words, he was telling me not to ask more of other people than we are willing to give. Make the extra effort in what you do and people will respond.Now that I am director of the Iowa Learning Farms, I constantly remind myself of these principles as we are developing programming and doing our day-to-day activities. We have tried to be generous with our resources and our time. It is one of the reasons we still exist after 13 years. We try to be present in the state as often as possible through field days and community events. We make the extra effort. We could do none of this without our farmer partners.

Through the years, our farmer partners like Barry have been the living embodiment of these principles. They show up in person for others and they are cheerfully generous with their time and resources. They participate in important on-farm research and are always trying to find additional ways they can build soil health, reduce nutrient loss and improve the health of our land and water. They aren’t asking other farmers to do more than they are willing to do. They make conservation and water quality practices work on the land while they still continue to produce good yields and earn a decent living.

During this Thanksgiving season, on behalf of the Iowa Learning Farms team, I would like to thank our farmer partners for all they do on the land to make our state healthy, for all you do in being present to others across the state, and all you do to make our program a success! Thank you!

Jacqueline Comito

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

Iowa Learning Farms Webinar to Explore Past, Present and Future of Bioreactors

05-17 BioreactorAs substantial investments in drainage systems continue to be made across the U.S.- Midwest, the use of edge-of-field practices like woodchip bioreactors can help treat tile-drained water and help meet our water quality goals.

Dr. Laura Christianson, Professional Engineer and Assistant Professor in the Department of Crop Sciences at the University of Illinois, will present on bioreactor basics, what we know about how bioreactors work and novel ideas to make bioreactors work better. Dr. Christianson has nine years of experience focused on agricultural drainage water quality and denitrification bioreactors for point and nonpoint nitrogen treatment.

DATE: Wednesday, November 15, 2017
TIME: 12:00 noon
HOW TO PARTICIPATE: Log on as a guest shortly before 12:00 p.m.:
https://connect.extension.iastate.edu/ilf/

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

Julie Whitson

On-the-Ground Experience with Cover Crops

“What’s building organic matter worth to you?”

For Prairie City, IA farmer Gordon Wassenaar and tenant farmer Will Cannon, it’s worth using no-till and cover crops on every single one of their 1300 acres of cropland.  In a field day hosted by Iowa Learning Farms, Jasper Co. NRCS and SWCD, Wassenaar and Cannon shared their perspectives on cover crops and how they can be very successfully integrated into corn and soybean cropping systems.

Wassenaar, who has farmed for over 50 years, stated that he first got into cover crops for the purpose of protecting the soil from erosion. He started with cereal rye, broadcast seeded from an airplane.

As time has gone on, Wassenaar’s reasons for using cover crops have evolved from simply erosion control, to improving the structure and functioning of the soil — raising soil organic matter, aggregate stability, and water holding capacity. Cannon commented that on top of that, another big benefit is feeding the biodiversity of the soil, like the beneficial mycorrhizal fungi, all while growing a healthy crop.

Timing and seed-soil contact are two big factors with establishing successful cover crop stands, and it’s a balancing act between the two. Aerial broadcast seeding (or interseeding with a high clearance vehicle) allows for a larger window of time for fall growth, while drilling provides greater seed-soil contact. Today, Wassenaar and Cannon have moved to drilling all of their cover crops, ideally getting them in the ground 24 hours or less behind the combine.

When asked about the financial considerations of cover crops, Cannon responded, “We’ve got to be willing to be a little creative and inventive to make it work.”  And they certainly are.

Cannon outlined several approaches they are taking to minimize costs and improve efficiencies in their operation:

  1. Shop around for cover crop seed.
    Compare prices with different cover crop seed houses in order to get the best bang for your buck. Wassenaar and Cannon are even considering growing their own cover crop seed down the road.
  2. Consider your seeding techniques.
    Aerial broadcast seeding and custom planting carry a significant cost.  Cannon explained that they have moved to seeding all of their acres now with a drill, which has provided greater seed-soil contact, and thus improved the seeding efficiency in terms of the number of seeds that actually grow (they’ve subsequently optimized/reduced seeding rates accordingly).  They are also saving dollars through the use of a smaller 120hp tractor and a cover crop drill that was bought used.
  3. There are a lot of good programs out there that can help.
    Take a look at the conservation programs and personnel on the federal, state, and local levels that can help out.

With years of experience implementing conservation practices of no-till and cover crops, Wassenaar reflected on how much the technology advances make conservation readily doable today.

“Back in the day, we plowed because we didn’t have planters that could plant into high residue. The equipment is so good today, that now we can plant into just about any residue.  … With cover crops out there, it’s almost like planting onto a mattress.”

Wassenaar is clearly passionate about conservation, and left field day attendees with the following thoughts:

“I don’t know any other way you can farm and save your soil than with no-till and cover crops.  … I’m convinced that if Iowans take care of their soil, the soil will take care of Iowa.”

Ann Staudt

Watershed Academy: Training the Boots on the Ground in Iowa Watersheds

Last month, over 30 watershed coordinators from across the state came together to learn skills and share best practices about the science of watershed improvement and what it takes to get conservation practices on the ground where they work. Participants who attended the two-day training heard from agency representatives, university researchers and industry experts on a variety of topics.


Data Collection and Tools

Watershed coordinators perform many duties for their watershed projects. They are responsible for compiling and assessing data on water quality, land use, hydrology, stream bank conditions and more. Coordinators work with partners across the state as they assess available data and make decisions on how to best prioritize cost-share dollars in the watershed. The Watershed Academy provided coordinators with in-depth information on conservation planning, watershed planning, social assessments and available tools for data collection.

