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


September ILF Webinar: Bioreactors

On the latest webinar, the Iowa Learning Farms teamed up with the Midwest Ag Drainage Water Management series to discuss Bioreactors with Dr. Richard Cooke, Associate Professor in the Department of Agricultural Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Chad Ingels, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach watershed specialist and northeast Iowa farmer.  This dynamic duo gives us a real one-two punch of information about bioreactors!

Cooke offers an expert view of bioreactor design and theory.  He also gives us a look at some potential tools on the horizon that offer insights and projections about bioreactor use.  Ingels brings his experience in farm communities installing, trouble shooting, and managing active bioreactors to the discussion.

Between these two, you are sure you learn something new about Bioreactors!

As always, the webinar is available for viewing at your leisure. (And, of course, you can always catch on our other webinars here!)

-Ben Schrag

Water quality meets group therapy

A new video produced by Water Rocks! seeks to illuminate the interwoven relationships between different pollutants that can contribute to water quality challenges here in Iowa (and beyond). Through science, emotional appeals, personal drama, and most of all, humor!, the Mississippi River Basin Watershed Support Group video explores the subtleties and complexities related to the interactions of water, soil, and pollutants in our environment.

The setting: A group therapy session.
The group facilitator: BI (biological indicator for water quality).
The support group participants: soil, phosphorus, nitrogen, arsenic, mercury, manure, bacteria, and caffeine.

Here are a few sneak peaks:

SupportGroup-01 SupportGroup-02 SupportGroup-03 SupportGroup-04

The Mississippi River Basin Watershed Support Group video was recently honored at the Iowa Motion Picture Association Awards ceremony, receiving awards in the following categories:

Direction (Medium Form)
Editing (Long Form)
Corporate Training
Best Actress (BI/group facilitator)
Art Direction

This fabulous video is not to be missed!  The cinematography is beautifully done and the characters are quite entertaining… if you’re anything like me, you’re going to watch it several times to catch all of the quirky humor and subtleties in the relationships happening on-screen.

Ann Staudt

Summer Library Visits make a splash!

NOTE:  This guest blog post was written by Liz Gotzinger, a summer intern with Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks!. Gotzinger originally hails from out west –  California and Arizona – and is currently pursuing Integrated Studio Arts at Iowa State University.

A 2nd grader enjoying the Clean Lake/Dirty Lake game at an earlier event this spring

2nd grader enjoying the Clean Lake/Dirty Lake game at an earlier event

Last Monday, Anna Chott and I traveled to the Algona Public Library as ISU interns for Water Rocks! and the Iowa Learning Farms. Summer library visits are a lot of fun, although it is hard to know ahead of time whether there will be four children or forty! For these events we prepare thirty to forty-five minute presentations on various water-related topics. For this event we brought along the Conservation Pack module and the Clean Lake/Dirty lake activity, along with the Great Poo Pickup Relay Race. This particular module’s target audience is smaller children, kindergarten through about second grade.

Anna and I began to be a little nervous when the only children that had arrived were seventh graders! We waited and thankfully more children arrived, with the youngest being about five, so we quickly modified how we communicated our lesson to engage the current audience. We began and the children immediately were enthusiastic and wanting to have the opportunity to participate by giving answers and helping with the small games we brought along.

Everybody poops...  Students must work together to collect pet waste in the Great Poo Pickup Relay

Everybody poops… Students must work together to collect pet waste in the Great Poo Pickup Relay

The most enjoyed activity and the funniest to participate in is the Great Poo Pickup Relay Race. When Anna and I explain that we are going to play a game with plastic poop and start tossing fake dog turds across the floor everyone is laughing and excited to play. We run the race two to three times if there is a good competition going. The children must wear a plastic bag on the hand they use to pick up the poo and run it to their team’s trash can…

Or else if they touch the poo with a bare hand, they get the dubious “bacteria bling,” which is a glamour shot of some bacteria on a shiny bead necklace which that child gets to take home. We teach them about working together and how small things like picking up after your dog’s messes can help the environment and keep our water clean.

