A Conservation Chat with Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig

ILFHeader(15-year)Jacqueline Comito| Iowa Learning Farms Program Director

naig_comito_frame_webIowa’s Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig joined me for a live Conservation Chat as a part of the monthly Iowa Learning Farms (ILF) webinar on January 16. Secretary Naig was elected to office in November 2018, but has been in the role since spring of 2018 when he was appointed to fill the post when Bill Northey was confirmed as the U.S. undersecretary for farm production and conservation.

Mike joined the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship five years ago as deputy secretary. He noted that the opportunity to get involved in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy from inception was one of the key reasons he moved from the private sector into government.

Mike grew up on a farm in Palo Alto county during the 1980s and saw the farm crisis firsthand. His parents and other farmers of their generation encouraged their children to find careers off the farm – so they would not have to experience the same challenges later in life. Mike took these sentiments to heart and continues to work to help ensure farmers in Iowa have the resources and opportunities to build successful and sustainable businesses.

When asked about his connection to the land, he expressed delight in the broad diversity of landscapes and natural settings across Iowa. He and his family love to explore the outdoors and enjoy everything Iowa has to offer. It also provides an opportunity to teach his three young sons about the importance of our natural resources and conservation.

Mike made it clear that it was time to significantly scale up implementation of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy. He noted “We are five years into implementation of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy. I am proud of what we’ve accomplished, but if we only do the same for the next five years, we will be seriously behind. This is the time to start scaling successful approaches so we can protect, preserve, and promote Iowa’s productivity and its most abundant natural resource – Texas has oil, Iowa has soil.”

We talked about urban and rural mindsets and how to bridge the understanding gap. “Pointing fingers and assigning blame does not move anyone in the right direction. Fostering mutual understanding of the impact any individual can have, regardless of whether they own a quarter acre lot in Ames or a quarter-section plot in northwest Iowa, is crucial to building a culture of conservation statewide.”

With new funding in the current budget year, the Department of Agriculture has hired additional employees to address conservation practices in several major watershed areas. They are also working with private-sector organizations and partners to expand conservation efforts, outreach and education. Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks! are examples of partners in conservation and education that help deliver these messages. “We partner and contract with organizations such as Iowa State University to take advantage of the innovation, skilled minds, and advanced research that isn’t available elsewhere. The allow us to do the most with what we have and continue to move toward our goals.”

Mike stressed that farmers needed to look at conservation practices with a broad lens. “You can’t just look at cover crops or tiling or bioreactors and saturated buffers as individual things, you must look at the full scope of improving soil health, employing edge of field practices in combination with tile, and ultimately maintaining or improving productivity and water quality.”

I noted that he had appropriated ILF’s Culture of Conservation tagline during his campaign and asked what that means to him. “It means thinking about conservation as priority. If Iowa wants to continue to be a global production leader, it’s crucial to protect and conserve what makes that leadership possible. And to do it through conservation, not regulation.” Mike agreed that youth education is an important piece of the culture of conservation puzzle, and changing the mindset and approach in Iowa will take a long time and must become inherent to the thinking of current and future generations. “You’re not going to reach everyone right away, just like in marketing any idea or product, there will be early adopters through late adopters. Our challenge is to build out a message to entice and encourage adoption of a lasting change over time.”

More Conservation Chats

Be sure to view the archive visit with Mike Naig on our website.

Our conversation will also be released as a Conservation Chat podcast available at the Conservation Chat website and here on iTunes. New Conservation Chat podcasts will be released every month. February’s Chat will be a conversation with Dr. Matt Helmers, Director of the Iowa Nutrient Research Center and Jamie Benning, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach water quality program manager.

Please join us live for next Iowa Learning Farms Webinar February 20 at 12:00 PM with Dr. Amy Kaleita, Iowa State University professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering. The topic will be: Farmed Prairie Potholes – Consequences and Management Options.

Jacqueline

3 Practices, 1 Field Day

Q: Where can you see a bioreactor, saturated buffer and wetland all working together to reduce nitrate leaving agricultural land?

A: At the Land Improvement Contractors Association (LICA) farm near Melbourne, Iowa.

We had great weather for our field day yesterday at the LICA farm that allowed farmers, landowners, contractors, and state agency staff the opportunity to see these practices in action first hand. The saturated buffer installation was started the day before the event and was left open to allow visitors a chance to see how the process occurs.

Attendees rotated through three stations to learn more about each of the practices installed on the farm and got a chance to view what goes on underground with a stop at the Conservation Station On The Edge. There were great questions and discussions as we work together to ramp up the installation of these practices all across the state.

