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…



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.




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…


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.



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.


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:

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

Project AWARE 2010 025

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.
Interstate 94 protection-before

Streambank before “softscape” restoration.

Interstate 94 Protection- After

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:
River restoration fact sheet:
River basics fact sheet:
Des Moines Register op-ed (March 1, 2013):  A Call to Iowa to Revive Our Rivers


Contact: Rosalyn Lehman, executive director, Iowa Rivers Revival,; 515.724.4093

Save the Dates! Great Learning Opportunities Available in 2016

Practical Farmers of Iowa Annual Conference Jan. 22-23, Ames

PFI logo.stacked.tag.4c.outThe two-day conference at the Iowa State Center in Ames is a opportunity for farmer-to-farmer learning, networking and grassroots solutions to on-farm challenges for a more diverse, sustainable agricultural landscape.  The conference is open to everyone and attracts farmers of all sorts, sizes, systems and enterprises, as well as non-farmers interested in knowing more about how their food is grown and building relationships between those who work the land and those who rely on their labors.

Be sure to check out the two ILF-sponsored sessions on Sat. January 23:

Nitrogen – important soil nutrient or water quality challenge?

To help better understand the movement of nitrogen, Mike Castellano will discuss the soil nitrogen cycle.  Matt Helmers will also highlight ongoing agricultural drainage and nitrate loss studies.  Washington County farmer, Rob Stout will share information about his use of cover crops and bioreactor to manage nitrates on his farm.

Top 10 Cover Crop Species for Iowa – 2016 Edition

There are a lot of factors that go into cover crop species selection and many species options to choose from. A panel of Iowa farmers and researchers will discuss the “Top 10 Iowa Cover Crops – 2016 Edition” and share their experiences of which ones they recommend and which they would avoid.  Panelists include: Meaghan Anderson (ISUEO Field Agronomist), Ajay Nair (ISUEO Horticulture Specialist), Paul Ackley (Taylor County crop and livestock farmer), and Laura Krouse (Linn County vegetable farmer)

Watch for registration information and additional details here!

Soil Health Conference Feb. 2-3, Ames

Understanding soil health is essential for enhancing food security, providing resiliency to climate variability, protecting environmental quality, and preventing soil degradation for soil security.

During the two-day conference, you will be provided with research-based information by well-known and established scientists from Land-grant Universities, the USDA, and industry. Conference topics will cover a wide range of interests to farmers, agronomist, students, policy makers and the general public. Information provided by speakers during this conference will be useful decision-making resources on how to best manage our soils to build healthy soil for healthy landscapes, communities and economies.

The goal of this conference is to increase awareness and understanding of soil health as pivotal to sustainable agriculture and environmental quality in Iowa and the Midwest. Healthy soils create healthy landscapes, which support healthy communities. This conference is a collaborative effort between Iowa State University Extension and the USDA, Natural Resource Conservation Service.

We hope to see you at the Scheman Building in Ames for this great conference February 2-3, 2016.

Click the image below to learn more and get registered today!Soil Health Confernce-Save this Date_blog

Liz Juchems


From JSWC: Conservation Tillage is not Conservation Agriculture

The Journal of Soil and Water Conservation Sept/Oct 2015 issue published the story “Conservation Tillage is not Conservation Agriculture.” The author, Don C. Reicosky, tries to clean up the gray area of what is considered conservation tillage. He explains the differences in terminology and outcomes of tillage practices from the moldboard plow to no-till, complete with charts and diagrams.

Corn_little-residue“The various practices described as “conservation tillage” have led to terminology confusion. Conservation tillage [CT] is often confused with no-till or variants of CT described in vague terms, such as such as minimum tillage, mulch tillage, ridge tillage, strip tillage, and reduced tillage, where planting is achieved on specially prepared surfaces with various amounts of crop residue cover.

…The significant soil loss from the CT treatments suggests that, despite the accepted 30% residue cover, many types of CT do not adequately protect the soil from raindrop impact and are not sustainable.

…The phrase “conservation tillage” has become, at times, an oxymoron; it sends a mixed and confusing message and gives a misguided sense of entitlement and conservation because of very “loose limits” on the definition of soil disturbance and residue management. Conservation is a word to be respected, revered, and used to describe agriculture, not tillage.”

Reicosky goes on to explain Conservation Agriculture:

39-2_no-till“The definition of CA incorporates system concepts based on three key principles: (1) continuous residue cover on the soil surface; (2) continuous minimum soil disturbance (no-tillage); and (3) diverse crop rotations and cover crop mixes.

…True conservation is more about plant C (residue) management than soil management.

…Without tillage, there are more environmental benefits accrued with fewer input costs over time. Many farmers are finding the hand-in-hand environmental and economic benefits of this systems approach for food security.”

