Mapping Tile Drain Systems: Using Technology to Find Grandpa’s Tile

How can you find old tile lines without spending hours digging holes? During our webinar on Wednesday, Kevin Erb, Conservation Professional Training Program coordinator at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Division of Extension, discussed available strategies and tools, most of which use information that the farmer already has, or that is readily available.

Knowing where old tile lines are located makes upgrading easier, and due to the connectedness of tile systems, the impacts of tile issues can stretch beyond the field or property line. Erb shared some history of tiling, explaining that due to the difficulty of installing clay or concrete, tile systems were not installed in neat grid patterns, but instead from wet spot to wet spot, which can make locating them difficult generations later.

Erb explained that air photos can be a helpful tool, but that not everything that looks like tile on old air photos is tile. Because of this, it’s important to look at multiple years of air photos to determine what actually is tile. GIS software can be helpful to overlay the years of photos if you have it available, but you can also assess air photos by hand, by comparing multiple years of photos side-by-side. Google Earth’s time machine function allows you to click through multiple years of data, which can enable you to see things that show up on some years, but not on others, due to soil moisture and temperature variations.

Air photos of a farm during three different years

With combinations of air photos, lower-level drone photos, and field observations, you’ll start to be able to map out where the drainage tiles are located. It’s also important to mark the location of tile blowouts when you see those in fields, to better understand the system. Yield maps can also be useful tools for determining drainage tile locations. Once you’ve started to create your tile map, yield data can help you located areas of unmapped tile and help you identify areas where your tile might not be working well.

As you build your tile map, Erb suggested color coding the tile lines by the sources through which you found them. This can help you see where there might be data missing and may help you identify areas that you need to do further research on to find the tile lines. It is also helpful to map more than just your field, including at least every field next to yours, if not the entire section, so that you can better understand the complete picture of tile drainage in your field.

To learn more about creating a tile map, other non-Google sources of air photos, the Budweiser/Euchre method, and other technology that can be used to map tile lines, such as ground penetrating radar, watch the full webinar!

Join us on Wednesday, December 9 at noon for “The Cost and Benefits of Agricultural Water Conservation: An Economist’s Perspective,” a webinar presented by Wendong Zhang, assistant professor and extension economist at Iowa State University.

Hilary Pierce

December 2 Webinar: Mapping Tile Drain Systems: Using Technology to Find Grandpa’s Tile

Using readily available information to map drainage tile is the topic of the Iowa Learning Farms webinar on Wednesday, December 2 at noon.

Drainage tile is typically ignored after installation, until a problem develops, or the farmer wants to add onto the system. While there are unique ways of finding tile when you need to, such as witching, pressurizing, and smoking, there are also a number of strategies and tools that farmers can use to locate drain tile without digging a dozen holes with a backhoe.

Kevin Erb, Conservation Professional Training Program coordinator at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Division of Extension, will discuss these strategies and the tools available. Most of the tools use information that the farmer already has, or that is readily available.

“One of the more frustrating parts of farming is spending the better part of a day (or more) digging random holes with a backhoe to find old drain tile. And waiting until the poorly drained areas show up on next fall’s yield maps means lost yield and profit. Investing time now and mapping out your tile systems is a worthwhile investment that will save time in the future,” said Erb. “There are free and low-cost options that make locating older tile systems simpler than ever before. And it can be fun to combine yield maps, air photos, and other resources to make it happen.”

In addition to managing the Conservation Professional Training Program, Erb’s extension programming includes manure management, soil moisture management, drainage, soil health, and managing agricultural systems in karst areas.

Webinar Access Instructions

To participate in the live webinar, shortly before 12 pm CST on December 2:

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

Finding the Right Fit for Soil Health Practices

Our webinar on Wednesday featured Dr. Abbey Wick, North Dakota State University soil health specialist and associate professor, who shared soil health approaches farmers have used in the northern plains and how they’ve tweaked those approaches to achieve their goals.

