Have we reached a tipping point for phosphorus saturation?

CLG-BannerImages-180213-04Phosphorus is one of the main nutrients of focus in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. It is essential to the growth of plants, but when phosphorus enters our water bodies it leads to excessive plant growth and increases in toxic algae that are harmful to human and animal health.

A recent study from the University of Montreal quantified, for the first time, the maximum amount of phosphorus that can accumulate within the watershed before additional pollution is released into the water.

Their results indicate a relatively low threshold compared to current application rates and notes that tipping points could be reached in less than a decade.

Research supervisor, Roxane Maranger, aquatic ecosystem ecologist at University of Montreal, compared the relationship of the land and phosphorus accumulation like this:

“Think of the land as a sponge,” Maranger said. “After a while, sponges that absorb too much water will leak. In the case of phosphorus, the landscape absorbs it year after year after year, and after a while, its retention capacity is reduced. At that point historical phosphorus inputs contribute more to what reaches our water.”

Be sure to read the full article to learn how they conducted the study and further implications of the results.

Locally, the implementation of nutrient reduction strategy practices like no-till, cover crops, phosphorus application management, perennial vegetation, buffers and more are imperative to the long-term sustainability on our water resources.

Liz Juchems

What can conservation planning do for your farm?

With over 130 conservation practices that can be implemented through the conservation planning process, farmers and landowners are able to find the best practice or management tool to fit their operation.

This month’s webinar featured Kevin Kuhn, Natural Resources Conservation Service Resource Conservationist Serving on the Ecological Services State Staff, highlighting the benefits of conservation planning for farmers and landowners. Conservation planners rely on gathering information from producers through questions in the office, but also by visiting the field to gather as much information as possible to make the best recommendations for success.

As founder Hugh Hammond Bennett stated in 1943,

“We cannot depend on windshield surveys and office planning to carry out a job of the complexity and magnitude of safeguarding our farmland and controlling floods.”

As a nine step process, conservation planning helps consider all natural resource concerns, is voluntary, science based and works to relate common objectives between the planner and client. The conservation planning process is an opportunity to receive free conservation consultations from trained professionals and build a working relationship with your local Soil and Water Conservation District office.

Be sure to check out the recording of this webinar to learn more about when, where and how to start the conservation planning process and potential funding opportunities that become available through the planning process.

Check out this webinar and previous webinars on our website!

Liz Juchems

September 19 Webinar: Highlighting the Benefits of Conservation Planning

On Wednesday, September 19th at noon Kevin Kuhn, NRCS Resource Conservationist serving on the Ecological Services State Staff, will highlight the benefits of Conservation Planning for farmers and landowners.

Kuhn Cropped

Kevin Kuhn in a field with cereal rye.

Conservation Planning provides many benefits to the farmer operator, landowner and society through the identification of resource concerns and opportunities to implement practices like no-tillage, cover crops, waterways, saturated buffers, wildlife habitat and more. Kuhn has 30 years of experience working for NRCS assisting landowners with conservation on their farms. He will discuss how conservation planning optimizes the use of conservation practices, saves time and money, and improves water and soil quality.

“Conservation planning is about putting the right conservation system in place that meet the objectives of the landowner, the resource concerns of the specific tract of land, and minimizes offsite resource concerns,” commented Kuhn. “Conservation planning is time well spent.”

DATE: Wednesday, September 19
TIME: 12:00 p.m.
HOW TO PARTICIPATE: www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars and click the link to join the webinar

Don’t miss this 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.

Liz Juchems

Back in the seeding saddle again!

IMG_1668We were busy last week seeding our cover crop mixture project sites for the sixth year.  We are continuing the plots at three of our sites to take a closer look at the common nightcrawler, Lumbricus terrestris, as a biological indicator of soil health.

Between the storms, we were able to seed oats and a mixture of oats, hairy vetch and radish into the soybeans. We also seeded rye and a mixture of rye, radish and rapeseed into the standing corn to cover this fall but also next spring ahead of soybeans. This is a perfect example of using an overwintering cover crop species like cereal rye to #CoverYourBeans!

Many thanks to Emily Waring, Taylor Kuehn and Maddie Tusha for all your help!

IMG_20180828_111053-ANIMATION

Liz Juchems

Highlighting Opportunities for Cover Crop Assistance

Interested in using cover crops? We’re here to help!

Questions from farmers and landowners on adding cover crops and ways to help offset the costs drove the conservation at our recent field day held August 8th in Roland.  Just over 50 people turned out to hear from local cover crop farmers Brian Sampson and Tim Couser, in addition to discussing water quality and cost share opportunities with staff from Iowa Learning Farms, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, Practical Farmers of Iowa, Story County Natural Resources Conservation Service and Key CooperativeSampson 8-8-2018

“I was being told I was part of the polluting problem. This project (Conservation Learning Lab) offered the opportunity to have partners and quantify how my choices – cover crops and strip-till – impact the water quality,” stated Sampson. 

CLL LogoThrough the Conservation Learning Lab project, Sampson is tapping into knowledge and financial resources to implement the practices and see how his land management choices are impacting local water quality. Initial readings (2015-2017) from the wetland watershed that includes his farmland show a 30 lb/ac of Nitrate-N yield from the watershed. Through implementing cover crops and strip-till, Sampson is hopeful that he will help that number decrease.

