Conservation, Recreation, & Rhubarb Meet on the River

You were first introduced to our summer student interns in a blog post earlier this week (Meet our 2017 Water Resources Interns) – now it’s time to hear from them in first person!  Each student in our Water Resources Internship program will be blogging at some point over the course of the summer, so you can get a sneak peek into the many different projects they are involved with, from school visits, camps, and community outreach, to all kinds of field work related to soil health and water quality.

Our first student guest blog post comes from Kaleb Baber, who has just completed his first year of studies at Iowa State University, majoring in Agronomy. Kaleb grew up on a family farm near Weston, MO (north of Kansas City), where he grew sweet corn, raised beef cattle, and was actively involved in FFA. We’ll let Kaleb take it from here!

This past Saturday, June 3, I had the pleasure of traveling with the Conservation Station to Rhubarb on the River, an event held in Manchester, Iowa. This was the first community outreach event I have been to for Water Rocks!/Iowa Learning Farms. It was a fun-filled day of tasty rhubarb creations and great live music – all just a stone’s throw away from the beautiful Maquoketa River.

We left Ames around 6:30 in the morning, Conservation Station in tow (and coffee in hand). We arrived in Manchester around 9:00 and set up the Rainfall Simulator, Enviroscape, and Poo Toss game just in time for the event to start.

Families soon began to visit the Conservation Station. We spoke to over 180 people, ranging in age from babies to seniors. Children got a kick out of tossing (fake) dog poo and making it rain at the Enviroscape (what we call the Watershed Game), while their parents learned about land management practices, soil health and water quality at the Rainfall Simulator.

One conversation I had with a couple from Marion stood out in particular. They were interested in permeable pavers since it is a practice they could potentially implement on their patio. I told them about all of the benefits, such as improving infiltration, potentially reducing the impacts of flash floods and improving water quality. After that, they began asking about the agricultural practices represented by the other trays. The husband showed particular interest in cover crops. I explained the benefits of having the soil surface protected by the plant matter. The wife was curious about the role of nutrients and how they are lost from agricultural landscapes. I told her how the two main nutrients of concern, phosphorus and nitrogen, move through the environment and how cover crops are important since they have shown to reduce losses of both nutrients. The interest the couple had in the steps farmers are taking to improve Iowa’s soil and water quality was very exciting to me. It was great to be teaching the community about Iowa’s water resources, and it was an added bonus that we were right next to the river that flows through the heart of Manchester.

The city has recently built a series of rapids on the Maquoketa River. People were kayaking, floating, and swimming down the river. Children shrieked as their tubes tumbled over the whitewater. One girl who had played Poo Toss game earlier in the day even brought over a baby soft-shelled turtle she had found along the bank. Everyone along the river looked like they were having a blast, especially when it began to heat up in the afternoon!

Another highlight of the day was the delicious food the Manchester Chamber of Commerce was selling. I took a quick break to go grab a rhubarb bratwurst and a slice of rhubarb pie. Both were fantastic! Along Main Street, vendors were selling other rhubarb treats, such as ice cream and wine, as well as quilts and other handmade crafts.

Overall, Rhubarb on the River was an outstanding community event. The City of Manchester did an excellent job organizing it, and their hard work was rewarded by a beautiful day and a great turnout from the area residents. The interest that the public showed in making meaningful strides to cleaner water for the state of Iowa encouraged me, and I am excited to travel to more events like this throughout the rest of my time here as an intern.

Kaleb Baber

Working Together to Educate Youth in Dubuque

A few weeks back, the 4th and 5th students at St. Anthony and Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Schools in Dubuque were treated to high energy, highly interactive presentations from Water Rocks! … but these presentations were particularly special in that they featured a couple of local rock stars in the conservation world!

The Back Story:
As our Water Rocks! visit to St. Anthony & OLG was approaching, I realized it was going to be a pretty tight week for our small staff, and I’d likely be handling the event solo. However, situations like this also present the opportunity to partner with other conservation stakeholders across the state, and even better when it’s someone that’s already been trained on Water Rocks! materials.

Bev Wagner, with the Dubuque Metropolitan Area Solid Waste Agency, has participated in multiple Water Rocks! workshops in the past, including the Water Rocks! Summit, so she has been trained on a variety of the unique hands-on games and activities that we utilize in the classroom. Knowing I was headed to Dubuque, I knew exactly who to call upon!

I connected with Bev right away to see if she might be available to help out and co-present with me, and within a matter of minutes, she responded, “I am available the whole day and would love to help out.” With a smiley face. :)

A few days in advance of my trip to Dubuque, Bev contacted me and asked if her student helper, Ruth, an education student at Loras College, could also come and help out. YES, absolutely!