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Wetland constructed in 2009, Photo Credit: Iowa Soybean Association

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Chris Hay, Iowa Soybean Association, discussing bioreactors, Photo Credit: Iowa Soybean Association

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Tim Recker, LICA, highlighting the installation of the saturated buffer on 9/12/18, Photo Credit: Iowa Soybean Association

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Liz Juchems, ILF, with the Conservation Station On The Edge sharing information on the denitrification process, Photo Credit: Iowa Soybean Association

Many thanks to LICA for hosting the event, Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance for helping plan the field day, Iowa Soybean Association and Iowa Corn for promoting the event, and Iowa Pork Producers Association for sponsoring the meal.

Learn more about edge of field practices by attending a field day in your area or visit our website. If you are interested in learning more about the farm or visiting to check out all the conservation practices they have installed, contact Keith and Melanie Bohe at 563-202-0682 or send them a message on their website.

Liz Juchems

What a Night for a Field Day

While 2.5 inches of rain the previous day forced the field day location to be moved on to the Dordt College campus that did not diminish the enthusiasm and discussion. It also helped that at least for those of us from Ames it was the first time we had seen the sun in quite a few days.

The field day was hosted by Dordt College, Iowa Learning Farms, and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach on September 5.  The field day stations included Joel Dejong, NW Iowa Crop Extension Specialist, talking about protecting soil resources, Colton Meyer, West Branch of the Floyd River Watershed Project Coordinator, talking about saturated buffer planning, and our Iowa Learning Farms group demonstrating the Conservation Station On the Edge.

This was a unique event as there were approximately 150 students from the Dordt College Agriculture Program in attendance in addition to local farmers and landowners. This provided a great opportunity to discuss the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy with them and how edge-of-field practices such as bioreactors, saturated buffers, and wetlands can be used to reduce nitrate loss from agricultural lands.

 

Not only did the students ask questions during our allocated time but many came back after the end of the field day to make sure they fully understood how these practices work including how tile drainage worked. If we had not had a 4 hour drive ahead of us I think we might have been there discussing these practices until long after dark.

It was encouraging to say the least to see the interest among the students in these systems. Some of their questions  we have heard many times throughout the summer including how long will the woodchips last, what kind of wood should we use, and can we crop over a bioreactor. Many of the answers to these questions are touched on in our Talking With Your Tenant: Denitrifying Practices publication.

However, the questions went beyond this. We had a discussion about whether diversifying our landscape and cropping system can also play a part in reducing downstream nutrient delivery which it absolutely can.

There were also questions about what time of the year we see the most nitrate lost. Which based on nearly thirty years of data from our drainage water quality site near Gilmore City we see about 60-70% of our annual drainage and nitrate loss in April-June.

Overall, it was exciting seeing the interest from the students and really highlighted the need to provide these out of class learning opportunities to students of all ages.

Matt Helmers

Bioreactors: Effective Tool for Reducing Nitrate Loss

 

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Photo credit: Iowa Soybean Association

Roger and Louise Van Ersvelde are passionate about conservation and land stewardship on their farm east of Brooklyn in Poweshiek County. They shared that passion with just over 50 field day attendees and highlighted the newest practice they are using on their farm – a denitrifying bioreactor.

“Installing the bioreactor was the next logical step for helping do my best to help make sure the water leaving our farm is as clean as possible.” Roger Van Ersvelde, Poweshiek Co Farmer.

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Photo Credit: Poweshiek County Soil and Water Conservation District

Their denitrifying bioreactor was completed fall of 2017 with assistance from the local Natural Resource Conservation Service staff and Poweshiek County Soil and Water Conservation District. To measure the performance of the bioreactor, they partnered with Andrew Graham, Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Grinnell College, to collect and analyze paired samples collected from the inlet and outlet structures.

Some key takeaways from the data results:

Van Ersvelde Bioreactor

Credit: Andrew Graham, Grinnell College

  1. Average nitrate removal is 46% from March-July 2018.
  2. Observed higher removal efficiencies during lower flow times (March-Early May and again in July). Removal efficiencies ranged from 10-30% during high flow times.
  3.  Removals of total N are pretty comparable to nitrate removal.  This indicates the bioreactor is promoting denitrification to primarily N2 and not generating ammonia.
  4. The high nitrate removal tends to coincide with high dissolved organic carbon concentrations, suggesting that the extent of denitrification is strongly dependent on the amount of readily degradable carbon.

“If you care about the environment, bioreactors are a great practice – even with no direct benefit to the landowner,” commented Dave Maxwell, contractor who helped install the bioreactor. “Thank you Roger and Louise.”

To learn more about bioreactors and other edge of field practices, visit our website for videos, webinars and print materials and attend a field day near you! Contact Iowa Learning Farms if you’re interested in talking about edge-of-field conservation practices on your land!

