Watershed Scale, Not Field Scale

If we hope to significantly improve water quality in Iowa and still farm profitably, we are going to need to change our mindset about our agricultural systems. We are going to need to start thinking in terms of watersheds.

Each spring I teach a graduate course for the Iowa State University Master of Science in Agronomy distance program called “Agronomic Systems Analysis.” The course is comprised of field-scale case studies that require students to consider how complex decisions must be made by taking into consideration agronomic, economic, environmental, and social implications of the decisions. This year, I incorporated a new lesson that goes beyond field scale but encourages the students to address the issues at the watershed scale.

shelbyemphemeral-e1506974374896The point of this lesson is to have students think not about a single farm or field but to think about where to target practices to be the most effective. And which practices will draw the most reduction of nutrients being lost. This is not rocket science. It has been well established that sloping land is prone to erosion. These are the areas where no-tillage and cover crops are going to be the most effective at keeping soil and phosphorus in place. It’s well understood that well drained soils with very little slope are prone to nitrate leaching. These are the areas where bioreactors, wetlands and cover crops will be most effective in reducing nitrate movement into flowing water.

For several years, the Iowa Learning Farms and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach have been talking about implementing conservation practices and the scale of conservation practice adoption that must occur to reach nutrient reduction goals. For instance, one scenario calls for statewide adoption of MRTN (maximum return to nitrogen) rates along with 12 million acres of cover crops, 12 million acres of no-tillage, 6 million acres treated by bioreactors, and 7.5 million acres treated by wetlands. That effort to date has achieved approximately 625,000 acres of cover crops, 5 million acres of no-tillage, 950 acres treated by bioreactors and 42,200 acres treated by wetlands. We have a long way to go.

Cover crops

Reaching conservation practice goals will take everyone thinking about how his or her footprint impacts the watershed as a whole. It will take targeting practices for maximum effectiveness with minimal impact to the cost of production. Wetlands can be installed to treat water flowing from multiple fields. Prairie strips in strategic locations can minimize sediment and phosphorus loss. Saturated and riparian buffers will reduce nutrient movement and streambank sloughing of rivers and streams. It can even be as simple as installing a waterway to connect waterways from adjacent fields or no-tilling soybean into corn residue.

There can be watershed and community benefits that extend beyond the fence. Many practices can support efforts to provide habitat for pollinators, monarchs, song birds, game birds, waterfowl and deer.

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We cannot meet the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy goals and improve habitat without changing our mindset about how we farm and the use of conservation. Conservation practices are most effective if they are targeted specifically in areas that will result in a continuous, complimentary system across the watershed.

How can we help you think on a watershed scale?

Mark Licht

Mark Licht is an Iowa Learning Farms team member and Assistant Professor and Extension Cropping Systems Specialist at Iowa State University.

A Year of Thanks!

On behalf of the Iowa Learning Farms team, I would like to thank all of our hosts, speakers and partners for an amazing 2017 Field Day season. The year our 28 field days were attended by 1,280 farmers, landowners, government employees, media and agribusiness staff. The topics included: cover crops, grazing cover crops, soil health, strip-till/no-till, bioreactors, rotational grazing, water quality, and monarch butterflies.  The combinations of these practices implemented on our landscape are key to helping reach our Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy goals.

Keep an eye out this January! We will be mailing a brief survey to all farmers/operators and landowners who attended an ILF-sponsored field day or workshop.

 

Be sure to check out our events page on our website to attend a 2018 event near you.

Liz Juchems

“Chipping Away” at What We Don’t Know About Bioreactors

LauraLast week, Dr. Laura Christianson joined us for our monthly Iowa Learning Farms webinar. Christianson has nine years of experience focused on agricultural drainage water quality and denitrification bioreactors for point and nonpoint nitrogen treatment.

Bioreactors: What We Know

Laura’s experience with bioreactors over the past nine years has led her to study bioreactors with many shapes, sizes and designs. She authored in a meta-analysis on bioreactors that synthesized existing research.

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For bioreactor basics, the meta-analysis found that bioreactors can remove an average of 25-45% of the annual N load leaving a field, although a range of 10% to 100% of N load reduction has been seen. The cost of a bioreactor that treats 50 acres was approximately $10,000. The analysis also found that woodchips in a bioreactor can last approximately 10 years, but a range of 7-15 years has been seen. The woodchips need to be changed not because the bioreactor is running out of a carbon source, but because woodchip degradation causes hydraulic performance decline within the bioreactor. The meta-analysis also investigated different factors that impact nitrate removal effectiveness in a bioreactor. Some of these factor are:

Hydraulic retention time
Water should be retained within a bioreactor for a minimum of six hours. Great visuals and an explanation are covered in the webinar.

Water temperature and age of bioreactor

Water tempWater lower than 43 degrees F affect nitrate load reduction potential. In the first year, bioreactors are incredibly efficient at N load reduction as microbes begin to feast on available carbon and dissolved oxygen in the water. However, Laura says, “Once your bioreactor is more than a year old, that’s when you really settle in to know what your long-term nitrate removal performance is going to be.”

Porosity of the woodchips
wood_creditThere was no significant difference in N removal when using different types of wood (hardwood vs. softwood) in a bioreactor. However, the physical properties of the wood matter. Use chips with particles size between ½ inch and two inches instead of shredded or mulched wood.

 

Bioreactors: The Future

Future research on bioreactors is moving us beyond the first generation of bioreactors.

Bioreactors with bafflesbaffles_credit
Plastic baffles in the bioreactor route the water through the woodchips so all woodchips are utilized in the denitrification process.