Fast Forward to Game Day:
Bev, Ruth and I met 30 minutes ahead of time, getting everything loaded into the classroom, set up for the interactive presentation, and we quickly talked through the content. Our topic of the day was The Wonderful World of Wetlands (read more about it in our earlier blog post Wetlands Outreach: Tools of the Trade). The first class of the day, I took the lead in presenting; Bev and Ruth observed while also actively assisting with handing out materials to the students, awarding prizes, etc.

With one class under our belts, Bev and Ruth were both feeling more comfortable with the content, so from that point forward, we tag-teamed the entire 50-minute presentation. We started off with an audio listening tour of wetlands, describing the creatures that live there and what the environment might look like. Ruth showed the class an image of wetlands as we connected that with the listening field trip the students had just gone on. Bev guided the students in talking through all of the different names that wetlands go by, calling on students to share one of the names and then saying it out loud together as a class.

We then jumped in with the characteristics that make wetlands unique (hydric soils, presence of water, and vegetation). That was followed by the 3 jobs that wetlands perform – there were 3 of us, so each one took a job (and its corresponding prop) and explained it to the class!  I started off with a filter (water purification), Ruth followed with a sponge (water storage), and Bev concluded with the house (representing habitat).

Bev and Ruth led the classes in discussing the amazing diversity of plants, animals, microorganisms, and other life found in wetlands – as much biodiversity in Iowa’s wetlands as is found in the Amazon rainforest!  We talked about how wetlands are especially important to migratory creatures – birds and butterflies.

Students then got the opportunity to summon their inner birds for an intense game of Habitat Hopscotch!  Bev was the keeper of the (infamous) “situation jar” which housed different situations that impacted wetlands, while Ruth and I acted as the “bird police,” ensuring that students were landing in the correct squares and sending them to bird prison when they stepped out. Being a Catholic school, one of the 4th grade students asked if instead of bird prison, could we call it “bird heaven”? Priceless!

After 5-6 rousing rounds of Habitat Hopscotch, it was pretty clear that the loss of wetlands has a serious impact on migratory birds. Iowa has lost ~90% of its original wetlands, so that means protecting the remaining 10% of wetlands is critically important!

One 5th grade student responded, “I think we all need to #(HASHTAG) Save The Wetlands!

It was then time to move on to our other big game, Wetlands BINGO!  Again, Bev and Ruth were awesome helpers. Bev was our official BINGO caller, while Ruth and I called out the names of corresponding creatures found in wetlands. Each one of us chipped in with fun facts about the different creatures, as well as sharing which ones were our favorites. When a student got a BINGO, we worked together to come up with a simple trivia question to test their knowledge before awarding a prize from our treasure chest. The 50 minutes with each class passes by so quickly with all the games and hands-on activities involved!

By the end of the day, we had presented to five different classes of students, and I’m pleased to say that not only did the students have a whole lot of fun, they also learned a whole lot about wetland ecosystems and their importance on our landscape. Further, this school visit was a great success in terms of the collaborative teaching effort – a win-win all around!  Bev and Ruth were awesome to work with, and it was fantastic to have local conservation personnel involved helping out with Water Rocks! as well as connecting with the local teachers and students. We look forward to more opportunities like this in the future. All in all, it was a great success —  one of those days when you go home really feeling like you made a difference. And that’s a great feeling.

Ann Staudt

Iowans Walk on the Wild Side

In my first year in Iowa, I’ve found an engaged and motivated citizenry that values wildlife and their habitats. No wonder – Iowa has produced a disproportionate number of 20th century leaders in wildlife conservation, including William Hornaday, Jay “Ding” Darling, John Lacey, and Aldo Leopold. Proof of this commitment lies in Iowan’s support for each of our 99 locally funded County Conservation Boards, a model unique and perfectly suited for the state.

Further proof lies in the outcome of a 2010 vote where 63% of Iowans voted in favor of a self-imposed tax and constitutional amendment to provide permanent funding for natural resource conservation and education. Additionally, a survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that 1.3 million people in Iowa participate in wildlife-associated recreation and spend $1.5 billion doing so annually. Wildlife and wildlife habitats matter to Iowans, our economy, and our land.

Plenty of challenges remain. The meritorious work of public and non-governmental entities to preserve unique habitats in our state only amasses to about 3% of the land area.  Between one and two million acres are annually enrolled in federal conservation practices that provide wildlife habitat. But even when combined with lands in public ownership, these conservation lands are only a drop in the bucket of Iowa’s 36 million acres. Thus, the challenge of preserving our rich wildlife heritage rides on the backs of the collective impact of small actions taken by all landowners in our state.

Wildlife conservation challenges are driven by changes to natural ecosystems in our agricultural landscapes. This is where the opportunities lie, because just as wildlife populations track changes in natural ecosystems, so too do many other important ecosystem services. Wildlife are thus one additional beneficiary of sustainable land use practices and should therefore serve as one more bargaining chip in extolling the benefits and promise of conservation efforts that unite every sector and every resident in Iowa.

