Wetland Ecosystem Services: How wetlands can benefit Iowans.

Kay Stefanik | Assistant Director, Iowa Nutrient Research Center

              Iowa was once a mosaic of prairies, wetlands, rivers, and forests.  Today, Iowa looks drastically different as agriculture now dominates the landscape.  Fertile prairie and wetland soils, which are ideal for row crop agriculture, have paved the way to a booming agricultural industry and led to Iowa being one of the top corn and soybean producing states in the country. 

              While agriculture is vital to the regional economy, all things in life come with trade-offs.  The rise of agriculture came at the expense of nature. Of Iowa’s natural ecosystems, wetlands have been particularly hard hit.  Prior to European settlement, wetlands made up almost 4 million acres of Iowa’s landscape.  Today, there are only about 422,000 acres of wetlands remaining; this is an 89% loss in wetland habitat.   

              At this point, you may be wondering “why does wetland loss matter”?  When a wetland is lost, we do not just lose a physical space.  We also lose the wetland’s ecosystem services – the essential direct and indirect benefits that nature provides to humans.  Even though wetlands are much harder to find today, the wetlands that do exist are still providing a variety of ecosystem services.  These ecosystems services include:

  • Flood prevention
  • Water quality improvements through nutrient and sediment removal
  • Wildlife habitat
  • Recreational opportunities
  • Food and fiber

              I am in no way implying that sides need to be taken, that it is agriculture or nature.  What I am suggesting is that not only can agriculture and nature coexist, but that nature can be used to improve agriculture.  By protecting wetlands already on the landscape, as well as strategically creating and restoring wetland habitat, we can increase the impacts of wetland ecosystem services.  Of interest in Iowa are the ability of wetlands to help with flood prevention and to improve water quality. 

              Flooding has become a major issue throughout Iowa over the last decade.  Wetlands placed along streams and rivers have the potential to capture surface runoff before stormwater reaches the stream and can also act to hold water from a river that spills over its banks.  This holding capacity prevents some of that floodwater from being immediately transported downstream.  By holding floodwater in place, downstream fields and developed areas may be spared from extreme flooding events and severe economic loss. 

              In addition to flood prevention, wetlands also help to improve water quality.   Wetlands receiving surface runoff can reduce phosphorus concentrations through the settling out of soil particles in the water column. The settled-out phosphorus becomes trapped in the wetland sediment and thus held on the landscape.  Wetlands that receive water with high dissolved nitrogen concentrations, usually ground water or tile line water, can reduce nitrogen through microbial conversion to nitrogen gas.  This nitrogen gas is then lost to the atmosphere, which is already about 78% nitrogen.  The ability of wetlands to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus can help us meet the 45% nutrient reduction goal laid out in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

              These wetland ecosystem services – flood prevention, water quality improvement, wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities, food, and fiber – give wetlands both instrumental and intrinsic value.  Wetlands have great potential to benefit the lives of all Iowans, but only if wetlands are allowed to exist in Iowa’s landscape.

Kay Stefanik

@kay_stefanik (Twitter)

Multi-Cropping as a Profitable Soil Health Solution

Iowa Learning Farms hosted a webinar on Wednesday about multi-cropping, and the soil health, environmental, and economic benefits of this practice.

Multi-cropping, which means more than one crop is harvested from the same field in the same year, can be done in several different ways. Relay-cropping is one option, where two crops with overlapping growing seasons are grown in the same field. Another option is double cropping, which is when two crops are grown and harvested together. Poly-cropping is when three or more crops are grown together. Finally, inter-cropping is when one or more crops are planted into an existing crop prior to harvest.

Ross Evelsizer, Watershed Planner & GIS Specialist at Northeast Iowa RC&D, explained what Iowa farmers have been trying and how multi-cropping can be done successfully. Iowa farmers are having good luck with relay-cropping. Crop combinations that are being used successfully in Iowa include pairing soybeans with a fall or spring planted small grain. Corn setups have been less successful, but some participants have tried corn with forage mix or cowpeas planted between 60 in. corn rows.

Benefits of multi-cropping for the farmer or landowner include diverse investments, improved soil health, weed suppression, and flexibility. From an environmental standpoint, multi-cropping can reduce soil erosion, reduce disturbances, and increase biodiversity. Evelsizer shared a producer’s relay-crop budget vs. their soybean production budget. Although there was a yield reduction for the soybeans grown in the relay-cropping system, the added revenue from the cereal rye meant that, overall, revenue for the relay setup was higher. The profit for the relay system was also significantly higher than that of the soybeans alone.

To learn more about multi-cropping, watch the full webinar here! You can also connect with Multi-Cropping Iowa on Facebook or Twitter!

