Faces of Conservation: Rick Juchems

This blog post is part of our ongoing Faces of Conservation series, highlighting key contributors
to ILF, offering their perspectives on the history and successes of this innovative conservation outreach program.

Conservationist and Farmer
Rick Juchems operates a family farm raising beans, corn, cover crops and hogs near Plainfield, Iowa. He has a long history with conservation practices and has been a cooperating farmer in Iowa Learning Farms programs and studies since the organization was formed in 2004. He is committed to running a successful agricultural enterprise while keeping a focus on conservation efforts that keep the productive soil in place and maintaining a better environment on the farm and downstream.

What was your involvement and role with ILF?
My first exposure to ILF occurred when they came to speak at a Conservation Districts of Iowa board meeting, seeking farmers to participate in some early studies. At the time, my farm was in a classical corn/soybean rotation and it made sense to see what I could learn and gain from participating in the studies. Since those early days, I’ve participated in multiple studies, hosted field days, and continued to both learn and share my knowledge.

What was the purpose of ILF during your involvement?
My purpose in participating with ILF was, and is, to learn how to improve the soil and production on my farm. I think a critical part of the ILF approach is that they want me and other farmers to help educate and influence each other.

Promoting this farmer-to-farmer interaction is probably the most important thing ILF has done to make headway on their mission of creating a culture of conservation in Iowa. It’s easy for a farmer to latch onto what has worked for them in the past, and sometimes it takes someone who’s facing the same challenges and situations to get them to consider doing something different.

How did you change the program, and how did it change you?
I have participated in the ILF Leadership Circle meetings and multiple surveys. ILF is hungry for information and they are always eager to hear my ideas and feedback. Maybe I’ve changed things from behind the scenes through this involvement.

ILF changed the way I look at my farm and the soil on it, and what I do to preserve and improve the soil. Conservation has always been important to me but working with ILF on things such as cover crops, I’ve seen the benefits to my soil structure indicated by better water infiltration and more night crawlers.

What are your fondest memories of working with ILF?
Getting to meet and work with a great group of people from around the state. I regularly get to know new like-minded people concerned about conservation as well as people looking for information. I’ve really enjoyed speaking at events and field days and am frequently stopped by people who saw me speak looking for information and advice. I hope I am making a difference with a few people and contributing to building a more sustainable ecosystem in Iowa.

Why are water quality and conservation outreach important to you and to Iowa?
From a business point of view, working to improve water quality is important because it means my soil is staying where it belongs – in the fields. This has been a very challenging year in Iowa with lots of rain and flooding at inopportune times. The resulting erosion of river and stream banks was bad, but for farms without cover crops to help hold the soil, the problems were much worse.

As Iowa continues to work on its Nutrient Reduction Strategy, farmers need to understand the potential ramifications. We must be proactive in changing practices to stay ahead of the plan, or we risk having regulatory mandates that will likely not be to our liking.

If you could look 15 years into the future, what one thing would you like to see as a result of ILF activities?
I’d like to see that the education programs from ILF and Water Rocks! have helped bring about a generational change in Iowans regarding water quality and conservation. I would like caring about the environment and understanding the responsibility each person, community, and farm has in maintaining water quality to be natural for every Iowan.

In closing…
ILF has taken the bull by the horns to get people involved and increase knowledge about conservation. The farmer-to-farmer outreach approach has been a critical and successful part of the program that should help it continue to flourish.

Previous Posts in our Faces of Conservation series:

Saturated Buffer Helping Improve Water Quality Near Walcott

ILFHeaderIMG_0035Mike Paustian returned to the family’s heritage farm in 2008 which encompasses nearly 1,400 acres and a 1,200 sow farrow-to-finish hog operation. In addition to using no-till and minimum tillage, the Paustian’s began adding cover crops to hold soil in place, while scavenging nutrients from the soil and fall applied manure. Their goal is to build long term soil health and organic matter in their fields and improve water quality. They have used primarily cereal rye and oats on about 600 acres for over seven years.

