A Conservation Chat with Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig

ILFHeader(15-year)Jacqueline Comito| Iowa Learning Farms Program Director

naig_comito_frame_webIowa’s Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig joined me for a live Conservation Chat as a part of the monthly Iowa Learning Farms (ILF) webinar on January 16. Secretary Naig was elected to office in November 2018, but has been in the role since spring of 2018 when he was appointed to fill the post when Bill Northey was confirmed as the U.S. undersecretary for farm production and conservation.

Mike joined the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship five years ago as deputy secretary. He noted that the opportunity to get involved in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy from inception was one of the key reasons he moved from the private sector into government.

Mike grew up on a farm in Palo Alto county during the 1980s and saw the farm crisis firsthand. His parents and other farmers of their generation encouraged their children to find careers off the farm – so they would not have to experience the same challenges later in life. Mike took these sentiments to heart and continues to work to help ensure farmers in Iowa have the resources and opportunities to build successful and sustainable businesses.

When asked about his connection to the land, he expressed delight in the broad diversity of landscapes and natural settings across Iowa. He and his family love to explore the outdoors and enjoy everything Iowa has to offer. It also provides an opportunity to teach his three young sons about the importance of our natural resources and conservation.

Mike made it clear that it was time to significantly scale up implementation of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy. He noted “We are five years into implementation of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy. I am proud of what we’ve accomplished, but if we only do the same for the next five years, we will be seriously behind. This is the time to start scaling successful approaches so we can protect, preserve, and promote Iowa’s productivity and its most abundant natural resource – Texas has oil, Iowa has soil.”

We talked about urban and rural mindsets and how to bridge the understanding gap. “Pointing fingers and assigning blame does not move anyone in the right direction. Fostering mutual understanding of the impact any individual can have, regardless of whether they own a quarter acre lot in Ames or a quarter-section plot in northwest Iowa, is crucial to building a culture of conservation statewide.”

With new funding in the current budget year, the Department of Agriculture has hired additional employees to address conservation practices in several major watershed areas. They are also working with private-sector organizations and partners to expand conservation efforts, outreach and education. Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks! are examples of partners in conservation and education that help deliver these messages. “We partner and contract with organizations such as Iowa State University to take advantage of the innovation, skilled minds, and advanced research that isn’t available elsewhere. The allow us to do the most with what we have and continue to move toward our goals.”

Mike stressed that farmers needed to look at conservation practices with a broad lens. “You can’t just look at cover crops or tiling or bioreactors and saturated buffers as individual things, you must look at the full scope of improving soil health, employing edge of field practices in combination with tile, and ultimately maintaining or improving productivity and water quality.”

I noted that he had appropriated ILF’s Culture of Conservation tagline during his campaign and asked what that means to him. “It means thinking about conservation as priority. If Iowa wants to continue to be a global production leader, it’s crucial to protect and conserve what makes that leadership possible. And to do it through conservation, not regulation.” Mike agreed that youth education is an important piece of the culture of conservation puzzle, and changing the mindset and approach in Iowa will take a long time and must become inherent to the thinking of current and future generations. “You’re not going to reach everyone right away, just like in marketing any idea or product, there will be early adopters through late adopters. Our challenge is to build out a message to entice and encourage adoption of a lasting change over time.”

More Conservation Chats

Be sure to view the archive visit with Mike Naig on our website.

Our conversation will also be released as a Conservation Chat podcast available at the Conservation Chat website and here on iTunes. New Conservation Chat podcasts will be released every month. February’s Chat will be a conversation with Dr. Matt Helmers, Director of the Iowa Nutrient Research Center and Jamie Benning, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach water quality program manager.

Please join us live for next Iowa Learning Farms Webinar February 20 at 12:00 PM with Dr. Amy Kaleita, Iowa State University professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering. The topic will be: Farmed Prairie Potholes – Consequences and Management Options.