Join us next week to learn about the benefits of mowing less. Adam Janke, an Assistant Professor and Extension Wildlife Specialist at Iowa State University, will present a webinar titled “Exploring the Economic, Ecological, and Aesthetic Case for Retiring (Or at Least Down-Sizing) the Mower on Farms and City Lots”.

Hilary Pierce

May 6 Webinar: Multi-Cropping as a Profitable Soil Health Solution

Iowa Learning Farms will host a webinar on Wednesday, May 6 at noon about multi-cropping, and the soil health, environmental, and economic benefits of this practice.

Multi-cropping has many associated benefits. It adds opportunities for producers to increase diversity to crop rotations, creates additional economic opportunities, reduces input costs and weed pressure, mimics nature, and builds soil health. Ross Evelsizer, Watershed Planner & GIS Specialist at Northeast Iowa RC&D, will explain what multi-cropping is, and what producers are doing in Iowa and other parts of the country, during this webinar. Evelsizer will also describe the benefits of multi-cropping for soil health and the environment, as well as the economic implications of the practice.

“I hope people will learn about multi-cropping and think about how it could be worked into what they are doing,” said Evelsizer, who has had seven years of experience in watershed management in northeast Iowa, where he has worked alongside producers and landowners to tackle flooding and water quality issues while maintaining economic productivity. He will also discuss the next steps for Multi-Cropping Iowa.

To participate in the live webinar, shortly before 12:00 pm on May 6:

Click this URL, or type this web address into your internet browser: https://iastate.zoom.us/j/364284172

    Or, go to https://iastate.zoom.us/join and enter meeting ID: 364 284 172 

Or, join from a dial-in phone line:

    Dial: +1 312 626 6799 or +1 646 876 9923

    Meeting ID: 364 284 172

The webinar will also be recorded and archived on the ILF website, so that it can be watched at any time. Archived webinars are available at https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars.

A Certified Crop Adviser board-approved continuing education unit (CEU) has been applied for, for those who are able to participate in the live webinar. Information about how to apply to receive the credit (if approved) will be provided at the end of the live webinar.

Hilary Pierce

Iowa’s Water Quality Challenge: Efforts and Progress in Reducing Agricultural Nitrogen and Phosphorus Loss

Iowa Learning Farms will host a webinar on Wednesday, April 29 at noon about the work that is being done in Iowa to reduce losses of agricultural nitrogen and phosphorus, as well as the progress that has been made.  

What are the drivers of nutrient loss and water quality impacts in Iowa? To what extent are agricultural conservation practices being used in Iowa to address these concerns? This webinar will explore these questions, describe the wide variety of data sources available, and present findings from the forthcoming Annual Progress Report of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Laurie Nowatzke, Measurement Coordinator for the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy at Iowa State University, will share how Iowa’s water quality efforts are tracked, the latest findings, and where participants can find additional resources about these efforts.

“There are many programs and initiatives working toward reducing nutrient loss in Iowa. This project uses data to show the current status and outcomes of those efforts, and it aims to provide Iowans with timely information regarding water quality improvement,” said Nowatzke. She works for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences to evaluate Iowa’s progress in meeting water quality goals, research Iowa farmers’ conservation practice adoption, and track statewide use of water quality improvement practices in agriculture.

To participate in the live webinar, shortly before 12:00 pm on April 29:

Click this URL, or type this web address into your internet browser: https://iastate.zoom.us/j/364284172

    Or, go to https://iastate.zoom.us/join and enter meeting ID: 364 284 172 

Or, join from a dial-in phone line:

    Dial: +1 312 626 6799 or +1 646 876 9923

    Meeting ID: 364 284 172

The webinar will also be recorded and archived on the ILF website, so that it can be watched at any time. Archived webinars are available at https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars.

A Certified Crop Adviser board-approved continuing education unit (CEU) has been applied for, for those who are able to participate in the live webinar. Information about how to apply to receive the credit (if approved) will be provided at the end of the live webinar.

Hilary Pierce

April 22 Webinar: Trees, Forests, and Forestry: Benefits to Water Quality and On-Farm Income in Iowa

Iowa Learning Farms will host a webinar on Wednesday, April 22 at noon about the importance of including trees in Iowa’s water quality conversation.

Billy Beck, Assistant Professor and Extension Forestry Specialist at Iowa State University, will discuss the benefits that trees, forests, and forestry provide for both water quality and on-farm income, as well as resources and techniques landowners may utilize to achieve successful on-the-ground projects.

“Trees represent powerful resources that are often underutilized and undervalued by agricultural landowners,” said Beck, whose research and extension programming focuses on the impacts that trees, woodlands, and forests have on water quality and quantity in the Midwest.

