Faces of Conservation: Matt Helmers

This blog post is part of the Faces of Conservation series, highlighting key contributors to ILF, offering their perspectives on the history and successes of this innovative conservation outreach program.


Matt Helmers – Iowa Learning Farms Faculty Co-adviser and Professor of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering at Iowa State University

Matthew Helmers (Christopher Gannon/Iowa State University)

What has been your role with Iowa Learning Farms?
I started working with Iowa Learning Farms in 2004 as a member of the initial team working on the water quality programming. As I got more involved in the program, I also became more energized with the potential of a small group such as ILF to make a big impact on water quality in Iowa. I moved into a faculty advisory position and have become active in helping the team implement the group’s vision through closely collaborating with program director Jacqueline Comito.

Aside from my administrative role as liaison to the university, I provide technical and engineering contributions to the water quality programming. For example, when ILF was looking to create the Conservation Station trailers back in 2009-2010, we all pitched in to come up with a better rainfall simulator than the model used previously. We felt there must be a better way to show both surface and subsurface water flow, and to simulate true field conditions. I tossed out the idea of cutting undisturbed soil blocks from fields to provide a true model of soil conditions. We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback about the authenticity of the soil samples providing more credible results. See the Rainfall Simulator in action on our YouTube channel!

How did you change the program, and how did it change you?
I don’t know whether I’ve changed the program. I love working with the team and seeing the vision turn to reality, but I mostly feel that I’ve been given a great opportunity to ride along with some amazing people.

Being a part of ILF has changed my outlook a great deal. My engineering background trained me to approach things from a technical point of view, analyzing impacts using a pragmatic and practical approach and assessing economic effects in a very strict sense. What I’ve learned in working and speaking with farmers, and listening to their concerns and questions, is that there are social and emotional issues at play that don’t fit neatly into formulae or spreadsheets.

I’ve continued to learn from team members and from farmers across the state. Field days help me to gain insight into farmers’ thought processes, broaden my understanding of farm practices and how we can better communicate best practices for improvements.


What are your fondest memories of working with ILF?
Among the many fond memories and fun adventures with ILF, I think being a part of the field days is a favorite. Time spent with teammates traveling to and from the field days is often filled with wide-ranging conversations that both entertained and helped everyone gain understanding and knowledge. And at the field days, learning from the farmers through talking with them – and listening to them – about getting practices implemented in working fields has been incredibly insightful.

Why are water quality and conservation outreach important to you and to Iowa?
As a native Iowan who grew up around agriculture, I would like Iowa to continue to have a vibrant agricultural ecosystem, but one that includes the health and stewardship of our natural resources. This is critical. We are a heavy agricultural state with a water quality problem, and the only way to address the problem is to get conservation practices implemented.

There is a need for better communication and efforts to facilitate conversations that will help farmers and others learn about what is working and how practices will have an impact for the entire state. These conversations can be one-on-one, in groups, electronic or in person, and should involve farmers, researchers and conservation professionals. Iowans need to work whole heartedly on improving our water quality.

If you could look 15 years into the future, what one thing would you like to see as a result of ILF activities?
I would like to see much more diversity across Iowa’s landscape. The diversity may come in small pieces and may be comprised of different plant varieties and farming techniques that aren’t common today, but with an eye toward sustainability and conservation, the results should help keep our natural resources in good shape.

In closing…
It is amazing that ILF has been around for 15 years and has continued to evolve. We should recognize that the program’s growth and maturity have emerged out of adapting and developing dynamic programming, actively responding to the needs of stakeholders. ILF is a world class organization driven by a creative and focused leader in Dr. Comito. We are lucky to have this team at ISU and in Iowa.


Previous Posts in Faces of Conservation series:

Faces of Conservation

Iowa Learning Farms (ILF) celebrates 15 years of service to Iowa in 2019. Building a Culture of Conservation is a team effort—farmers, landowners, researchers, and agency partners all working together to identify and implement best management practices that improve water quality and soil health while remaining profitable.

As part of this year of celebration, we are launching a new Faces of Conservation blog series. Tune in on Tuesdays, when we will be sharing stories and profiles of key contributors to ILF over the years, offering their perspectives on the history and successes of this innovative conservation outreach program.