Read the article and locate the tillage practice in the story’s accompanying graphics that you are doing. Are you following the best practices to reduce soil erosion and build organic matter?

— Carol Brown

Articles from different North American regions offer same advice for soil health

Two articles from publications in vastly different agricultural regions—Canada and Mississippi—discuss the same issues that we face here, in between these geographical areas. Both articles contain excellent reasons why conservation practices are worth doing no matter where you live.

Up North

ILF Juchems 068In the article “Where Water Leaves the Farm,” published in Country Guide (“Canada’s oldest farm publication”), retired farmer Don Lobb offers his point of view on agricultural drainage. This story has a lot of data for the Lake Erie area, but the information on the science of soil health is the same for Iowa—everywhere actually.

“The modern role of subsurface cropland drainage (tile drainage) is much different,” says Lobb. “It’s root-zone soil moisture management. We want a favourable balance of air and water in the root zone, while also maintaining water at the base of the root zone to supply water during dry periods.”

Lobb also gives great reasons how tillage damages soil quality:

“Tilled soils have little or no soil aggregation, and clay soils are almost always compacted,” says Lobb. “With these conditions, subsurface drains can then contribute little to reduce run-off of water sediment and contaminants,” he continues. “When tillage-degraded soil cracks, water easily reaches subsurface drains. This does lead to water degradation in drains and outlet channels, and is really the outcome of bad soil management, not the use of subsurface drains.”

Down South

In the article “Improving Water Use Efficiency Starts With Caring for the Soil,” published in Delta Farm Press, the scarcity of water to nourish crops in Mississippi magnifies the issue of water quality.

“Here in the Mississippi Hills we have to make the most of the water we receive as rainfall during the winter months as well as during the growing season. Very few of the farmers in this region have the capability to provide supplemental water to their crops, so our efforts to increase water use efficiency are not optional but necessary.”

Again, healthy soil is of highest importance for success:

“…we have been forced to learn every practice that can allow our soils to store as much water as possible and that will allow our crops to extract and use as much of that stored water as possible. The strategies involved in this program begin with the soil and include the standard practices of soil fertility, such as liming and fertilizing according to current soil tests, and improving the quality of the soil to raise organic matter levels and increase the activity of beneficial soil organisms such as mycorrhizae and earthworms.”

DSCN9201The two articles have great points, written in plain English, on improving soil health through no-till, cover crops, and allowing time for these practices to take effect.

Although they focus on land far from us, there are many points that we can apply to Iowa farmland.

— Carol Brown

Cover Crop Seeding Techniques: Drilling


Farmer partner Rick Juchems drilling cereal rye following soybean harvest.


Another popular method for seeding cover crops is by drilling or planting them after harvest.  In fact, the majority of the farmer partners in our long term rye cover crop study choose to drill the rye strips, and their additional cover crops acres, following the harvest of corn or soybeans.



Drilling provides uniform seeding depth and excellent seed to soil contact.

Drilling cover crops allows for uniform seeding depth, good seed to soil contact for germination, higher consistency in the stand and often requires a lower seeding rate (i.e. lower overall seed cost) when compared to overseeding, broadcast or aerial application.

Similar to the other seeding methods, weather can prove to be a significant challenge.  Because the seeding is completed after crop harvest, the growing season length following a corn/soybean rotation is fairly short especially if an early frost occurs.  Cereal rye or other overwintering species are a potential better fit for drilling cover crops as they are more tolerant of cold than non-overwintering species that may only have a few growing degree days in the fall before they are terminated.


Juchems drilling cover crops following corn harvest.

Timing can also prove to be a significant challenge for corn/soybean rotations.  Ideally, the drill or planter is following the combine to get the cover crops seeded as soon as the grain crop is removed.  For many farmers short on labor, this can prevent this seeding method from being effective.  However, if the previous crop is a shorter season variety, small grain or seed grain crop, the window for getting the cover crop seeded after harvest is much larger.

Farmer partner Mark Pokorny shows the grass seed drill he borrows from the Tama County Soil and Water Conservation District to seed his cover crops. Photo Credit: Practical Farmers of Iowa.

Access to a drill can be a limitation for some farmers, but some Soil and Water Conservation Districts have purchased grain drills that are available to rent for cover crop seeding in the fall.  Wright and Tama counties both have grain drills available for rental and Jasper County is exploring the option.  Check with your local or neighboring county office to see if they have a drill available.


The Iowa Learning Farms and Practical Farmers of Iowa have partnered with Hagie Manufacturing near Clarion, the ISU North Central Research Farm in Kanawha and Tim Smith near Eagle Grove to compare different seeding methods including overseeding above and below canopy and drilling post harvest.  We are in year two of the seeding and will be collecting fall and spring biomass and crop yields from the sites to measure the effectiveness of the different seeding methods.

