Future Farming for the Greater Good

My name is Dawn Henderson, I am a senior in Agronomy here at ISU and this summer I am an intern with the Water Rocks! and Iowa Learning Farms programs. This opportunity has combined two of my passions: conservation agriculture and educating the public. Throughout the summer I have already had many opportunities to work with people of all ages and backgrounds in many different venues, but the message has remained the same: we must appreciate and protect what we have while we have it. In this blog post I wanted to highlight one of the more recent events I had the privilege of attending.

This past Friday, June 22nd, I and two other interns took the newest ILF Conservation Station trailer to Sioux Center, Iowa. This trailer, “On the Edge”, focuses on two of the newest edge-of-field practices farmers have the option of implementing in their fields. Saturated buffers and bioreactors are both relatively new ideas that work to reduce the levels of nitrate in our water by allowing the natural process of denitrification to take place, rather than routing all of the tile drainage water directly into ditches, streams, and waterways. The struggle is, these systems operate entirely underground, and once they are installed observation is not possible, making it difficult to understand how they operate. The On the Edge trailer is beneficial because it provides the opportunity to see what is happening below ground, from the main tile line to the stream.

At this event, hosted by Dordt College, a majority of the audience was comprised of farmers with an interest in conservation. Excellent questions were asked and encouraging conversations were had. Many questions were asked, such as, “How long do each of these practices last?” That answer is different for each structure. The saturated buffer is expected to last indefinitely, with minor upkeep on the flow control structure; the bioreactor is expected to need the woodchips refreshed every 10-15 years.

Due to the fact that both of these practices are still in their infant stages many farmers are curious, but cautious. One of the most common questions was, “How do these practices directly benefit the farmer?” This is a simple question with a difficult answer. Edge-of-field practices are meant to improve the health of our water, meaning the reductions that come from bioreactors and saturated buffers are for the greater good, not necessarily the individual. That does not mean there are no benefits to installing these practices. With the right design and vegetation, these areas could become habitat for wildlife and pollinators. In addition to benefitting wildlife, these practices are also typically installed on marginally producing lands. By taking these lands out of production and putting them into conservation, the landowner may end up saving money, in addition to bettering the environment.

These new practices show promise in the field of conservation to aid in reaching the goal of 45% nitrate reduction, put into place with Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Edge-of-field practices are intended to be used in concurrence with in-field practices, such as no-till and cover crops. By combining all of these practices, nutrient transport and soil erosion can be reduced by a significant amount, allowing Iowa to achieve the goal of reducing our nutrient contribution by 45%.

Based on the level of interest and support I have seen at multiple events with this new trailer, I am hopeful that these two new practices will find a firm place in our Iowan farming culture in the future.

Dawn Henderson

Dawn Henderson is a senior in Agronomy, participating in the 2018 Water Resources Internship Program at Iowa State University. She is a graduate of Marcus-Meriden-Cleghorn Senior High School in northwest Iowa. 

Introducing Conservation Station ON THE EDGE!

There’s a whole lot of interest and excitement these days in edge-of-field conservation practices like woodchips bioreactors and saturated buffers. But how do you tell the story of these conservation practices, hidden underground, that reduce nitrate loads and benefit water quality?

Combine an empty cargo trailer, engineering prowess, mad graphic design skills, some superb printers, and creative, out-of-the-box thinking that Iowa Learning Farms is known for, and you get the Conservation Station ON THE EDGE!

The trailer fleet actually dates back more than ten years now. Back in 2007, there was the Iowa Learning Farms Conservation Systems Portable Rainfall Simulator (that’s a mouthful!). The trailers as we now know them were launched in 2010 with the original big blue Conservation Station (infamously referred to, by me, as a “conservation circus” in a news interview).  The name resonated and the demand continued to grow … to the point of eventually having three Conservation Station trailers on the road, showcasing different land management practices, both agricultural and urban, and their impacts on water quality and soil health.

Fast forward to 2017. As more and more attention has been drawn to edge-of-field conservation practices, Jackie Comito and Matt Helmers proposed the idea of creating a new portable display that would specifically highlight these edge-of-field practices. And thus, in summer 2017, the idea for Conservation Station ON THE EDGE was born.