The series kicks off tomorrow with a profile of our own cropping systems specialist Mark Licht.

Cover Crops Taking Flight

Nate Voss started out a cover crop skeptic. He’ll openly admit that.

“I’ll be honest with you, I really wasn’t sure about this whole [cover crop] thing startin’ out 6 years ago. Now we’re getting a lot better at it!”

After 6 years of cover crop experience, I think it’s safe to say he’s now a believer, sharing his cover cropping experience at an Iowa Learning Farms field day yesterday hosted by Steier Ag Aviation near Whittemore. Voss farms near LuVerne in north central Iowa and also works with Steier Ag Aviation.

Voss’s experience with cover crops includes flying on oats, and some radish, into standing crops in late August/early September.  He is also just starting to get his feet wet with cereal rye.  One of the first things he noticed with the integration of a cover crop was at harvest – “it gives you great field conditions combining into beans.”


Voss goes on to share with field day attendees all the benefits he has observed with using cover crops as part of his cropping system.

“There’s lots of different angles you can take with cover crops:

  • A lot of guys like it for erosion, keeping soil in place. In the winter when I’m driving around, my ditches are not filled with dirt like a lot of them are.
  • I personally like cover crops for holding nitrogen in place, not sending it down the creek. Maybe I can do something about the water quality challenges we face—I’d rather be proactive, get a head start on this thing.
  • After 6 years, I’m really starting to see improvements with soil structure. My soil microbiology is really firing back up!
  • Some folks also are going into cover crops for grazing.
  • My ultimate goal is I want to have something living out there all year round.”


For Voss, the integration of cover crops also served as a springboard into strip till:

“I get bored pretty easy and the wheels start turnin’… a couple beers and some pizza later [with a neighbor who was a long-time strip-tiller], and we were pulling strips out in the field.

“I think we can all acknowledge that last fall was not great.  But my best yielding corn was in the field with strip till and 5 years of cover crops.

“I loved it so much, I called my banker to buy a strip till bar!”


On the fence about taking the plunge and trying out cover crops or strip till?   Consider Voss’s top tips for success along the way:

  • Go to field days and workshops to learn. You’ve taken the first step just by being here today—opening your mind to something new.
  • Be willing to get outside your comfort zone and give it a shot. [My grandfather is my biggest critic. Now I just like to get out there and prove him wrong!]
  • Ask questions.
  • Talk to others that are also givin’ it a try. Get together over coffee. Or pizza and beers. Talk to them about their failures so you don’t make the same ones.
  • Sometimes you’re gonna question yourself along the way.
  • There are tons of great resources out there for everyone—the big guys down to little peons like me.
  • Head in to your NRCS office to learn about cost share options.
  • Weather is always an uncertainty. Think about how you can best work with Mother Nature.

Now is the time to be planning ahead for cover crop seeding this coming fall!   Check out our Iowa Learning Farms Cover Crop Resources page and YouTube channel to learn more, along with reaching out to your local ISU Extension and Outreach field agronomist and USDA-NRCS staff—they are the local “boots on the ground” ready to help you out with making conservation practices happen!

Ann Staudt

A Legacy of Conservation

Conservation is a legacy that runs generations deep with the Whitaker family. Go back 165 years, and there were Whitakers farming this same ground, now recognized as a Heritage Farm, in southeast Iowa.

As nearly 50 farmers and landowners gathered in Hillsboro earlier this week for a conservation field day, area farmer Clark Whitaker shared the importance of conservation to the family over the years, and how that has carried through to their farming operation today. His father had been a district conservationist with the Soil Conservation Service in the 1970s, brother John has been actively involved with conservation through USDA-FSA and Conservation Districts of Iowa, and today Clark is the “boots on the ground” guy making conservation happen on their land.

Clark commented, “The land needs to be cared for and maintained.  Part of that care is trying to keep the soil on the farm instead of road ditches and waterways.”

Back in the 1970s, that meant installing broadbase terraces. In the 1980s, the Whitakers’ conservation focus transitioned to no-till. Today, the Whitakers’ approach to conservation includes variable rate technology, prescription planting, cover crops, and they have also recently installed a saturated buffer to help reduce nitrate levels in drainage water.

