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.

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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

Webinars Are Back, New Outreach Tool Debuted

Our Iowa Learning Farms webinars are back! This week, Matt Helmers, professor in the Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering and Iowa Learning Farms team member, kicked off our webinar series for 2017. Dr. Helmers spoke on nitrate reduction, and specifically, nitrate reduction practices that can help treat tile-drained water.

In order to achieve the goals of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS), we know that a wide array of practice implementation will be necessary. And, Dr. Helmers stressed, “It’s not just a few people making a change, it’s all farmers in the state of Iowa.” To drive that point home, we can refer to Dr. Laura Christianson’s catchy slogan: One practice might not be right for every acre, but every acre needs at least one practice.

“It’s not just a few people making a change, it’s all farmers in the state of Iowa.”

One scenario in the Iowa NRS calls for almost all agricultural acres to more effectively manage nitrogen, 12-13 million acres to be in cover crops, 7 million acres to be treated by wetlands and 7 million acres to be treated by bioreactors. This scenario requires an incredible amount of implementation of practices from many Iowan. It also requires in-field changes as well as treatment of tile-drained water at the edge of the field. Dr. Helmers zeroes in on those edge-of-field practices and just how effective they can be for nitrate reduction in the treatment of tile-drained water.

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Dr. Helmers has spoken at hundreds of events since the initial release of the Iowa NRS in 2012. Based on his experience, he sees one thing clearly: “We need to create a sense of urgency because the level of implementation must be increased!”

“We need to create a sense of urgency because the level of implementation must be increased!”

Many are familiar with the need for financial and technical resources to get more edge-of-field practices on the ground, but we also need people who can help design these practices. Education could play a key role in this need – workshops for contractors, new curriculum for students, and field days as these practices are being installed are necessary. After the practices are installed, many edge-of-field practices lose their magic, as the magic is going on right below our feet, out of sight.

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The Iowa Learning Farms team and our project partners*, have created one unique way to start addressing the edge-of-field outreach need: The Conservation Station On the Edge! Dr. Helmers said it best: “When you can’t go out to see the practices being installed, Iowa Learning Farms has created a way to bring the practice, and the field day, to the people!”

The Conservation Station On the Edge will be available to travel to events beginning in Fall of 2017. Contact ilf@iastate.edu to inquire about availability for your event. Another popular outreach tool, the Rainfall Simulator, is still running.

Watch the webinar from our webinar archives!

Julie Whitson

*We thank our project partners, including the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Department of Natural Resources (Section 319 of Clean Water Act), USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and Agri Drain Corporation.

Q & A with Matt Helmers on Nitrate Reduction and Drainage

By popular demand Dr. Matt Helmers set out to address some of the common questions, and sometimes misconceptions, about nitrate loss and drainage in this month’s Iowa Learning Farms webinar.  Helmers is the Dean’s Professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Professor in the Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering at Iowa State University.

Although the questions are straightforward, the answers are not as simple as yes or no.  Helmers uses research from his team, as well as other researchers in the Midwest, to provide the best available answers to the very complex questions of water quality. Watch the full archived webinar on the Iowa Learning Farms website.

Here is a sampling of the questions (and summarized answers):

 Q. Is Elevated Nitrate Primarily a Nitrogen Rate Problem?

A. Nitrogen rate management is the first place to start, but it is not enough on its own to reach our goals established by the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.  Moving from 150lb N to the Maximum Return to Nitrogen (MRTN), or economic efficiency of nitrogen, results in about a 9% reduction in nitrate loss. A necessary step on the path of meeting our goals of 41% from non-point sources!

Q. How Does Nitrate Leaching Vary From Year to Year?

A. Precipitation plays a large role in how water moves through the soil profile and the loss of nitrates. Under consistent N-rates, research data shows in years with lower precipitation a higher concentration of nitrates (which is the measurement used to determine water quality e.g. 10 mg/L is the standard for drinking water).ilf-webinar-10-16

Q. Do Cover Crops Really Reduce Nitrate Loss?

A. Yes – 34-36% reductions were observed when a cereal rye cover crop was drilled following crop harvest near Gilmore City in North Central Iowa.  This reduction is a conservative estimate as the nitrate loss reduction has been shown to improve with more cover crop growth (achieved with an earlier planting date).

