Choosing an Edge-of-Field Practice: Decision Trees Can Help

Using decision trees to help determine suitable edge-of-field practices was the topic of the Iowa Learning Farms webinar yesterday. Chris Hay, Sr. Manager—Production Systems Innovation with Iowa Soybean Association, explained the basics of edge-of-field practices and discussed decision trees that can help farmers, landowners and conservation professionals select an edge-of-field practice.

Bioreactors were one of the practices Hay discussed in the webinar (image from Hay’s presentation)

Hay gave an overview of wetlands, saturated buffers, bioreactors, and controlled drainage. He explained how they can be used to address environmental concerns while maintaining agricultural productivity. These edge-of-field practices are effective at reducing nitrogen loss from agricultural fields, while also being very cost effective. This makes them an attractive choice for some landowners, but deciding which practice works for their site and their goals can be difficult.

Nitrogen loss reduction effectiveness of various practices, with the edge-of-field practices in blue (image from Hay’s presentation)

The decision trees were developed as part of the Whole Farm Conservation Best Practices Manual. The full manual is available as a free download from the ISU Extension Store or our website https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/. The tools are divided into two sets: one for farmer/landowner decision makers and one for conservation professionals. Hay explained the how the tools work and what considerations they take into account to help guide decision makers through the process of choosing an edge-of-field practice.

Hay explained how to use the decision trees to help guide decisions about edge-of-field practices (image from Hay’s presentation)

To learn more about edge-of-field practices, their performance, and how to use the decision trees in the Whole Farm Conservation Best Practices Manual to help guide conservation decision, watch the full webinar here!

Join us next week for the webinar “The Halo Effect: Do Short-Term Watershed Project Successes Lead to Long-Term Continued Successes?” presented by Jamie Benning and Dr. Jacqueline Comito, both with Conservation Learning Group.

Hilary Pierce

October 7 Webinar: Choosing an Edge-of-Field Practice: Decision Trees Can Help

Iowa Learning Farms will host a webinar on Wednesday, October 7 at noon about using decision trees to help choose an edge-of-field practice.

Edge-of-field practices, such as bioreactors, saturated buffers and wetlands, can effectively address water quality concerns, but it is important to select the right practice for your site and goals.

Chris Hay, Sr. Manager—Production Systems Innovation with Iowa Soybean Association, will cover the basics of edge-of-field practices and some of the siting considerations for the different practices during this webinar. Hay will also discuss decision trees that can help farmers, landowners and conservation professionals select an edge-of-field practice.

The decision trees were developed as part of the Whole Farm Conservation Best Practices Manual. The full manual is available as a free download from the ISU Extension Store or our website https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/.

“Edge-of-field practices are some of the best performing water quality practices, but it can be confusing to know what practices will work at a particular site,” said Hay. “These newly developed decision trees can help both farmers and conservation professionals select edge-of-field practices that best match their situation.”   

To participate in the live webinar, shortly before 12:00 pm CDT on October 7:

Click this URL, or type this web address into your internet browser: https://iastate.zoom.us/j/364284172

    Or, go to https://iastate.zoom.us/join and enter meeting ID: 364 284 172 

Or, join from a dial-in phone line:

    Dial: +1 312 626 6799 or +1 646 876 9923

    Meeting ID: 364 284 172

The webinar will also be recorded and archived on the ILF website, so that it can be watched at any time. Archived webinars are available at https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars.

A Certified Crop Adviser board-approved continuing education unit (CEU) has been applied for, for those who are able to participate in the live webinar. Information about how to apply to receive the credit (if approved) will be provided at the end of the live webinar.

Hilary Pierce

September 16 Webinar: Enhancing Monarch Butterfly Conservation in Iowa

Iowa Learning Farms will host a webinar on Wednesday, September 16 at noon about monarch butterfly conservation efforts in Iowa.    

Steve Bradbury, professor in the Departments of Natural Resource Ecology and Management and Entomology at Iowa State University will provide an overview of monarch butterfly declines over the past two decades, causes of the declines and Iowa’s goal of establishing between 215,000 to 390,000 new acres of monarch habitat in agricultural landscapes over the next decade. Bradbury will also offer approaches for establishing habitat in grass dominated sites, including opportunities to establish habitat in conjunction with the installation of saturated buffers and bioreactors.

