Learning about the Water Cycle – Across the Ocean!

During the first part of January, I had the opportunity to travel abroad before returning to the Water Rocks! team. As part of a lifelong dream realized, I took a class with the University of Iowa, called the India Winterim trip, and my section was focused on Water Poverty in Rural India. The class combined my favorite place on Earth (India) with my favorite topic on Earth (water quality). As an added bonus we had the opportunity to learn about strategies for dealing with saline soils from some of the smartest scientists in the field.

Our class partnered with an NGO called the Sehgal Foundation, a group who is doing a lot of work with rural communities in the Nu district (formerly the Mewat district) near New Delhi. While our class was there we had the incredible opportunity to help Sehgal do some wider scale sampling and design work with them.

Our team included Sehgal scientists, engineers and volunteers along with University of Iowa students and professors.

Sehgal serves as the Extension and Outreach department for this district and many others. They educate people on sustainable farming practices and seek to improve water quality for drinking and irrigation purposes.

Drip irrigation in a test plot by the Sehgal radio site.

Our team during the debrief of our tasks for the class. Photo courtesy of Amina Grant.

 I was excited to go out in the field and collect data because with a background in Environmental Science, I felt like I would be the most useful outside. I also wanted to be out in the 70 degree weather!

Our class exploring our site for the first time next to the Aravali Hills.

Being out in the field, I had the opportunity to work with Sehgal water monitors to locate sites and take water salinity samples. Sites were often a bit of a scavenger hunt as wells run dry during the years we are not there or become dysfunctional for a variety of reasons. We worked with the local water monitors to line up our sites to the ones they had been using as best as possible. Then we used a tool called the Solinst to measure water temperature, conductivity and depth.

Me, using the Solinst to take readings. Photo courtesy of Amina Grant.

We went out to the field on three different occasions. My classmates and I worked to efficiently sample as many sites as we could, while making sure we were being accurate about the sites we were testing. It really tested my coordination skills to try and pay attention to what everyone was doing and end up with usable data. I definitely gained some skills in data management because along with my conductivity readings, my friend and classmate Amina Grant had to collect her own samples and that required an entirely different set of numbers to be recorded.

Amina found a Daphnia (small water creature) in one of the wells she was testing. 

We were hoping our measurements would add to the body of knowledge Sehgal and the local volunteers have been building about the water over time. We understood that our measurements were only a small piece of the puzzle, but hopefully some answers can be gained as a result of our cumulative efforts.

Sehgal test plots provide alternative methods for sustainable agriculture in the region. In the back, you can see the drinking water filtration system.

The water challenges in the Nu district are different than ours because their main problem is poor water quality and soil quality due to salinity. But the same principles of hard work, long days, and an interdependency on the water cycle bind across oceans and cultures.

Megan Koppenhafer


Opinion: The Iowa Farmer, and the Decay Of the Rural Economy

Today’s guest blog post represents the opinion of AmeriCorps Service Member Jack Schilling, part of the Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach program, serving with Water Rocks! in 2017-2018.

It’s been almost six months since I first started my service with Water Rocks! and Iowa State University. Throughout this time, I have traveled all over the state of Iowa for numerous outreach events, from Decorah to Council Bluffs, Sioux Center to Cedar Rapids. The bluffs and plains of Iowa offer some truly great views along the highways, but there is another sight that has become all-too-familiar to me: the sight of a small, rural, agricultural town along the way. My home town, Jefferson, was not much different than this when I was a child, but in the last few years gained new businesses, most notably a Hy-Vee and the Wild Rose Casino. However, many small towns do not get an opportunity like this and run the risk of fading away.

Rural areas on the decline is not a new concept: farm income plunged for three straight years since 2014, says Barbara Soderlin of the Omaha World Herald (American farm income to fall in 2018 according to USDA forecast). A combination of low prices and poor weather have made it rough for farmers trying to get by. Some made the tough decision to give up their family farms simply because it couldn’t provide. And as farm family numbers shrink, so do the number of stores, hospitals, and other places of work. Even the factories, a partner with farms as the great job producers of Iowa’s rural economy, will leave, searching for more workers. And as such, rural Iowa, the lands that we are known for, decay.