It would be almost a complete year before the trailer was fully functional and road ready, but it was worth the wait!  Take a look at the timeline and several of the behind-the-scenes steps to make it all happen …

First things first, the trailer was re-wrapped to show off its rebranding as Conservation Station ON THE EDGE. It was designed to be visually harmonious with the existing Conservation Station trailer fleet, yet have its own identity for promoting edge-of-field practices.

In fall 2017, the bioreactor and saturated buffer models and turntable were constructed by Agri Drain Corporation. Operation of the models was finalized here on campus by Matt Helmers and Carl Pederson in the Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering – as this type of project often is, it was a last minute push to get it finalized in time to be debuted at ISU’s Watershed Academy.

And on October 24, 2017, Conservation Station ON THE EDGE made its maiden voyage!  The watershed coordinators were excited about the models and the potential for helping farmers and landowners better understand how these edge-of-field conservation practices work.

The watershed coordinators in attendance also offered some outstanding suggestions for improving the models – like adding a center divider to differentiate between the bioreactor and saturated buffer, and integrating some additional graphics. At this point, the models were functional, but certainly had room for improvement in terms of enhancing their educational value. We were just glad to have the models working, even if they were being held in place by bungee cords!

However, we took the watershed coordinators’ feedback to heart over the next several months. Our Iowa Learning Farms graphic design team went to town this spring designing new posters that would help visitors take a step back and see how nitrates actually move … why these edge-of-field practices are important in the “suite of practices” needed to improve water quality.

Scientific illustrations were created in house (big shout out to Nathan Stevenson!) to visually depict the inner workings of these practices, down to the microbial scale (denitrification), to be shown on the inside of the bioreactor and saturated buffer models. We worked with Country Plastics to add a center divider between the models, which provided an outstanding “canvas” for additional text and graphics. The models were completely re-plumbed to accommodate these additions.

When it came time to install the graphics, ISU Printing & Copy Services was a critically important partner in making this all happen!  The graphics themselves looked good on screen, but it wasn’t until we saw them printed full scale on adhesive vinyl car wrap that it really all came together! Lorraine and Dan with ISU Printing Services came out to the trailer in mid-May to install the graphics on site. It was fascinating to watch the process – the backing was peeled off, then each individual graphic was carefully installed with soapy water.

Finally, it’s the little details that make all the difference!  Fake turf grass was added on top to illustrate that bioreactors and saturated buffers are actually found underground. Arrows were added to the PVC pipes, indicating direction of flow and what was found in each pipe.

 

And with that, Conservation Station ON THE EDGE was road ready for its second “maiden” voyage – back to the spring version of ISU’s Watershed Academy!  We, along with the watershed coordinators, were thrilled with the improvements, and we are excited to be presenting at events all across the state this summer. Keep an eye out for the trailer at an event near you!

Would you like to request Conservation Station ON THE EDGE for an event you are planning?  To request Conservation Station ON THE EDGE, email Liz Juchems at ejuchems@iastate.edu. We are currently accepting requests for fall 2018 and beyond.

Conservation Station ON THE EDGE is a collaboration of:

Ann Staudt

Request the Conservation Station On the Edge Trailer for Your Next Event!

Have you heard of a saturated buffer or bioreactor, but aren’t sure how they work to reduce nitrate loss? Are you curious about installing them on your farm or in your watershed?

To help answer those questions and more we are excited to announce the launch of our newest Conservation Station – On The Edge!

The Conservation Station On The Edge features a saturated buffer and bioreactor model to demo the edge of field practices and discuss how they reduce nitrate entering Iowa’s water bodies through the natural nitrate removal process.

Designed for farmers and landowners, this new trailer is available to request for your upcoming field day, workshop or community event. It is staffed by the Iowa Learning Farms team, offered free of charge and is available for single-day events. Trailer availability begins June 1, 2018.

Request the Conservation Station On The Edge today by emailing Liz Juchems at ejuchems@iastate.edu

CS On the Edge

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

05-17 Bioreactor

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