Water in the Public Domain

Public domain: a concept that evokes thoughts of music, photographs, paintings, and other creative works of art … and their relationships with copyright policy. From another perspective, public domain is all about shared availability, the common good …  much like our natural resources.

As nearly 40 people gathered for a conservation field day at Paustian Family Farm just outside Walcott, IA this past week, this idea of water in the public domain was an ever-present undercurrent in the conversations among area farmers, landowners, rural and urban residents alike.

In addition to in-field conservation practices like reduced tillage, cover crops, and a close eye on nutrient management, host farmer Mike Paustian is now taking conservation to the edge of the field as well. In fall 2017, the Paustians installed a saturated buffer on their land to specifically address the challenge of nitrates in tile drainage water.

Saturated buffers are a field-scale practice, treating subsurface tile drainage water from 30-80 acres of cropland. The presence of an existing streamside vegetative buffer is a great first step, and makes the installation a breeze. In order to “saturate” the existing buffer, a flow control structure and lateral tile line running parallel to the stream (700’ long, in this case) are installed.

Quite a bit of the water then moves through that new perforated tile line parallel to the stream, slowly trickling out of the tile, working its way through the soil. On this journey to the stream, the water is in direct contact with plant roots and the soil itself – where the biological process of denitrification occurs. Under saturated, anaerobic conditions, naturally occurring bacteria breathe in the nitrate, and then transform it to atmospheric N2 gas, sending cleaner water to the stream (to the tune of 40-50% nitrate reduction).

As folks got to see the saturated buffer firsthand, one of the attendees asked Paustian, “As a city person, why should somebody from Davenport, Pleasant Valley, etc. care about what’s going on out here?”

Paustian responded, “We’re all in this together, using the same water. It’s a limited resource. We’ve got to find common ground – urban and rural – being good stewards of our land and water. That’s why saturated buffers matter out here.”

Washington Co. farmer Steve Berger, an early adopter and long-term user of cover crops, emphasized the benefits of cover crops for water quality, promoting infiltration and likewise minimizing soil erosion.  Berger added, “Anything that comes off this field ends up in the public domain somewhere … long-term no-till and cover crops are working together to keep soil and nutrients in place in the field!”

As Iowa’s water quality continues to garner attention locally, statewide, and even on the national level, that concept of water in the public domain resonates strongly. Bringing urban and rural people together to see how we can work for positive improvements in water quality is a step in the right direction. This field day was an excellent example of the engaging conversations and positive dialogue we at Iowa Learning Farms hope to facilitate surrounding water quality, soil health, and our agricultural production systems across the state of Iowa.

Ann Staudt

Tea Bags Tell Story of Soil Health

Soil health is trending, there’s no doubt about that! But perhaps expensive soil tests aren’t your cup of tea.

Look no further than the Soil Decomposition Index: a simple, straightforward, citizen science approach to evaluating soil health that utilizes buried tea bags. Learn more about this novel approach to soil health from Dr. Marshall McDaniel, assistant professor of agronomy at Iowa State University, in his recent Iowa Learning Farms webinar titled Burying Tea to Dig Up Soil Health.

Microbes are the engines that drive the biology of our soils, especially the cycling of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur. Under the umbrella of soil health, McDaniel points out that biological indicators are the most sensitive to changing management practices, so this tea bag concept is built upon evaluating one aspect of the biology going on right beneath our feet.

The tea serves as food for the smallest soil microorganisms, including bacteria, actinomycetes, and fungi, that are able to squeeze through the tiny openings in the mesh tea bag. As the tea is consumed over time, the bags are dug up and weighed, providing an indication of the biological activity within the soil, particularly the decomposition activity of the smallest soil organisms.

In each field, McDaniel’s team is comparing two types of teas side-by-side: green tea, which simulates a high quality (low C:N) residue, and rooibos tea, which simulates a lower quality (high C:N, nitrogen-limited) residue. Based on how much of each tea is remaining, you can calculate a Soil Decomposition Index value.  Values range from 0 to 1, and the closer to 1, the healthier the soil is! Using two teas side-by-side lets you calculate a standardized Soil Decomposition Index value which accounts for temperature and soil moisture variability, as well as allowing results to be readily compared between different sites – so you can compare apples to apples.

Check out the full webinar, Burying Tea to Dig Up Soil Health, on the Iowa Learning Farms webinars page, to hear more details of this novel soil health test and preliminary results from on-farm studies evaluating the Soil Decomposition Index with cover crops.

For those active on Twitter, you can follow the McDaniel lab, @ Soil_Plant_IXNs, as they continue to evaluate this unique tea bag concept and many other aspects related to soil-plant interactions and agricultural sustainability.