It is important to note that the resources Brian is utilizing are widely accessible! The Iowa Learning Farms, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, and Practical Farmers of Iowa all have great print and digital resources and are also available by phone, email or in person to answer questions.

There are also opportunities to apply for cost-share to help reduce the risk of implementing a new management practice to the farm. Check out the links below to learn more!

State and Federal Cost-Share – Contact Local NRCS Office
Iowa Seed Corn Cover Crops Initiative – Contact Shannon Moeller, shannon.moeller16@gmail.com
Pepsi Co/Cargill Low Carbon Corn Program – Contact Practical Farmers of Iowa, 515-232-5661
2018 Unilever/ADM Sustainable Soy Program – Contact Practical Farmers of Iowa, 515-232-5661

Liz Juchems

 

Water in the Public Domain

Public domain: a concept that evokes thoughts of music, photographs, paintings, and other creative works of art … and their relationships with copyright policy. From another perspective, public domain is all about shared availability, the common good …  much like our natural resources.

As nearly 40 people gathered for a conservation field day at Paustian Family Farm just outside Walcott, IA this past week, this idea of water in the public domain was an ever-present undercurrent in the conversations among area farmers, landowners, rural and urban residents alike.

In addition to in-field conservation practices like reduced tillage, cover crops, and a close eye on nutrient management, host farmer Mike Paustian is now taking conservation to the edge of the field as well. In fall 2017, the Paustians installed a saturated buffer on their land to specifically address the challenge of nitrates in tile drainage water.

Saturated buffers are a field-scale practice, treating subsurface tile drainage water from 30-80 acres of cropland. The presence of an existing streamside vegetative buffer is a great first step, and makes the installation a breeze. In order to “saturate” the existing buffer, a flow control structure and lateral tile line running parallel to the stream (700’ long, in this case) are installed.

Quite a bit of the water then moves through that new perforated tile line parallel to the stream, slowly trickling out of the tile, working its way through the soil. On this journey to the stream, the water is in direct contact with plant roots and the soil itself – where the biological process of denitrification occurs. Under saturated, anaerobic conditions, naturally occurring bacteria breathe in the nitrate, and then transform it to atmospheric N2 gas, sending cleaner water to the stream (to the tune of 40-50% nitrate reduction).

As folks got to see the saturated buffer firsthand, one of the attendees asked Paustian, “As a city person, why should somebody from Davenport, Pleasant Valley, etc. care about what’s going on out here?”

Paustian responded, “We’re all in this together, using the same water. It’s a limited resource. We’ve got to find common ground – urban and rural – being good stewards of our land and water. That’s why saturated buffers matter out here.”

Washington Co. farmer Steve Berger, an early adopter and long-term user of cover crops, emphasized the benefits of cover crops for water quality, promoting infiltration and likewise minimizing soil erosion.  Berger added, “Anything that comes off this field ends up in the public domain somewhere … long-term no-till and cover crops are working together to keep soil and nutrients in place in the field!”

As Iowa’s water quality continues to garner attention locally, statewide, and even on the national level, that concept of water in the public domain resonates strongly. Bringing urban and rural people together to see how we can work for positive improvements in water quality is a step in the right direction. This field day was an excellent example of the engaging conversations and positive dialogue we at Iowa Learning Farms hope to facilitate surrounding water quality, soil health, and our agricultural production systems across the state of Iowa.

Ann Staudt

Tea Bags Tell Story of Soil Health

Soil health is trending, there’s no doubt about that! But perhaps expensive soil tests aren’t your cup of tea.

Look no further than the Soil Decomposition Index: a simple, straightforward, citizen science approach to evaluating soil health that utilizes buried tea bags. Learn more about this novel approach to soil health from Dr. Marshall McDaniel, assistant professor of agronomy at Iowa State University, in his recent Iowa Learning Farms webinar titled Burying Tea to Dig Up Soil Health.

Microbes are the engines that drive the biology of our soils, especially the cycling of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur. Under the umbrella of soil health, McDaniel points out that biological indicators are the most sensitive to changing management practices, so this tea bag concept is built upon evaluating one aspect of the biology going on right beneath our feet.

The tea serves as food for the smallest soil microorganisms, including bacteria, actinomycetes, and fungi, that are able to squeeze through the tiny openings in the mesh tea bag. As the tea is consumed over time, the bags are dug up and weighed, providing an indication of the biological activity within the soil, particularly the decomposition activity of the smallest soil organisms.

In each field, McDaniel’s team is comparing two types of teas side-by-side: green tea, which simulates a high quality (low C:N) residue, and rooibos tea, which simulates a lower quality (high C:N, nitrogen-limited) residue. Based on how much of each tea is remaining, you can calculate a Soil Decomposition Index value.  Values range from 0 to 1, and the closer to 1, the healthier the soil is! Using two teas side-by-side lets you calculate a standardized Soil Decomposition Index value which accounts for temperature and soil moisture variability, as well as allowing results to be readily compared between different sites – so you can compare apples to apples.

Check out the full webinar, Burying Tea to Dig Up Soil Health, on the Iowa Learning Farms webinars page, to hear more details of this novel soil health test and preliminary results from on-farm studies evaluating the Soil Decomposition Index with cover crops.

For those active on Twitter, you can follow the McDaniel lab, @ Soil_Plant_IXNs, as they continue to evaluate this unique tea bag concept and many other aspects related to soil-plant interactions and agricultural sustainability.

Ann Staudt