Incubating New Ideas at the Drainage Research Forum

Matt Helmers | Professor in Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering and Extension Agriculture Engineer, Iowa State University 

In my last column, I wrote about how we needed to scale up the human resources significantly in order to meet some of the goals of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. This month, I would like to assert that it is also critical we continue efforts on new technology development and research on the performance of practices – specifically new practices.

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Bioreactor Installation in Monroe Co. Iowa

One outlet for developing new ideas is the Iowa-Minnesota Drainage Research Forum. While edge-of-field nitrate reduction practices such as controlled drainage, bioreactors, wetlands, and saturated buffers are now household names, they were first discussed at the Drainage Research Forums when they were just preliminary ideas with some preliminary data. This event serves as an incubator for innovation to help us get feedback about how these practices might work.

The Drainage Research Forum is in its seventeenth year and was held in Ames this year. I have been attending these forums since I stated at Iowa State. The Forum averages around 75 people, mainly engineers and researchers from across the Midwest. Basically, when we present the new idea or practice at this forum, we are asking our colleagues to give us input on whether they think it will work on a larger scale and to see if anyone in the room can point out our flaws or give us another way to approach it. They can be really engaging and important discussions.


You can download most of the past Forum presentations from the Drainage Outlet website through University of Minnesota Extension.


Much of the initial funding for these types of unknown practices were from state agencies and local centers such as the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. These groups could be nimble and see the need and understand that small initial investments could lead to great outcomes and larger research funding which has happened in almost all cases.

So while we continue working on implementation of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy and continue with efforts to education farmers and other stakeholders about practices they can use to reduce downstream nutrient loss, we need to continue the behind the scenes efforts to develop new practices for nutrient reduction, conduct research to refine recommendations for practice implementation, and conduct research to enhance the performance of practices.

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Drainage Forum held in Ames, Iowa on November 15, 2017

In order to do this, we need forums like the Drainage Research Forum to help develop the innovation needed to develop practices or different approaches to old ones. Forums that bring together smaller groups of people with initial ideas and data to help them see how that information will work on the land.

The Iowa Learning Farms team likes to tease me about how excited I get to attend the Drainage Research Forum. They are right. It is one of my favorite gatherings. Some or much of that excitement comes from knowing I will get to learn about cutting edge practices, technology or management approaches that are in their early stages. I look forward to hearing what new ideas are discussed at the next seventeen (or more!) Drainage Research Forums. You are welcome to join us in 2018.

Matt Helmers

Iowa Learning Farms Webinar to Explore Past, Present and Future of Bioreactors

05-17 BioreactorAs substantial investments in drainage systems continue to be made across the U.S.- Midwest, the use of edge-of-field practices like woodchip bioreactors can help treat tile-drained water and help meet our water quality goals.

Dr. Laura Christianson, Professional Engineer and Assistant Professor in the Department of Crop Sciences at the University of Illinois, will present on bioreactor basics, what we know about how bioreactors work and novel ideas to make bioreactors work better. Dr. Christianson has nine years of experience focused on agricultural drainage water quality and denitrification bioreactors for point and nonpoint nitrogen treatment.

DATE: Wednesday, November 15, 2017
TIME: 12:00 noon
HOW TO PARTICIPATE: Log on as a guest shortly before 12:00 p.m.:
https://connect.extension.iastate.edu/ilf/

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

Julie Whitson

Watershed Academy: Training the Boots on the Ground in Iowa Watersheds

Last month, over 30 watershed coordinators from across the state came together to learn skills and share best practices about the science of watershed improvement and what it takes to get conservation practices on the ground where they work. Participants who attended the two-day training heard from agency representatives, university researchers and industry experts on a variety of topics.


Data Collection and Tools

Watershed coordinators perform many duties for their watershed projects. They are responsible for compiling and assessing data on water quality, land use, hydrology, stream bank conditions and more. Coordinators work with partners across the state as they assess available data and make decisions on how to best prioritize cost-share dollars in the watershed. The Watershed Academy provided coordinators with in-depth information on conservation planning, watershed planning, social assessments and available tools for data collection.

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Messaging and Communication

Coordinators are the boots on the ground in a watershed project area. They are responsible for building relationships with producers and becoming a trusted source of information in their watershed. Trainings like these are great places for coordinators to share their approach, messages and tools that they’ve used to get the job done. Speakers presented on the One Water approach, ArcGIS Story Maps, conservation sales and the newly-unveiled Conservation Station On the Edge trailer.

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Trends and Topics

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Stefan Gailans of Practical Farmers of Iowa shares research on using tea bags to measure indicators of soil health.

Coordinators need a well-rounded understanding of emerging trends and the latest research in the state. Speakers presented on cover crop acre trends in Iowa, measuring soil health using tea bags, sourcewater protection and the conservation infrastructure that will be needed to reach the goals of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

On behalf of the Watershed Academy planning committee, I would like to thank all of our participants, presenters and sponsors! To view presentations and additional resources from the 2017 Fall Iowa Watershed Academy, visit the Watershed Academy website. If you are a watershed coordinator or a person who works directly on similar projects, please join us for the next Watershed Academy!

