Sign up today for new Master Conservationist program!

Interested in deepening your knowledge of Iowa’s wildlife and plant communities, broadening your understanding of biodiversity, and connecting the dots between agriculture, natural resources, and conservation issues in our great state? Look no further than the newly revitalized Iowa Master Conservationist program, launching this next week!

Mount Pleasant will be hosting this pilot Master Conservationist program, running from October 5 – November 12, 2017. The newly refreshed Master Conservationist training program is being coordinated by Adam Janke, Iowa State University Extension Wildlife Specialist, in partnership with Henry Co. Extension and other local conservation personnel.

The revitalized Master Conservationist program features a hybrid flipped classroom format, including both weekly online lessons and face-to-face interactive meetings.  Themes will cover a broad range of conservation topics pertinent here in the state of Iowa, ranging from conservation history, biodiversity, forests, prairies, and aquatic ecosystems, to bringing it all together in the watershed and effectively communicating conservation.

Each of the online modules will be led by ISU faculty and staff who are not just experts in their fields, but also highly engaging presenters.  Participants will then meet in person weekly for the face-to-face training component, which will include interactive, hands-on activities and demonstrations led by local conservation enthusiasts, building and expanding upon that week’s online training. With numerous parallels to the Master Gardener program, the Master Conservationist program weaves together both learning and service in the local community.

Don’t delay – get signed up today to be a part of this exciting new pilot Master Conservationist program!   Spaces are limited, in order to foster an intimate learning environment, and today is literally the deadline to get registered. The cost is $100 and includes course materials plus a meal and/or snack for each of the seven weeks of training. Contact the ISU Extension and Outreach Henry County Office today at 319-385-8126.

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

Reducing Soil Erosion with Cover Crops: New Infographic

Iowa Learning Farms is pleased to announce the release of a new infographic publication titled Reducing Soil Erosion with Rye Cover Crops.

This visually engaging document highlights one of the biggest benefits of cover crops — the ability to significantly reduce soil erosion. Based upon long-term cover crop work conducted by Korucu, Shipitalo, and Kaspar, colleagues at the USDA-ARS National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment here in Ames, this study looks specifically at one of Iowa’s most popular cover crops, winter cereal rye.

The USDA-ARS team conducted in-field simulated rainfall studies on plots with and without cereal rye cover crops, and their findings are powerful in terms of quantifying erosion reduction – 68% less sediment in surface runoff water with a rye cover crop. Further, the amount of surface runoff water decreased, while the amount of water infiltrating was found to increase with the cover crop.

This study was conducted in central Iowa, in the heart of the Des Moines Lobe, on land with a 2% slope. Substantial erosion reductions were found here with rye cover crops — consider the benefits of cover crops to reduce erosion on more sloping lands across the state!

The full infographic is available as a free PDF download on the Iowa Learning Farms website. Clicking on the image below will also take you right there.

Ann Staudt

Cover Cropping on the Lobe

Last evening, a group of 40 area farmers, Soil & Water Conservation District commissioners, and a nice delegation of ISU students from the Ag & Biosystems Engineering department gathered up at Gilmore City, Iowa for a conservation field day hosted by Iowa Learning Farms. Located between Humboldt and Pocahontas, in the heart of the Des Moines Lobe, the Gilmore City research site is home to some of the longest running research in the state on nutrient management and drainage water quality. Last evening’s field day focused on conservation practices that could be utilized in-field (emphasis on cover crops) as well as edge-of-field (bioreactors, saturated buffers, and wetlands).

Kicking things off were father-son duo Bob and Jay Lynch, who farm just outside of Gilmore City. The Lynchs have been long-term ridge tillers, and in recent years, have largely transitioned to strip tillage. In addition, they began integrating cover crops into their corn and soybean operation in 2012, and they have continued to increase cover crop usage since then. With five plus years of cover crop experience under their belts, Bob and Jay shared some words of wisdom and lessons learned with field day attendees.

 

Benefits of Cover Crops
Bob and Jay Lynch see soil health as the biggest reason to use cover crops. Bob commented, “To see the real benefits of cover crops, you need to go below the ground surface. I go out in my fields where I had rye, and take a shovel out there – the biologicals in the soil are a big deal. I hope I get an earthworm in EVERY handful of my soil! The cover crop roots give them something to eat for much more of the year. In addition to the earthworms, you have all of the other beneficial microbes, too.”

The “feel” of the soil is improved with cover crops, as well. The Lynchs spoke about cover crops giving their soil “a really nice spongey-ness.” The benefits of soil aggregation are there, too, with a cover crop – Bob referenced that the ground would come apart just like cottage cheese with a rye cover crop!

While the Des Moines Lobe is known for its rich, fertile soils, cool temperatures can pose a challenge. The Lynchs commented that cover crops help to moderate soil temperatures, and those results are consistent with data collected from the research plots at Gilmore City, as well.

The Lynchs have also seen some weed suppression benefits with cover crops – when the rye gets knee high in the spring, they’ve seen its potential for blocking out/reducing the abundance of some competing spring weed species.

 

Fall — Cover Crop Seeding
Aerial application of the rye cover crop has resulted in the best cover crop stand for the Lynchs. They emphasized that fall growth is a function of light availability, so the amount of crop canopy cover will be a big factor with the cover crops starting out.

With adequate moisture, rye cover crops will germinate quickly and begin their fall growth. Here is some emerging rye at the Gilmore City research site, just five days old!

 

Spring – Cover Crop Termination
With rye and other overwintering cover crop species, spring termination is necessary ahead of planting your row crops. The Lynchs prefer to terminate their rye via chemical in the spring. For the greatest effectiveness, Bob and Jay have found success in separating out herbicide application into two passes – even on the same day — applying glyphosate first to begin the rye termination process, then following with the pre-emergence residual herbicide.