Jacqueline

January 16 Webinar – A Conservation Chat with Secretary Naig

ILFHeader(15-year)Wednesday, January 16th at 12:30pm Iowa Learning Farms will kick off our 15th anniversary by hosting a webinar with Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig.

Naig_Central Iowa Fair 2018The webinar will feature ILF program manager Dr. Jacqueline Comito and Secretary Naig discussing conservation, water quality and the Secretary’s vision for Iowa.  They will also discuss the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy and how Iowans are working to meet the nitrogen and phosphorus loss reductions outlined in the Strategy. Webinar participants will be able to submit questions for Secretary Naig during the webinar through the Zoom Webinar software.

Don’t miss this webinar!
DATE: Wednesday, January 16, 2019
TIME: 12:30 p.m.
HOW TO PARTICIPATE: www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars and click the link to join the webinar

More information about this webinar is available at our website. If you can’t watch the webinar live, an archived version will be available on our website:
https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars.

Liz Juchems

#NoTillb4Beans and #CoverYourBeans: Doing Less, Earning More

ILFHeaderHow can doing less earn you more?

Mark Licht discussed how you can do just that by making the transition to no-till soybean and adding a cover crop ahead of soybeans during our Iowa Learning Farms webinar yesterday.

Compared to conventional systems with a fall and spring tillage pass, no-till can lower input costs by about $30, while also saving the time not running the equipment. By lowering input costs overall profit per acre can be increased by nearly 17%, according to a 10 year research study at seven ISU research farms.

NTBB-Slide-1-01

No-till can also significantly reduce soil erosion and phosphorus loss, compared to chisel plowing.  That same 10 year study, showed a 90% reduction in phosphorus loss.

Cover crops also help reduce soil erosion and phosphorus loss, while also reducing nitrogen losses from the landscape. Mark noted that cover crops are an easy entry point for farmers and landowners to voluntarily help meet the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy goals. If 75% of Iowa soybean acres were seeded to a cover crops, we would reach 60% of our nutrient reduction goal!

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According to a nine year study by the Iowa Learning Farms and Practical Farmers of Iowa, the long-term use of winter cereal rye shows no yield impact on soybeans in most years. In fact, for eight sites there was an average 8 bu/ac increase following cereal rye.

If you’re curious on how to make the transition to #notillb4beans and #coveryourbeans, be sure to tune in to the full webinar here as Mark provides tips for making it work for you.

Be sure to join us in this campaign and share your stories and pictures using the #notillb4beans and #coveryourbeans hashtags!

Liz Juchems

A Challenge for the New Year

CLGHeaderJamie Benning | Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Water Quality Program Manager

Late last month, farm advisors, consultants, agronomists and farmers gathered for the 30th annual Integrated Crop Management Conference.  Over these years, participants have been able to choose from well over 100 sessions on the latest research and recommendations for soil management and water quality from the field to watershed scale. Since the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (INRS) was introduced in 2013, there have been additional sessions focused on reducing nitrate-nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) loss.

ICM 2018This year, Matt Helmers, Mark Licht and I led two interactive sessions with about 60 participants each with the objectives of reinforcing the goals of the NRS, discussing specific practices and their costs and effectiveness, and encouraging dialogue and deeper thinking about the challenges to meeting these goals. We used an online tool called Kahoot and participants responded to each question anonymously using their smartphones.

The groups did a great job identifying the major sources of nitrate-N and P loss from agricultural systems and selecting practices that will most effectively reduce loss within the field and at the edge of field.  This is positive feedback for ISU Extension, Iowa Learning Farms, and many other agriculture and conservation organizations that have developed and delivered outreach and professional development opportunities for this audience over the past five years.

Understanding and ranking cost effectiveness was a bit more challenging for the group, indicating that we need to double down on our outreach and education on recent research and scenarios to better reinforce this information as it is critical for decision-making.

