Reducing Nutrient Losses While Building Iowa’s Soils and Economy

Today’s guest post is by Marty Adkins, Assistant State Conservationist for Iowa Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), a member of the Iowa Learning Farms Steering Committee.

Iowa’s soils are globally precious and unique. These soils are the cornerstone of a vibrant and productive farming sector and make Iowa’s overall economy strong.  Protecting and building the productive capacity of Iowa’s soils is essential to Iowa’s future.  Happily, many of the same practices that help protect and build soils also have a positive impact on water quality.  This is especially true of cover crops, crop rotations that include small grains and forages, and no-tillage and strip-tillage planting.

Marty Adkins and his other passion in life; playing the ukulele.

The widespread adoption of cover crops will require increased availability of seed and seeding equipment.  There are new business opportunities related to the growing, cleaning, transportation, sales and custom planting of cover crop seed.  Iowa’s farm machinery industry can continue to design, build, sell and service equipment needed for cover crop seeding and management, and increased adoption of no-till and strip-till.

There are other farm business opportunities to consider when it comes to conservation farming practices.  Cover crops and extended rotations could provide more grazing for more livestock in more places, with more small-town businesses selling all needed goods and services to livestock farms.

In addition to increased economic activity in the farm and industrial sectors, there are other economic benefits to be gained from conservation practices.  An Iowa countryside that is green nearly all year-round, with the land covered and protected, would be a more attractive landscape for Iowa residents, and could attract visitors and new entrepreneurs.

Economic research shows that cleaner streams and lakes result in increased recreational opportunities (swimming, canoeing, boating, and fishing) and more tourism to towns and cities associated with these amenities.  More dollars stay in Iowa when Iowans vacation and recreate within the state.

The environmental benefits associated with better soil management are well documented.  But improved soil management can also contribute to Iowa’s economic well-being, now and long into the future.

~Marty Adkins

Suburban “City Girl” Perspectives on Rainfall and Soil Conservation

NOTE: Today’s guest blog post was written by water resources student intern Kate Sanocki! Originally hailing from Hudson, Wisconsin, outside the Twin Cities, Kate will be starting her sophomore year in Biological Systems Engineering at Iowa State University.

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From the time I was a toddler I preferred spending the majority of my time outdoors and loved observing nature, organisms and the ecosystems that comprised it. This passion drove me to become involved in the Young Naturalist Club. In our weekly meetings, we would complete various projects such as planting trees, building bird feeders or studying different species of plants in the area.

However, one project was particularly rewarding to me.  A steep hill located near our middle school parking lot presented a challenge during heavy rainfalls resulting in deep ruts, erosion and topsoil washing onto the impervious asphalt parking lot. Seeing a need to prevent future erosion, the Young Naturalist Club was given a $460 budget to help design and install a rain garden. We researched plants that would be able to withstand intense bouts of rainwater runoff but also prosper during dry times. This process allowed me to become very familiar with conservation practices that could be implemented in urban locations.

While I have a good level of understanding of urban conservation practices, as a suburban “city girl,” this internship with Iowa Learning Farms/Water Rocks! has really opened my eyes to various agricultural practices. For example, while I traveled back and forth from Hudson, Wisconsin to Iowa State University last year as a college freshman, I never really looked beyond the fact that there were plants growing in the fields, let alone what type they were or even the type of conservation practices being implemented.

This summer internship has changed my whole perspective on agriculture! Last Friday when I was heading home for Memorial Day weekend, I found myself searching the numerous fields from the highway as I drove past and realized I was looking to see what type of tillage was lining the fields. I saw numerous tillage practices such as intense tillage, conservation tillage and no till. Most of Iowa’s cropland implements conservation tillage, while no till is used on about 25% of Iowa’s cropland.

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A variety of tillage practices can be found across the Midwestern landscape… shown here from top to bottom are no tillage, strip tillage (a form of conservation tillage), and intense tillage.

Through my internship, I learned that tillage practices can greatly affect water quality, which is something I hadn’t really thought about before. I learned that leaving plant material on the field can dramatically reduce the amount of sediment runoff because it protects the soil like armor would. When a raindrop hits the ground it acts like a person cannon-balling into a pool; it strikes the ground and the impact causes soil to be knocked loose and carried away with the water.