We’ve all got a stake in this, and as we see improved soil health and water quality, we’ll see more pheasants and meadowlarks. That sounds like a win-win to me and I’m excited to learn how I can collaborate with the Iowa Learning Farms in the years to come.

Adam Janke

Dr. Adam Janke recently joined the ILF team in an advisory role, and will be a regular contributor to the ILF blog. Hear more of Janke’s perspectives on conservation and wildlife issues on the Conservation Chat podcast!

Wildlife Specialist joins ILF Team

Iowa Learning Farms is thrilled to announce the newest addition to its team, Dr. Adam Janke, joining the ILF team in an advisory role. As an Assistant Professor and Extension Wildlife Specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, Janke offers unique perspectives on conservation, wildlife, and working lands that will compliment the work ILF is doing across the state to build a culture of conservation.

Growing up in a duck hunting family, his conservation ethic and passion for wildlife, especially waterfowl, certainly run deep.

Janke has Midwestern roots as a native of Indiana, and his educational pursuits have taken him on a journey across much of America’s heartland, including stops at Purdue University (BS), Ohio State University (MS), and South Dakota State University (PhD). Having recently completed his first full year at Iowa State University, Janke is now the GO-TO GUY for all things wildlife in the state of Iowa, whether it be bats in the attic, chronic wasting disease in deer, or managing for habitat within our vast working lands across Iowa.

You can get to know Adam Janke and his vision for wildlife habitat integrated within agricultural working lands through the Conservation Chat podcast.  Tune in to Episode 29 of the Conservation Chat, just recently released, to hear Janke’s perspectives on wildlife habitat, conservation and more.

Janke addresses the connections between hunting and wildlife conservation, a rich legacy across North America of sustainably managing populations and sustainably managing the lands they live on. He also shares perspectives on how ducks and other waterfowl, over the years, have been great catalysts for wetland protection and practices that support water quality. While still early in his career, Janke shares long-term goals for increasing wildlife habitat across Iowa, in partnership with ILF and beyond …

When listening to the podcast, it’s pretty clear that Dr. Janke is super enthusiastic about what he does! And we are super enthusiastic about him joining the ILF team. Keep an eye out for his friendly face at upcoming field days, on our blog and E-newsletter, and we’ll also be working together on the Master Conservationist program (and more) in the coming months.

Welcome, Adam!

Ann Staudt

From the Director: The Best-Kept Secret in Iowa

You know what I learned from the 207 people who attended one of our five  Iowa Learning Farms regional workshops this winter? Wetlands are one of the best-kept secrets in Iowa in terms of their benefits! Not one single person mentioned them in response to the question “What are the practices that are most effective for improving water quality in your area?”

Matt Helmers said to me after we were leaving the third of five meetings, “Golly, we still have a lot of education and outreach to do about wetlands.”

I would agree. Wetlands play a key role of reducing nitrogen in Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Strategically designed and sited wetlands can reduce nitrate loads to downstream water bodies by 40-70%. Currently we have around 80 of the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) wetlands in the state. The NRS calls for 7,600 of them if we hope meet its goal. To read more about the importance of wetlands, check out Ann’s blog Wetlands and Water Quality.

That calls for a HUGE amount of human and financial capital. It also opens amazing economic and job creating opportunity for us. As Matt told me, “I would love to be training our ISU students to be out there designing and building CREP wetlands throughout the state.”

Beyond the water quality benefits and the job opportunities from siting 7,000 wetlands in our state, wetlands and the lands surrounding them will help bring needed pollinators and other biodiversity to our state.

Finally, as Matt argues in his blog earlier this week about returning to pasturelands, wetlands add beauty to our landscape. If you don’t believe me, screen our award-winning documentary Incredible Wetlands.

Keep your eye on our blog to hear more of what we learned from participants during the regional workshops. We hope to create a more positive learning experience through a Rapid Needs Assessment and Response (RNR) technique. To read more about our unique approach, check out Brandy’s blog RNR is a Favorite for Conservation Workshops.

Jacqueline Comito

Engineers are Integral!

We are in the heart of National Engineers Week, so let’s give a shout out to all of the engineers out there who are combining science, technology, and problem solving to address real world challenges across the globe!

gw-happyengineersweek

Engineers Week is an annual celebration, striving to get the word out about what engineers do, helping to increase understanding and build excitement around science and engineering. Founded by the National Society of Professional Engineers in 1951, Engineers Week is traditionally held around the time of George Washington’s birthday. In addition to serving as our first president, Washington is widely recognized as our nation’s first engineer thanks to his extensive surveying work.