Taking the next step to reduce nitrate loss from their farm, the Paustians installed a saturated buffer just north of their home in the summer of 2018 and are using drone technology to monitor the performance of their farm and conservation practices.

These practices were on full display at our field day last night as the Paustians shared their experiences and efforts to help improve water quality and soil health.

IMG_0003Kay Stefanik, assistant director of the Iowa Nutrient Research Center, set the stage with an overview of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy and demonstrated how nitrate test strips can be used by farmers and landowners to check their local water quality. These test strips can provide a nitrate and nitrite concentration result in just 30 seconds and should be used multiple times throughout the year to provide a more accurate representation of the system. These strips are available through ISU County Extension offices or by contacting Jamie Benning, Iowa State Water Quality Manager.

After a short walk to the saturated buffer, Keith Schilling and Matthew Streeter, Iowa Geologic Survey, guided us through the installation process and ongoing monitoring of the site. Supported by an Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship grant, they are collected data through 2020.

Results from the first year of data indicate that the nitrate concentration leaving the saturated buffer is <2 mg/l whereas the control is measuring an average of over 20 mg/l. With good infield management of nutrients and the addition of cover crops, there is little nitrate entering the buffer and the soil microorganisms are then able to efficiently remove nitrate that does enter the system and release it as N2 gas.

IMG_0029Using their sampling gear, we were able to use a nitrate test strip and take a quick measurement during the field day. The strip revealed about 2 mg/l – consistent with the results from the on-going monitoring.

Back at the shop, Mike provided a quick demonstration of how he is using drone technology to monitor crop and conservation practice performance to help guide management choices for their operation. Using software to analyze the imagery, he was able to observe how his cereal rye cover crop fared during the very wet spring.

IMG_0041“It is clear on this map (lower left corner) where we ran out of manure two years ago. There is less rye growth in that area and we can now adjust our management decisions to help improve our system,” noted Mike. “Another result of using the drones, is our decision to use a tractor with tracks next spring on a field that showed signs of compaction.”

Whether you have access to drone technology or pick up some nitrate test strips from your local Extension office, you can use these tools on your farm to better inform your decisions and seek technical help from your NRCS office to help make some changes to your system to help improve the long term productivity of your farm.

If you are interested in hosting or attended an upcoming field day, feel free to reach out at 515-294-5429 or ejuchems@iastate.edu.

Liz Juchems

Celebrating 30 Years of Drainage Research

ILFHeaderThis year marks 30 years for the ISU Drainage Research and Demonstration Project site near Gilmore City. To celebrate this milestone, Iowa Learning Farms partnered with the Ag Water Drainage Management team to host a field day this week to share findings from ongoing cover crop and water quality studies.

Kicking off the field day was Humboldt County farmer, Doug Adams, sharing his experiences with implementing cover crops on his farm.

DSC_2303“I started the transition to strip-till with just a few acres. I worked with a local farm management company to contract the strips. Due to the weather this spring, we are trying no-till for the first time and have been happy with the results so far,” noted Doug.

Doug has been using primarily rye and rapeseed as cover crops on the majority of his acres. Ideally, he is killing the rye when it is about 8 inches in height, before the plant elongates for easier termination and quicker decomposition back to the soil.  He has noted improvements in the soil health in his fields and recommends all farmers take a shovel to their soil and have a look for themselves.

“One of the most valuable tools you have is a shovel to take a look at the soil. The highest yield doesn’t always result in the highest profit – cutting costs through nitrogen management and improving soil health is key.”

DSC_2306Morgan Davis, Natural Resource Ecology and Management graduate research assistant, is researching a variety of soil health aspects at the site. With multiple crops, tillage practices and treatments with and without cover crops, the site allows for a wealth of data to see how soil carbon and nitrogen vary.

