Cover Crops Taking Flight

Nate Voss started out a cover crop skeptic. He’ll openly admit that.

“I’ll be honest with you, I really wasn’t sure about this whole [cover crop] thing startin’ out 6 years ago. Now we’re getting a lot better at it!”

After 6 years of cover crop experience, I think it’s safe to say he’s now a believer, sharing his cover cropping experience at an Iowa Learning Farms field day yesterday hosted by Steier Ag Aviation near Whittemore. Voss farms near LuVerne in north central Iowa and also works with Steier Ag Aviation.

Voss’s experience with cover crops includes flying on oats, and some radish, into standing crops in late August/early September.  He is also just starting to get his feet wet with cereal rye.  One of the first things he noticed with the integration of a cover crop was at harvest – “it gives you great field conditions combining into beans.”


Voss goes on to share with field day attendees all the benefits he has observed with using cover crops as part of his cropping system.

“There’s lots of different angles you can take with cover crops:

  • A lot of guys like it for erosion, keeping soil in place. In the winter when I’m driving around, my ditches are not filled with dirt like a lot of them are.
  • I personally like cover crops for holding nitrogen in place, not sending it down the creek. Maybe I can do something about the water quality challenges we face—I’d rather be proactive, get a head start on this thing.
  • After 6 years, I’m really starting to see improvements with soil structure. My soil microbiology is really firing back up!
  • Some folks also are going into cover crops for grazing.
  • My ultimate goal is I want to have something living out there all year round.”


For Voss, the integration of cover crops also served as a springboard into strip till:

“I get bored pretty easy and the wheels start turnin’… a couple beers and some pizza later [with a neighbor who was a long-time strip-tiller], and we were pulling strips out in the field.

“I think we can all acknowledge that last fall was not great.  But my best yielding corn was in the field with strip till and 5 years of cover crops.

“I loved it so much, I called my banker to buy a strip till bar!”


On the fence about taking the plunge and trying out cover crops or strip till?   Consider Voss’s top tips for success along the way:

  • Go to field days and workshops to learn. You’ve taken the first step just by being here today—opening your mind to something new.
  • Be willing to get outside your comfort zone and give it a shot. [My grandfather is my biggest critic. Now I just like to get out there and prove him wrong!]
  • Ask questions.
  • Talk to others that are also givin’ it a try. Get together over coffee. Or pizza and beers. Talk to them about their failures so you don’t make the same ones.
  • Sometimes you’re gonna question yourself along the way.
  • There are tons of great resources out there for everyone—the big guys down to little peons like me.
  • Head in to your NRCS office to learn about cost share options.
  • Weather is always an uncertainty. Think about how you can best work with Mother Nature.

Now is the time to be planning ahead for cover crop seeding this coming fall!   Check out our Iowa Learning Farms Cover Crop Resources page and YouTube channel to learn more, along with reaching out to your local ISU Extension and Outreach field agronomist and USDA-NRCS staff—they are the local “boots on the ground” ready to help you out with making conservation practices happen!

Ann Staudt

Rockin’ Carroll County with Water Rocks! Days

It’s always exciting to see the Water Rocks! messages and lessons create a ripple effect to reach well beyond the direct activities of our small team. In Carroll County, under the guidance and creative leadership of Anjanette Treadway, human services program coordinator in the Carroll County Extension Office, the ripples are gaining momentum and turning into a tidal wave of activities for elementary and middle school students across the county.

Anjanette is responsible for supporting STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education for kindergarten through third grade in county schools. She is also the “conservation education” champion for all students up through the sixth grade.

She uses the Water Rocks! programming and materials to make waves in classrooms and beyond. Two major events that she produces in Carroll schools are a field day for third-graders, and a sixth-grade environmental field day.

During the summer of 2018, Anjanette also coordinated a six-hour day camp program open to all fourth- through sixth-grade students in Carroll County. She anticipates continuing this in future summers to provide education and outreach to students regarding the importance of environmental awareness and conservation.

Anjanette learned about Water Rocks! from a colleague in 2015. “My co-worker brought me some of the materials from the program and encouraged me to get involved with Water Rocks! to learn more,” said Anjanette. “I’m certainly glad I did. Water Rocks! provides an expansive set of activities and content which is applicable for all elementary and middle-school grades.”

She continued, “The Water Rocks! team has done an excellent job of aligning programming and educational resources with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and statewide curriculum requirements for STEM advancement. And the materials provided in the workshops and summits are ready to use in the classroom – something that is very helpful for teachers who are time-stressed and in need of creative and innovative ways to engage students.”

The third-grade conservation field day has become Water Rocks! Day, comprising hands-on outdoor activities and games as well as participation from key specialists and teachers. The next Water Rocks! Day will be held in May 2019.