Wick explained the importance of creating the right mindset to try out new soil health practices and being willing to adjust the approach in order to meet the on-farm goals. She shared the experiences of farmers who she has worked with, both what practices they’ve tried, and also the lessons that they’ve learned. Some of the lessons learned that were highlighted were:

  • Pick your goal
  • Ask questions
  • Treat cover crop like a cash crop
  • Cover crop by soil texture
  • Find out why something worked or didn’t work
  • Try things out on your worst acres
  • Simple is okay
  • Share what you’re learning with others and get their input

Wick explained these lessons learned, along with many other during the webinar. She also shared some positives results of soil health practices that farmers are seeing, such as improved water management during wet spring and fall periods and noticeable soil health improvements in clay soils.

To learn more about finding the right fit for soil health practices, watch the full webinar here!

Join us next week, on Wednesday November 18 at noon, for a webinar with John McMaine, assistant professor and water management engineer extension state specialist at South Dakota State University, titled “Don’t Run off!—Managing Stormwater in the Urban Landscape.”

Hilary Pierce

November 11 Webinar: Finding the Right Fit for Soil Health Practices

How to create the mind-set needed to evaluate systems and develop a customized approach for adopting soil health practices that meet on-farm goals is the topic of the Iowa Learning Farms webinar at noon on Wednesday, November 11.

There isn’t a prescription for the adoption of soil health practices; it’s more of a pursuit. Farmers find a practice that could accomplish an on-farm goal and then adjust that approach as they learn how it fits their system. Dr. Abbey Wick, North Dakota State University soil health specialist and associate professor, will share approaches farmers have used in the northern plains and how they’ve tweaked those approaches to achieve their goals.

“The use of soil health practices varies by region, by farm and by field—learning how to think through a problem and pull together a set of practices is how new management approaches are successfully adopted on-farm,” said Wick who works alongside farmers, consultants, industry and researchers to come up with both science-based and practical soil health management approaches that can be adopted on-farm with reduced risk.  

Wick emphasized the importance of the thought process around soil health for the successful adoption of practices. She hopes the webinar will help participants think through some ideas to use on their farm, or in their program, research or business.

Webinar Access Instructions

To participate in the live webinar, shortly before 12 pm CST on November 11:

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

October 28 Webinar: Cover Crops for Better Corn and Soybeans

Integrating cover crops into corn and soybean cropping systems is the topic of the October 28 Iowa Learning Farms webinar.

Sarah Carlson, image courtesy of Practical Farmers of Iowa

Learn how cover crops can be a win-win for cash crops and the environment. During this webinar, Sarah Carlson, Strategic Initiatives Director at Practical Farmers of Iowa, will share research results about how cover crops can help farmers grow better corn and soybean crops, while also protecting water quality and improving soil health.

“Cover crops are not just good for water quality and soil health but should also be a part of the crop production decision-making discussion,” said Carlson, who will explain the economic benefits of using cover crops.

Carlson works to transfer agronomic research about cover crops and small grains through supply chain projects, articles, blogs and presentation materials, while working to improve the support for cover crop and small grain research.

Webinar Access Instructions

To participate in the live webinar, shortly before 12 pm CDT on October 28:

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 Wild Weather Year: From Drought to Derecho

The wild weather this year was the topic of our webinar on Wednesday, September 30.  Dr. Justin Glisan, the State Climatologist of Iowa explained the formation of the drought and its expansion across western Iowa, as well as the short and long-term impacts of the drought on the growing season and crop production. He also discussed the severe derecho which moved through Iowa on August 10th, producing widespread damage.

Glisan gave a climatological summary of 2019, and explained the 2020 monthly summaries that are available. 2019 was the 12th wettest year on record in Iowa, with every county having up average precipitation over the year. 2020’s monthly precipitation show more months with precipitation deficits and flash drought conditions began to form from mid-May to mid-June. Flash drought forms over weeks instead of over months to years like seasonal drought.

2020 Monthly Precipitation, image from Glisan’s presentation

The below average precipitation amounts across the state added to long term precipitation deficits that have stacked up over years. These dry conditions have led to low soil moisture and near record dryness across western Iowa, where corn and soybeans are affected by moisture stress. As dry conditions persisted, drought worsened throughout July and August with the peak of the current drought occurring in early September.

