Bioreactors, Birds and Butterflies – Oh My!

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On Thursday Rob Stout hosted a bioreactor and monarch field day at his farm near Washington, IA. After dinner, attendees got a chance to check out Iowa Learning Farms’ Conservation Station “On the Edge” trailer to see how saturated buffers and bioreactors look and work underground. After the trailer demonstration we all headed out to Stout’s bioreactor.

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Rob Stout addresses field day attendees at his bioreactor site

Stout had his bioreactor installed in 2014 thanks to cost share funds available through the West Fork Crooked Creek Water Quality and Soil Health Initiative. The bioreactor is 100′ x 30′ with an 8″ tile and drains about 68 acres. Water quality monitoring done at the inlet and outlet of the bioreactor over the last 5 years has shown that the bioreactor has been effective at reducing the nitrate load. Average nitrate removal has been around 90% for August – October, with slightly lower amounts removed (~43 – 83%) in April – July. Check out the installation video here to see how the bioreactor was built! Stout explained that the monitoring has also shown a decrease in the nitrate loads at the inlet of the bioreactor over the 5 years it’s been installed, due to changes he’s made in his nitrogen management (splitting up applications) and likely also related to his use of cover crops.

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Attendees also heard from Taylor Shirley, an Iowa State University Graduate Research Assistant in the department of Natural Resources Ecology and Management. Shirley is working on a research project in the Washington area related to pheasants, quail and their habitat. She described the methods used for tracking and monitoring the birds, as well as biomass measurements and vegetation surveys to analyze how the birds are using cover crops and if they are using them for nesting. One unique finding that Shirley mentioned was an Upland Sandpiper nest found in cover crops when they were conducting nest searching.

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The evening wrapped up with Holly Shutt, from Pheasants Forever, discussing monarch butterflies and monarch habitat. She explained the monarch lifecycle and the importance of milkweed being available for monarchs since it provides the only food that they can eat during their caterpillar stage. After seeing the lowest recorded monarch populations around 2012-2013, a lot of work has been done to educate the public about the importance of monarch habitat – not just milkweed, but also other flowering plants that they can get nectar from. Although there has been progress made, there is still a lot of work to be done! Stout’s bioreactor area is planted with a pollinator habitat seed mix and Shutt explained some of the basics of seeding and management for those interested in establishing their own pollinator habitat.

If you’re interested in attending an Iowa Learning Farms field day, check out our events page to see if there will be one in your area!

Hilary Pierce

Conservation Practice Showcase Showdown

Who would have thought that the best time of year to catch a field day would be in the beginning of August? The temperature when we started was in the low 80’s and by the time we finished it was in the mid 60’s. No bugs, no humidity… perfect. The turnout was also fantastic with over 60 in attendance.

DSC_2170The event was held at the Iowa State University Uthe Farm near Madrid, in partnership with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, and Iowa State University Research and Demonstration Farms. Attendees had the opportunity to tour four conservation practices installed at the farm.

Saturated Buffers

Tom Isenhart, ISU Natural Resource Ecology and Management Professor kicked things off. He spoke about the origins of the saturated buffer practice and how incredibly effective they are at removing nitrates from the water.

“We raise the water table so that the water soaks into the black soil, where all the microbes are. We are sending water into the stream that is much cleaner than when we received it.” ~Tom Isenhart

An attendee asks, “Is that why they are called saturated buffers?” Tom replies, “Exactly!”

Bioreactors

Michelle Soupir, ISU Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering Associate Professor, and Natasha Hoover, ISU Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering Research Associate, led the discussion on bioreactors. They talked about installation, costs and how they are experimenting with corn cob bioreactors.

“We have some pilot scale bioreactors that have been replaced with corn cobs. We know they work better, but there are still design questions about how long they last.” ~Michelle Soupir

They took a sample and used a nitrate test strip at the inlet and outlet of the bioreactor to see how effective it was at removing nitrate from the water. The results were quick – 25ppm at the inlet and 0ppm at the outlet.

Oxbows

Adam Janke, ISU Natural Resource Ecology and Management Assistant Professor and Extension Wildlife Specialist, and Sean McCoy, Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship Environmental Specialist, talked about how important oxbows are to water quality as well as habitat.