Before Water Rocks! Day, Anjanette visits the classrooms and provides introduction to the Water Rocks! conservation lessons and plants some seeds with the students. “The students and the teachers get very excited about the music and the lessons from Water Rocks!,” she noted. “One teacher loved the musical element enough to provide copies to the school’s music teacher to suggest they explore using it in the music classroom as well.”

The introductory lessons get students up and moving as well. The students are outside, running, getting dirty, investigating such things as where water will run off from the playground and other tangible lessons which tie in to the classroom instruction.

On Water Rocks! Day, Anjanette sets up many of the fun Water Rocks! activities including Biodiversity Jenga, Creature Cache, Habitat Hopscotch, Wetlands Bingo and the Poo Relay. The Water Rocks! team presents its We All Live in a Watershed module, and other specialists present related material. In addition, the students participate in nature walks to extend the lessons beyond the classroom to incorporate their own observations.

For the sixth-grade Environmental Field Day, the lessons are more intensive, incorporate water quality topics as well as the core conservation message and involve guest presenters. At the most recent event, presenters included the naturalist from the Carroll County Conservation District, a speaker from Saving Our Avian Resources (SOAR), a raptor rehabilitation center, the Water Rocks! team from Iowa State University, and teachers – who were delighted to get a chance to step out of the classroom and teach in a different style.

Starting in 2018, the Environmental Field Day now also includes a Water Rocks! Assembly program with live music and skits. “The field day started with different presentations and lessons, leading to the capstone of the day, a ‘rock concert’ assembly program. Of course, it’s not all rock music, but the atmosphere among the performers, kids and teachers sure made it feel that way,” she commented.

Ann Staudt
___

Looking to book a Water Rocks! Assembly in your neck of the woods? Limited openings remain for May, and we are also booking for the summer months!

Conservation Stations Crisscross Iowa to Deliver Conservation Messages

If you’ve been to an Iowa county fair or attended an Iowa State University (ISU) extension field day covering water quality, conservation, cover crops, edge of field practices or a range of other topics, there’s a good chance you’ve seen or even visited a Conservation Station operated by Water Rocks! and Iowa Learning Farms. Last summer we hit the milestone of attending all 100 county fairs in Iowa – (yes 100, Pottawattamie County holds two.) The trailers also make appearances at community events, farmer’s markets and other settings.

The Conservation Stations are traveling resource centers and classrooms, staffed by ILF and Water Rocks! team members and interns, providing water quality and conservation education and outreach activities built on a foundation of science, research and best practices. These events also provide great learning opportunities for the team to sharpen trailer pulling and backing skills.

Rain, Rain, Don’t Wash our Soil Away
The idea for the first Conservation Station was germinated in the early years of Iowa Learning Farms (ILF) – which is celebrating 15 years in 2019. The precursor was a trailer equipped with a simple rainfall simulator for demonstrating soil erosion.

It was a good start, but frankly, it was a limited demonstration and the team quickly realized that they needed a more sophisticated rainfall simulator. In addition, ILF saw the potential to expand its impact by providing a broad canvas for education through visual, interactive and multimedia displays.

“We were awarded funding to purchase and develop a larger trailer and knew how to make a better rainfall simulator,” said Jacqueline Comito, executive director of Water Rocks! and ILF program director. “We just didn’t know how to realize our vision of a traveling and flexible unit. Ann Staudt joined the team to help us, and with her fresh ideas and creativity, the Conservation Station was born.”

The trailer, dubbed the Big Conservation Station, allowed space for an improved rainfall simulator as well as a walk-through learning lab. To facilitate use in different environments such as field days, outdoor classrooms and county fairs, the trailer accommodates interchangeable displays. Inside the learning lab, visual and multimedia presentations are designed to engage audiences in conversations and to elicit questions about conservation practices.

The learning lab was updated in 2018 to incorporate mixed-media artwork and enhanced messaging with the purpose of eliciting visitors’ hopes for Iowa.

ILF faculty adviser Matthew Helmers developed the new rainfall simulator which more accurately models both surface runoff and subsurface flow or drainage in tiled environments and uses soil blocks extracted from field environments to best parallel actual soil conditions in Iowa fields.

“The complexity of the new rainfall simulator was a challenge, but it also enabled us to tell a much more realistic story that farmers in Iowa could relate to,” noted Staudt.

A smaller trailer referred to as Conservation Station 3 was built specifically for outdoor classrooms and other youth activities. Along with a rainfall simulator, it is also equipped with the space to carry enough tables and chairs for students as well as a full complement of displays and activity resources.

Edge of Field Practice Demonstrations Expand Education Opportunities
In 2018, the original rainfall simulator trailer (which we called the Lil’ CS) was redesigned to become the Conservation Station on the Edge, addressing best practices for nutrient mitigation at the edge of tile-drained fields. Equipped with working saturated buffer and bioreactor models, this trailer takes the story of nutrient reduction to a deeper level. The demonstration stations allow the audience to see what happens within structures –that when implemented in a field are completely underground and out of sight.