“Although total carbon and total nitrogen is similar across the various plots, the more  accessible carbon and nitrogen and depth of available nutrients is higher when cover crops are used. This allows the microorganisms present in the soil to more easily utilize those nutrients and improve overall soil health,” noted Morgan.


Some key findings of the ongoing cover crop and water quality research was shared by Matt Helmers, ISU professor and Ag and Biosystems engineer, who leads the research team.

  • Even without fertilizer applied, a corn-soybean rotation lost 15-20 lb N/acre at nitrate-N concentrations of 6-8 mg/L.
  • When N-fertilizer is applied at economic N-rates, the average concentration of nitrate-N in the tile drainage ranged from 12-16 mg/L. (Drinking water standard is 10mg/L.)
  • Use of a cover crop has the potential to reduce nitrate-N concentration in drainage water. For the conventional tillage plots, nitrate concentrations were reduced by 4-4.8 mg/L, in the soybean phase and corn phase respectively.

Based on these studies, high nitrate-N levels are less about mismanagement of N-fertilizer and more a result of the land use and cropping practices.

That’s why in-field practices like cover crops and no-till, alongside edge-of-field practices like saturated buffers, bioreactors, and wetlands, play a large role in meeting the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy goals.

To learn more about these practices, be sure to attend a field day near you! Check out our events page and subscribe to our newsletter to stay connected.

Liz Juchems


Farming for the Future

Last night was a lovely evening to learn more about cover crops and adding conservation to lease agreements at the Fawcett Farm near West Branch. The Fawcett Family has adopted a variety of conservation practices on their farm including prairie strips and a recently installed saturated buffer. The site was a perfect backdrop for what is possible when farmers and landowners work together to keep keep the soil in place to maintain the ability to farm the land for generations to come.

IMG_5089“Organic matter is one of the best indicators of soil health,” stated Virgil Schmitt, ISU Extension Field Agronomist, who kicked off the program. ” In the long run, improved soil health improves yields as the biological processes are working better. You can’t improve soil health if you loosing soil to erosion.”

That’s where no-till and cover crops come into play! By adding a cover crop to a no-till system, organic matter is able to accumulate and the nearly continuous cover of living plants significantly reduces soil erosion.

Virgil provided some key tips for those getting started with cover crops:

  • Cereal rye before soybeans
  • Oats before corn (terminates with a hard frost and will not need to be terminated in the spring)
  • Start on a single field or portion of field
  • Pay attention to details

“Adding a cover crop can be a relatively easy process if recognized as a change in management that requires planning to increase success,” said Schmitt. There are resources like Iowa Learning Farms farmer partners with years of cover crop experience that can serve as mentors – reach out to one in your area!

IMG_5109Chris Henning, Greene County landowner, shared some advice with fellow landowners in attendance, “It’s never to early to think about succession planning. My goal is to keep Iowa beautiful for years to come and part of reaching that goal is making a plan for my land after I’m no longer making the decisions.”

Henning also stressed the importance of communication between the landowner and tenant to maintain a good working relationship that meets production and conservation goals. “When I first required cover crops on my farm, my tenant was skeptical but willing to work with them. After a couple years of seeing the benefits on my fields, he has added cover crops to his own acres and has been very pleased.”

IMG_5121If you or someone you know is looking for information on adding conservation to leases, Charles Brown, ISU Extension Farm Management Specialist, shared some great resources along with his personal experiences helping landowners and tenants work through the discussion.

“Working together is crucial to the success of the changes. If you simply tell someone they have to do it, the results may not turn out as you had hoped. Instead, sit down and have a conversation about the land and the management and get the lease agreement in writing,” shared Brown.

Brown also highlighted an important item to consider in the discussion: who pays for the cover crops. “I have seen many different payment arrangements – landowner, tenant, shared costs, longer leases. All are possible and have worked well, but it is a matter of having the discussion.”

