Inspiration through Exploration

Today’s guest blog post comes from student intern Kaleb Baber, majoring in Agronomy and minoring in Geology at Iowa State University. Kaleb grew up on a family farm near Weston, MO, where he grew sweet corn, raised beef cattle, and was actively involved in FFA. We’re thrilled to have Kaleb back for a second summer in the Water Resources Internship Program!

For every classroom visit, the Water Rocks! team makes sure to leave time for students to ask us questions. On a visit near the beginning of my internship this summer, we had just finished presenting a lesson on watersheds when a student posed a question that caught me off guard. He asked, “What inspires you to do this?”

My coworkers and I all stared at each other like deer in headlights. It was a simple question, but one none of us had given much thought to. What did inspire me? Why did I care so much about water resources? Panic began to set in. I wanted to give a thoughtful answer to the student, but my mind was drawing a blank. With a room full of fifth graders starting up at me, I finally came up with something.

When I think about water, some of my favorite memories come to mind. I love being outdoors, so naturally I am outside whenever I have the chance. Growing up, it was a summer tradition for my family to go fishing in Ontario. I did not realize it at the time, but looking back now I realize that those family vacations when I was little helped shape my interests going forward.

Since those fishing trips, I have been fortunate enough to travel to some truly amazing places. In some places, like Yosemite Valley, the role of water in the landscape is obvious as waterfalls tumble over the towering walls of granite forged by massive glaciers. In other places, like the endless red sandstone of southern Utah, water is rarely seen. However, its effects have made a lasting impression by sculpting incredible rock formations through weathering and erosion.

From the secluded lakes of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to the powerful Colorado River that carved the Grand Canyon, water and its influences are all around us. Water is one of our most important natural resources, and I firmly believe that the best way to understand that is to go experience it firsthand. I am so grateful to have had these adventures, and I know for a fact that my passion for the outdoors began as a child on my family’s fishing trips to Ontario.

So to answer the student’s question, what inspires me to intern for Water Rocks! and Iowa Learning Farms is the memories I have made thanks to our water resources. Those memories inspire me to go outside and get up close and personal with nature. They inspire me to do my part in conserving our natural resources. And most of all, they inspire me to share the importance of clean, healthy water with others in hopes that they will make memories of their own.

Kaleb Baber

 

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.

Gathering everyone together to increase conservation efforts

Landowners have a great opportunity to shape how their land is managed. In Iowa, about 40% of agricultural land is owned by women.  It is crucial to have women represented at field days and workshops so they can make informed decisions in their operations and/or with their tenants. women attendees

For the past two years, 27% of Iowa Learning Farms attendees were women. From the 2017 demographic cards, 17% of all attendees who identified as farmers/operators or landowners were women; 40% of those who identified as “other” were women (government employees, agribusiness, students or educators). Since ILF first started hosting field days in 2004, the number of women attending field days has increased. More women are now serving as Extension Specialists, agronomists, and government employees and this is reflected in our data.

dsc_1789.jpgWomen continue to play an active role in the farming operation with 43% of women attendees describing themselves as active farmers/operators and 64% describe themselves as landowners. Nearly 60% reported owning more than three-quarters of their land. This finding is consistent with the trend of increasing numbers of acres owned by female landowners. It is encouraging to see these women taking an active role in the management of their land as both farmer/operator and/or landowner.

In 2018, ILF will continue to seek new ways to increase female attendance, especially female farmers/operators and landowners, at field days and workshops. Women indicated to us that they would prefer to attend events on Tuesday-Thursday either in the morning (41%) or afternoon (57%). This year we are planning to offer events at these times to see if we can increase the number of women attending our events. We also plan to partner with organizations that focus on women farmers/operators and landowners.

Stayed tuned for more highlights from our 2017 Evaluation Report and be sure to click subscribe and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Liz Juchems

It’s alive! Scientists get closer to identifying what lives in our soil

Iowa Learning Farms has been spreading the word about soil health, and its preservation, for over a decade, and Iowa farmers have long touted the benefits of soil health for crop growth. Now, the importance of soil is gaining an even wider audience when earlier this year researchers from the University of Colorado-Boulder published findings of a study leading to the first global atlas of soil bacterial communities.

Researchers at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at the University of Colorado-Boulder published their study in the January issue of the highly respected journal, Science. Analyzing 237 soil samples from eighteen countries across six continents of varying climates, the researchers discovered that 2% of soil bacteria—about 500 species—accounted for nearly half of the soil bacterial communities found worldwide!