While rolling, roller crimping, and tillage are also possibilities for cover crop termination, they require very particular conditions for success, and as Bob puts it, “It you try to till rye, you’re just making it mad … and then it comes back with a vengeance!”

 

Spring – Planting into Cover Crop Residue
When rye is growing ahead of corn, the Lynchs presented two options for termination timing: plant your crop the same day you terminate your rye, OR it needs to be dead for 14 days before planting corn.

With abundant cover crop growth, they emphasized that planter settings should definitely be taken into consideration. When planting soybeans into rye residue, the Lynchs recommend that your soybean seeds be planted using similar settings as if you were planting corn. If you use the same bean setting as you would without cover crops, you run an increased risk of the bean seeds sitting on top of the surface.

 

Management Matters
Bob and Jay concluded, “With cover crops, it all comes down to management. What works with YOUR individual farm?

 

Wetlands in the Spotlight
The evening field day concluded out at a CREP wetland just a few miles from Gilmore City, sited specifically for nitrate removal. It was a stunning end to the field day as the sun dropped lower and lower on the horizon!  The beauty of the wetland and its ability to benefit water quality clearly piqued people’s interest, as the questions and conversations continued even after the sun went down.

Ann Staudt

How Drought Affects Soil Health

Dr. Mahdi Al-Kaisi, professor of agronomy and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach soil and water specialist, published a great article on the impacts of drought on soil health and management practices that can help reduce drought effects.

Drought conditions during most of the growing season in Iowa can have a profound impact on soil heath, just as when we have extreme wet conditions. The effect of drought can be noticed very clearly on crop performance when the lack of water availability is severe. This water stress can affect soil chemical, physical, and biological activities that are essential for plant and soil health.

One of the obvious effects of drought on soil health is the lack of nutrient uptake by crops, as water is the major medium for moving nutrients into plants as a result of water uptake. The increase in soil temperature associated with lack of soil moisture has an impact on microbial activities and nutrient processing, both of which are important for plant use for biomass and grain production. Microbial activities in soil generally are controlled by soil moisture and temperature. The departure from the optimum ranges of soil moisture (water field capacity) and soil temperature (approximately 76-86o F), which varies for different microbial communities in soil, can alter microbial activity. Changes in soil temperature during drought conditions can affect soil organic matter (SOM) decomposition and increase the release of carbon dioxide. Also, during this process additional mineral N, mostly in the form of nitrate, will be released in the soil system. This change in soil environment affects the stability of SOM and subsequently, affects the soil biological system.

The most profound effect that can be experienced in cropland is the excess release of nitrate which may not be utilized by crops due to the lack of moisture available for the plant to uptake nutrients. This shift in biological and chemical processes during the growing season influences many other relationships that are essential for crop performance, quantitatively and qualitatively, by changing activities that are important to nutrient cycling such as, enzymatic activities, change in soil chemicals concentrations, etc.

Management practices to reduce drought effects
In order to moderate future drought event’s effect on soil health, several practices can be valuable to enhance soil health by improving soil physical, chemical, and biological properties:

  1. Crop residue: crop residue can provide important benefits like improving soil moisture with an increase in soil water infiltration during and off-season as well as increase recharge of the sub-soil profile. The other benefit of residue is the moderation of soil temperature, where crop residue acts as an insulation layer by increasing soil surface reflectance to sun radiation (i.e., change in Albedo, the ratio of the light reflected by surface to that received by it, where residue color is lighter than soil surface). These benefits of crop residue have direct impacts on soil biological and chemical properties by reducing soil temperature and the slowdown of organic matter mineralization. The increase in soil organic matter can increase soil water storage capacity (Fig. 1). The other benefit of moisture conservation and its availability to crops during drought periods is the increase of utilization of nutrients and reduction of nutrient concentration in soil and loss during off-season rain events.
  2. Cover crops: cover crops have many benefits that are critical, especially during drought conditions. The way that cover crops provide such benefits during drought conditions is based on the cumulative effects of cover crops during previous seasons, where they promote better soil biological and physical conditions. It is well documented that cover crops increased soil water infiltration and recharge of the soil profile by improving soil aggregate stability and soil porosity. Furthermore, cover crops contribute to the increase of the soil organic matter pool, which is essential for building soil health.
  3. Balanced crop rotation: crop rotation and diversity of crops within one year or over several years is one of the most important practices that enhance soil health and mitigate drought conditions during the growing season. The diversity of crops on the land can provide a rich soil environment for a healthy and diverse biological system. The inclusion of different crops such corn, soybean, alfalfa, small grain, etc., provides diversity of root systems that promote a wide range of microbial community, therefore enhancing soil nutrient and organic matter pools as compared to a mono-cropping system (i.e., continuous corn).

These practices, in addition to organic amendments, are important in mitigating unexpected drought conditions in the long-term. These practices, along with minimum or no-tillage, can reduce the prolonged impact of drought events by increasing soil resiliency. The degree at which soils in Iowa and the Midwest have absorbed the dramatic impact of drought events was due to the rich soil organic matter content. Factors which contributed to that are the temperate climate and vegetation base (i.e., prairie), which encourage greater organic matter accumulation. This unique soil quality provides high water storage capacity that sustains crop production. So, to sustain such soil quality, we need to maintain it through the implementation of soil health principles by adopting conservation systems.

figure_1_Al-Kaisi drought article 8-23-2017

The article was published by Integrated Crop Management News on August 23, 2017.

Liz Juchems

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