“Oxbows are an attempt to slow the water down to allow denitrification to take place. However, there is a secondary benefit to oxbows and that is the aesthetics and the wildlife.” ~Adam Janke

When asked what his dream species would be in the oxbow, Janke replied that it would probably be the Topeka Shiner.

Pollinator Habitat

As the sun began to set, Seth Appelgate with ISU Monarch Research Team, spoke to the importance of reestablishing pollinator habitat. He suggested that there were many areas that people mow that could be converted with minimal cost.

“Pollinator habitat is actually cheaper over the long run because you save time and money mowing it. It’s more attractive, covers a larger area and has diverse stands that help with water infiltration. Plus, monarchs need these areas.” ~Seth Appelgate

If you’re interested in learning more about bioreactors, saturated buffers or other conservation practices, check out our upcoming field days to see if there will be one near you!

Nathan Stevenson

What the heck is habitat?

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Adam Janke | Assistant Professor in Natural Resource Ecology and Management and Extension Wildlife Specialist, Iowa State University

I have seen a wide gamut of responses to the question posed in the title of this post. While preparing for my Ph.D. candidacy exams, I was asked a version of this question as it related to ducks and agonized over the response for months (you’ll see elements of my answer below). In another extreme, I recently posed the same question at a meeting and received an enthusiastic, unequivocating answer of, “corn fields.” I’ll spare you the details of why it is that Iowa’s 13.2 million acres of corn are almost certainly not a limiting feature for ducks, but suffice it to say that my mental picture of habitat for ducks (wetlands) was starkly different from this respondent’s own mental image (corn fields). Same word. Same question. Drastically different responses.

The mental image we conjure of “habitat” depends on two factors:

The first factor, is what kind of habitat we’re talking about. Habitat the noun is functionally meaningless without the clarifying help of one or more adjectives like “pileated woodpecker habitat”, “duck nesting habitat” or “winter pheasant habitat”. Asserting, “I’m creating habitat” could simultaneously mean you’re building a flat-roofed building where Common Nighthawks will nest or you’re restoring the Regal Fritillary butterfly and it’s host plants to a native prairie. Same word. Drastically different meanings.

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What “habitat” means varies widely between species, like mallards (left) who make use of a diversity of wetlands, ponds, and fields, and pileated woodpeckers (right) who are picky in their selection of large tracts of mature forests. (Photos by Adam Janke and Pixabay )

The second factor, is the one that gave me so much anxiety in anticipation of the question during my candidacy exams. That is, what features of habitat are most limiting for a species of wildlife, and how do we know? Biologists are taught to remember Leibig’s Law of the Minimum. Without information on how limiting any one resource is, we’re left only guessing and often fail to see desired responses to habitat restoration that miss the mark on limiting factors. To uncover limiting factors we must take measurements, which presents its own challenges because wildlife are hard to observe (hence the ‘wild’ part). Volumes in my professional discipline are written on the issue of “imperfect detectability” and overcoming this observational challenge is the source of substantial frustration.

Thus, to answer “what the heck is habitat” in Iowa, or any landscape, we need to make some assumptions. Leading to the chronically unsatisfying assertion — “it depends” — as the prevailing answer to the question.

However, I think it safe to make a few generalizations to answer this question. To do so, I’m going to lean on the collective expert opinion of 74 of my peers that recently responded to a survey I sent to attendees of the annual Iowa Habitat Partners Conference (two of those attendees and conference organizers are featured on this month’s episode of The Conservation Chat). These 74 wildlife biologists from across the state were asked to rank “the ‘quality’ [of each practice] as habitat for pheasants, quail, and other farmland wildlife in Iowa.” I standardized each participant’s response so that each ranking ranged from 0, the lowest habitat quality score, to 100, the highest.

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Mean (± standard deviation) ‘habitat quality’ ratings from 74 wildlife biologists in Iowa asked to rank the quality of each habitat type for ‘pheasants, quail, and other farmland wildlife.’

Here’s the generalizations that emerged:

  • Any changes to the status quo are improvements in habitat quality for farmland wildlife. 93% of respondents gave corn-bean rotations or continuously grazed pastures their lowest habitat quality score.
  • Natural, perennial features like wetlands, prairies, and rotational pastures are higher quality.
  • Diversity in plants and vegetation structure matter, as reflected by the negative attitude of the group towards ‘Non-diverse’ CRP fields and continuously grazed pastures.
  • Larger patches of vegetation rate higher than smaller ones, as reflected in the higher ratings of whole-field CRP fields, wildlife areas, and wetlands, over small patches like stream buffers, prairie strips, and ‘odd areas.’