When you see the same circumstance time and time again, you truly want to help your state find a way to bring jobs, wealth, and prosperity back to how they used to be. And, in a way, it helps you realize why some decisions are made the way they are. At first, it may not make sense for a factory to get a tax credit. But, if they didn’t have the tax incentive, the factory may not have been there in the first place. Bringing one part of the rural economy’s life blood back is a good first step for the state. More jobs lead to more population in the towns, which leads to town necessities like stores, hospitals, and gas stations being built, which leads to more jobs and a better economy. Ideally, this leads to a revitalization of an entire area. But what of the farmers of the state? I can’t give an answer to that.

The future of the Iowa farmer is uncertain. Price lulls, poor weather, and a disappearing rural community all factor in to the life blood of the rural economy. Ideally, the price of corn and soybeans will rise again, and the problem will solve itself, but the future lies at a crossroads. Does the small town/rural Iowa we know rebound and thrive again, or does it become the agricultural equivalent of the Rust Belt, a relic of a better time?

Jack Schilling

Who Knew? Cover Crops, Corn and Water Molds Webinar Recap

Cover crops have numerous benefits, but not everyone is using them. Decreased yield is a major barrier but terminating at the right time can minimize risk. What are the factors that may impact yield and why does timing matter?

Dr. Alison Robertson, professor of plant pathology and microbiology and extension field crops pathologist at Iowa State University, wondered if corn seedling disease could be the culprit.

“As a pathologist, when I look at reduced stands, more barren plants, and slower emergence, I automatically think of seedling disease.”

In this month’s podcast, Robertson details the research her team is doing to determine what management practices could reduce yield drag.

They first had to determine if winter rye can even host pathogens that infect corn seedlings. They discovered that rye can host Fusarium graminearum and Pythium sylvaticum.

Next, they set up a field trial experiment seeding winter rye ahead of planting corn. They terminated five plots at different times, anywhere from 25 days before planting to two days after planting.


Cover crop test fields in Boone, Iowa.

They found that when conditions are favorable, winter rye acts as a ‘green bridge’ for Pythium to infect the corn. Fusarium was present whether cover crops were used or not and Rhizoctonia did not appear at all.

Watch Dr. Robertson’s webinar here to learn the optimal time for termination and what additional factors may change it.

Brianne Osborn

From the Archives: Conservation Chat Podcast with Farmer Sally Hollis

The Conservation Chat podcast is taking a break for the next few months, but I would like to take you back through our archives on a tour of the “Best of the Conservation Chat Podcast.” There are 38 great podcast episodes to choose from – what’s your favorite?

conservationchat-hollisFirst up on the “Best of” list is a chat with Sally Hollis. Back in December of 2015 in Conservation Chat Episode 15, we featured Sally Hollis of Lanehaven Farms. Sally and her husband Blake grow commercial corn and soybeans, seed corn, and cover crops for seed, as well as run a hog operation.

Growing seed corn allowed Lanehaven Farms the opportunity to first plant cover crops, especially along the end rows to help break up compaction. Sally eventually started growing cover crops for seed. Her farm has been able to experiment with many conservation practices, but, she says, they wouldn’t have been able to do so without being able to learn from other farmers, and ultimately being able to go through a trial and error process on her own farm. She encourages farmers to reach out and share information.

“Farmers need to support each other – build each other up, be inclusive, share your knowledge with others, invite somebody to come along with them.” Sally adds, “Help make this an easier decision for them.”

Listen to the episode here! Check out our entire archive of 38 episodes and find your favorite.

Julie Winter


Webinar TODAY: Reduce Your Risk of Yield Impact When Using Cover Crops


Despite the many documented benefits of cover crops, some farmers are hesitant to add cover crops to their operations due to perceived risks of yield impact and increased Robertsondisease. Dr. Alison Robertson, Professor in the Department of Plant Pathology and Microbiology and Extension Field Crops Pathologist at Iowa State University, will discuss best management practices that can help farmers avoid reduced stands and lower yields. She will also explain how a cover crop may act as a green bridge for oomycete pathogens, thereby creating an increased risk of seedling disease in corn without proper management.

