Bioreactors: Effective Tool for Reducing Nitrate Loss

 

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Photo credit: Iowa Soybean Association

Roger and Louise Van Ersvelde are passionate about conservation and land stewardship on their farm east of Brooklyn in Poweshiek County. They shared that passion with just over 50 field day attendees and highlighted the newest practice they are using on their farm – a denitrifying bioreactor.

“Installing the bioreactor was the next logical step for helping do my best to help make sure the water leaving our farm is as clean as possible.” Roger Van Ersvelde, Poweshiek Co Farmer.

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Photo Credit: Poweshiek County Soil and Water Conservation District

Their denitrifying bioreactor was completed fall of 2017 with assistance from the local Natural Resource Conservation Service staff and Poweshiek County Soil and Water Conservation District. To measure the performance of the bioreactor, they partnered with Andrew Graham, Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Grinnell College, to collect and analyze paired samples collected from the inlet and outlet structures.

Some key takeaways from the data results:

Van Ersvelde Bioreactor

Credit: Andrew Graham, Grinnell College

  1. Average nitrate removal is 46% from March-July 2018.
  2. Observed higher removal efficiencies during lower flow times (March-Early May and again in July). Removal efficiencies ranged from 10-30% during high flow times.
  3.  Removals of total N are pretty comparable to nitrate removal.  This indicates the bioreactor is promoting denitrification to primarily N2 and not generating ammonia.
  4. The high nitrate removal tends to coincide with high dissolved organic carbon concentrations, suggesting that the extent of denitrification is strongly dependent on the amount of readily degradable carbon.

“If you care about the environment, bioreactors are a great practice – even with no direct benefit to the landowner,” commented Dave Maxwell, contractor who helped install the bioreactor. “Thank you Roger and Louise.”

To learn more about bioreactors and other edge of field practices, visit our website for videos, webinars and print materials and attend a field day near you! Contact Iowa Learning Farms if you’re interested in talking about edge-of-field conservation practices on your land!

Liz Juchems

 

Edge of Field Practices Steal the Show

Participants at the August 9th field day in Spirit Lake were treated to burgers, information and one spectacular view.

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Over 50 people attended the Wetland, Saturated Buffer and Bioreactor Field Day hosted by Prairie Lakes Conference and Dickinson County Soil and Water Conservation District. They came to learn how edge of field practices like wetlands, saturated buffers and bioreactors are key to reducing nitrate loss from agricultural land in Iowa. However, they stuck around long after to take pictures and to discuss about how beautiful the project had turned out.

Chris LaRue of the Iowa DNR, and Heather Jobst of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation explained, “This is a perfect example of what happens when many partners come together with a shared vision, and stay unified.”

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Golfers can be seen in the distance playing a round at the Okoboji View Golf Course.

One key stakeholder who participated in the wetland restoration project was the Okoboji View Golf Course, which sits right behind the project.  Staff from the golf course led a discussion about their experience and the economic upside to the project.

“We have actually seen an increase in our business as a direct result of the project. It is very beautiful to be out here,” explained a staff member.

The Spirit Lake restoration project really is the perfect example of public and private stakeholders coming together with a shared goal. It is also a great example of a project bringing urban and rural issues together.

It’s a win-win for everyone involved, especially the lake.

~Nathan Stevenson

 

 

Bioreactors – One Piece of the Conservation Puzzle

Learning about denitrifying bioreactors drew a good crowd of farmers and landowners from Central Iowa – and beyond – to the Iowa Learning Farms and Prairie Rivers of Iowa field day on Tuesday, July 17th.  As a relatively new practice designed to reduce losses of nitrates from tile drained water, the crowd on Tuesday showed a high level of awareness and were eager to learn how bioreactors and other edge of field practices fit in to the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.IMG_4865

Local landowner Joe Ruetter installed a bioreactor on his farm last fall and has been pleased with the results of reducing nitrate in his tile water.

“We collected a sample a few days ago and the tile water coming in was running about 10-20 ppm of nitrate – well above the safe drinking water standard of 10ppm. At the end of the bioreactor is was 3-5ppm. So I would say the bioreactor is working very well so far.”

Joe also brought up that bioreactors are designed to address nitrate but don’t help with phosphorus so other conservation practices – like no-till and cover crops – are also needed to help reach our goals.

IMG_4862Jace Klein, with Ecosystems Services Exchange, also emphasized the importance of utilizing the right practice in the right place.

“All conservation practices have a place on the landscape. It’s a matter of fitting the right practice in the right location so as to maximize the efficiency and cost effectiveness of the practice,” stated Jace.

In combination with the Conservation Station On The Edge demonstrating the science of denitrification, Jace pointed out the scope to which each practice is capable of treating.

“If you have 40-120 acres next to a stream or creek, a saturated buffer would be the first practice we would explore. If that same sized field doesn’t outlet to a stream, then a bioreactor should be considered. However, if we are looking at multiple connections of tile draining much larger areas the most effective practice to consider would be a wetland,” explained Jace.IMG_4847

By utilizing all the pieces of the puzzle – in-field and edge of field practices – the goals of reducing the losses of nitrogen and phosphorus from our landscape are possible. We have gathered many great resources about edge of field and in-field practices on our website: www.iowalearningfarms.org. You can also visit with your local NRCS office to determine which practices are best suited for your land and discuss cost share opportunities.

Liz Juchems

 

 

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

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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.