“We can grow corn, soybeans, monarchs and improve water quality by stacking conservation and pest management practices,” said Bradbury, whose research and extension efforts address conservation, pest resistance management, and environmental risks and benefits of pesticide use. “Iowa’s monarch conservation and nutrient reduction goals are challenging; however, by integrating practices we can maximize our return on investment.”

To participate in the live webinar, shortly before 12:00 pm CDT on September 16:

Click this URL, or type this web address into your internet browser: https://iastate.zoom.us/j/364284172

    Or, go to https://iastate.zoom.us/join and enter meeting ID: 364 284 172 

Or, join from a dial-in phone line:

    Dial: +1 312 626 6799 or +1 646 876 9923

    Meeting ID: 364 284 172

The webinar will also be recorded and archived on the ILF website, so that it can be watched at any time. Archived webinars are available at https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars.

A Certified Crop Adviser board-approved continuing education unit (CEU) has been applied for, for those who are able to participate in the live webinar. Information about how to apply to receive the credit (if approved) will be provided at the end of the live webinar.

Hilary Pierce

August 5 Webinar: Scaling up Oxbow Wetland Restorations for Multiple Benefits

Iowa Learning Farms will host a webinar on Wednesday, August 5 at noon about the benefits of restoring oxbow wetlands.

Learn more about this promising edge-of-field conservation practice, it’s many benefits, potential funding pools, and other exciting up-to-date news on the gaining momentum and enthusiasm around oxbows! Karen Wilke, Iowa Freshwater Specialist & Boone River Project Director for The Nature Conservancy, will spotlight the multiple benefits that oxbow wetland restorations bring for water quality, wildlife, and people by sharing recent research findings and restoration experiences from the field.

Wilke has worked for The Nature Conservancy for the past seven years to research, promote, and restore oxbow wetlands for improved water quality, floodwater storage, and wildlife habitat across Iowa. She hopes webinar attendees will leave with a sense of hope for the future, excitement for the possibilities, and a sense of purpose for moving forward.

To participate in the live webinar, shortly before 12:00 pm CDT on August 5:

Click this URL, or type this web address into your internet browser: https://iastate.zoom.us/j/364284172

    Or, go to https://iastate.zoom.us/join and enter meeting ID: 364 284 172 

Or, join from a dial-in phone line:

    Dial: +1 312 626 6799 or +1 646 876 9923

    Meeting ID: 364 284 172

The webinar will also be recorded and archived on the ILF website, so that it can be watched at any time. Archived webinars are available at https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars.

A Certified Crop Adviser board-approved continuing education unit (CEU) has been applied for, for those who are able to participate in the live webinar. Information about how to apply to receive the credit (if approved) will be provided at the end of the live webinar.

Hilary Pierce

A Resource for Successful Adoption of Conservation Practices

Iowa Learning Farms hosted a webinar on Wednesday, June 17 about the “Whole Farm Conservation Best Practices Manual”.   

The “Whole Farm Conservation Best Practices Manual” brought together many experts to develop a resource that will aid the successful adoption of cover crops, no-/strip-tillage, diverse rotations, and edge-of-field practices. The manual is designed to be a useful tool for farmers and crop advisers. It includes decision tools that will guide operators, landowners and/or conservation professionals through the decision-making process for adopting and implementing conservation practices. 

Mark Licht, Assistant Professor and Extension Cropping Systems Specialist at Iowa State University, discussed the manual and used two scenarios to show how the manual could be used to help guide decision-making around the adoption of conservation practices.

One of the scenarios shown in the webinar

To show how the manual could be used to help farmer Smith decide what tillage management practice would work on her farm, Licht showed the residue management decision tool, which provides guidance based on what crop rotation is used. He also highlighted the additional considerations that can be found in the manual and the information available for the best management of these conservation practices.

The decision tool that could be used to guide farmer Smith’s decision

Licht also shared a scenario about cover crop adoption and discussed the diverse rotation tool, as well as the edge-of-field practices that the manual covers. To learn more, watch the full webinar here!

The full manual is available as a free download from the ISU Extension Store, or our website.

Join us on Wednesday at noon when William Crumpton, Professor at Iowa State University, will present a webinar titled, “Environmental Performance of Wetlands Receiving Non-Point Source Nutrient Loads: Benefits and Limitations of Targeted Wetland Restorations”.