Intern Liz Gotzinger (left) leads students in the Great Poo Pickup Relay at an outdoor classroom event

Intern Liz Gotzinger (left) leads students in the Great Poo Pickup Relay at a spring event

Summer library visits are short and concise. It is so much fun to see the children enjoying the activities and learning something at the same time. What started out as a shaky visit turned into a great time! Thank you Algona for having some fun with us this summer!

– Liz Gotzinger

March Madness: Brought to you by Water Rocks!

Water Rocks! participated in the 2014 Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Annual Conference’s Learning Fair, bringing our own style of March Madness to the Scheman Building.  Remember the good old days of Cyclone basketball, with the Shoot 5-for-5 competition at halftime of each game?  Water Rocks! offered ISUEO Conference attendees our own spin on the popular game, and of course, it’s also connected with water quality – Scoop 5-for-5! The instructions are simple:

1. Bag it.   

Dean John Lawrence

Yes, that is indeed a pile of fake dog poo. Dean John Lawrence shows us how it’s done as he lines up his arsenal.

2.  Toss it. 

Rare form

Aim for one of five trash cans to properly dispose of the pet waste.  Each player gets five throws.  Check out the rare form by Bill Arndorfer (Region 9 Director) and Ron Lenth (Bremer C0.).

3. Win!


Participants competed to win valuable prizes: autographed pictures of the Conservation Dogs, Water Rocks! wooden nickels, t-shirts, and bacteria bling for those who touched the poo with bare hands.  The Water Rocks! team is pictured here with our Scoop 5-for-5 grand champions, Bill Arndorfer and Ron Lenth, after their sudden death showdown.


Even Cy couldn’t resist joining in the Water Rocks! fun.  Protecting our water resources takes everyone doing their part!

– Ann Staudt

Watershed improvement project can educate many

Polk and Boone County District Conservationists Zach DeYoung and Sean McCoy are working together with their partners and stakeholders to improve water quality in the Big Creek Lake Watershed. The watershed includes Big Creek Lake, just north of Polk City and Saylorville Lake.

They began a quarterly newsletter about the project’s progress last January. The short newsletters contain information of happenings in their watershed. The latest issue describes how much sediment has come into the lake over the last 20 years.  “A watershed assessment has shown that the average soil loss within the watershed is 4 tons per acre. This means around 7,214 tons of sediment is entering the lake each year. That is equivalent to 721 dump trucks unloading into the lake every year or 360,000 bags of soil from your local store. At $5 per bag that equates to nearly $2 million a year in good top soil being lost into Big Creek Lake by watershed landowners each year.”

Can you visualize the pallets of topsoil bags in the parking lot of  your local store? That’s a lot of bags.

The  issue also features an interesting story on blue-green algae, shown below (the photo is from the newsletter).


There are several watershed improvement projects in Iowa with the same issues at Big Creek Lake. These groups may benefit by seeing what others are doing in the water clean up effort. The Big Creek Lake Watershed Project’s website contains information about the watershed and what they are doing to mitigate the problems. Check it out to see how this group is bringing awareness and change to their watershed:

Iowa Learning Farms was part of their successful Watershed Appreciation Day last summer. ILF has also helped other watershed improvement projects, offering idea proposals to help bring about awareness. These proposals serve as examples for other watersheds looking for ways to reach their residents. See the ILF website’s resource page for “Watershed-based Community Assessments.” This section includes samples of the citizen awareness campaigns and the contains a “toolkit” that can help watershed project coordinators reach their residents:  Iowa Learning Farms.

What’s in your soil?

There are far more living organisms in one shovel full of healthy soil than there are people on the planet!

The numbers of soil organisms, even per gram of soil, are extremely hard to fathom.


# per gram soil













Keep in mind, a pint of soil weighs about one pound, there are 454 grams per pound–that’s over 45 billion bacteria alone!

Following along the lines of Ann’s last post I thought I would share a link to some videos of soil organisms at work.

Dr. Tom Loynachan is a professor of Agronomy and Microbiology at ISU and has provided some cool educational videos online for all to view.  Most videos are at 500x to 1000x magnification and complimented with Dr. Loynachan providing a description of what the viewer is seeing.

Here’s another fun fact from one of the videos:

Over half of the antibiotics which we use in human medicine are developed from soil actinomycetes!

Actinomycetes are a group of soil microorganisms that are essential to decomposition and also are responsible for the smell that is produced by freshly turned soil.