Saturated Buffer Helping Improve Water Quality Near Walcott

ILFHeaderIMG_0035Mike Paustian returned to the family’s heritage farm in 2008 which encompasses nearly 1,400 acres and a 1,200 sow farrow-to-finish hog operation. In addition to using no-till and minimum tillage, the Paustian’s began adding cover crops to hold soil in place, while scavenging nutrients from the soil and fall applied manure. Their goal is to build long term soil health and organic matter in their fields and improve water quality. They have used primarily cereal rye and oats on about 600 acres for over seven years.

Taking the next step to reduce nitrate loss from their farm, the Paustians installed a saturated buffer just north of their home in the summer of 2018 and are using drone technology to monitor the performance of their farm and conservation practices.

These practices were on full display at our field day last night as the Paustians shared their experiences and efforts to help improve water quality and soil health.

IMG_0003Kay Stefanik, assistant director of the Iowa Nutrient Research Center, set the stage with an overview of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy and demonstrated how nitrate test strips can be used by farmers and landowners to check their local water quality. These test strips can provide a nitrate and nitrite concentration result in just 30 seconds and should be used multiple times throughout the year to provide a more accurate representation of the system. These strips are available through ISU County Extension offices or by contacting Jamie Benning, Iowa State Water Quality Manager.

After a short walk to the saturated buffer, Keith Schilling and Matthew Streeter, Iowa Geologic Survey, guided us through the installation process and ongoing monitoring of the site. Supported by an Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship grant, they are collected data through 2020.

Results from the first year of data indicate that the nitrate concentration leaving the saturated buffer is <2 mg/l whereas the control is measuring an average of over 20 mg/l. With good infield management of nutrients and the addition of cover crops, there is little nitrate entering the buffer and the soil microorganisms are then able to efficiently remove nitrate that does enter the system and release it as N2 gas.

IMG_0029Using their sampling gear, we were able to use a nitrate test strip and take a quick measurement during the field day. The strip revealed about 2 mg/l – consistent with the results from the on-going monitoring.

Back at the shop, Mike provided a quick demonstration of how he is using drone technology to monitor crop and conservation practice performance to help guide management choices for their operation. Using software to analyze the imagery, he was able to observe how his cereal rye cover crop fared during the very wet spring.

IMG_0041“It is clear on this map (lower left corner) where we ran out of manure two years ago. There is less rye growth in that area and we can now adjust our management decisions to help improve our system,” noted Mike. “Another result of using the drones, is our decision to use a tractor with tracks next spring on a field that showed signs of compaction.”

Whether you have access to drone technology or pick up some nitrate test strips from your local Extension office, you can use these tools on your farm to better inform your decisions and seek technical help from your NRCS office to help make some changes to your system to help improve the long term productivity of your farm.

If you are interested in hosting or attended an upcoming field day, feel free to reach out at 515-294-5429 or

Liz Juchems

The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy Measurement Project: Tracking Progress Towards Iowa’s Water Quality Goals


Today at noon, Laurie Nowatzke, Measurement Coordinator for the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy at Iowa State University, discussed the progress and challenges of Iowa’s water quality improvement efforts.

Nowatzke_photo thumbnailThe webinar covered how progress towards the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS) is measured, how much progress has been made and what challenges remain. The NRS is a science-based strategy to reduce nutrients in surface water from both point and nonpoint sources. Nowatzke shared a brief history of the measurement tracking associated with the NRS and then discussed the recently published 2017-2018 Annual Progress Report.

She explained how the NRS uses a logic model framework to track quantifiable change in inputs, the human dimension, land use and water quality. The 2017-2018 Annual Progress Report shows an increase in funding for conservation practices and programs, mostly due to an increase in Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) rental payments. It also shows an increase in outreach and education events. Farmer attitudes towards and awareness of the conservation efforts is being measured through a five year survey. Summaries of the survey results for two HUC6 watersheds are available in the report.

INRS Logic Model

Image from the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy: 2017-2018 Annual Progress Report

Nowatzke also described how conservation practices are tracked, including the tracking of CRP land retirement, cover crop use, and the installation of bioreactors and saturated buffers. Water quality progress is assessed using a two-pronged approach of measuring nutrient concentrations in surface waters and modeling nutrient loss reductions that are associated with different conservation practices.

To learn more about how progress towards meeting the NRS goals is measured, how much progress has been made and the challenges that remain, watch the recorded webinar!

Join us next month, on Wednesday, August 21 at noon, when Jacqueline Comito, Iowa Learning Farms Program Director, will present an Iowa Learning Farms webinar titled “15 Years of Iowa Learning Farms”.