This webinar will also present results from the recent “Forests and Water Quality Summit”—including a vision for the role of forestry in Iowa’s water quality efforts.

Don’t miss this webinar!

DATE: Wednesday, April 22, 2020

TIME: 12:00 pm

HOW TO PARTICIPATE: shortly before 12:00 pm on April 22nd:

Click this URL, or type this web address into your internet browser: https://iastate.zoom.us/j/364284172

    Or, go to https://iastate.zoom.us/join and enter meeting ID: 364 284 172 

Or, join from a dial-in phone line:

    Dial: +1 312 626 6799 or +1 646 876 9923

    Meeting ID: 364 284 172

The webinar will also be recorded and archived on the ILF website, so that it can be watched at any time. Archived webinars are available at https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars.

A Certified Crop Adviser board-approved continuing education unit (CEU) has been applied for, for those who are able to participate in the live webinar. Information about how to apply to receive the CEU (if approved) will be provided at the end of the live webinar.

Hilary Pierce

Finding Mutual Opportunities for Soil, Water, and Wildlife by Redefining the Field Edge

On Wednesday, April 15 Iowa Learning Farms hosted a webinar that explored the promise and opportunities for taking unprofitable areas out of production and converting them to native perennial vegetation.

There are many benefits associated with this practice, known as “redefining the field edge”. When farmers take profit loss areas out of production and plant them to native, perennial vegetation, they can be used to grow soil and wildlife, and to provide clean surface waters. A large team of Iowa State University (ISU) educators have been working on this interdisciplinary project to describe the benefits of redefining the field edge. 

Adam Janke, an Assistant Professor and Extension Wildlife Specialist at ISU explained where these areas are found in crop fields, what to do with them once they’re found, and how water and wildlife can benefit from this conservation practice during the webinar.

Janke explained that there are opportunities for this practice all over Iowa, where areas of cropland operate at a loss. Converting these unprofitable areas of fields to perennial vegetation can not only save the farmer or landowner money, but also provide important soil, water and wildlife benefits. In order to find where these opportunities to “redefine the field edge” exist, a team of researchers did profitability analysis and mapping at the field level.

To better understand attitudes toward, and barriers to, establishment of native, perennial vegetation, listening sessions were held and a “Best Practices Survey” was sent out. The team found that there are educational opportunities for explaining what native, perennial plants are and the benefits associated with planting them. There are also opportunities to educate on how to establish and manage perennial plants on farms, and for urban areas. The team also found that program incentives can be helpful, as long as they are navigable.

Janke also described biological monitoring, which started in 2019 and will continue in 2020. This monitoring will be used to assess the wildlife benefits associated with this practice. Monitoring occurred at sites west of Ames, where farmers and landowners have already established these areas of perennial plants. Birds, monarch butterflies, nectar resources and milkweed plants were surveyed.

To learn more about this project, watch the full webinar here! Find all of our past webinars on our website at https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars.

Join us on Wednesday, April 22nd when Billy Beck, Assistant Professor and Extension Forestry Specialist at Iowa State University, will present a webinar titled: “Trees, Forests, and Forestry: Benefits to Water Quality and On-Farm Income in Iowa”.

Hilary Pierce

Trees, Forests, and Forestry: Why are they absent from Iowa’s water quality conversation?

Billy Beck | Extension Forestry Specialist, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach | Assistant Professor, Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management

Did you know that nearly three million acres of forest stand tall within Iowa’s border? That around one hundred and fifty thousand Iowans own forestland and sell 10-35 million dollars of standing timber annually? In 2016, forestry and forest products produced 4.3 billion dollars in economic output and supported nearly 30,000 jobs in Iowa.

Iowa State University is home to one of the oldest forestry programs in the United States. As an Extension Forestry Specialist, I work daily to remind Iowans that trees, forests, and forestry hold great significance in Iowa’s past, present, and future. They are part of Iowa and help define who we are, just like corn, hogs, and prairie. Why is it that trees, forests, and forestry are generally absent from Iowa’s water quality conversation? From on-farm practices to our statewide vision (i.e., Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy), trees are rarely, if ever, mentioned as a part of our water quality improvement strategies.

Trees and forests are as much a part of Iowa as corn, hogs, and prairie. Yellow River State Forest, Allamakee County. Note floodplain reforestation effort at right.

We’ve done an impressive job in the Midwest to alter our landscape (e.g., landcover conversion, stream channelization) for the purpose of getting water out of fields, into streams, and out of watersheds as fast as possible. The result is what hydrologists refer to as “flashy flow”, where streams exhibit rapid rises in stage immediately following storm events. This altered (flashy) hydrology subjects our streams to increased erosive power, which contributes greatly to Iowa’s current water quality and quantity (i.e., flooding) issues.