DATE: Wednesday, February 21, 2018
TIME: 1:00 p.m.
HOW TO PARTICIPATE: Log on as a guest shortly before 1:00 p.m.:

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 Winter

Meet Conservation Learning Labs Farmer Brian Sampson

CLL Brian.jpg

Brian Sampson and his wife Deb raise corn and soybeans as well as operate a cattle feedlot in rural Story County. In 2016, Iowa Learning Farms approached Brian to be a part of a new Conservation Learning Labs (CLL)* project that is studying changes in nitrogen and phosphorus loss at the delivery scale.

Brian lives near an existing Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) wetland in Story County that has measured water quality for about three years. Using the CREP wetland monitoring system, the project will be able to measure changes in water quality after the implementation of conservation practices like cover crops and strip-tillage in the project area over the next three years.


CREP Wetland near Roland in Story County

Brian tried cover crops on some of his fields in the past, but his results were mixed. In the fall of 2012, Brian says, “I flew cover crops onto my corn. I wanted to grow them to boot stage for my cattle. In the spring, it got wet and my bean planting was delayed . . . but it was a beautiful stand. I ended up baling it.” Brian tried cover crops again in 2013, but a dry fall hindered germination. The start of the CLL project was the assistance he was looking for to give cover crops another try.

“I flew cover crops onto my corn. I wanted to grow them to boot stage for my cattle. In the spring, it got wet and my bean planting was delayed . . . but it was a beautiful stand. I ended up baling it.”

In 2017, through the NRCS conservation planning process, Brian seeded a cereal rye cover crop and started strip-tillage on his fields, treating 42% of the project watershed. With technical support from CLL project partners and Key Coop, Brian hopes to be successful as he makes changes to his operation.

“I’m not an island. I need help,” Brian commented. “I have felt very supported through the project help I have received from ISU Extension, NRCS and Iowa Learning Farms.”

Brian and Deb have two children, Alex and Brice. In addition to farming, Brian is a member of the Story County Cattlemen’s Association and the Story County Farm Bureau.

Julie Winter

*The Conservation Learning Labs 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.

It’s alive! Scientists get closer to identifying what lives in our soil

Iowa Learning Farms has been spreading the word about soil health, and its preservation, for over a decade, and Iowa farmers have long touted the benefits of soil health for crop growth. Now, the importance of soil is gaining an even wider audience when earlier this year researchers from the University of Colorado-Boulder published findings of a study leading to the first global atlas of soil bacterial communities.

Researchers at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at the University of Colorado-Boulder published their study in the January issue of the highly respected journal, Science. Analyzing 237 soil samples from eighteen countries across six continents of varying climates, the researchers discovered that 2% of soil bacteria—about 500 species—accounted for nearly half of the soil bacterial communities found worldwide!

Images of soil bacteria from the dominant Proteobacteria and Actinobacteria phylotypes courtesy of MicrobeWiki.

While scientists have long known that soil bacteria make up a substantial percentage of earth’s living biomass, contributing to plant productivity, carbon cycling, and nutrient availability, the immense numbers and diversity of soil bacteria (total counts are estimated to be in the tens of thousands!) have kept them from fully understanding soil bacterial distribution and function. The CIRES study is a major breakthrough in soil science as it documents the most abundant and dominant types of soil bacteria found worldwide.

CIRES researchers believe this discovery sets up a “most wanted list” of soil bacteria, as it points to which bacteria should be targeted in future studies seeking to understand soil microbes and their contribution to soil fertility and ecosystem functioning. The next step is to begin categorizing these dominant bacteria into groups of co-occurring bacteria and habitat preferences, resulting in data that the CIRES group hopes will shed more light on the function of certain groups of bacteria, eventually leading to agricultural applications.

The full journal article from Science can be viewed at A global atlas of the dominant bacteria found in soil.

Brandy Case Haub