Cover crops were the main focus at the Hillsboro field day, where Clark shared that his goals in using cover crops are two-fold: keeping the soil in place, while also raising levels of organic matter in their soils. He has experimented with cereal rye, oats, and radishes thus far.

For best results with cover crops, Clark made several recommendations to the group based on his experience in southeast Iowa:

To learn more about cover crops and how to integrate them into your farming operation, check out Cover Crop Videos and Cover Crop Resources on the Iowa Learning Farms website.

Ann Staudt

This field day was a partnership of Iowa Learning Farms, Lower Skunk Water Quality and Soil Health Initiative, and Henry County Soil and Water Conservation District.

Watkins Announced as Spencer Award Winner

We are thrilled to share the news that one of this year’s Spencer Awards for Sustainable Agriculture is being awarded to Clarinda-area farmer Seth Watkins, long-time farmer-partner and friend of Iowa Learning Farms!

The Spencer Award recognizes researchers, teachers and farmers who have contributed significantly to the environmental and economic stability of the Iowa farming community. Nominated by fellow farmer-partner Nathan Anderson, Seth Watkins is one of the most forward thinking, creative, and innovative farmers you’ll meet. He is dedicated to learning all he can about improving the water and land under his care. How he treats the land and how he gives of his time demonstrate both his conservation-focused stewardship and his incredible generosity.

Watkins’ crop and cattle enterprise, Pinhook Farm, is a little slice of paradise in the rolling hills of southwest Iowa, featuring rotational grazing, restricted wildlife areas, riparian buffers, ponds, wetlands and shallow water habitats, integrated pest management, prescribed burning, windbreak restoration, no-till, cover crops, terraces, prairie restoration/CRP, late season calving, and prairie strips. He sees no conflict between profitability and environmental sustainability.

For Watkins, conservation is a long-term investment in the land. It’s all about working in harmony with the land around him– strategic placement is key. As Seth described to a group of Emerging Farmers he hosted on his land this past August, “Sure, I could grow corn and soybeans all over the place out here, but looking at this land, it makes most sense that it’s in perennial vegetation and grazed by cattle.”

The same thing applies with prairie strips and areas of timber on his land. “I do love cows, but I really love the land.”

Watkins is a big-time conservation and systems thinking advocate, sharing that message on the local, state, and national levels. In addition to hosting a two-day Emerging Farmers retreat on his land with Iowa Learning Farms, Seth has been willing to be interviewed by a dog for the “Adventures of the Conservation Pack” video series, participated in ILF Leadership Circles and hosted both farmer field days as well as elementary school field trips on his farm. Seth teaches through example and he is kind and patient regardless of his audience. His creativity, compassion and willingness to help others make him stand out in a crowd.

Read more about the Spencer Award and this year’s winners in the news release Leopold Center at Iowa State University Presents Spencer Award for Sustainable Agriculture.

Join us in congratulating Seth – we couldn’t think of a more humble and deserving farmer!

Ann Staudt

Future Farming for the Greater Good

My name is Dawn Henderson, I am a senior in Agronomy here at ISU and this summer I am an intern with the Water Rocks! and Iowa Learning Farms programs. This opportunity has combined two of my passions: conservation agriculture and educating the public. Throughout the summer I have already had many opportunities to work with people of all ages and backgrounds in many different venues, but the message has remained the same: we must appreciate and protect what we have while we have it. In this blog post I wanted to highlight one of the more recent events I had the privilege of attending.

This past Friday, June 22nd, I and two other interns took the newest ILF Conservation Station trailer to Sioux Center, Iowa. This trailer, “On the Edge”, focuses on two of the newest edge-of-field practices farmers have the option of implementing in their fields. Saturated buffers and bioreactors are both relatively new ideas that work to reduce the levels of nitrate in our water by allowing the natural process of denitrification to take place, rather than routing all of the tile drainage water directly into ditches, streams, and waterways. The struggle is, these systems operate entirely underground, and once they are installed observation is not possible, making it difficult to understand how they operate. The On the Edge trailer is beneficial because it provides the opportunity to see what is happening below ground, from the main tile line to the stream.