Trees and forests help address flashiness, mitigate the effects, and work to restore a more natural hydrology which will lead to better water quality and more stable quantity. Upland forest canopies intercept a portion of rainfall and prevent it from rushing into streams. Roots increase the infiltration capacity of the soil, reducing overland flow and associated erosion. Transpiration pulls moisture from soil, further increasing its ability to absorb rainfall, reduce overland flow, and deliver water to streams slowly through shallow groundwater. Floodplain forests provide resistance against out-of-bank flows, reducing floodplain scour and lessening downstream flood damage. By slowing flood velocities, their upright stems also encourage deposition of sediment and phosphorus on floodplains (a potentially huge nutrient sink). Trees along streams armor streambanks against erosive flows, and roots increase the tensile strength of streambank soils. The shade they create regulates stream temperature, mitigating massive diurnal dissolved oxygen swings.

Many landowners praise streambank trees for keeping flood debris from entering their fields. Trees that fall in streams and other in-channel large woody material may be unsightly to many folks, however, even these provide significant benefit through increase in flow resistance, trapping and storage of sediment and phosphorus, and creation of prime habitat for aquatic biota. In-channel wood also redirects flow towards streambanks, working to reestablish the natural meander pattern of streams, thus lessening slopes and further “slowing the flow”.

Although unsightly to some, trees that fall in streams and in-channel wood mitigate water quality and quantity issues by slowing the flow, trapping sediment and nutrients, and restoring natural meander patterns. Walnut Creek, Jasper County. Photo: Dr. Morgan Davis.

So, why would such a powerful tool be overlooked so often? Why are efforts to establish, manage, and protect streamside (riparian) forests minimized in the Midwest? I believe part of the answer comes down to landowner unfamiliarity with trees. This is no knock against Midwestern landowners (they are the best people on the planet in my book), it’s just that trees are challenging, especially if you lack experience. Trees are different from grass – you can’t simply plant trees in the ground, walk away, and expect success. Trees take advanced planning and site preparation, and at least three years of dedicated maintenance (e.g., weed control) to establish. When these don’t occur, plantings fail, neighbors notice, and word gets around the county that “trees don’t work”.

Management of existing forests is no less challenging. It takes a “100-year mentality,” and willingness to part with annual returns. In addition, landowners struggle to understand the true value of their timber. This spells danger when someone knocks on their door and offers them “ten thousand bucks” for the walnuts on the back 40.  What seems like an instant windfall is often a severe undercut. Before you take that offer, reach out to the many forestry resources, technical assistance, and expertise available to Iowa landowners. Unfortunately, many are unaware these resources exist.

The first, and most critical step to a successful forestry project is to connect with a professional forester. Be they a public (e.g., Iowa DNR), or a private consulting forester, these experts are your guide to a successful forestry project. From planning and planting, to forest stand improvement (thinning) and timber harvest, a forester will guarantee you maximize the benefits (both ecological and financial) of your forest resource. For further details on maximizing your forest resources, join my April 22 Iowa Learning Farms webinar.

As a water quality enhancement tool, and asset to farm enterprises, trees are often underutilized and undervalued in Midwestern states. Rough-sawn Osage orange board, Shimek State Forest, Lee County.

On February 27, I brought together nineteen forestry and water quality experts from across Iowa to explore the question as to why trees are often disregarded as a water quality enhancement tool. The participants in this Forestry and Water Quality Summit agreed that trees and forests are a tough sell to policy makers because they are not a “practice” or an engineered structure you can simply install and expect instant results. Trees take time. There is a multi-year lag between implementation of trees and water quality enhancement. For the foresters in the room, this was to be expected. Everyone agreed that everyone needed more of that “100-year mentality” and to plant more trees.

More importantly, we all agreed that we need Iowa-specific data that quantify tree and forest water quality benefits (e.g., flood peak reduction and nutrient reduction). While such data exist nationally and globally, it is difficult to apply that information to Iowa’s unique stream corridors and watersheds that are often highly-altered and highly-unstable.

Are trees the “silver bullet” for Iowa water quality? No. Do they need to be recognized as a critical component in our water quality efforts? Absolutely. To succeed in reducing nutrient levels in our water bodies, we will need a suite of practices. Like wetlands and prairie strips, trees offer additional environmental benefits. I am so thrilled be a part of the Conservation Learning Group and to partner with the Iowa Learning Farms and forestry professionals state-wide to firmly establish trees in Iowa’s water quality conversation!       

Billy Beck

For information on forestry resources available to Iowa landowners, visit the Forestry section of the Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Natural Resource Stewardship website.

@drbillyjbeck (Twitter)

@drbillyjbeck (Instagram)