Hilary Pierce

July 17 Webinar: The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy Measurement Project: Tracking Progress Towards Iowa’s Water Quality Goals

Join us on Wednesday, July 17 at noon, when Iowa Learning Farms will host a webinar about the progress towards Iowa’s water quality goals.

Nowatzke_photo thumbnailHow many acres of cover crops are planted each year in Iowa? Are extended rotations and perennials increasing? Laurie Nowatzke, Measurement Coordinator for the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy at Iowa State University, will discuss the progress and challenges of Iowa’s water quality improvement efforts by addressing these questions and others. Find out how progress is measured, where to find the data, and what questions remain about Iowa’s water quality improvement.

“Water quality challenges are on the minds of many Iowans. In this webinar, I hope to shed light on where we’re currently seeing progress in conservation practice adoption and where there are still challenges,” said Nowatzke. She hopes that webinar attendees will understand how conservation practice adoption in Iowa is tracked, the “bright spots” and challenges of water quality progress, and where to find data and information about Iowa’s water quality improvement efforts.

A Certified Crop Adviser board approved continuing education unit (CEU) is available for those who are able to watch the live webinar. Information for submitting your CCA/CPAg/CPSS/CPSC number to earn the credit will be provided at the end of the presentation.

Don’t miss this webinar!
DATE: Wednesday, July 17, 2019
TIME: 12:00 p.m.
HOW TO PARTICIPATE: visit 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:

Hilary Pierce

A Conservation Chat with Ingrid Gronstal Anderson and Jennifer Terry

Conservation Chat Header

On the latest episode of the Conservation Chat, host Jacqueline Comito discussed the Iowa Environmental Council with Ingrid Gronstal Anderson and Jennifer Terry. Gronstal Anderson is the new Water Program Director for the Iowa Environmental Council and Terry is the Executive Director and they chatted about how the Iowa Environmental Council is striving toward cleaner water for all Iowans to enjoy.

Ingrid Gronstal Anderson

Ingrid Gronstal Anderson, photo credit: Iowa Environmental Council

Gronstal Anderson and Terry talked about how the Iowa Environmental Council is a watchdog that holds government agencies accountable on behalf of Iowans. That accountability is important when it comes to natural resources because of the relationship between natural resources and public health, such as in the case of regulations for drinking water quality. They stated the importance of working with partners from diverse sectors at the Council.

The talk then turned to the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy and the Clean Water Act.

“We also would like to see the Clean Water Act adhered to more stringently here in Iowa. In terms of using our beaches and protecting drinking water sources and our lakes, its imperative that we have better enforcement in Iowa of the Clean Water Act.” – Terry 

Jennifer Terry

Jennifer Terry, photo credit: Iowa Environmental Council

They discussed the importance of showing progress toward our water quality goals and the struggle against the lack of urgency that many feel regarding adoption of conservation practices. Although anti-regulation sentiment is common, Gronstal Anderson and Terry talked about how not only would jobs and industries follow regulation, but that it would help to provide a level playing field for farmers across the state.

To hear the rest of the chat and learn more about the work the Iowa Environmental Council does, listen to the podcast here!

Hilary Pierce

Bioreactor Installation a Success


The rain didn’t dampen the excitement of a new bioreactor being installed near Albert City last night. Olie and Lois Leimer were pleased to share their newest conservation practice on their farm with fellow farmers, landowners and contractors at our field day.


Lois and Olie Leimer discussing their new bioreactor being installed behind them with Lee Gravel, Headwaters of the North Raccoon Watershed Coordinator.

The Leimers are long time implementers of conservation practices. They began using no-till many years ago in an effort to save on fuel and time. They have also added cover crops to their farm to reduce soil erosion and improve soil health and water quality.

“It’s a work in progress. We’re always looking for ways to improve our farm and our impact on water quality,” state Olie.


Field day attendees were able to check out the bioreactor site and hear from Brian Heinsohn, owner of Heinsohn Digging & Tiling, who led the contractor installation team.

Leimer approached the local Natural Resources Conservation Service about two years ago to begin the process of installing the bioreactor.  Together with Lee Gravel, Headwaters of the North Raccoon Watershed Coordinator, and ISG in Storm Lake to design and construct the bioreactor, the finished edge of field practice will treat about 80 acres of drained row crop acres.


Nearly completed bioreactor.

The actual installation process goes fairly quickly. The trench and control structures were installed on Monday and by Tuesday afternoon the woodchips were delivered. They would have finished on Tuesday, but the area was left open so attendees could view the trench and woodchips. In total there is about 3.5 feet of woodchips that will be covered by about one foot of soil. Once the soil is in place, a pollinator habitat mix will be seeded over the bioreactor.