Liz Juchems

 

Every practice has its place

As we consider water quality and land use across our state, every practice has its place. Which conservation practices and land use changes make the most sense where in terms of keeping soil in place? In terms of reducing nutrient export? In terms of building wildlife habitat?

The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy’s goals of 45% nitrogen and phosphorus load reductions will only be achieved through a broad suite of practices – including in-field management (reduced tillage, cover crops, and fine-tuned nutrient management) AND edge-of-field conservation practices.  It’s an AND, not an OR!

Farmers and landowners from Dallas and Polk Counties got to see and learn about edge-of-field conservation practices firsthand at last evening’s Iowa Learning Farms field day hosted by Dallas Center farmer Tim Minton. Located in the Walnut Creek Watershed, this area faces unique challenges being at the interface of productive agricultural lands and urban expansion. Walnut Creek Watershed is losing 430 acres of farmland each year to urban development, while clean, healthy waters are needed for an ever-growing population base.



At the end of the day, it’s all about being good stewards out here. How well can we keep that soil in place?  How can we keep the water resources clean?  I’m really taking the long view here – What’s it going to do next year? 5 years down the road? 10 years? 20 years? When it’s in my kids’ hands?  It’s definitely a long-term approach. Tim Minton, Farmer

If you want to protect your investment, you’re got to put money back into it. Working with partners (NRCS and state) is a great way to do that. They want it to be win-win – ease of use and ease of execution. They can help you think outside the box, plus use their resources and expertise to help you do these things you want to do! Practices like these [saturated buffer and wetland] are in our best interest, AND in the best interest of society. Tim Minton, Farmer

I’ve been on this neighboring land for over 70 years. Back in the 1940s-50s, we would go down to the creek and it was always muddy. There were no minnows. You couldn’t see anything – didn’t matter if there had just been a heavy rain or no rain at all. When this [wetland] got put in, right away, it looked just like tap water. – Neighbor Jim

It’s all about finding the right practice for the right place. At just a 40% nitrate removal efficiency, this 5.7 ac wetland is equivalent to taking 567 acres of cropland out of production. PLUS the grasses and emergent vegetation provide wildlife habitat – it’s a definite magnet for waterfowl. It’s really beneficial for the ecology of the whole system!
– Brandon Dittman, IDALS

Every practice has its place, and we’ll continue showcasing these practices at field days and workshops across the state. Contact Iowa Learning Farms if you’re interested in talking about edge-of-field conservation practices on your land!

Nathan Stevenson and Ann Staudt

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

Bioreactors – One Piece of the Conservation Puzzle

Learning about denitrifying bioreactors drew a good crowd of farmers and landowners from Central Iowa – and beyond – to the Iowa Learning Farms and Prairie Rivers of Iowa field day on Tuesday, July 17th.  As a relatively new practice designed to reduce losses of nitrates from tile drained water, the crowd on Tuesday showed a high level of awareness and were eager to learn how bioreactors and other edge of field practices fit in to the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.IMG_4865

Local landowner Joe Ruetter installed a bioreactor on his farm last fall and has been pleased with the results of reducing nitrate in his tile water.

“We collected a sample a few days ago and the tile water coming in was running about 10-20 ppm of nitrate – well above the safe drinking water standard of 10ppm. At the end of the bioreactor is was 3-5ppm. So I would say the bioreactor is working very well so far.”

Joe also brought up that bioreactors are designed to address nitrate but don’t help with phosphorus so other conservation practices – like no-till and cover crops – are also needed to help reach our goals.

IMG_4862Jace Klein, with Ecosystems Services Exchange, also emphasized the importance of utilizing the right practice in the right place.

“All conservation practices have a place on the landscape. It’s a matter of fitting the right practice in the right location so as to maximize the efficiency and cost effectiveness of the practice,” stated Jace.

In combination with the Conservation Station On The Edge demonstrating the science of denitrification, Jace pointed out the scope to which each practice is capable of treating.

“If you have 40-120 acres next to a stream or creek, a saturated buffer would be the first practice we would explore. If that same sized field doesn’t outlet to a stream, then a bioreactor should be considered. However, if we are looking at multiple connections of tile draining much larger areas the most effective practice to consider would be a wetland,” explained Jace.IMG_4847

By utilizing all the pieces of the puzzle – in-field and edge of field practices – the goals of reducing the losses of nitrogen and phosphorus from our landscape are possible. We have gathered many great resources about edge of field and in-field practices on our website: www.iowalearningfarms.org. You can also visit with your local NRCS office to determine which practices are best suited for your land and discuss cost share opportunities.

Liz Juchems