Development of the drought, image from Glisan’s presentation

During the webinar, Glisan also explained the August 10 derecho event. A derecho is a widespread, convectively induced straight-line windstorm. He explained derecho formation and how the storm on August 10 developed into a derecho and strengthened as it moved across the state. The derecho held together for 770 miles over 14 hours, starting in South Dakota and eventually dissipating as it moved into western Ohio.

The path of the derecho, image from Glisan’s presentation

To learn more about the drought, derecho, and the impacts of both, watch the full webinar here!

Join us at noon on Wednesday, October 7 for a webinar titled “Choosing an Edge-of-Field Practice: Decision Trees Can Help” with Chris Hay, Sr. Manager Production Systems Innovation, Iowa Soybean Association.

Hilary Pierce

September 30 Webinar: Iowa’s Wild Weather Year: From Drought to Derecho

Iowa Learning Farms will host a webinar on Wednesday, September 30 at noon about Iowa’s weather in 2020.

“With 95% – 99% of Iowa experiencing abnormal dryness or drought and 57 counties affected by the derecho, most Iowans have been impacted by this year’s wild weather,” said Dr. Justin Glisan, the State Climatologist of Iowa. During this webinar, Glisan will discuss initial drought formation and expansion across western Iowa, as well as the short and long-term impacts of the drought on the growing season and crop production. Additionally, he will discuss the severe derecho which moved through Iowa on August 10th, producing widespread damage in rural and urban areas, including the extreme drought region in west-central Iowa.

As State Climatologist of Iowa, Glisan’s responsibilities include quality control of Iowa weather observations, weekly recommendations to the U.S. Drought Monitor, and weekly and monthly climate summaries for state stakeholders. Glisan also advises the Secretary of Agriculture on climatological matters that impact the agricultural sector, such as how trends in precipitation and temperature are changing. Iowa’s weather and climate observations, which date back to 1872, help tell the story of Iowa agriculture and how resilient and innovative the state’s farmers are and have been.

To participate in the live webinar, shortly before 12:00 pm CDT on September 30:

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

It’s a Matter of Trust

Mark Rasmussen | Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture Director

In recent times we have experienced a significant erosion of trust in our society. Intentional obfuscation, half truths and outright lies seem to be an everyday occurrence now. Such deception and dishonestly takes a toll on everyone, from personal interactions to national and international affairs.

Trust and honestly is especially important with respect to our state and federal regulatory agencies. We rely on these organizations to evaluate and approve drugs, medical treatments and chemicals based upon science and a thorough process of due diligence. But when a whiff of politics or influence enters that decision-making process, decades of trust can evaporate very quickly. When trust is lost, lawsuits usually follow.

This is especially relevant in the business of food and agriculture because food is a universal exposure (everyone eats) and because agriculture has such a huge footprint on the landscape. Regulatory decisions regarding food and environmental safety are important not just for humans but also for the rest of the biological world, on field and off.

I have been thinking a lot about what causes the loss of a species. We have all heard news about honey-bee Colony Collapse, and many wait anxiously for annual Monarch butterfly migration numbers. Many explanations try to deflect responsibility by citing a complicated list of factors such as disease, parasites, reproduction, habitat, critical co-species, over-harvesting and social inertia. Unfortunately, other than a few celebrity species in the “going, going, gone” book of life, many don’t get much attention as they quietly fade away.

While many factors have an impact on biodiversity, extinction or survival, I want to focus on one factor that does not get adequate consideration. This involves a complex mix of toxicology, multi-chemical interactions, sub lethal dosages, and off-target environmental consequences. This is where trust in our regulatory agencies is vital. Their decisions are important because the products we use, the medicines we take, and the chemicals we apply ultimately end up in our soil, water, and air. These represent an extensive array of drugs, hormones, cleaners, pesticides and personal care products.

Things get complicated quickly when chemical mixtures are involved. Scientists that work in this area are faced with a complex array of interacting ingredients, many possessing residual biological activity that lingers long after use.