RainfallSimulatorWBorderTo demonstrate this we travel around the state of Iowa and use a special machine called the Rainfall Simulator (part of the Conservation Station) where community members can see what happens to soil and water quality in various urban and rural settings.

While presenting a module on soil conservation to a group of 3rd graders at Swan Lake State Park, the class eagerly watched as the jars on the Rainfall Simulator started to fill up. A boy in the front row raised his hand and said the water coming from the no till plot seemed really clean compared to the water from the two tillage plots. In response, one of his peers blurted out that the plots containing no till and cover crops were clean because there wasn’t any soil moving out of the plots.

I was excited to see that the concept we had been teaching them had really sunk in. And their teacher, who had grown up on a farm, interjected and said, “I bet you guys are going to see a lot more of these practices on cropland in the future…” as she pointed to the no till and cover crop trays, “..as we learn more about conservation, we’re getting smarter about conserving our resources.”

The quantity of information I have learned from this program just in the past three weeks is incredible. I look forward to continuing to learn and teach others about conservation. I am excited to see what the rest of the summer will bring. Who knows, maybe there really is some “country” in this “city girl.”

Kate Sanocki

 

 

Cover Crops: Taking a Closer Look at Legumes

In the previous weeks, we’ve showcased grasses and brassicas as great options for cover crops that can be readily integrated into corn and soybean cropping systems across Iowa. Now it’s time to show some love to the legumes!

Last month, Liz shared the Top 10 Cover Crops for Iowa in 2016 identified by plant scientists, agronomists, and other researchers focused on cover crops, as well as you, our blog readers. Two of the top ten cover crops from this poll are legumes: red clover and hairy vetch.

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What makes the legumes special, and why consider them as potential winter cover crops in your farming operation? The biggest difference between legumes and the other (non-leguminous) cover crops is their ability to fix nitrogen. Particular bacteria in the soil (rhizobium species) form nodules on the roots of the legume plant. It’s a natural symbiotic relationship that allows for the capture of nitrogen from the atmosphere (N2 gas) and conversion of this nitrogen to forms that are plant usable. This process is referred to as biological nitrogen fixation.

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A very common example of this nitrogen fixation process happens in our soybean fields. The reason nitrogen fertilizer historically has not been added to soybean crops is because they are able to pull the nitrogen they need from the atmosphere as well as from mineralized nitrogen in the soil.

LegumesKnowing that legumes have the potential to add nitrogen back into the soil, this offers another “tool in the toolbox” when it comes to cover crops!  Hairy vetch and red clover were mentioned above, but there are a number of other legume cover crops to consider as well, including common vetch, crimson clover, white clover, kura clover, sweet clover, cow peas, winter lentils, and alfalfa.

When it comes to getting your cover crop planted in the fall, legumes and brassicas need more heat units than small grains to be effective. Thus, timely planting is of the essence!  In the Cover Crops: A Guide for Iowa Producers recommendations from USDA-NRCS, legumes should optimally be seeded between August 1 – September 15.

Seeding rates vary based on the specific legume you’re using – check out Practical Farmers of Iowa’s Cover Crop Recommendations and the Midwest Cover Crops Council webpage, which includes information on a variety of cover crop research trials as well a robust cover crop selector tool.

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Do legume cover crops survive over the winter? It depends – it depends on the intensity of the winter, when the legume cover crop was planted, fall weather conditions (how much fall cover crop growth was attained?), and where geographically you are located in the state! From the Iowa Learning Farms’ perspective, the only experience we’ve had with legumes overwintering in Iowa came from one of our farmer-partners in the southern part of the state, and that was only described as being moderately successful.

Legumes on their own can offer many benefits, including fixing atmospheric nitrogen, providing a nitrogen source for the soil to be used by future crops, as well as protection from soil erosion along with building soil structure and organic matter. However, this is ultimately dependent upon how much growth is achieved, which can be a big challenge – weed control abilities are less, and legumes do not increase soil organic matter as much as other cover crops.

However, legumes can be used in a cover crop mixture with grasses or brassicas, which offers the ability to harness some of the benefits of different types of cover crops. From SARE’s Managing Cover Crops Profitably: Third Edition, “Mixtures of legume and grass cover crops combine the benefits of both, including biomass production, N scavenging and additions to the system, as well as weed and erosion control.”