 

Paired_creditPaired bioreactors
Two bioreactors are installed side-by-side. One serves as the primary bioreactor, and bypass water from the primary bioreactor is routed to a second bioreactor to continue N removal on bypass water that would normally not be treated.

in-ditch_creditIn-ditch bioreactors
For areas with ditch drainage, the bottom of the ditch is excavated, woodchips are placed, and wooden check bands are installed incrementally throughout the length of the treated ditch bed.

 

PfilterBioreactors paired with
phosphorous-absorbing filters

Water is routed through a phosphorous-absorbing filter prior to its entry into the bioreactor.

 

If you would like to brush up on your bioreactor knowledge, don’t miss this webinar!

Julie Whitson

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.

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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

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

Webinars Are Back, New Outreach Tool Debuted

Our Iowa Learning Farms webinars are back! This week, Matt Helmers, professor in the Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering and Iowa Learning Farms team member, kicked off our webinar series for 2017. Dr. Helmers spoke on nitrate reduction, and specifically, nitrate reduction practices that can help treat tile-drained water.

In order to achieve the goals of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS), we know that a wide array of practice implementation will be necessary. And, Dr. Helmers stressed, “It’s not just a few people making a change, it’s all farmers in the state of Iowa.” To drive that point home, we can refer to Dr. Laura Christianson’s catchy slogan: One practice might not be right for every acre, but every acre needs at least one practice.

“It’s not just a few people making a change, it’s all farmers in the state of Iowa.”

One scenario in the Iowa NRS calls for almost all agricultural acres to more effectively manage nitrogen, 12-13 million acres to be in cover crops, 7 million acres to be treated by wetlands and 7 million acres to be treated by bioreactors. This scenario requires an incredible amount of implementation of practices from many Iowan. It also requires in-field changes as well as treatment of tile-drained water at the edge of the field. Dr. Helmers zeroes in on those edge-of-field practices and just how effective they can be for nitrate reduction in the treatment of tile-drained water.

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Dr. Helmers has spoken at hundreds of events since the initial release of the Iowa NRS in 2012. Based on his experience, he sees one thing clearly: “We need to create a sense of urgency because the level of implementation must be increased!”

“We need to create a sense of urgency because the level of implementation must be increased!”

Many are familiar with the need for financial and technical resources to get more edge-of-field practices on the ground, but we also need people who can help design these practices. Education could play a key role in this need – workshops for contractors, new curriculum for students, and field days as these practices are being installed are necessary. After the practices are installed, many edge-of-field practices lose their magic, as the magic is going on right below our feet, out of sight.

Slide15

The Iowa Learning Farms team and our project partners*, have created one unique way to start addressing the edge-of-field outreach need: The Conservation Station On the Edge! Dr. Helmers said it best: “When you can’t go out to see the practices being installed, Iowa Learning Farms has created a way to bring the practice, and the field day, to the people!”

The Conservation Station On the Edge will be available to travel to events beginning in Fall of 2017. Contact ilf@iastate.edu to inquire about availability for your event. Another popular outreach tool, the Rainfall Simulator, is still running.

Watch the webinar from our webinar archives!

Julie Whitson

*We thank our project partners, including the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Department of Natural Resources (Section 319 of Clean Water Act), USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and Agri Drain Corporation.

IDALS and Iowa Learning Farms: A Partnership on the Edge

Today’s guest post is by Jake Hansen, Chief of the Water Resources Bureau Division of Soil Conservation & Water Quality at Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS). 

The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship has a long history of working together with USDA-Natural Resource Conservation Services, Farm Service Agency, Iowa Department of Natural Resources, and numerous other state and federal partners.

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Water Quality Field Day in Wright County September 2015

Many of you have been partnering at the local level for years to such great depths that you may not consider your conservation team to be a collection of partners anymore. Local extension councils, county boards of supervisors, county conservation boards, and local Farm Bureau chapters throughout Iowa are working with soil and water conservation districts to share staff, complete outreach, and identify local priorities. Additionally, local retailers, particularly in the agronomic sector, are coming to the table to assist in promoting conservation plans and practices as they are seeing increased value in conservation practices, and taking advantage of growing markets for sustainable commodities. These local partnerships will be essential in taking new practices from concept to mainstream adoption through the Iowa Water Quality Initiative.

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Bioreactor installation in Monroe County July, 2015

IDALS is looking to take the next step in putting together a water quality program that can be scaled up quickly to put water quality investments to work for farmers and all Iowans. One way we are doing this is by showcasing new practices that work in targeted locations to improve water quality at the field scale. While IDALS has assisted in construction of some of these wetlands, bioreactors, and saturated buffers, we are now looking at ways to deploy these practices intensely at a watershed scale.

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Wetland and Cover Crop Field Day in Pocahontas County August 2017

Beginning in late 2017, IDALS will partner with Iowa Learning Farms to conduct watershed-scale planning and landowner outreach in high-priority watersheds. Our goal will be to develop a model for identifying suitable sites and working with landowners to complete edge-of-field practice installation. Iowa Learning Farms will conduct field days in the selected areas to showcase water quality practices, and will give landowners an opportunity on the spot to sign up for conservation planning assistance. It is our hope that together we will be able to create an efficient process for edge-of-field project development that can be replicated statewide as a key component of a long-term water quality improvement program.

The daunting task of improving water quality, soil health and environmental stewardship in Iowa is one that cannot be completed successfully by a single person or agency. Economic challenges and competing priorities will continue to change the way we are able to deliver programs at IDALS, which means that perhaps more than ever, we will have to find creative ways to partner at all levels. IDALS is excited to look to the future in our long-standing partnership with Iowa Learning Farms to continue to advance water quality efforts in our state!

Jake Hansen