Each Conservation Station includes interactive demonstrations that appeal to all backgrounds, ages and walks of life. Games such as the Poo Toss tend to appeal to youngsters but provide tangible lessons about waste runoff that pertains to everyone –whether they live on a farm or in a city. The Watershed Game is another highly visual interactive game that helps make the concepts of a watershed and how pollution moves with water easy to grasp.

“The Conservation Stations are filling a tremendous need by providing easy-to-understand information about water quality, conservation, agricultural best practices, and other topics of importance to all Iowans,” concluded Staudt. “We intend to continue to share this knowledge as frequently and in as many venues as we can.”

Find out where to see a Conservation Station near you
The Conservation Stations are used April through October. Check out the Water Rocks! website to request a visit (requests for summer events are being accepted now!).  In most circumstances, a Conservation Station can join an event at no cost, due to the generous funding received from our partners.

Conservation Stations Crisscross Iowa to Deliver Conservation Messages

ILFHeader(15-year)

If you’ve been to an Iowa county fair or attended a field day covering water quality, conservation, cover crops, edge of field practices or a range of other topics, there’s a good chance you’ve seen or even visited a Conservation Station operated by Water Rocks! and Iowa Learning Farms. Last summer we hit the milestone of attending all 100 county fairs in Iowa – (yes 100, Pottawattamie County holds two.) They also make appearances at community events, farmer’s markets and other settings.

The Conservation Stations are traveling resource centers and classrooms, staffed by the ILF and Water Rocks! team members and interns, providing water quality and conservation outreach activities built on a foundation of science, research and best practices.

Rain, Rain, Don’t Wash our Soil Away

The idea for the first Conservation Station was germinated in the early years of ILF – which is celebrating 15 years in 2019. The precursor was a trailer equipped with a simple rainfall simulator for demonstrating soil erosion. It was a good start, but frankly, it was a limited demonstration and the team quickly realized that they needed a more sophisticated rainfall simulator. In addition, ILF saw the potential to expand its impact by providing a broad canvas for education through visual, interactive and multimedia displays.

“We were awarded funding to purchase and develop a larger trailer and knew how to make a better rainfall simulator,” said Jacqueline Comito, executive director of Water Rocks! and ILF program director. “We just didn’t know how to realize our vision of a traveling and flexible unit. Ann Staudt joined the team to help us, and with her fresh ideas and creativity the Conservation Station was born.”

The trailer, dubbed the Big Conservation Station, allowed space for an improved rainfall simulator as well as a walk-through learning lab. Inside the learning lab, visual and multimedia presentations are designed to engage audiences in conversations and to elicit questions about conservation practices. The learning lab was updated in 2018 to incorporate mixed-media artwork and enhanced messaging with the purpose of eliciting visitors’ hopes for Iowa.

conservationstation_trailer

ILF faculty adviser Matt Helmers developed the new rainfall simulator which more accurately models both surface runoff and subsurface flow or drainage in tiled environments and uses soil blocks extracted from field environments to best parallel actual soil conditions in Iowa fields.

“The complexity of the new rainfall simulator was a challenge, but it also enabled us to tell a much more realistic story that farmers in Iowa could relate to,” noted Staudt.

img_2012.jpgA smaller trailer referred to as Conservation Station 3 was built specifically for outdoor classrooms and other youth activities. Along with a rainfall simulator, it is also equipped with the space to carry enough tables and chairs for students as well as a full complement of displays and activities resources.

Edge of Field Practice Demonstrations Expand Education Opportunities

InCSOTE-01 2018, the original rainfall simulator trailer (which we called the Lil’ CS) was redesigned to become the Conservation Station on the Edge, addressing best practices for nutrient runoff mitigation at the edge of tile-drained fields. Equipped with working saturated buffer and bioreactor models, this trailer takes the story of field runoff to a deeper level. The demonstration stations allow the audience to see what happens within structures –that when implemented in a field are completely underground and out of sight.

Each Conservation Station includes interactive demonstrations that appeal to all backgrounds, ages and walks of life. Games such as the Poo Toss tend to appeal to youngsters but provide tangible lessons about waste runoff that pertains to everyone –whether they live on a farm or in a city. The Watershed Game is another highly visual interactive game that helps make the concepts of a watershed and how pollution moves with water easy to grasp.

fullsizeoutput_49f

“The Conservation Stations are filling a tremendous need by providing easy-to-understand information about water quality, conservation, agricultural best practices, and other topics of importance to all Iowans,” concluded Staudt. “We intend to continue to share this knowledge as frequently and in as many venues as we can.”

Find out where to see a Conservation Station near you!