Beyond these generalizations, the wide range in respondent rankings clearly conveyed little consensus on the quality of individual features in the absence of additional clarifying details on the species or places in question. Here we find the final point of consensus.

Immediately after I hit “send” on the survey, a chorus of cries of “it depends” and “this isn’t fair!” came echoing back to my inbox from every corner of the state. Biologists, trained to think critically about limiting factors, plant diversity, patch size and connectivity, and a whole suite of other factors determining the ‘quality’ of any given ‘habitat’, insisted on answers to questions like “What factors are already limiting”, “What species”, “What part of the state” and so on in their emails.

I smiled receiving these emails because this skepticism, intuition, and critical thinking about what the heck is habitat is exactly as it should be.

Adam Janke

Pollinator Power

Today’s guest blog post is provided by Megan Koppenhafer, part of the Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach program, serving with Water Rocks! in 2017-2018.

Lawn care consumes many families as the weather warms and things start to green up. This year as you foster your lawn we would like to encourage responsible lawn care to support our precious pollinators. Pollinators help keep our crops and gardens growing. You may have heard a lot of conversation about planting pollinator gardens to provide habitat and food for these little critters. These gardens are a great solution for protecting our pollinators, but a more holistic approach is even better.

Lawn mowing frequency was explored in a study titled To mow or to mow less: Lawn mowing frequency affects bee abundance and diversity in suburban yards by Susannah B. Lerman, Alexandra R. Contosta, Joan Milam, and Christofer Bang.

The researchers found that mowing the lawn less frequently, every two or three weeks as opposed to every week, provided more grass biomass and flower abundance for the bees in an herbicide free yard. Three weeks provide a more ideal diversity in bee species, while two week mowing regimens led to the highest overall abundance of bees.

What does all this mean for the average lawn grower? Well, it shows that there is a low cost alternative for those lawn mowers looking to preserve bee habitat. Not applying herbicides or insecticides will benefit those bees by preserving the habitat and by directly removing a pollinator exterminator. Here’s your excuse to mow a little less often and enjoy the spontaneous lawn flowers a little more!

Example of a typical yard from the Lerman, et al. study. The minimal landscaping and bare patches in the lawns were common. The yard sign explained project objectives and informed neighbors about their role in improving the sustainability of their neighborhoods.

For more information please check out the full article, To mow or to mow less: Lawn mowing frequency affects bee abundance and diversity in suburban yards, by Lerman et. al. Also, check out this Proper Lawn Mowing guide by ISU Extension and Outreach to keep your yard looking green when you do go to mow it!

Megan Koppenhafer

Iowans Walk on the Wild Side

In my first year in Iowa, I’ve found an engaged and motivated citizenry that values wildlife and their habitats. No wonder – Iowa has produced a disproportionate number of 20th century leaders in wildlife conservation, including William Hornaday, Jay “Ding” Darling, John Lacey, and Aldo Leopold. Proof of this commitment lies in Iowan’s support for each of our 99 locally funded County Conservation Boards, a model unique and perfectly suited for the state.

Further proof lies in the outcome of a 2010 vote where 63% of Iowans voted in favor of a self-imposed tax and constitutional amendment to provide permanent funding for natural resource conservation and education. Additionally, a survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that 1.3 million people in Iowa participate in wildlife-associated recreation and spend $1.5 billion doing so annually. Wildlife and wildlife habitats matter to Iowans, our economy, and our land.

Plenty of challenges remain. The meritorious work of public and non-governmental entities to preserve unique habitats in our state only amasses to about 3% of the land area.  Between one and two million acres are annually enrolled in federal conservation practices that provide wildlife habitat. But even when combined with lands in public ownership, these conservation lands are only a drop in the bucket of Iowa’s 36 million acres. Thus, the challenge of preserving our rich wildlife heritage rides on the backs of the collective impact of small actions taken by all landowners in our state.