Ann Staudt

ILF Director Jacqueline Comito to Deliver Prichard Lecture on Conservation Education at SWCS Conference

Lecture will highlight the importance of continuous education in continuing to build a culture of conservation in future generations

Jackie

 

Water Rocks! and Iowa Learning Farms are pleased to announce that Jacqueline Comito, director of both programs, has been selected to deliver the prestigious Pritchard Lecture at the 73rd International Annual Conference of the Soil and Water Conservation Society. Taking place July 29 through August 1, 2018 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the event is the premier gathering of conservation experts and advocates of building a better planet for the benefit of society.

The keynote, entitled “Building a Culture of Conservation”, takes place at 10:00 am on July 30th. Drawing on examples from Iowa Learning Farms outreach program, Comito will highlight ways to build an inclusive culture of conservation that inspires actions to preserve natural resources in our lives. In addition, she will discuss the application of youth educational programming which can lead to more sensitive stewardship of our cultural history and natural environment, thereby empowering another generation to embrace the fundamental value of simple conservation techniques which are open to everyone.

“Building a culture of conservation means that the preservation of our natural resources becomes the defining characteristic of our actions,” noted Comito. “In order to do this, our messages have to go beyond the science to engaging curiosity, creativity and compassion or we won’t succeed. We also need to be reaching out to everyone from youth to farmers, ranchers and landowners. I am honored to be selected to deliver the Prichard Lecture and share some of our successes and challenges in promoting conservation in Iowa.”

The Iowa Learning Farms programs provide educational outreach to farmers and participants in the agriculture industry through field days, webinars, podcasts, and seminars held throughout Iowa each year. Water Rocks! delivers youth conservation education through its classroom and school assembly programs. Both organizations utilize a fleet of Conservation Station trailers to engage and promote conversations about conservation technology advancements, demonstrations of effective runoff management and mitigation structures, and simple through complex best practices.

To learn more about Iowa Learning Farms outreach and education programs, please visit http://www.iowalearningfarms.org. To find out about Water Rocks!, please visit http://waterrocks.org/

Liz Juchems

We’re All In This Together

I grew up in Northeast Iowa on a family farm, where we grow corn, raise cattle and have horses. Growing up, I remember riding around in the tractor with my dad just for the fun of it. Today I still ride in the tractor with my dad, but now I do so having a greater depth of knowledge of farming and conservation as a whole.

As an Agricultural Studies student at Iowa State University, I run into so much diversity through my classes. I get to hear different perspectives on farming, land stewardship, natural resources, ranching, raising livestock, and so much more! I’ve learned a lot and gained new perspectives when it comes to using and managing the land.

I’ve also gained new perspectives through this summer internship with the Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks!, focused on water quality. This summer I have been able to interact with rural and urban community members and teach them about soil and water quality. I visit with active community members who are curious as to what they can do to care for the land we live on.

This summer has really opened my eyes. This internship has motivated me to want to see a change in land management before our water quality gets worse, and I have learned more about how we can all work together to do that.

Consider what you would have seen walking in Iowa two hundred years ago. A pioneer would have walked on Iowa’s land through vast tallgrass prairie, dotted with abundant wetlands and intersected by rivers.

Today, the landscape is vastly different –  I walk around today surrounded by crop fields and larger urban areas. I find it hard to want to go swimming in the rivers today because of the pollutants we have in our waters today. I respect farming and its purpose, but we need to find that balance with farming and land stewardship.

In the last 200 years we have lost 90+% of our wetlands and 99.9% of our prairie in Iowa. Those prairies and wetlands have very important jobs that act as a habitat and a filter for getting rid of possible pollutants. Now, as an agricultural student I understand how chemicals are being used and how much soil is getting exposed. These are two of many pollutants that we find in our water bodies today. We all need to work together and try to eliminate the amount of pollutants that are getting into our water bodies.

This summer I have been able to learn about the multiple conservation solutions we have available to us. In both rural and urban areas we are trying to reach out to landowners and introduce them to practices that can eliminate some of the pollutants in our water. During this internship, we discuss how buffer strips, wetlands, bioreactors, saturated buffers, cover crops and no till can lead to improvements in water quality. I have also learned that urban communities can help out by putting in permeable pavers and installing green roofs. These practices are great ways to start protecting our soil and water.However, one big challenge is that the improvements we want to see will not happen overnight because they take money and time. Not only that, but it takes everybody’s help to see a change. It is all of our responsibility to make sure we are doing what we can to prevent polluted water bodies and protect our great Iowa soil. We’re all in this together!

Taylor Kuehn

Taylor Kuehn, a New Hampton native, is participating in the 2018 Water Resources Internship Program. In the fall, she will be starting her senior year at Iowa State University, majoring in Agricultural Studies.

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