Julie Whitson and Jamie Benning

For more information about the Watershed Academy, contact Jamie Benning, Iowa State University Extension Water Quality Program Manager.

The Watershed Academy was sponsored by the Iowa Natural Resources Conservation Service, Soil and Water Conservation Society, Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance, Conservation Districts of Iowa, Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach and the Iowa Watershed Approach.

Fly the “W”

blog-header-cubsI love October especially when the Cubs are still playing baseball. Of course as I write this, the series is tied 1-1 and so by the time this is published, the Cubs might not still be playing baseball. But for right now, it is October and the Cubs are in the playoffs and life is good!

Along with postseason baseball, October also brings the fall colors. The other day I was walking through Ames’ largest cemetery and enjoying the beauty of all the trees. Cemeteries are havens of peace and good places to think. My ILF E-News column was due soon and I had no good ideas. I was hoping this walk might shake something loose.

I asked myself, can I tie the Cubs, cemeteries and the Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS) together for my column?

cubsgameAs I walked, I noticed a half a dozen graves that were flying the blue “W” near the headstones. For those of you who are not Cubs fans and were in a foreign country last year when they finally won the World Series, the blue “W” represents a Cubs’ win. Now I didn’t check the tombstones for year of death but I am guessing that a few of them died before November of last year and this was the family’s way of acknowledging how important the win would have been for them.

As I walked, I called fellow Cubs fan Jamie Benning and shared with her my observation about the “W” in the cemetery. Did she think I could link the nutrient reduction strategy and Cubs for my column? Jamie suggested exploring if there was anything to learn from the road to the Cubs 2016 World Series victory and the power of a symbol such as the “W” that could apply to NRS implementation.

Of course, we both thought that was a good idea so I went home and gave it some thought. In order for the Cubs to have a chance at a national championship, several things had to happen.

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Most of this work happened in the off-season and most national championships are won by what happens during the periods when the team is not playing ball.

If we want to have greater success in implementing Iowa’s NRS, I think we have some valuable lessons to take from the Cubs’ success.

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It is October. The growing season is over (if you haven’t planted cover crops) and the cash crops are being harvested. The next several months could be considered the “off-season” for those who don’t have livestock. There is a lot of work to do right now to lay the groundwork for greater success in implementing the NRS in the years to come. ‘Cause just like in baseball, next year begins right now.

Jacqueline Comito

retaiN: Putting the Power of Data in the Hands of Farmers

One piece of the puzzle in encouraging farmers to adopt practices that reduce nitrogen loss is to show them how much nitrate is being lost through their tile lines, and if some fields have higher loss than others. Most water monitoring methods are expensive or labor-intensive and it is impractical now to professionally test every farm. We needed to come up with an idea that was effective, inexpensive, and easily done by farmers. The result was the retaiN project.

ILF Juchems 068The seeds for retaiN came from conversations Clare Lindahl and I had with farmers that had participated in tile monitoring. The farmers told us that it was an eye-opening experience. They found that while they were using practices that minimized soil loss and improved soil health, those practices weren’t addressing nitrate loss through their tile.

Afterwards, Clare (at the time Executive Director of Conservation Districts of Iowa) and I were trying to figure out how to make the tile monitoring process easier and accessible to a larger number of farmers. Building on the idea of citizen science, we decided that we could create less expensive testing kits that farmers could use privately on their land to help answer these questions. To get the funds we needed, we applied for and received a grant through the State Soil Conservation Committee.

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Oct_2017_Retain2This seed money enabled us to develop simple kits to make testing tile water for nitrate easy and to also provide farmers with solutions for retaining nitrogen on the farm. In two years, the project has distributed over 1,200 retaiN kits to farmers and landowners individually and through watershed project coordinators, ISU Extension field specialists and county offices, Iowa Corn Growers Association (ICGA) and agribusinesses.

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Oct_2017_Retain1The test kit provides an opportunity to collect on-farm nitrate concentration data and further engages farmers in water quality issues. Participants are encouraged to discuss their results with a specialist but there are no requirements to submit data. A new partnership with Iowa Corn Growers Association saw significant growth this year with ICGA distributing over 400 kits at Crop Fairs, Soil Health Partnership events, and watershed education and outreach events across the state.

The evaluation of the kits from farmers, agribusiness and organization partners, watershed coordinators, and ISU Extension and Outreach specialists has been overwhelmingly positive. In some cases, it has led to expanded on-farm water sampling to gather additional or more precise data, ongoing monitoring to gather baseline results, and changes in nitrogen management and practice adoption. Thanks to our funding partners, we are still able to offer farmers their first retaiN kit at no cost.  Additional kits can be purchased for $39 and can be requested through the project website www.retainiowa.com/.

The retaiN project demonstrates the power of information when it comes to reducing the amount of nitrate that leaves a farmer’s land through their tile lines. The more farmers learn about the quality of the water leaving their land, the closer we will get to achieving our Nutrient Reduction Strategy goals, one retaiN kit at a time.