Most undergo regulatory approval as pure compounds, and some information is available on their environmental impacts but often a lot of information is restricted and filed away in confidential regulatory application files. I get very frustrated when I seek out such information and find it is cloaked as confidential.

Only later do we find that someone has identified unanticipated deleterious consequences from use of a chemical that has put some species at risk. Maybe our own. Such surprises happen more frequently than they should. We need our regulatory experts to make evaluations using the best available science free from undue influence. It’s a matter of trust.

If you feel frustrated, I share your frustration. For some, this complicated research process may be cause for despair and surrender to the idea that we can never figure this out, so why try. For others it means; “Forge ahead. We need this product now and we will just assume nature will take care of it.” Others react with a resolute: “Stop now! Ban it”.

None of these positions are particularly helpful. More than ever, we need to be thorough and deliberative in our decisions. We need to double-down on research and knowledge-formation. We need more scientists and more open research on the environmental aspects of multi-chemical interactions. We also need more support for scientists doing this work.

We need the relevant industrial partner to provide metabolic, toxicological and degradation data before a product is released into the environment so there are no surprises. We also need to maintain a little humility. The chemistry of life is vastly complicated. And finally, we need a regulatory system that is not harassed into ignoring science and making inappropriate or premature decisions as a result of political pressure.

Life on earth and our own well-being depends on getting good, timely answers to these complicated questions. The clock is ticking.

Mark Rasmussen, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture Director

Measuring Conservation and Nutrient Reduction in Iowa

Written by: Laurie Nowatzke and Jamie Benning

To address Iowa’s nutrient contributions to the Gulf hypoxic zone, the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (INRS) established goals for reducing N and P loss from agricultural nonpoint sources by 41% and 29%, respectively. The INRS Science Assessment identified a number of conservation practices that reduce N and P loss including in-field fertilizer and soil management practices, edge-of-field nitrate and phosphorus reduction structures, and strategic conversion of row crop acres to pasture, small grains, or perennial crops.

The current status of conservation in Iowa

The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy Annual Report is published each year to document the change in statewide education and outreach efforts, practice implementation and changes in water quality.  Some of the highlights of this report include:

  • Cover crops planted in Iowa increased from 379,000 acres in fall 2011 to 973,000 in fall 2016, according to the newly available 2017 United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Census of Agriculture.
  • Based on the USDA Census of Agriculture, annual corn and soybean planted acres have remained relatively consistent since the 1980s, with some fluctuation. Preliminary analyses of the USDA Cropland Data Layer suggest that perennial agricultural acres – including pasture, hay, and acres enrolled in CRP – have decreased over time, with approximately 4.3 million acres in 2018.
  • No-till acreage increased from 6.9 million acres in 2012 to 8.2 million in 2017, according to the Census of Agriculture.
  • By the end of the 2018 calendar year, there were an estimated 27 bioreactors and 13 saturated buffers installed through cost-share programs, treating an estimated 2,000 acres or more.
  • Iowa has 86 nitrate-removal (i.e., CREP) wetlands that treat 107,000 acres. An additional 30 wetlands are currently under development for completion in the coming years.
  • Since 2011, approximately 22.5 million feet of terraces have been constructed using state cost-share funds. These terraces treated 174,000 acres of land and reduced P losses by 40 tons in 2018.

Moving forward

Meeting the goals of the INRS will require changes on every acre of Iowa farmland. One example scenario calls for an estimated 10.5 million acres of no-till and strip-till, 12.5 million acres of cover crops, 7,600 nutrient removal wetlands, and 120,000 bioreactors and saturated buffers. In comparing these numbers to the 2019 assessment of practices, we have a lot of work ahead us to reach the goals. Numerous resources and technical and financial assistance programs are available to assist farmers, landowners, and their advisers select, implement and manage conservation practices successfully.