At this event, hosted by Dordt College, a majority of the audience was comprised of farmers with an interest in conservation. Excellent questions were asked and encouraging conversations were had. Many questions were asked, such as, “How long do each of these practices last?” That answer is different for each structure. The saturated buffer is expected to last indefinitely, with minor upkeep on the flow control structure; the bioreactor is expected to need the woodchips refreshed every 10-15 years.

Due to the fact that both of these practices are still in their infant stages many farmers are curious, but cautious. One of the most common questions was, “How do these practices directly benefit the farmer?” This is a simple question with a difficult answer. Edge-of-field practices are meant to improve the health of our water, meaning the reductions that come from bioreactors and saturated buffers are for the greater good, not necessarily the individual. That does not mean there are no benefits to installing these practices. With the right design and vegetation, these areas could become habitat for wildlife and pollinators. In addition to benefitting wildlife, these practices are also typically installed on marginally producing lands. By taking these lands out of production and putting them into conservation, the landowner may end up saving money, in addition to bettering the environment.

These new practices show promise in the field of conservation to aid in reaching the goal of 45% nitrate reduction, put into place with Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Edge-of-field practices are intended to be used in concurrence with in-field practices, such as no-till and cover crops. By combining all of these practices, nutrient transport and soil erosion can be reduced by a significant amount, allowing Iowa to achieve the goal of reducing our nutrient contribution by 45%.

Based on the level of interest and support I have seen at multiple events with this new trailer, I am hopeful that these two new practices will find a firm place in our Iowan farming culture in the future.

Dawn Henderson

Dawn Henderson is a senior in Agronomy, participating in the 2018 Water Resources Internship Program at Iowa State University. She is a graduate of Marcus-Meriden-Cleghorn Senior High School in northwest Iowa. 

Field Day Recap: Management Matters with Cover Crops!

Cover crops and conservation leases were the theme of an Iowa Learning Farms Women Landowners Cover Crop Workshop held in Marshalltown on June 7.  While cover crops offer numerous benefits out on the landscape, one common theme emerged clearly from the workshop presentations and discussion  — it all comes down to active management when integrating a cover crop.

Allen Burt, who farms 3 miles north of Marshalltown, kicked off the workshop by sharing his experience with cover crops and some of his key management considerations.

He emphasized, “Start with something easy.”  In Burt’s playbook, that means getting oats out on soybean ground as soon as you can in September (drill or broadcast), let them winterkill, and then plant corn into that in the spring.

On corn ground, he suggests starting with cereal rye and a little bit of starter fertilizer (something like a 10-23-23 mix) after the corn is harvested, ideally in early October. The cereal rye will survive over the winter, and then Burt recommends terminating in the spring with glyphosate.

Burt’s recommendations align nicely with the Iowa Learning Farms’ findings, as well, shared at the workshop by Liz Juchems, Conservation Outreach Specialist.

Juchems also shared findings about yield impacts following cover crops. Farmer-partners working with cereal rye reported that in 59 of 63 site-years, strips with cover crops were yield neutral compared to strips without a cover crop – no negative impact on corn and soybean yields. The only significant yield declines were in the first two “learning” years of this long-term study, when producers faced challenges regarding spring termination and planter adjustments to accommodate the additional residue from the cover crop. Over time, those management challenges were overcome to realize cover crop success.

Interwoven with the presentations was an earthworm midden counting hands-on demonstration, as well as lively discussion and dialogue from the 25 people in attendance, including area landowners, operators, and conservation/ag professionals.

One producer in attendance brought up, “The #1 problem in farming today is soil erosion.”  Another producer added to that, commenting that a close second in terms of challenges today is the perception of “This is the way we’ve always done it,” acknowledging there can be some resistance to new practices like cover crops, despite the benefits to reducing erosion, benefitting soil structure, etc.

Charles Brown, Farm Management Specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, noted, “When you talk about using cover crops, it’s a different management practice – you can’t just do the same thing you’ve always done.”  He shared with the group his own experience with growing cover crops, as well as numerous suggestions for landowners and operators to work together to integrate cover crops into a written conservation lease.

Farmer Allen Burt emphasized, “As a producer, my message for you is, ‘Get out there and try it!  If you have the right attitude, you can do it! … Cover crops are a small investment to make things better in the long run.”

Ann Staudt

This workshop was put on as a partnership of Iowa Learning Farms and Marshall Co. Farm Bureau.