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Jamie Benning

retaiN is a collaboration between Conservation Districts of Iowa, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach and Iowa Learning Farms with support from the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Division of Soil Conservation and Water Quality. Jamie Benning is an Iowa Learning Farms team member and Water Quality Program Manager at Iowa State University.

Webinars Are Back, New Outreach Tool Debuted

Our Iowa Learning Farms webinars are back! This week, Matt Helmers, professor in the Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering and Iowa Learning Farms team member, kicked off our webinar series for 2017. Dr. Helmers spoke on nitrate reduction, and specifically, nitrate reduction practices that can help treat tile-drained water.

In order to achieve the goals of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS), we know that a wide array of practice implementation will be necessary. And, Dr. Helmers stressed, “It’s not just a few people making a change, it’s all farmers in the state of Iowa.” To drive that point home, we can refer to Dr. Laura Christianson’s catchy slogan: One practice might not be right for every acre, but every acre needs at least one practice.

“It’s not just a few people making a change, it’s all farmers in the state of Iowa.”

One scenario in the Iowa NRS calls for almost all agricultural acres to more effectively manage nitrogen, 12-13 million acres to be in cover crops, 7 million acres to be treated by wetlands and 7 million acres to be treated by bioreactors. This scenario requires an incredible amount of implementation of practices from many Iowan. It also requires in-field changes as well as treatment of tile-drained water at the edge of the field. Dr. Helmers zeroes in on those edge-of-field practices and just how effective they can be for nitrate reduction in the treatment of tile-drained water.

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Dr. Helmers has spoken at hundreds of events since the initial release of the Iowa NRS in 2012. Based on his experience, he sees one thing clearly: “We need to create a sense of urgency because the level of implementation must be increased!”

“We need to create a sense of urgency because the level of implementation must be increased!”

Many are familiar with the need for financial and technical resources to get more edge-of-field practices on the ground, but we also need people who can help design these practices. Education could play a key role in this need – workshops for contractors, new curriculum for students, and field days as these practices are being installed are necessary. After the practices are installed, many edge-of-field practices lose their magic, as the magic is going on right below our feet, out of sight.

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The Iowa Learning Farms team and our project partners*, have created one unique way to start addressing the edge-of-field outreach need: The Conservation Station On the Edge! Dr. Helmers said it best: “When you can’t go out to see the practices being installed, Iowa Learning Farms has created a way to bring the practice, and the field day, to the people!”

The Conservation Station On the Edge will be available to travel to events beginning in Fall of 2017. Contact ilf@iastate.edu to inquire about availability for your event. Another popular outreach tool, the Rainfall Simulator, is still running.

Watch the webinar from our webinar archives!

Julie Whitson

*We thank our project partners, including the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Department of Natural Resources (Section 319 of Clean Water Act), USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and Agri Drain Corporation.

The Nutrient Reduction Strategy: Creating A More Resilient Iowa

Have you ever fallen in love with a new car at the dealership and wanted to take it home until you look at the sticker price? Well, as I travel around Iowa, it seems like folks are pretty enthusiastic about the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS) until they hear the “sticker price,” i.e. the scale of practice implementation and cost.

NRS Goals_3-24-2017

One example scenario to reach the nitrate-N reduction targets of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy includes 60% of corn-soybean and continuous corn acres having cover crops (~12.5 million acres), 27% of all agricultural land being treated with a wetland, and 60% of the tile-drained acres being treated with a bioreactor.

For wetlands, it was assumed that each wetland (10 acres of wetland surface area with 35 acres of buffer) treats 1,000 acres of agricultural land, which would result in approximately 7,600 wetlands for this scenario. For bioreactors, it was assumed that each bioreactor treats 50 acres of subsurface-drained land, which would total approximately 120,000 bioreactors in Iowa alone.

See what I mean – quite a sticker price!

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But, while the scale of implementation and costs associated with reaching the NRS goals seem daunting, it is important to recognize the additional benefits that could come from pursuing nutrient reduction such as the economic benefits of cleaner water as well as the employment and labor opportunities to implement the various strategies.

Throughout the Midwest, discussions have begun on resources needed to implement the various state nutrient reduction strategies. While this is encouraging and exciting, most of the discussion has focused on the resources needed to implement the practices. There is very little discussion of the labor needed to successfully scale up the practices.

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I believe that for large-scale implementation of the NRS to be successful, we need to make the necessary investment in people. We need trained individuals that can work with farmers and landowners on implementing these practices. We need them both in the private and public sectors. Developing and delivering programs and classes that can train individuals to promote and assist in NRS practice implementation is crucial if we are going to make significant progress on reaching our nutrient reduction goal. There will be a significant increase in job opportunities for individuals who are trained and willing do this work.

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I firmly believe that if we accelerate the rate of practice implementation, we will see numerous small business opportunities throughout rural Iowa to site, design, and maintain these various practices and provide technical assistance to farmers and landowners.

 

It is a win-win for our state. Yes, it is a big investment, but it could stimulate our economy and make for a more resilient Iowa in every way.

Matt Helmers

Matt Helmers is an Iowa Learning Farms team member and Professor of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering at Iowa State University. To hear more about implementing Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, listen to Matt’s Conservation Chat with ILF Program Director Jacqueline Comito.