As we moved into discussing the challenges of reaching the INRS goals, one of the discussion questions asked the participants to identify THE major barrier to adopting wetlands, saturated buffers, and bioreactors, three major edge-of-field nitrate-N reduction practices.  The four options we gave the groups are four very common barriers to adopting practices:

  1. Costs are too high
  2. It is too time consuming to work with agencies to install practices
  3. Landowner-tenant relationships are challenging
  4. Farmers and landowners are not feeling a sense of urgency to install these practices.

I was very surprised that 38% of both groups selected the lack of a sense of urgency as the top barrier to adoption. 

The costs of practice installation came in nearly tied with 33% selecting it as the top barrier. In discussions with similar groups and with conservation colleagues, I hear the cost limitations much more frequently, especially in the past few years of low commodity prices, along with the other two choices.  In response to the other three barriers, significant outreach and incentive programs have been developed and modified to address these concerns. Farmers’ sense of urgency is rarely discussed.

The response to this question caused me to reflect on how our outreach programs may be influencing this lack of urgency.  Leaders agree that we have measured increases in funding and technical assistance, the number of learning opportunities available to farmers, landowners and stakeholders, acres of implemented practices and many other indicators of progress but that we have a huge amount of work yet to do to reduce the size of the hypoxic zone.  The Hypoxia Task Force has set an interim goal of a 20% load reduction in both nitrate-N and P by 2025 and a 45% reduction by 2035.


river restorationMy goal for the New Year is to bring the timelines front and center to convey that the INRS, while voluntary, is not optional and we need to increase our efforts.  I also want to illustrate the relationship between reducing the size of the Gulf Hypoxic Zone and local drinking water quality protection, better habitat and quality of life that result from cleaner rivers and lakes, and the economic development opportunities for small businesses that design and install conservation practices, grow and sell cover crop seed, and beginning farmers seeking to grow their pasture-based livestock operations.

As you reflect on the 2018 growing season and think about goals for next year, I challenge you to set at least one goal related to improving the water quality leaving your farm.  To increase the chances that you will achieve this goal, write it down and talk to someone about it!

Here are a few draft goals to get you started:

  • Stop by your Soil and Water Conservation District office and meet with your local watershed coordinator, they may have financial and technical assistance opportunities for you
  • If you have tile on your farm and have easy access to an outlet, start measuring nitrate-N leaving in the tile.  There are several programs available to help you with tile monitoring, call 515-294-6038 or email me, benning@iastate.edu, and I can help you get started
  • Set a time to meet with farmers in your area that have tried cover crops to discuss their experiences and learn from them
  • Set an appointment with your NRCS District Conservationist to review your conservation plan and discuss changes that could be made to improve water and soil quality

To demonstrate to the public that the voluntary system can work, acres of cover crops, numbers of wetlands, bioreactors, and saturated buffers, acres of no-till and many other practices all need to increase sharply over the next few years.  Making one of the commitments I listed or setting your own unique water quality goal will lead to water quality improvement and may make your farm more profitable in the process.

Jamie Benning

Cover Crops on Tap at Nick Meier Field Day

ILFHeaderAs the weather gets colder and the days grow shorter, evening cover crop field days move indoors. Fortunately, the indoor atmosphere was perfect for an informal cover crop discussion.

The Nick Meier Field Day was hosted at Single Speed Brewery in Waterloo where attendees enjoyed several different varieties of flat bread pizza made from local ingredients. After dinner, the conversations turned toward cover crops, crop insurance, herbicide planning, soil health, earthworms and water sampling.

“Sampling your water is not something to be afraid of. It’s something to understand.” Theo Gunther, Iowa Soybean Association

There was particular interest in the earthworm study being done by the Iowa Learning Farms. Jamie Benning led the discussion and had some updates to share about the study.“Preliminary data determined that there was a 40% increase in earthworm middens found in fields with a cover crop versus without cover crops.”  Jamie Benning, Extension Water Quality Program Manager

The evening concluded with an excellent farmer panel where they discussed their experience using cover crops, planting into cover crops and tips for termination.