For more information on conservation leases, visit ISU Ag Decision Maker. You can find a cover crop lease insertion from Nature Conservancy here.

We still have more field days coming up, so be sure to check out our events page to learn more and subscribe to our e-newsletter to stay in touch!

Liz Juchems

15 Years of Iowa Learning Farms


On Wednesday, Jacqueline Comito discussed the evolution of Iowa Learning Farms (ILF) over the past 15 years in an Iowa Learning Farms webinar. She talked about how ILF is doing in achieving its mission of creating a “Culture of Conservation”, shared some results on conservation practice adoption and described some of the new goals and challenges that the future holds. Has ILF been successful in building a Culture of Conservation? Yes, in short, but there is still a lot of work to do!

“To build a Culture of Conservation means that conservation will be at the heart of everything we do,” said Comito. Over the years ILF has used field days to help develop this culture and has figured out what methods work to make field days successful. Through evaluation and observation, ILF wrote the book on how to host a successful field day and hopes that this method will be widely adopted by those who host their own field days.

ILF Field Days Slide

ILF has reached many people through its field days over the years, as can be seen in the above graphic, which doesn’t include 2019 field days/workshops. One key component of ILF field days is the evaluation done, which has allowed ILF to compile years of useful data, including tracking practice adoption. The graphic below shows where the adoption of some conservation practices fall in the “Diffusion of Innovation” model developed by E.M. Rogers. According to ILF estimates, cover crop usage is in the “early adopters” category, with no-till/strip till already reaching in to the “early majority”. Newer edge-of-field practices like bioreactors and saturated buffers haven’t yet made it off the starting line.

ILF practice adoption slide

In order to help work to meet the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy goals and continue to be successful over the next 5-10 years, ILF is striving to

  • Increase the number of ILF field days and workshops in order to:
    • Expand the number of early adopters for cover crops
    • Increase the number of middle adopters for no-tillage and strip tillage
    • Increase the number of innovators for edge-of-field practices
  • Nurture relationships with conservation-focused farmers across the state who are willing to host field days
  • Rejuvenate the farmer-partner program with new voices
  • Focus on the “why” of conservation practice implementation to create a greater sense of urgency behind building soil health and improving water quality
  • Advance robust community outreach statewide with the Conservation Station trailers

To learn more about ILF’s successes, growth, impacts and challenges, watch the recorded webinar and check out the “Building a Culture of Conservation – 2004-2019” 15-Year report.

Join us next month, on Wednesday, September 18 at noon, when Emily Heaton, Associate Professor at Iowa State University, will present an Iowa Learning Farms webinar titled “Integrating Perennials into Underperforming Parts of Fields Could Improve the Farm Economy, Water Quality, and Bioenergy Feedstock Production”.

Hilary Pierce

Spreading the word to help cover crops take off


A little rain right before the field day was scheduled to start didn’t scare away a large group of attendees who wanted to learn more about cover crops. Iowa Learning Farms partnered with Indian Creek Soil Health Partnership, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, and Linn County to deliver this cover crop focused field day on August 14th.

After dinner it was time to check out a plane used to aerially seed cover crops, hear cover crop tips from Rebecca Vittetoe, Iowa State University Extension Field Agronomist, see the Iowa Learning Farms rainfall simulator in action and pick the brain of farmer Jason Russell, who is making cover crops work on his farm.


Rebecca Vittetoe discusses cover crops

Vittetoe used the Iowa Learning Farms rainfall simulator to show how cover crops (and no-till) can help reduce surface runoff, prevent soil erosion and encourage more infiltration. She went on to talk about some cover crop basics and share tips for being successful when you’re first starting out using cover crops. She emphasized that it’s important to have a plan when you’re adding cover crops to your operation – you need to think how they are going to fit into your operation and what adjustments you may need to make. The tips she shared were:

  1. Start small
  2. Look for easy entry points (such as planting cover crops after you harvest corn silage or seed corn, or on prevent plant acres)
  3. Be flexible
  4. Have a Plan A, but also be sure to have a Plan B and Plan C

One of the important parts of the cover crop planning process that Vittetoe discussed was deciding how you are going to plant your cover crops. Attendees of the field day got to get up close and personal with a plane used to aerially plant cover crops and hear from pilot John Thompson of Thompson Aero. Thompson was able to answer questions about the technical aspects of aerially applying cover crops and explain the way he seeds cover crops using his plane.