The Iowa Learning Farms has also created a downloadable Excel Cover Crop Cost Calculator tool to help calculate and compare the cost of drilling or aerial seeding cover crops. The tool calculates the total cost of using the cover crop including seed, application, and chemical termination. You can use the calculator for a single cover crop species or up to six species in a mixture. The tool calculates the cost of drilling and aerial application for easy comparison.

To use the calculator, download and open the Excel file (Microsoft Excel software must be installed on your computer in order to use the file). Any cell that is shaded in yellow can have a value inserted including the cost of the seed in $/lb, and the cost of application.

Liz Juchems

Cover Crop Seeding Techniques: Broadcast Seeding

Cover crop seeding season is upon us and the decision of how to seed them is an important one to consider.

This post is part two of our series on cover crop seeding techniques.  In Part One: Overseeding, Ann discussed the importance of getting the cover crops seeded into standing corn and soybeans due to the short growing season if planted after harvest. Broadcast seeding is another way to get the cover crop seeds in the field earlier to extend the growing season in the fall.

Between August 25 and September 4, the Iowa Learning Farms and Practical Farmers of Iowa traveled the state to hand broadcast seed cover crops and collect water samples. This is the third seeding season for these plots at six ISU Farmer Association Research Farms.  The plots are part of a National Conservation Innovation Grant project comparing cover crop mixtures and single species vs. no cover crop check strips and the impact the treatments may have on soil and water quality as well as crop yields.

Before we headed to the field, a seed packet for each row was weighed out and labeled.  The goal is to seed one million seeds per acre, so the seed packet weight is calculated based on the plot size and the cover crop species (or mixture) being used. Each plot is 50 feet in length. The sites vary in plot width – 6 rows, 8 rows or 12 rows.  The packets are bundled together for each plot for easy access in the field.  They are then placed in a backpack destined for the field.


Once we reach the plot and double-check the map, we prepare to seed.  The packet bundle is loaded into a tool pouch and the seeder takes the end of the tape measure.  Ripping off one corner of the packet, the seeder begins to walk backwards down the row, sprinkling out seeds as he/she goes.  At the end of the 50ft, the seeder switches out for a new packet and returns down the next row, as shown in the photos below.




Seeding cover crops into standing soybeans at the Northeast Research Farm near Nashua on September 4, 2015.




The process is repeated in the corn plots until all the seed packets have been dispensed.  Below is a video of seeding in the corn plots at the Southeast Research Farm near Crawfordsville on September 3, 2015.


If you are interested in establishing a small test plot, we have a Test Strip Calculator Tool available to help. The cover crop test strip seeding rate calculator allows the user to input the dimensions of the plot, select the seeding method, and choose from 14 cover crop options.  The tool automatically calculates the amount of total seed needed based on the plot size and reports the seeding rate per row for easy measurements. The calculations are based on recommended seeding rates from the Midwest Cover Crops Council Cover Crop Decision Tool.

Liz Juchems


For more information about this cover crop mixtures project check out our previous posts about the project:

To Mix or Not to Mix My Cover Crop Species

It’s Alive!

Adventures in Soil Sampling

Spring Field Work is Under Way

Spring Cover Crop Biomass Sampling

Behind the Scenes: Water Quality Monitoring

Friday Photos: Cover Crops Thriving!

Another Month of Growth…

Cover Crop Sampling with Practical Farmers of Iowa

Goin’ Green…

A Cover Crop Snapshot

I Spy in the Rye…

Guest Blog: Behind the Scenes with Water Sampling, Part I


The State Fair is Shuffling!

The Iowa State Fair is under way and things are wild down here at Farm Bureau Park! With 8 days under our belts we have talked to over 6,200 people! When I say talked to, I don’t mean a “Hello, how are you?” I don’t mean a “The weather is nice today, isn’t it?” I am talking about a complete, fun, and interactive water quality lesson.

You think the poo shuffle is easy? Think again! We still have a pile of grand prizes ready to be won.

You think the poo shuffle is easy? Think again! We still have a pile of grand prizes ready to be won.

First, there is an introduction to watersheds and how water moves, then you get to see erosion and runoff in real time with the rainfall machine, and then the cherry-on-top… the world famous, one-of-a-kind, poo shuffle!

If you haven’t been to the Iowa State Fair yet, you still have time to come visit. If you have been to the fair and decided not to visit, well then you may have to purchase another ticket. Moments where you get to push dog poo on a shuffleboard puck don’t just come around every day!

In all seriousness, the Water Rocks! Conservation Station is the premier stop for local water quality education and fun.

Think you can do better? If you do, we will give you your very own piece of poo!

Think you can do better? If you do, we will give you your very own piece of poo!

The Iowa State Fair is shuffling and you have 3 days to do the same! See you at the fair!

We are located at the southwest corner of Farm Bureau Park, just east of the Varied Industries Building.