The Conservation Stations are used April through October. Click here for the schedule of appearances or to request a visit. In most circumstances, a Conservation Station can join an event at no cost, due to the generous funding received from our partners.

Liz Juchems

Conservation Chat Podcast Returns!

Water quality takes center stage in the Conservation Chat podcast’s long-awaited return!  The Chat debuts its new format, featuring multiple guests on the program together for a roundtable-type discussion. In the newest episode, Improving Water Quality, host Jacqueline Comito visits with two rockstars on Iowa State University’s water quality scene, Matt Helmers and Jamie Benning.

Tune in to this latest episode for an engaging discussion on timely topics related to water quality and agricultural production here in the state of Iowa, centered around the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Having been released five-plus years ago, Comito, Helmers, and Benning discuss the progress made thus far, but also the immense scale of implementation needed to achieve tangible progress in terms of nutrient reduction and improved water quality. Tune in as they bounce ideas about the interwoven relationships between dollars spent, practices implemented, nutrients reduced, policy structure, and progress towards true paradigm shift.

In addition, Helmers and Benning both emphasize the importance of translating pure scientific research to more accessible, digestible outreach materials for general public consumption through such means as short videos, webinars, field days, and infographics. Helmers shares a great anecdote about the power of video to reach broad audiences around the world – he is currently hosting a student intern from Honduras, and this student had recently seen the Iowa Learning Farms’ Rainfall Simulator video in one of her engineering classes back at her home institution!

Tune in to Episode 40 of the Conservation Chat to hear the full interview with Matt Helmers and Jamie Benning. You can also download or listen to any of the previous podcast episodes on the Conservation Chat website and through iTunes.

Ann Staudt

Farmed Prairie Potholes: Consequences & Management Options

ILFHeader(15-year)

Yesterday, during an Iowa Learning Farms webinar, Amy Kaleita discussed current research being carried out at Iowa State University on the hydrology, water quality implications and management options of prairie potholes in Iowa farm fields.

Prairie potholes are enclosed depressions with no natural drainage, until a spill point is reached, that retain water for some portion of the year. Forty-four percent of the Des Moines Lobe drains to potholes and they are a common feature in row crop fields. Potholes are a nuisance to farmers because they are usually the last places in the field to dry out and spring rains can cause ponding in the potholes, which can drown young row crops in as few as 3-5 days (for total yield loss).

feb webinar potholecloudy

Despite efforts to drain potholes using subsurface drainage systems (95-99% of potholes in Iowa are drained), there has been very little research done on the effectiveness of these drainage systems for potholes. In less than ideal conditions, water can actually enter the pothole through the drainage system instead of leaving the depression. Potholes also have water quality implications due to having higher soil nitrate stocks than uplands and studies have shown an increase in dissolved reactive phosphorus concentration in potholes over the course of an inundation event.

Management solutions that are being studied include conservation tillage, retirement of the pothole, planting the pothole with flood tolerant crops and improving pothole drainage. These solutions are being tested using a small watershed model, which is calibrated to reflect the monitored conditions and then changed to reflect the new management practices. Upcoming data results will show the effects of management changes on the studied potholes, some of which are being changed to grass, while others will remain in row crops. 

If you’re interested in learning more about the research being done at Iowa State on prairie potholes in farm fields, you can watch the full webinar here.

Join us live for the next Iowa Learning Farms webinar on March 20 at 12:00 pm when Dr. Mark Rasmussen (Director, Leopold Center) will discuss the topic “Are Cattle Really Wrecking the Planet?”.

Hilary Pierce

February 20 Webinar: Farmed Prairie Potholes – Consequences & Management Options

ILFHeader(15-year)On Wednesday, February 20th at noon Iowa Learning Farms will host a webinar with Dr. Amy Kaleita, Professor of Agricultural & Biosystems Engineering at Iowa State University about the consequences of farming prairie potholes and management options for these common Iowa landscape features.

feb webinar potholeskyIn Iowa, many of the features known as prairie potholes are actively farmed. Because of their position in the landscape and their topographic and soils characteristics, prairie potholes flood frequently after rain events, even with artificial drainage. Kaleita will explain this flooding behavior, and the effects it has on crops and watersheds. She will also discuss options for managing these features to decrease the frequency of negative impacts.

“Some research has shown that farmed prairie potholes lose money more often than they make a profit. Because they also have significant environmental impacts, conservation-minded management of these features may provide benefits at a lower cost than changes in more productive parts of the field,” said Kaleita, whose research on precision conservation focuses on how to use publicly available or low-cost data to improve conservation decision-making within production agriculture.

Don’t miss this webinar!
DATE: Wednesday, February 20, 2019
TIME: 12:00 p.m.
HOW TO PARTICIPATE: www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars and click the link to join the webinar

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.

Hilary Pierce