John Thompson with a plane he uses to aerially seed cover crops

The evening wrapped up with the group hearing about Linn County farmer Jason Russell’s personal experiences using cover crops. Russell had some great insight to share since he’s been successfully using cover crops for years. Russell reiterated Vittetoe’s advice to start small. He talked about how he uses a mix of cereal rye and wheat for his cover crops, that since starting to use cover crops he only has to apply nitrogen fertilizer once at the beginning of the season and his termination techniques.


Jason Russell talks about incorporating cover crops into his farming operation

If you want to learn more about incorporating cover crops into your farming operation, join us at a field day near you!

Hilary Pierce


“Hey dad, why don’t we…?”

ILFHeaderI amIMG_4902 a farmer’s daughter. Having lived on a farm my whole life, agriculture has always been my passion. This passion was given to me by my dad. From the time I could walk, you could find me out “helping” feed the cattle, riding (more like napping) in the tractor/combine, or running errands around town with my dad. As I have grown up, I became more involved in the daily activities of the farm. I have learned so much from my dad, but I also have so much more to learn. My dad utilizes some different conservation practices on the farm including cover crops, water ways, crop rotations, and no-till. He has taught me the importance of taking care of the land that God has given us and keeping it productive for the next generation.

My dad has heard me say “Hey dad, why don’t we do this?” “Have you ever thought about doing this?” “Why do we do this this way?” over the past year I have gone off to college. Since starting this internship, there are many things I have noticed we could do on the farm to improve the soil and water quality. My current goal is to get my dad talked into planting a prairie strip where we currently have a waterway that is not mowed for hay. This native prairie strip would be full of wildflowers for pollinators and a great habitat for pheasants!

Photo 3

Watching a saturated buffer get installed at the Fawcett Farm field day on June 6th.

The other thing I think would be beneficial to the farm is a saturated buffer strip along a creek on one of our fields. While these things are very beneficial for water quality, I understand that they do take time and money to implement, even with cost share available for these things.

Coming from an agriculture background has benefited me in this internship. I am not only able to look at the environmental impacts of sustainable practices but also how they affect the farmers and landowners that implement them. Farmers and landowners are in a very interesting spot when it comes to using environmentally sustainable practices. They are stuck between using what they know works and change.

Photo 2

Attending a field day about cover crops in Adams County on July 9th.

Change is scary, especially when you could be risking the ability of break even over total costs. For example, adding cover crops into your rotation can be beneficial in reducing compaction, erosion, and pesticide usage. But these benefits might not be seen right away so it can be easy to give up when those results are not seen quickly. Another example of how a farmer might be “stuck” is chemical pesticide usage. Pesticide one of the eight main water pollutants in the state of Iowa. But pesticides are something that farmers need in order to protect their crop yield from pests. This internship has helped me talk with farmers, and non-farmers alike, about what can be improved on and why farmers do what they do.

Photo 1

Teaching students about a watershed and how what we do on land can affect the quality of our water.

My time as an intern has allowed me to apply what I have learned while talking to students, peers, and community members. It has also taught me much more about soil and water quality that I have been able to bring back to the farm. As someone who wants to take over the farm someday, I want to make sure that it is still there for me to come back to.



Ashley Armstrong is participating in the 2019 Water Resources Internship Program at Iowa State University.  Armstrong grew up near Montezuma and is attending Dordt College majoring in Agriculture Education.