Q. How Do We Reach Our Goals?

A. We need it all – nitrogen management, cropping practices and landuse changes, and edge of field practices like wetlands, bioreactors and more!

drainage-water-recycling

Credit: TransformingDrainage.org, USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture

Q. What’s New on Drainage?

A. Keep an eye out for the new practice – drainage water recycling.  The practice looks to store spring drainage water for use later in the growing season and has the potential to also aid in nitrate reduction.

Be sure to watch the full webinar on our Webinar Archives page to check out remaining questions and more information on the hydrologic impacts of drainage on our landscape.

Tune in next month…
The next Iowa Learning Farms webinar will be Wednesday, November 16 at 1:00 p.m., featuring our own Ann Staudt digging into our newest cover crop project – earthworms!

Liz Juchems

New video showcases drainage and water quality research

There’s no question that water quality is a hot topic in Iowa these days! Here at Iowa Learning Farms, we dedicate a good portion of our time to promoting and explaining the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy to farmers, landowners, and rural/urban residents alike as we travel to field days, workshops, Crop Advantage presentations, and county fairs (during the warmer months!).

The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy lays out a practical, thorough, science-based approach to reducing Iowa’s total nitrogen export and total phosphorus export by 45%. In developing this Strategy, the Science Assessment Team evaluated numerous research studies across Iowa (and the larger Corn Belt) to quantify what impact different conservation practices can have on reducing nutrient transport.

Some of the most long-term research available in the State of Iowa in relation to agricultural drainage, nutrient transport, water quality, and impacts on crop performance has been conducted at the Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Research and Demonstration Site near Gilmore City, Iowa. Check out the above short video which celebrates the 25th anniversary of the Gilmore City Research and Demonstration Site and highlights the importance of the drainage and water quality research taking place there.

GilmoreCity-FieldWork(combined)

ConservationChatLogoAngleWant to hear more about the role Iowa State University Extension and Outreach plays in the development and implementation of Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy?  Tune in to the latest episode of the Conservation Chat podcast which features a conversation with Dr. John Lawrence. Alternatively, the Iowa Learning Farms webinar page to watch the archived video feed there.

Ann Staudt

September ILF Webinar: Bioreactors

On the latest webinar, the Iowa Learning Farms teamed up with the Midwest Ag Drainage Water Management series to discuss Bioreactors with Dr. Richard Cooke, Associate Professor in the Department of Agricultural Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Chad Ingels, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach watershed specialist and northeast Iowa farmer.  This dynamic duo gives us a real one-two punch of information about bioreactors!

Cooke offers an expert view of bioreactor design and theory.  He also gives us a look at some potential tools on the horizon that offer insights and projections about bioreactor use.  Ingels brings his experience in farm communities installing, trouble shooting, and managing active bioreactors to the discussion.

Between these two, you are sure you learn something new about Bioreactors!

As always, the webinar is available for viewing at your leisure. (And, of course, you can always catch on our other webinars here!)

-Ben Schrag

Today’s Webinar: Bioreactors in the Spotlight

It’s Webinar Wednesday – tune in this morning at 9:00am for perspectives on bioreactors and their potential for benefiting water quality. This month’s Iowa Learning Farms webinar will coincide with the Midwest Ag Drainage Water Management series, thus the change of time from our usual afternoon webinar time slot.

With a focus on denitrifying bioreactors, today’s webinar is structured to provide both the perspective of the research/extension specialist and the farmer/practitioner. The featured speakers include Dr. Richard Cooke, Associate Professor in the Department of Agricultural Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Chad Ingels, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach watershed specialist and northeast Iowa farmer. Subsurface bioreactors have garnered a large amount of interest across the Midwest for their potential role in whole-farm nutrient management; they are highlighted as a key edge-of-field practice for reducing nitrogen export in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

To Recap…
What: “Bioreactors and Water Quality” Webinar
When: Wednesday, September 16 at 9:00am
Where: https://connect.extension.iastate.edu/bcch/ (Select “Enter as a Guest” button)
Why: Learn more about denitrifying bioreactors, an emerging edge-of-field practice with great potential for nitrate reduction in subsurface drainage water

If you can’t participate live, watch the archive of today’s webinar after the fact (along with all of ILF’s past webinars) on the ILF Webinars page.

Ann Staudt