Images of soil bacteria from the dominant Proteobacteria and Actinobacteria phylotypes courtesy of MicrobeWiki.

While scientists have long known that soil bacteria make up a substantial percentage of earth’s living biomass, contributing to plant productivity, carbon cycling, and nutrient availability, the immense numbers and diversity of soil bacteria (total counts are estimated to be in the tens of thousands!) have kept them from fully understanding soil bacterial distribution and function. The CIRES study is a major breakthrough in soil science as it documents the most abundant and dominant types of soil bacteria found worldwide.

CIRES researchers believe this discovery sets up a “most wanted list” of soil bacteria, as it points to which bacteria should be targeted in future studies seeking to understand soil microbes and their contribution to soil fertility and ecosystem functioning. The next step is to begin categorizing these dominant bacteria into groups of co-occurring bacteria and habitat preferences, resulting in data that the CIRES group hopes will shed more light on the function of certain groups of bacteria, eventually leading to agricultural applications.

The full journal article from Science can be viewed at A global atlas of the dominant bacteria found in soil.

Brandy Case Haub

 

ILF Steering Committee Helping Make A Difference

Jake Hansen | Water Resources Bureau Chief at the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS)

ILF_Badge_Multi_SMFor nearly 14 years, Iowa Learning Farms has established and maintained a presence as a respected and trusted source of conservation outreach and education in the state of Iowa and beyond. While many similar programs have come and gone over the years in shorter cycles, ILF has managed to remain at the forefront of the public dialogue around great things happening in conservation and opportunities that lie ahead.

The lion’s share of the credit for this should be given to the staff and the cooperators that have worked tirelessly to advocate for good land stewardship by farmers and urban dwellers alike. However, there is another group of key stakeholders that have worked with Iowa Learning Farms over the years to identify emerging education needs. That group is the Iowa Learning Farms Steering Committee.

Led by Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, the ILF Steering Committee includes representatives of six organizations that provide financial and technical support to the program. In addition to ISU Extension and Outreach, other agencies and organizations on the committee include the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS), USDA- Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Iowa Farm Bureau, and Conservation Districts of Iowa (CDI).

Bio5

Bioreactor: an edge-of-field conservation practice designed to reduce nitrate loss from the field scale

These organizations contribute decades of knowledge on conservation practices and outreach efforts along with access to statewide networks of farmers, agricultural decision makers, and local leaders. Our job is to identify emerging challenges faced by our farming community, as well as opportunities to use demonstrations by local conservation champions. In addition, we want to find means of scaling up implementation of key conservation activities.

The ILF Steering Committee typically meets 3-4 times per year and reviews program activities completed by staff while helping to identify future programming needs. The committee also provides insight and support on outreach funding sources and advises ILF leadership on potential funding opportunities. Perhaps most importantly, committee members are constantly in touch with a broad range of constituents and can provide real-time input on challenges to conservation adoption, ranging from management of cover crops to the economics of land use decisions and much more.

DSCN9848Even if you don’t interact regularly with the Iowa Learning Farms staff, don’t hesitate to reach out to one of these partners if you have a suggestion for a field day or a conservation issue that might merit some attention. ILF and the Steering Committee are always looking for input from our audiences on how to help decision makers balance conservation ethics with the economic realities of modern farming. Additionally, if you have recently attended an ILF field day, consider attending others, as the topics and the network of people you will meet continue to evolve!

Jake Hansen

Webinar highlights cover crop, water quality connections

In case you missed it, this past week’s Iowa Learning Farms webinar offered an excellent overview of the research findings related to the potential of winter cover crops to reduce nitrate leaching in corn and soybean cropping systems. Dr. Tom Kaspar, plant physiologist with the USDA-Agricultural Research Service, shared results from numerous studies that show the ability of cover crops to reduce nitrate concentrations and loads in tile drainage water.

The press headlines about nitrates and water quality are seemingly ubiquitous, and Kaspar provided solid data that help to paint a complete picture of the challenges and opportunities. Our land uses have changed dramatically, and over the past 60-70 years, our cropping systems have likewise changed dramatically with significant reductions in small grains, hay and perennial vegetation.  With corn and soybeans having a 7-month brown gap when they are not actively uptaking nutrients, that leaves a significant amount of time with nutrients vulnerable to leaching.

