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

New Team Member

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The Osborn family

Hi all! My name is Brianne Osborn and I am the new Communication Specialist with Iowa Learning Farms and the Water Rocks! program. I have a degree in Graphic Design from Iowa State and several years experience in marketing for education.

I am a lifelong Cyclone and grew up right here in Story County where I participated in 4H. I enjoy photography, reading (especially mystery novels), genealogy and love any reason to get dressed up!

I look forward to using my skills to help spread the important message of conservation!

Brianne Osborn

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

On-the-Ground Experience with Cover Crops

“What’s building organic matter worth to you?”

For Prairie City, IA farmer Gordon Wassenaar and tenant farmer Will Cannon, it’s worth using no-till and cover crops on every single one of their 1300 acres of cropland.  In a field day hosted by Iowa Learning Farms, Jasper Co. NRCS and SWCD, Wassenaar and Cannon shared their perspectives on cover crops and how they can be very successfully integrated into corn and soybean cropping systems.

Wassenaar, who has farmed for over 50 years, stated that he first got into cover crops for the purpose of protecting the soil from erosion. He started with cereal rye, broadcast seeded from an airplane.

As time has gone on, Wassenaar’s reasons for using cover crops have evolved from simply erosion control, to improving the structure and functioning of the soil — raising soil organic matter, aggregate stability, and water holding capacity. Cannon commented that on top of that, another big benefit is feeding the biodiversity of the soil, like the beneficial mycorrhizal fungi, all while growing a healthy crop.

Timing and seed-soil contact are two big factors with establishing successful cover crop stands, and it’s a balancing act between the two. Aerial broadcast seeding (or interseeding with a high clearance vehicle) allows for a larger window of time for fall growth, while drilling provides greater seed-soil contact. Today, Wassenaar and Cannon have moved to drilling all of their cover crops, ideally getting them in the ground 24 hours or less behind the combine.

When asked about the financial considerations of cover crops, Cannon responded, “We’ve got to be willing to be a little creative and inventive to make it work.”  And they certainly are.

Cannon outlined several approaches they are taking to minimize costs and improve efficiencies in their operation:

  1. Shop around for cover crop seed.
    Compare prices with different cover crop seed houses in order to get the best bang for your buck. Wassenaar and Cannon are even considering growing their own cover crop seed down the road.
  2. Consider your seeding techniques.
    Aerial broadcast seeding and custom planting carry a significant cost.  Cannon explained that they have moved to seeding all of their acres now with a drill, which has provided greater seed-soil contact, and thus improved the seeding efficiency in terms of the number of seeds that actually grow (they’ve subsequently optimized/reduced seeding rates accordingly).  They are also saving dollars through the use of a smaller 120hp tractor and a cover crop drill that was bought used.
  3. There are a lot of good programs out there that can help.
    Take a look at the conservation programs and personnel on the federal, state, and local levels that can help out.

With years of experience implementing conservation practices of no-till and cover crops, Wassenaar reflected on how much the technology advances make conservation readily doable today.

“Back in the day, we plowed because we didn’t have planters that could plant into high residue. The equipment is so good today, that now we can plant into just about any residue.  … With cover crops out there, it’s almost like planting onto a mattress.”

Wassenaar is clearly passionate about conservation, and left field day attendees with the following thoughts:

“I don’t know any other way you can farm and save your soil than with no-till and cover crops.  … I’m convinced that if Iowans take care of their soil, the soil will take care of Iowa.”

Ann Staudt

Getting Started with Rotational Grazing

Considering the transition to rotational grazing?  Wondering where exactly to start?  Ruminate on the following tips and words of wisdom for getting started with rotational grazing, shared at an Iowa Learning Farms Whiterock Conservancy joint field day this past week.

1.  Build the system to what you can afford.
Infrastructure considerations up front include fencing, water lines, tank/waterer system, and mineral feeder.

2.  Start with a system that’s manageable for you.
Pat Corey, NRCS (tenant at Whiterock/rotational grazing guru) recommends starting with a 5-6 paddock system, in which the cattle are moved once per week. That gives each paddock a 30 day rest period before the cattle return.

3.  Scale up when you’re ready. Each initial paddock can be divided in half, resulting in a 10-12 paddock system, in which the cattle are moved every 4 days.

4.  Be aware of herbicide residuals.
Always read and follow label directions, and be aware of grazing restrictions – some herbicides have up to an 18 month residual.

5.  Integrate cover crops for an additional spring food source.
Let the rye grow big enough in the spring so there is good root structure in place to balance out compaction from the livestock. At Whiterock, cattle are out on the rye from approximately April 1 until May 15, providing an excellent supplemental food source in the spring months.

6.  Try to maximize flexibility in the system! 
It’s all a learning process. Planning up front for the desired infrastructure, combined with active on-the-ground management, can yield a robust rotational grazing system, resulting in improved pasture productivity, reduced inputs, increased wildlife, benefits to soil health and water quality, and healthier herds overall.

Thanks to Pat Corey (NRCS), Darwin Pierce and Rob Davis (Whiterock Conservancy) for sharing their insights on rotational grazing!  To learn more, check out the following resources:

Ann Staudt