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We are using one legume, hairy vetch, as part of our USDA-NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant investigating cover crop mixtures. It is being utilized in a three species grass-brassica-legume mixture, including oats, radish, and hairy vetch (this specific mixture is seeded in the fall following soybeans). All three species can be seen distinctly in the above photograph from November 2015; the hairy vetch is the small plant with fern-like leaves in the foreground.

Fall 2015 offered fantastic conditions for cover crop growth, including hairy vetch, so it will be interesting to see what impact that has as we carry out soil testing as well as look at the nitrate-nitrogen data in the spring. Will there be observable differences between the single species plots (containing oats only) compared to those with a mixture of oats, radish, and hairy vetch? Stay tuned…

Additional Cover Crop Resources:
Cover Crops in Iowa: A Quick Guide (Iowa Learning Farms)
Cover Crops: A Guide for Iowa Producers (USDA-NRCS)
Cover Crop Recommendations (Practical Farmers of Iowa)
Cover Crop Business Directory (Practical Farmers of Iowa)
Overview of Legume Cover Crops (SARE)
Managing Cover Crops Profitably: Third Edition

Ann Staudt

Kicking off 2016 with #1NewThingForWater

Last year, Laura Krouse of Abbe Hills Farm challenged us to take leadership on a campaign to encourage all Iowans to do one new thing for water that year. Here at Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks!, we thought it was a great idea and launched the #1NewThingForWater campaign. Numerous farmers, urban folks and students participated.

Here are a few of the #1newthingforwater pledges that were shared over the course of 2015…

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It was a good beginning but there is so much more work to do! Cleaner water comes down to individual choices. Those choices can be larger in scale like those faced by farmers and agricultural landowners, or smaller in scale like those faced by an urban 6th grade student pledging to take shorter showers (let’s put it in perspective — that is a large commitment for a 6th grader!).

Several years ago, I read this compelling book by Donald Miller called Blue Like Jazz. Early in the book, he writes about changing the world and his insight has stayed with me. In the beginning of the book, he questions whether we can actually change the world. He concludes that we can, but only if we realize that we are the problem:

“The problem is not a certain type of legislation or even certain politicians; the problem is the same that it has always been. I am the problem. I think every conscious person…has a moment where he stops blaming the problems in the world on group think, on humanity and authority, and starts to face himself.”

Whenever I want to think that something is someone else’s problem to solve or fix, I remember what Miller wrote. I try to see how I am the problem and then I try to do what I can do. My #1newthingforwater in 2016 is to get more native grasses in my yard, particularly where the soil is eroding.

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What is your one new thing this year?

There are plenty of suggestions out there of what you can do: shaping and seeding a wider waterway, avoiding fall tillage, planting a native tree, increasing the amount of residue left in the field, waiting until it thaws to spread manure, seeding down a headland, cutting lawn fertilizer usage in half, putting native plantings in your yard, picking up pet waste, keeping pollutants out of stormwater.  As Laura urged us last year, you decide what you can do and then get it accomplished in 2016!

1NewThingForWaterLogo(angle)Now is the time to make your pledge to water – post to Facebook and/or Twitter using the hashtag #1newthingforwater, or send us your pledge via email and we’ll share it with the world. Let’s get an avalanche of commitment across the state. Let’s get every county and every city involved. From farmers to school children, there is something everyone can do!

When you have done your new thing this year, share it. Post it to Facebook, Twitter (using hashtag #1newthingforwater) and other social media accounts. Tell your friends and neighbors. Show others what you are doing and encourage them to do something as well. Get everyone you know involved in the challenge. Let’s not leave it to others to do.

As Pierre Teilhard De Chardin wrote…

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Jacqueline Comito

It’s beginning to look a lot like… April?

Iowa received an impressive amount of rainfall over the past weekend. In fact it was a record-breaking amount in many areas. The highest amount of rainfall was near my hometown of Goldfield, which received over 7 inches in 48 hours. If you thought we were in April, you wouldn’t be alone. December has been one of the warmest and wettest on record, and we are only halfway through the month.

Rainfall totals over the weekend.

Rainfall totals over the weekend.

Yesterday morning on my commute to Ames, I decided to pull over to snap a couple of photos. One was of a field that had been tilled with no cover crops, the other had cover crops. Keep in mind that these fields were right across from each other.

