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

Iowa’s Water Quality Challenge

On Wednesday, Iowa Learning Farms hosted a webinar about the efforts and progress being made toward reducing agricultural losses of nitrogen and phosphorus.

Laurie Nowatzke, Measurement Coordinator for the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy at Iowa State University, explained:

  1. How does nutrient loss occur in Iowa agriculture?
  2. Which practices reduce nutrient loss?
  3. Are these practices being adopted?

Nowatzke explained that agricultural losses of nitrogen and phosphorus mainly occur in two different ways: soil and phosphorus loss through erosion from surface runoff and loss of nitrate-nitrogen and some dissolved phosphorus through subsurface drainage. In-field and edge-of-field practices have been designed and are being adopted by farmers and landowners to reduce these losses.

These practices can be used to meet the nutrient reduction goals set forth in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. The Strategy lays out several different scenarios in which the goals can be reached through different combinations of practices and the necessary adoption rate for each scenario. One of these scenarios is shown in the figure below, with the current estimated adoption rate also shown.

More widespread adoption of these practices (in this combination of practices or in the other scenarios) will be needed to reach the nutrient reduction goals of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

Nowatzke shared the following resources for more information:

More information about the progress toward Iowa’s water quality goals can be found in the forthcoming 2018-19 Annual Progress Report of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Last year’s report can be found here.

Watch the full webinar here!

Be sure to join us next week, on May 6, when  Ross Evelsizer, Watershed Planner & GIS Specialist at Northeast Iowa RC&D, will present a webinar titled: “Multi-Cropping as a Profitable Soil Health Solution“.

Hilary Pierce

Conservation Best Practices Manual Available for Free Download

The Conservation Learning Group has published the Whole Farm Conservation Best Practices Manual to aid farmers in selecting conservation measures appropriate for their farms.

Designed primarily for farmers just starting out through three years of adopting conservation practices, the manual provides a broad range of information that could be beneficial to any producer. The manual is available for free download or in hard copy from the ISU Extension Store.

Covering in-field topics including tillage management, cover crops and diverse rotations, and edge-of-field practices such as wetlands, bioreactors, saturated buffers, controlled drainage and prairie strips, the manual provides detailed information regarding implementation and expected outcomes.

In addition, it includes comprehensive graphical decision tools to aid farmers in determining the best approaches for each area on their farm.

“A primary goal in producing this manual is to help farmers succeed with conservation practices based on the vast array of ongoing research and field studies conducted at Iowa State and beyond. We’ve heard from farmers across the state that sometimes it’s difficult to navigate discrepancies between different research reports and recommendations regarding conservation and water quality practices. With this manual, we’ve pulled together the most important parts from the rich sets of research on cover crops and other conservation efforts in Iowa and presented them using consistent language in an easy-to-use graphical format.”

Mark Licht, assistant professor and extension cropping systems specialist at Iowa State and CLG member

The manual was developed based on numerous meetings and working groups among stakeholders, researchers, agency representatives and communications specialists, who worked together to provide a comprehensive resource for farmers. The content was also presented to farmers at multiple events, prior to public release, to gather feedback on usability and the graphical decision tools included.

“This manual will be an excellent tool for our conservation planners to utilize as they work with farmers to adopt these management practices. I was involved in the working groups which discussed the best strategies for farmers who are new to these practices. It’s our hope with this advice that they will be successful early in the adoption of these practices both agronomically and from a conservation standpoint.”

Kevin Kuhn, resource conservationist for the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service

Conservation Learning Group will continue to evaluate responses to the manual and update it with emerging information and data from research projects.

“This is not meant to be a static guide. As our experiences and knowledge base grow, we will continue to communicate with producers and provide the best advice we can to maximize their successes with conservation practices.”

Mark Licht

The manual was developed in cooperation with the Iowa Soybean Association, Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance and Practical Farmers of Iowa, and with the support and input from multiple local, state and federal organizations.

This manual is a joint publication of Iowa State University and USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service, supported by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, under number 6000004181.