Hilary Pierce

June 17 Webinar: A Resource for Successful Adoption of Conservation Practices

Iowa Learning Farms will host a webinar on Wednesday, June 17 at noon about the “Whole Farm Conservation Best Practices Manual”.   

The “Whole Farm Conservation Best Practices Manual” brought together many experts with the sole purpose of developing best management practices for the successful adoption of cover crops, no-/strip-tillage, diverse rotations, and edge-of-field practices.

This manual is designed to be a useful tool for farmers and crop advisers. It includes decision tools that will guide operators, landowners and/or conservation professionals through the decision-making process for adopting and implementing conservation practices. Mark Licht, Assistant Professor and Extension Cropping Systems Specialist at Iowa State University, will discuss the manual and how it can be used to guide adoption of conservation practices.

“It is my intention that participants will gain an understanding of what is included in the manual, but also how to use the manual to increase and improve that adoption rate of conservation practices,” said Licht, whose research an extension program are focused on corn and soybean management practices, particularly developing practices for the successful adoption of cover crops.  

The full manual is available as a free download from the ISU Extension Store, or our website https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/. We will welcome your ideas and feedback on the manual during the webinar, so we hope that you download the manual before the webinar.

To participate in the live webinar, shortly before 12:00 pm CDT on June 17:

Click this URL, or type this web address into your internet browser: https://iastate.zoom.us/j/364284172

    Or, go to https://iastate.zoom.us/join and enter meeting ID: 364 284 172 

Or, join from a dial-in phone line:

    Dial: +1 312 626 6799 or +1 646 876 9923

    Meeting ID: 364 284 172

The webinar will also be recorded and archived on the ILF website, so that it can be watched at any time. Archived webinars are available at https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars.

A Certified Crop Adviser board-approved continuing education unit (CEU) has been approved for those who are able to participate in the live webinar. Information about how to apply to receive the credit will be provided at the end of the live webinar.

Hilary Pierce

June 11 Virtual Field Day: Exploring the Bear Creek Saturated Buffer

Iowa Learning Farms, in partnership with the Iowa Nutrient Research Center, Conservation Learning Group, and Prairie Rivers of Iowa, is hosting a free virtual saturated buffer field day on Thursday, June 11 at 1pm CDT.  Join us as we explore the first-ever saturated buffer that was installed in 2010 within an existing riparian buffer along Bear Creek in Hamilton County.

Aerial shot of stream and seeded saturated buffer on the right, looking south along Bear Creek. Fall seeded prairie pictured in its first year of growth.

The event will include video footage from the field and live interaction with Tom Isenhart, Iowa State University Professor, Billy Beck, Iowa State University Assistant Professor and Extension Forestry Specialist and Dan Haug and David Stein of Prairie Rivers of Iowa. Together they will discuss how saturated buffers, riparian buffers and pollinator habitat work together to improve water quality, farm aesthetics, and wildlife opportunities.

Riparian buffers are a proven practice for removing nitrate from overland flow and shallow groundwater. However, in landscapes with artificial subsurface (tile) drainage, most of the subsurface flow leaving fields is passed through the buffers in drainage pipes, leaving little opportunity for nitrate removal. Isenhart, along with Dan Jaynes, Research Soil Scientist with the National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment (USDA-ARS), pioneered the process of re-routing a fraction of field tile drainage as subsurface flow through a riparian buffer for increasing nitrate removal – creating the first ever saturated buffer that will be featured during this virtual field day.

Make plans to join us and participate in the live field day. Shortly before 1:00 pm CDT on June 11th, click HERE.

Or, join from a dial-in phone line:

    Dial: +1 312 626 6799 or +1 646 876 9923

    Meeting ID: 914 1198 4892

The field day will be recorded and archived on the ILF website so that it can be watched at any time. The archive is available on the Iowa Learning Farms Events page.

A Certified Crop Adviser board-approved continuing education unit (CEU) has been applied for, for those who are able to participate in the live webinar. Information about how to apply to receive the credit (if approved) will be provided at the end of the live field day.

Liz Ripley

Is a Bioreactor Right for You?

The third practice in the Whole Farm Conservation Best Practices manual that uses the denitrification process to reduce nitrate loss is bioreactors.