Wildlife conservation challenges are driven by changes to natural ecosystems in our agricultural landscapes. This is where the opportunities lie, because just as wildlife populations track changes in natural ecosystems, so too do many other important ecosystem services. Wildlife are thus one additional beneficiary of sustainable land use practices and should therefore serve as one more bargaining chip in extolling the benefits and promise of conservation efforts that unite every sector and every resident in Iowa.

We’ve all got a stake in this, and as we see improved soil health and water quality, we’ll see more pheasants and meadowlarks. That sounds like a win-win to me and I’m excited to learn how I can collaborate with the Iowa Learning Farms in the years to come.

Adam Janke

Dr. Adam Janke recently joined the ILF team in an advisory role, and will be a regular contributor to the ILF blog. Hear more of Janke’s perspectives on conservation and wildlife issues on the Conservation Chat podcast!

Wildlife Specialist joins ILF Team

Iowa Learning Farms is thrilled to announce the newest addition to its team, Dr. Adam Janke, joining the ILF team in an advisory role. As an Assistant Professor and Extension Wildlife Specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, Janke offers unique perspectives on conservation, wildlife, and working lands that will compliment the work ILF is doing across the state to build a culture of conservation.

Growing up in a duck hunting family, his conservation ethic and passion for wildlife, especially waterfowl, certainly run deep.

Janke has Midwestern roots as a native of Indiana, and his educational pursuits have taken him on a journey across much of America’s heartland, including stops at Purdue University (BS), Ohio State University (MS), and South Dakota State University (PhD). Having recently completed his first full year at Iowa State University, Janke is now the GO-TO GUY for all things wildlife in the state of Iowa, whether it be bats in the attic, chronic wasting disease in deer, or managing for habitat within our vast working lands across Iowa.

You can get to know Adam Janke and his vision for wildlife habitat integrated within agricultural working lands through the Conservation Chat podcast.  Tune in to Episode 29 of the Conservation Chat, just recently released, to hear Janke’s perspectives on wildlife habitat, conservation and more.

Janke addresses the connections between hunting and wildlife conservation, a rich legacy across North America of sustainably managing populations and sustainably managing the lands they live on. He also shares perspectives on how ducks and other waterfowl, over the years, have been great catalysts for wetland protection and practices that support water quality. While still early in his career, Janke shares long-term goals for increasing wildlife habitat across Iowa, in partnership with ILF and beyond …

When listening to the podcast, it’s pretty clear that Dr. Janke is super enthusiastic about what he does! And we are super enthusiastic about him joining the ILF team. Keep an eye out for his friendly face at upcoming field days, on our blog and E-newsletter, and we’ll also be working together on the Master Conservationist program (and more) in the coming months.

Welcome, Adam!

Ann Staudt

From the Director: The Best-Kept Secret in Iowa

You know what I learned from the 207 people who attended one of our five  Iowa Learning Farms regional workshops this winter? Wetlands are one of the best-kept secrets in Iowa in terms of their benefits! Not one single person mentioned them in response to the question “What are the practices that are most effective for improving water quality in your area?”

Matt Helmers said to me after we were leaving the third of five meetings, “Golly, we still have a lot of education and outreach to do about wetlands.”

I would agree. Wetlands play a key role of reducing nitrogen in Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Strategically designed and sited wetlands can reduce nitrate loads to downstream water bodies by 40-70%. Currently we have around 80 of the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) wetlands in the state. The NRS calls for 7,600 of them if we hope meet its goal. To read more about the importance of wetlands, check out Ann’s blog Wetlands and Water Quality.

That calls for a HUGE amount of human and financial capital. It also opens amazing economic and job creating opportunity for us. As Matt told me, “I would love to be training our ISU students to be out there designing and building CREP wetlands throughout the state.”

Beyond the water quality benefits and the job opportunities from siting 7,000 wetlands in our state, wetlands and the lands surrounding them will help bring needed pollinators and other biodiversity to our state.

Finally, as Matt argues in his blog earlier this week about returning to pasturelands, wetlands add beauty to our landscape. If you don’t believe me, screen our award-winning documentary Incredible Wetlands.

Keep your eye on our blog to hear more of what we learned from participants during the regional workshops. We hope to create a more positive learning experience through a Rapid Needs Assessment and Response (RNR) technique. To read more about our unique approach, check out Brandy’s blog RNR is a Favorite for Conservation Workshops.

Jacqueline Comito