Liz (Juchems) Ripley

It’s time to change, again


Mark Licht | Assistant Professor of Agronomy and Extension Cropping Systems Specialist, Iowa State University

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been involved in several conversations regarding the need for change. Change is hard. It doesn’t matter what the profession. Change brings about anxiety and discontent. We do not like change forced upon us. But, we do accept change when it meets our current wants and needs. Sometimes change can be incremental, and sometimes it can be abrupt.

Since humans first began domesticating plants, agriculture has experienced incremental change. Most of the change focused on agricultural intensification – increasing agricultural production per unit of input. These inputs included labor, land, time, fertilizer, seed and pesticides to name just a few. Mechanization in labor from humans, to horses and oxen, to tractors has allowed greater productivity which led to expansion of land in agricultural production.

Throughout the last 150 years, incremental change has begun to happen more rapidly. Think of how corn production moved from open pollinated, to hybrid, to transgenic cultivars. Iowa led the nation in the adoption of both hybrid and transgenic cultivars. For centuries, fertility needs have been met with animal manure.  We shifted to commercial fertilizers in the mid-1900s and the necessity for livestock in individual production systems was eliminated. Over the last 25 years, precision agriculture advancements have yet again created efficiencies of labor, time and use of chemical inputs (or fertilizers and pesticides). Agricultural intensification has only been possible through change.

Just like changes throughout these 150 years brought greater production and ability to feed more people, we are at another formative point in advancing agricultural systems. Our systems need to be conservation focused. The time to adopt cover crops, conservation tillage, CREP wetlands, saturated buffers, bioreactors, and diverse rotations is now.

Armstrong Farm Strips

What makes this change especially difficult, is the time-frame to change and the pressures weighing on farmers from many directions. Consumers are demanding sustainable practices. Our neighbors in Iowa and beyond are demanding cleaner water and healthier soil. We need to change more abruptly than we would like to sustainably supply the needs of the world’s population now and for many generations.

As I talk to farmers about why they do not make incremental changes towards the adoption of conservation practices, I frequently hear “this is the way we have always done it,” or “I am nearing the end of my career, I will let the next generation make the change.”

These are excuses. We have to be able to see past our own lifetimes. As we look back on the lives of our parents and grandparents, we can see this isn’t the way we have always done it. More importantly, we can’t wait for the next generation to be in charge to change. What about two or three generations to come? Can we think in a longer scope? What will they say when they look back to this time?

Iowa has phenomenal farmers who have been champions for conservation. I am quite confident these farmers see change as an opportunity. Many of these champions have or will be transitioning the farming operation to the next generation. They have made incremental changes to adopt and perfect conservation practices over the course of many years. Often, they are still looking for ways to improve.

Crop production systems need to be changed to provide soil health and nutrient reduction benefits. We need to work together to find the right practices for each farm and each field. Iowa agriculture is in a unique position to lessen the impact of agricultural intensification.

Change is inevitable. To continue with our current systems, is not an option. Let’s continue to innovate together – as Iowa farmers always have. Let’s commit to making the sustainable changes needed while those changes are voluntary and can be made on an individualized basis.

Mark Licht


Kicking off the fall field day season!


While harvest 2019 is proving to be a challenge across the state, it is never to early to make plans for the 2020 crop season. Plan to join us for one of our upcoming fall field days and workshops to get a jump start on your conservation planning for next year!

RSVP to 515-294-5429 or ilf@iastate.edu to join us for the free meal offered at each event.

November 7: Cover Crop and Wetland Field Day – Featuring the Conservation Learning Lab Project
Borlaug Learning Center ISU
3327 290th St
Nashua, IA 50658
Floyd County
Partners: Natural Resources Conservation Services, Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach
Press Release

November 21: Cover Crop and Soil Health Field Day
Jerry Dove Farm
Janesville, IA
Black Hawk County
Partners: Dry Run Creek Watershed, Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Natural Resources Conservation Services
Press Release

December 3: Cover Crop Workshop

Titan Machinery
23604 Diagonal Rd
Grundy Center, IA
Partners: Grundy County SWCD, NRCS

December 5: Cover Crop Workshop

Luana Savings Bank Community Center
100 Harvest Drive
Luana, IA
Partners: Clayton County SWCD, NRCS, Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship


If you are interested in hosting or partnering on a field day, please contact Liz Juchems at 515-294-5429 or ejuchems@istate.edu.