The field day was hosted by Practical Farmers of Iowa, the Iowa Farmers Union, the Soil Health Partnership, the Iowa Seed Association, the Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship Clean Water Initiative, Iowa Corn, Iowa Soybean Association and the Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance and Iowa Learning Farms.

If you missed the field day and are interested in attending one this month, visit our events page to find one near you and RSVP today!

 

~Nathan

Scaling Up Conservation Implementation: An Investment in Practices AND People

CLLHeaderDr. Matt Helmers, Professor Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering and Director of the Iowa Nutrient Research Center presented our November webinar and discussed the innovative Conservation Learning Lab (CLL) project that is key to understanding impacts of in-field conservation practices beyond the research plot scale.

Floyd Co CLLHow does watershed delivery scale compare to a research plot? Plots are kept relatively small (e.g. 6 rows wide by 50 feet long) for easy replication at a research site. Whereas for this project, watershed delivery scale is capturing both surface and subsurface delivery of water from a small watershed (540-1,300 acres) of row crop production agriculture.  The goal is to assess the performance of conservation practices, specifically cover crops and strip-tillage, as the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy calls for large scale adoption of these practices.

Although scaling up requires investments in the practices, by the producer and taxpayers through cost-share, this project has highlighted also the importance of investing in the people that are helping make the implementation possible.

On average it took 12 hours per completed plan – from initial contact to signed contract. If the goal is 50% implementation in a HUC-12 watershed, it can take an estimated 47 weeks to complete the planning process!

Be sure to tune into the archived version of the webinar to see the preliminary water quality monitoring results and the next steps of the project.

Liz Juchems

Sustainable Intensification

CLGHeaderEarlier this month I was in Baltimore for the American Society of Agronomy annual meeting. The keynote speaker was Jules Pretty, professor and deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Essex. Jules spoke on sustainable intensification. The concept of sustainable intensification takes a systems approach to increasing yields without increasing land area under cultivation or negative environmental effects. The argument that Jules states is that transition to sustainability draws on three components: efficiency, substitution, and redesign.

This thought-provoking presentation made me ask, “How can sustainable intensification be applied to agricultural production areas that are already under intensive management?”

Over the last several years, Iowa land area under corn and soybean production has been about 23.25 million acres. In the last 3 years, Iowa farmers have produced the highest three years of total corn and soybean production on record for the state. In addition, Iowa leads the nation in pork, egg, and ethanol production. Clearly, Iowa farmers have figured out how to intensify production practices to efficiently produce agricultural products.

Equally clear, is that intensification has come with environmental costs, especially with increased precipitation in Iowa. As documented in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, excess nitrogen and phosphorus movement into waterbodies are targeted as reasons for poor water quality leading to impairments of Iowa waterbodies and hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico. It is clear that intensification of corn and soybean production has led to highly efficient production with environmental consequences through increased land under production and less a less diverse land use.

IMG_0658

Winter cereal rye aerially seeded in early September into standing soybean.

Through substitution and redesign, can sustainable intensification be achieved in an already intensified production system? I think so. The case can be made that a systems approach to nitrogen use efficiency will lead to less nitrogen loss while accounting for the delicate balance between production and environmental impact. By substituting minor changes such as changing nitrogen application product or moving to less aggressive tillage systems, we could see small reductions in nitrogen and phosphorus loss. Moving to a complete redesign of the intensive production systems through the addition of cover crops (and modifications nutrient, tillage, pest management practices) is another step in the right direction. Ultimately, a complete redesign of the production system would need to include high impact practices such as multi-year rotations, perennial crops, and establishment of wetlands.

While Iowa’s efforts on incorporating conservation practices have been targeted as nutrient loss reduction practices, we have been buying into sustainable intensification of an already intensive production system. Our challenge remains that same, maintain or increase productivity while being profitable environmental stewards.

Mark Licht