Bioreactors treat water from subsurface drainage systems by diverting tile flow into an excavated trench filled with woodchips. The woodchips provide carbon and attachment surfaces for microbial communities that convert nitrate-nitrogen to nitrogen gas – which makes up the majority of our atmosphere.  The graphic below illustrates how the water flows through the woodchips using control structures on the inlet and outlet of the bioreactor.

Bioreactors need relatively consistent tile flow to maintain saturated conditions for the naturally occurring microorganisms to complete the denitrification process. Bioreactors cannot be placed in areas where surface flows may cause ponding of water on top of the bioreactor. It is important to keep the bioreactor footprint out of highly trafficked areas to prevent the compaction of woodchips within the trench. The presence of surface intakes requires additional consideration to prevent sediment accumulation in the bioreactor.

The decision tree below can help guide you through the process to determine if a bioreactor could work on your farm.

You can learn more about bioreactors and other edge of field practices via print resources, video, webinars and podcasts on our website!

Liz Ripley

A Stream Runs Through It – Could a saturated buffer work for you?

Do you have an existing stream-side or ditch-side buffer or are you willing to install a buffer? Consider adding a saturated buffer on your farm. The Whole Farm Conservation Best Practices manual walks you through the decision process to see if this practice is the right fit for you!

Saturated buffers are established near streams or ditches by diverting the existing tile drainage outflow so that water passes through the subsurface of a vegetated buffer prior to entering a waterway.

Saturated buffers help to remove nitrogen through conversion of nitrate-nitrogen to nitrogen gas by microbial activity, as well as through plant uptake. In addition to improving water quality, saturated buffers also can enhance stream- and ditch-side habitat.

For this practice, it is beneficial to have a clay base layer to prevent undesired movement of water that could result in subsurface water bypassing the saturated buffer. Sites with open surface intakes in the drainage system are not ideal, as the soil and residue that may get into the drainage system via the surface intake could interfere with the movement of water into the saturated buffer. If surface intakes are present, you will need to take additional precautions to reduce sediment flow into the saturated buffer. If there are trees within the footprint of the saturated buffer, take extra care in the setting of distribution lines.

Use the USDA’s Saturated Buffer Viewer to determine if a saturated buffer would work on your site.

Mark your calendars!

We will be hosting a virtual field day at the Bear Creek saturated buffer site on June 11th at 1pm CST. This site is the first ever saturated buffer to be installed and we are excited to feature it during our field day.

Liz Ripley

Edge-of-Field Conservation Practices that Work

Whole farm conservation best practices aren’t limited to in-field practices like no-tillage, strip-tillage, cover crops and extended rotations. A suite of edge-of-field conservation practices, like those pictured below, can help improve water quality in the state by managing the loss of nitrogen from cropland.

Based on 2012 and 2017 United States Department of Agriculture Census of Agriculture data, approximately 50% of Iowa cropland has subsurface drainage. While this drainage makes it possible to farm previously wet soils, it also carries dissolved nitrogen from farm fields to the streams, rivers, lakes, wetlands, and other surface waters of the state.

Excess nitrogen in water leads to local, regional, and national-level alterations to aquatic ecosystems resulting in decreased water clarity, increased algal growth, and oxygen shortages that cause fish kills and reduce diversity. Excess nitrogen also harms drinkable water supplies. Concentrations above the 10 mg/L NO3-N drinking-water standard established by the United States Environmental Protection Agency are not uncommon in Iowa.

Edge-of-field practices such as treatment wetlands, bioreactors, saturated buffers, and controlled drainage can significantly reduce the amount of nitrate-nitrogen that leaves drainage networks. On average, nitrate-nitrogen is reduced by:

  • 52% with treatment wetlands
  • 53% with saturated buffers
  • 43% with bioreactors
  • 32% with controlled drainage

While edge-of-field practices have the potential to remove large amounts of nitrate-nitrogen, there is no one practice that works well at all sites. A combination of appropriate practice implementation and high adoption rates is needed to meet the nitrogen reduction goals of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy that calls for the reduction of nutrient loadings to the Gulf of Mexico by 45% over the coming decades.

Over the next five weeks, we’ll be exploring different edge-of-field practices and the decision trees to help identify which practice(s) will work best for your system.

-Liz (Juchems) Ripley