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Now, I’m not saying all fields with cover crops avoided the wrath of the storm. I am sure some fields flooded no matter what. But, it’s hard to imagine that the cover crops didn’t give those fields an advantage.

Iowa’s weather is unpredictable. We all joke about it. Flood warnings in December are just the latest. It’s becoming more and more clear that cover crops are the counter to that. The evidence is out there, just look around. Adding a cover crop is adding predictability to your farm.

~Nathan

ILF Webinar Recap: talking Rivers and River Restoration!

Did you miss our latest webinar? Good news: all the Iowa Learning Farms webinars are available to watch (or to re-watch) here.

The latest webinar was a great one!  Rosalyn Lehman of Iowa Rivers Revival and the Iowa DNR’s River Programs Coordinator Nate Hoogeveen discuss rivers and river restoration.

Rosalyn and Nate are full of interesting information and bring with them photographs that do a fantastic job depicting the conditions and practices that Rosalyn and Nate describe.  By the end of this webinar, you’ll feel like you’ve traveled quite a few waterways and gained a vivid understanding of the challenges facing our rivers as well as the effort involved in restoring them.Interstate 94 Protection- After

Watch Rosalyn and Nate today! Any other webinars you missed? Take a look at the archive and see what you might be missing.

-Ben Schrag

Guest Post: River Restoration

Rosalyn Lehman, executive director of Iowa Rivers Revival, is our guest blogger.
She offers solutions to restoring stream banks on Iowa’s rivers and streams.
Watch her Oct. 21 webinar live at 1 p.m. by logging on at: https://connect.extension.iastate.edu/ilf/

You can watch the recorded webinar after Oct. 21 by clicking the link
on the ILF webinar archive page.

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How can I fix my eroding streambank?

Protecting the condition of Iowa’s soil and streams are essential for a thriving economy, healthy environment, and quality of life experiences. Natural river restoration practices are an affordable and practical solution for addressing streambank erosion across Iowa.

Eroding streambanks can mean the loss of crop buffer areas, productive farmland, and local infrastructure (i.e. bridges, roads, trails), as well as a major contributor of sediment and nutrients to our water. Standard engineering practices for keeping streambanks in place often calls for extensive armoring using riprap revetments or other expensive approaches with questionable long-term results. “Softscape” restoration approaches can enhance streambank stability at a fraction of the cost. Understanding river dynamics can lead to much more cost-effective, sustainable, and natural results while protecting land and infrastructure, improving water quality, reducing flood effects and enhancing fish and wildlife.

Natural river restoration is complex and starts with asking what a river would do naturally. Iowa Rivers Revival advocates for an Iowa River Restoration Program that would provide guidelines, criteria, cost-share, training, and the expertise necessary for protecting Iowa’s landscape, streambanks and river ways. Currently, Iowa lacks these resources to offer natural river restoration opportunities to landowners and communities across the state.

Natural river restoration provides many benefits to landowners and the surrounding community. It:

  • Offers affordable and sustainable options to reduce streambank erosion.
  • Keeps productive cropland and stream buffers in place.
  • Protects local infrastructure such as bridges and roads from erosion and flooding, and reduces taxpayer expense to repair, replace and maintain.
  • Improves water quality by reducing sediment and nutrient loads into the stream.
  • Reduces flooding and flood effects.
  • Enhances aquatic and riparian wildlife habitat and ecosystem.
  • Improves river recreation, fishing, and hunting – boosting local economies and providing public health and quality of life.
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Streambank before “softscape” restoration.

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The same streambank after restoration.

Iowa Rivers Revival is a non-profit, statewide organization dedicated to river education and advocacy. IRR is working with Iowa’s towns, policy leaders and river lovers to restore our waterways as beautiful, safe places to for residents and visitors to enjoy, work and recreate.

Helpful links:
River restoration background:  http://iowarivers.org/legislative/river-restoration/
River restoration fact sheet:  http://iowarivers.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/River-Restoration-web.pdf
River basics fact sheet:  http://iowarivers.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/IRR_River-Basics-web.pdf
Des Moines Register op-ed (March 1, 2013):  A Call to Iowa to Revive Our Rivers

 

Contact: Rosalyn Lehman, executive director, Iowa Rivers Revival, rlehman@iowarivers.org; 515.724.4093