Tools for getting started

With a range of conservation practice options to choose from, it can be difficult to decide which practice(s) is right for you and where to start. The Conservation Systems Best Practices Manual and decision support tools were developed with these challenges in mind to help new practice adopters and their advisers make sound decisions and have successful conservation practice implementation experiences. The manual outlines recommendations for in-field and edge-of-field practices including cover crops, no-till, strip-till, multi-year crop rotations, prairie strips, bioreactors, saturated buffers, and nutrient removal wetlands. The manual was developed using a cropping systems approach and includes planting, nutrient management, pest and disease management, and harvest tips and considerations for the in-field practices. Download the free manual from the ISU Extension Store website.

Financial incentives

To help offset the cost of getting started, the statewide cost-share program through the  Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship Water Quality Initiative Program is offering $25 per acre for first time cover crop farmers and $15 per acre for farmers who have tried cover crops in the past. First time no-till or strip-till adopters are eligible for $10 per acre and farmers using nitrapyrin nitrification inhibitor with fall fertilizer are eligible for $3 per acre. Funding is limited to a maximum of 160 acres per farmer or landowner. Applications can be submitted through your local Soil and Water Conservation District office.

For information on other conservation and water quality programs call your local USDA Service Center office.

Laurie Nowatzke (Measurement Coordinator for the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy)

Jamie Benning (Assistant Director for Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension)

Relay Intercropping has Potential in Iowa

In 2018 and 2019, research was conducted on a relay intercropping and double cropping systems to evaluate as a possible alternative to Iowa’s traditional corn-soybean or continuous corn cropping system.

There were 2 sites; one near Kalona and another near Ames, Iowa, to study these possible alternatives. The Kalona site planted cereal rye immediately after corn harvesting. Following cereal rye harvest, soybean was double cropped. In 2018, the cereal rye yield averaged 46.1 bushels per acre and the double crop soybean yield averaged 23.2 bushels per acre. In 2019, the cereal rye yield averaged 30 bushels per acre and the soybean did not reach maturity and were not harvestable. It should be noted, that in 2018 there was an earlier than normal first fall frost.

Near Ames there were 4 treatments were: (1) soybean with winter wheat as a cover crop terminated before planting, (2) winter wheat-soybean relay intercropping with fall strip-tillage after November 1, (3) winter wheat-soybean relay intercropping with no tillage, and (4) soybean double cropped after winter wheat harvest. Wheat yields averaged 57.2 and 30.1 bushels per acre in 2018 and 2019 respectively. The lower yields in 2019 are attributed to cooler, wetter spring conditions. Wheat yields in 2018 were not significantly affected by the strip-tillage treatment, however, in 2019, the wheat yields in the soybean double crop system were significantly higher than either relay intercropping system (Figure 1). Soybean yields averaged 16.3 and 33.0 bushels per acre in 2018 and 2019 respectively. Wet conditions in the fall of 2018 resulted in delayed harvest and pod shattering. In 2019, the higher soybean yield was attributed to the soybean with winter wheat system and the lowest yield was in the double crop soybean system . The fall strip-tillage with the relay intercropping system did provide a higher soybean yield than with no tillage.

In conclusion, soybean and winter wheat (and likely other small grains) can be grown in a relay intercropping or double cropping system in Iowa but with increased production risk. Double cropping soybean following a small grain is very high risk because of much lower soybean yield potential due to early to mid-July planting dates and frost potential prior to reaching physiological maturity. A relay intercropping system reduces some of the risk associated with double cropping, but has some of its own risks. These risks are associated with being able to relay plant soybean into the small grain ahead of the small grain reaching the joint stage; harvesting the small grain before the soybean grow taller than the small grain heads; implement traffic can reduce the small grain harvestable yield; and drought conditions resulting in competition for soil moisture may be limiting for either or both crops. However, it is realistic to use an alternative cropping system to reduce risk of nitrogen and phosphorus losses while potentially increasing overall productivity.

Figure 1. Soybean (yellow) and winter wheat (red) yields under four systems: soybean with winter wheat as a cover crop (S w/ Wcc); winter wheat-soybean relay intercropping with fall strip-tillage (Relay ST); winter wheat-soybean relay intercropping (Relay); and soybean double cropped after winter wheat (Sdc).

Mark Licht