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Messaging and Communication

Coordinators are the boots on the ground in a watershed project area. They are responsible for building relationships with producers and becoming a trusted source of information in their watershed. Trainings like these are great places for coordinators to share their approach, messages and tools that they’ve used to get the job done. Speakers presented on the One Water approach, ArcGIS Story Maps, conservation sales and the newly-unveiled Conservation Station On the Edge trailer.

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Trends and Topics

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Stefan Gailans of Practical Farmers of Iowa shares research on using tea bags to measure indicators of soil health.

Coordinators need a well-rounded understanding of emerging trends and the latest research in the state. Speakers presented on cover crop acre trends in Iowa, measuring soil health using tea bags, sourcewater protection and the conservation infrastructure that will be needed to reach the goals of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

On behalf of the Watershed Academy planning committee, I would like to thank all of our participants, presenters and sponsors! To view presentations and additional resources from the 2017 Fall Iowa Watershed Academy, visit the Watershed Academy website. If you are a watershed coordinator or a person who works directly on similar projects, please join us for the next Watershed Academy!

Julie Whitson and Jamie Benning

For more information about the Watershed Academy, contact Jamie Benning, Iowa State University Extension Water Quality Program Manager.

The Watershed Academy was sponsored by the Iowa Natural Resources Conservation Service, Soil and Water Conservation Society, Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance, Conservation Districts of Iowa, Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach and the Iowa Watershed Approach.

ILF Staff Tours New Ames Water Treatment Plant

Six million gallons. That’s how much water the new Ames water treatment plant churns out every single day to meet the water needs of the city’s population. As the Ames community continues to grow, treatment plant staff expect to continue building up to the plants’ maximum capacity; an astonishing 15 million gallons of water treated per day.

Iowa Learning Farms/Water Rocks! staff had the opportunity to take a guided tour of the new plant last week, and learned some awe-inspiring facts about where our water comes from, and how it’s cleaned for everyday use. Read on to learn about the new plant and its water treatment process. We hope you will be inspired to plan a visit to your local water treatment plant to learn about where your own water comes from!

 

ames plant

New water treatment plant for the City of Ames  (image provided by City of Ames, www.cityofames.org)

A 2008 study determined that the old Ames water treatment plant, in operation since 1924, would not be able to meet the needs of the fast-growing Ames community. The Ames City Council approved a plan for developing a new treatment plant in 2009, and the $69 million project was awarded to a Minnesota construction company in 2014. According to a City of Ames brochure, it took 2 years, 8 months, 12 days, 12 hours, and 12 minutes until construction on the plant was completed in August 2017. The LEED-certified drinking water treatment plant has been using its 20,180 feet of pipeline to serve more than 18,000 Ames homes and businesses, Iowa State University, the Xenia Rural Water District, and the National Centers for Animal Health, ever since.

Fun Facts about the Ames Water Treatment Plant

  • All of Ames’ water comes the Ames aquifer, accessed through nearly 22 wells in 3 geographic areas. The plant uses wells that access both confined (groundwater that is surrounded by impermeable layers of soil/rock that keep surface water from entering) and unconfined (groundwater that mixes with water seeping in from the surface) aquifers.
  • Everything in the new treatment plant is run by central computers. In the event of an electrical power outage, the plant has a generator that could run the entire plant for 30 days.
  • The Ames water treatment plant is staffed 24/7, with 5 full-time operators, 4 student operators, 10-15 maintenance personnel, and 6-9 part-time and full-time office staff.
  • The 6 million gallons of water cleaned every day at the plant are turned around in just 3-4 hours, from aquifer to home or business.

Senior Operator, Mike Buns, led the Iowa Learning Farms/Water Rocks! tour of the new water treatment plant. According to Buns,

“The old mantra was ‘The solution to pollution is dilution: flush it on down.’ Thankfully we don’t do that anymore.”

Buns has been with the City of Ames and their water treatment facilities for two decades. Trained in marine biology, Buns takes the safety and quality of the Ames water supply very seriously. He walked ILF staff through the seven steps of cleaning water at the plant before it’s sent to one of the three water towers serving the city of Ames.

presentation 1

Senior Operator Mike Buns demonstrates the 7 steps of water treatment for ILF staff

  1. Aeration—three large aeration units outside the plant aerate the incoming water in order to oxidize iron and remove both carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide. aerators 1
  2. Softening—lime (calcium hydroxide) and additional polymers are added to the water to raise the pH and soften the water, and to encourage solid particles to bind together.    Lime added to water
  3. Disinfection—chlorine is added to help kill harmful bacteria.
  4. Sedimentation—solid particles that have settled from added lime are drained out. This “lime sludge” is taken to local farm fields and recycled as a soil conditioner. close up lime pit
  5. Stabilization—carbon dioxide gas is diffused through the water to recarbonate it and stop the softening reaction, and then polyphosphate is added to stabilize the water and assure a pH level of near 9.5.
  6. Filtration—the water then travels to one of 8 filters, where it moves through levels of coal and sand to remove fine particles that haven’t yet been filtered out by earlier treatment steps. filter pit
  7. Fluoridation—before water is pumped out to homes and business, fluoride is added for dental protection as per recommendations of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Environmental Protection Agency.
    pipes 2

Buns shared with ILF staff that the average single-family home in Ames uses 160 gallons of water every day. With fresh water making up only 1% of the earth’s total water supply, dedicating attention and care to how we keep it clean for human use is imperative. The new City of Ames water treatment plant is doing just that, and it shows in every step of their treatment process. ILF is grateful to have had an opportunity to see the ins and outs of the new plant, and we encourage YOU to check out your local water treatment plant to see where YOUR water comes from!

Brandy Case Haub