Here in the conservation world, our work today is certainly much different from GW’s, but no less important in terms of working on some grand challenges here in the state of Iowa!  Engineers are integral to so many pieces of the puzzle, from developing agricultural machinery and grain handling/storage,  to working with big data and precision conservation (check out Amy Kaleita’s work for more), studying the interactions of land and water (read about the work being done by Michelle Soupir’s team and Matt Helmers’s team), designing and optimizing practices like wetlands and bioreactors for maximum effectiveness, plus designing water treatment and wastewater treatment facilities that treat millions of gallons of water each day.

engineers-makeithappen-01

However, technical solutions alone will certainly not solve the water quality challenges that we face here in the state of Iowa – the social sciences, music, and the arts are equally important pieces of the puzzle when it comes to making emotional appeals and helping people better understand and connect with the land and water resources around them.

I’m proud to be an engineer working in water quality and conservation here with Iowa Learning Farms, as well as inspiring the next generation to get super excited about science and engineering through our classroom visits with Water Rocks!. Happy E-Week to all!

Ann Staudt

P.S. Today is an especially unique day within National Engineers Week – it’s Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day. DiscoverE is celebrating #GirlDay2017 with a live Twitter Chat “Role Models Unite to Inspire Girls” coming up very soon — TODAY at noon ET (11:00am central)!

 

 

5 Lessons Learned with Rye Cover Crops

Here at Iowa Learning Farms, we’ve been working with cereal rye cover crops since 2008. That’s not nearly as long as our good friend and colleague Tom Kaspar with USDA-ARS, but we can certainly say that, with our partners in the Iowa Cover Crop Working Group, we’ve been exploring and promoting cover crops long before they were cool!

Our longest ongoing study involves the use of cereal rye as a winter cover crop in on-farm trials within corn/soybean cropping systems across the state of Iowa. Over the years, twelve farmers have participated as partners in this project, with each demonstration site featuring field-length replicated strips with a cereal rye cover crop as well as replicated strips without a cereal rye cover crop.

projectsitesmaterialsmethods

In our eight years of on-farm cover crop demonstrations, what have we learned?  Here are our Top 5 takeaways regarding cereal rye cover crops:

1. Rye cover crops are largely yield neutral.
In the vast majority of this study (55 of 59 site-years), farmers found that a properly managed cereal rye cover crop had little to no negative effect on corn and soybean yields. Soybean yield actually increased in 7 site-years and corn yield increased in 2 site-years. There can be a learning curve up front, but in the long run, this study’s findings dispel the myth that rye negatively impacts crop yields (especially corn yields) in the following season.
yieldimpacts

2. Cover crops require active management.
Additional considerations/management factors when using a rye cover crop include seeding rate and method in the fall, and then cover crop termination and adjusting planter settings to accommodate additional residue in the spring. In the few cases of this study where crop yields were negatively impacted, farmers identified insufficient cover crop termination and improper planter settings as reasons for the few years where there were crop yield reductions.

3. Spring growth is key to realizing rye’s benefits.
Unlike winter wheat, oats, radishes and turnips, cereal rye survives over winter and continues its growth into the spring months. Large amounts of spring over crop biomass can be produced – variable to location and termination date.
springbiomass

4. Soil health is hard to define and even harder to measure.
Five years into the study, we found no measurable differences in soil health variables (soil organic matter, total carbon, total nitrogen, pH, infiltration and runoff) between the strips with and without the cereal rye cover crop at individual locations. A much greater intensity of sampling and additional time (years) may be required to quantify significant changes. Plus many of Iowa’s soils have relatively high levels of organic matter to begin with, so detecting very small changes can be challenging.

5. Earthworm numbers have increased with a cereal rye cover crop. Looking at the common nightcrawler (Lumbricus terrestris), our 2016 midden count data indicate a statistically significant difference of 38% more earthworms with a cereal rye cover crop. Earthworms can serve as tangible, early biological indicators of soil health.
earthworms

These findings and more will be highlighted at ISU’s Soil Health Conference coming up later this week. Stop by and see our poster, and let’s talk cover crops – we hope to see you there!

Ann Staudt

 

Additional information on our work with rye cover crops:

ILF Cover Crop Research webpage
Additional ILF Cover Crop Resources
Earthworms, Cover Crops and Soil Health

The Iowa Cover Crop Working Group is a collaboration of Iowa Learning Farms and the following organizations:

  • Practical Farmers of Iowa
  • Iowa State University Extension and Outreach
  • Iowa Dept. of Agriculture and Land Stewardship
  • USDA-Agricultural Research Service, National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment
  • USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service
  • Midwest Cover Crops Council

Funding for this demonstration project has been provided by Iowa’s State Soil Conservation Committee, Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Iowa State University Extension Water Quality Program, and NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant 69-6114-15-005.