The bioreactor will be monitored for how nitrate removal throughout the upcoming years as partners work to meet the goals of the Iowa Nutrient reduction strategy. If you are interested in installing a bioreactor on your farm you can contact Iowa Learning Farms or your local NRCS office.

Be sure to check out upcoming field days in your area by visit our events page!

Liz Juchems

Cover Crop Acres Increase but Rate of Growth Declines in 2018

ILFHeader(15-year)According to the Iowa Learning Farms 15-year Evaluation data, Iowa cover crop acres grew last year by approximately 16 percent resulting in approximately 880,000 total acres. While the positive growth at a time when farmers are reporting shrinking profit margins is notable, this represents a six percent decline in new cover crop acres compared to last year’s estimate and a 19 percent cumulative decline since 2015. A year in which 35 percent of all the cover crop acres were new. This number is still well below the goal of 12.5 million acres of cover crops called for in Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

Since 2009, Iowa Learning Farms, based at IMG_1800Iowa State University, has been tracking cover crop data reported by farmers and landowners who attend an ILF workshop and field day. In addition, in recognition of its 15-year anniversary, ILF conducted a mailed survey of all farmers and landowners that had participated in field days since 2005. Eight hundred ninety-nine people responded to the survey reporting 131,389 acres of cover crops on their land or 15 percent of the overall estimated cover crop acres in Iowa.

Many of the new acres were planted by experienced cover crop farmers. The majority (85 percent) of respondents to Iowa Learning Farms’ 15-year evaluation questionnaire started seeding cover crops at least three years ago. Only six percent of respondents reported implementing cover crops for the first time on their land last fall. Those respondents with cover crops reported an average of 44 percent of their total row crop acres in cover crops, representing a consistent value over the last three years.

“It is encouraging to see growth in cover crop use among experienced cover crop farmers, even with low crop prices and a fall with less than ideal weather,” commented Jamie Benning, Iowa State University Extension water quality program manager and Iowa Learning Farms adviser. “I am concerned that the rate of growth has declined for the third year in a row and that the number of first-time cover crop users declined significantly this year. For this reason, ILF is already ramping us this spring with cover crop events to reach new farmers.”

All of the respondents who planted cover crops for the first time in 2018 used cost share and planted an average of 100 acres, higher than last year’s average of 89 acres. Overall, 66 percent of the total reported cover crop acres were planted with cost share, while 78 percent of the new acres were planted with cost share.

Iowa Learning Farms has held 265 conservation field days and workshops since 2005 on cover crops, strip-tillage, saturated buffers, prairie strips and more. These events drew an attendance of 13,621 people—72 percent are farmers and landowners. Cover crop field days in 2019 will stress the benefits and best practice management for implementing cover crops.

ILF continues to work with ISU Extension and other partner organizations throughout Iowa to raise awareness of beneficial conservation practices such as cover crops among landowners and farmers. The complete 15-year Iowa Learning Farms report will be released in early April 2019, and will be found at

Liz Juchems

Conservation Chat Podcast Returns!

Water quality takes center stage in the Conservation Chat podcast’s long-awaited return!  The Chat debuts its new format, featuring multiple guests on the program together for a roundtable-type discussion. In the newest episode, Improving Water Quality, host Jacqueline Comito visits with two rockstars on Iowa State University’s water quality scene, Matt Helmers and Jamie Benning.

Tune in to this latest episode for an engaging discussion on timely topics related to water quality and agricultural production here in the state of Iowa, centered around the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Having been released five-plus years ago, Comito, Helmers, and Benning discuss the progress made thus far, but also the immense scale of implementation needed to achieve tangible progress in terms of nutrient reduction and improved water quality. Tune in as they bounce ideas about the interwoven relationships between dollars spent, practices implemented, nutrients reduced, policy structure, and progress towards true paradigm shift.

In addition, Helmers and Benning both emphasize the importance of translating pure scientific research to more accessible, digestible outreach materials for general public consumption through such means as short videos, webinars, field days, and infographics. Helmers shares a great anecdote about the power of video to reach broad audiences around the world – he is currently hosting a student intern from Honduras, and this student had recently seen the Iowa Learning Farms’ Rainfall Simulator video in one of her engineering classes back at her home institution!

Tune in to Episode 40 of the Conservation Chat to hear the full interview with Matt Helmers and Jamie Benning. You can also download or listen to any of the previous podcast episodes on the Conservation Chat website and through iTunes.

Ann Staudt