However, Kaspar’s research clearly demonstrates that cover crops help transition that brown gap to a green gap, providing the ability to “capture” nutrients in the soil that would otherwise be vulnerable to leaching loss. One of Kaspar’s long-term research studies in central Iowa found that rye cover crops in a corn-soybean cropping system reduced nitrate concentrations in tile drainage water by 57%. Additional studies by Kaspar and collaborators around the state found nitrate reductions of anywhere from 20% to 40%. This variability is expected, with different amounts of cover crop growth, weather, rainfall, soil types, tile systems, and field histories.

Kaspar also pointed out that it takes quite some time for nitrate to move through the system – there is a noticeable lag effect.  For instance, Kaspar and collaborators found that nitrate concentrations in subsurface tile drainage continued to decrease through the summer, long after spring cover crop termination.

Check out the full webinar, Lessons Learned from Using Cover Crops to Reduce Losses of Nitrate for 15 Years, on the Iowa Learning Farms webinar archives page.  And to hear more perspectives from Dr. Kaspar, tune in to Episode 06 of the Conservation Chat podcast!

Ann Staudt

Going the Extra Yard

A few years ago, Liz, Matt and I attended the funeral of Barry Kusel, one of our dedicated ILF farmer partners. Barry had passed away unexpectedly right before Thanksgiving that year. Barry was always someone we could turn to when we needed a strong advocate for cover crops or no till. Attending his funeral was important. None of us knew the rest of his family but I kept thinking that Barry was always willing to go wherever we asked him to go in order to help educate others about cover crops. Since Barry was always there when we needed him, we needed to be there for his family when they needed us. I know it meant a lot to his mother and his wife that we would come from Iowa State to pay our respects.

Two people in my own life really stand out for helping me learn the lesson of going the extra yard for folks: Joe Gronstal and Steve Padgitt. They didn’t teach me so much by their words but by their actions.

Joe was an old friend of the family but I really got to know him when he invited me to spend the summer at his house on Spirit Lake years ago. I was young and sort of in between things. A summer on the lake sounded great. Joe was an “old school” guy. He had his own way of doing things around the house and he was good at getting everyone around him to do it his way. You knew you were in trouble when Joe would look at you with that twinkle in his eye and say, “Well, I was thinking maybe we should try…” That summer, I would go along with whatever he asked me to help out with. His kids still tease me about how he got me to sit in the canoe and paint the side of the dock. He thought it would be easier. Trust me, it wasn’t easier.

What really stands out to me from that summer was how generous Joe was with his time and resources. He would drive hours one-way to visit a sick friend or do a favor for a friend. He was always looking out for his neighbors. He would point out to me the importance of being there in person for other people. My parents also did that in their lives but Joe used to go to such lengths to be there for his friends and neighbors that it really impacted me.Steve Padgitt was the sociology professor who first hired me for the Iowa Learning Farms project in 2004. Steve was a really good guy and I was so lucky to get to work with him before he retired. He was incredibly generous with his time as he gave me a crash course in the social aspects of agriculture. He was a great listener. After decades of Extension work, he knew agriculture and rural Iowa but he was still interested in my insights.

In the beginning, our primary task with Iowa Learning Farms was to send out a baseline survey to assess the status of conservation practices in Iowa. We needed to report regionally and so we needed a large response rate. We sent out thousands of letters and surveys. Steve signed every one of those letters. He made it clear to me that I should always hand-sign the letters I sent with a survey. Steve said that if we were going to ask the person to take the time to fill out the survey, we could take the time to sign our names. In other words, he was telling me not to ask more of other people than we are willing to give. Make the extra effort in what you do and people will respond.Now that I am director of the Iowa Learning Farms, I constantly remind myself of these principles as we are developing programming and doing our day-to-day activities. We have tried to be generous with our resources and our time. It is one of the reasons we still exist after 13 years. We try to be present in the state as often as possible through field days and community events. We make the extra effort. We could do none of this without our farmer partners.

Through the years, our farmer partners like Barry have been the living embodiment of these principles. They show up in person for others and they are cheerfully generous with their time and resources. They participate in important on-farm research and are always trying to find additional ways they can build soil health, reduce nutrient loss and improve the health of our land and water. They aren’t asking other farmers to do more than they are willing to do. They make conservation and water quality practices work on the land while they still continue to produce good yields and earn a decent living.

During this Thanksgiving season, on behalf of the Iowa Learning Farms team, I would like to thank our farmer partners for all they do on the land to make our state healthy, for all you do in being present to others across the state, and all you do to make our program a success! Thank you!

Jacqueline Comito