ICYMI – Can Cover Crops Clean the Corn Belt?

There are many news headlines competing for our attention every day and while some fade into the background, water quality and conservation practices remain in the forefront as we work to meet the goals of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.  A recent article written by Laura Sayre for New Food Economy asks the question: Can Cover Crops Clean the Corn Belt? and I strongly encourage you to check it out!

Cover crops provide a multitude of benefits including: helping improve water quality by reducing the losses of both nitrates and phosphorus, minimizing soil erosion, improving soil health and mimicking diversified crop rotation benefits by keeping the fields green in the winter.
Tobin Rye 2017

Biomass sampling cereal rye in Taylor County spring 2017

A key practice in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy toolbox, cover crops are able to help reduce both nitrogen and phosphorus leaving the field and entering water bodies.  In addition to practices like wetlands, bioreactors and nutrient management, one of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy scenarios calls for 65% of Iowa row crop acres (about 15 million acres) to be seeded with cover crops.  At just over 600,000 acres seeded in 2016, we still have a long way to go to reach that level of adoption. However, there are a variety of economic opportunities that accompany that goal including cover crop seed growers and dealers, co-op, and equipment manufacturers.

Whether or not cover crops can indeed help clean the Corn Belt is up to all Iowans.  This includes, but not limited to those mentioned in the article: researchers like Dr. Matt Liebman with Iowa State University, farmers and landowners like ILF farmer partner Tim Smith, non-profit organizations like Practical Farmers of Iowa, our state agency partners, and urban residents, like myself, all doing our part to help keep the water clean and supporting the efforts of others working towards meeting the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy goals.

Liz Juchems

Juchems Receives Outstanding New Professional Award at ISU

It’s May and that means it is American Wetlands Month. Normally, I would want to try to make my argument once again about how landowners should consider giving wetlands a second look on their land. Wetlands are a key component to Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy (learn more in Jake Hansen’s blog post titled Iowa CREP Wetlands) and often when farmed aren’t profitable (Should prairie potholes and other wet areas be farmed?). I know there is a history between landowners, wetlands and government regulation that sticks in many craws. But if we care about a sustainable and healthy Iowa, we need to rethink those issues going forward. Wetlands have important jobs to do in Iowa.

Instead of writing that column, I am dedicating this space to Iowa Learning Farms staff member, Liz Juchems, for recently receiving an Iowa State University Professional and Scientific Outstanding New Professional Award. This award reflects Liz’s commitment to Iowa State, her professional reputation and her esteem among her peers.

I have known Liz since she began working for the Iowa Learning Farms in 2008 as a student hourly employee while a freshman at ISU, and have been fortunate to work with her as our events coordinator since 2013. If you have been to any ILF field days over the last four years, you have Liz to thank for their quality and effectiveness.

Liz joined the team at a time when the ILF and Water Rocks! programs were starting to see substantial growth. Liz assumed not only the responsibility for coordinating farmer field days, but also coordinating all incoming requests for Iowa Learning Farms/Water Rocks! community outreach events (school visits, camps, youth outdoor classrooms, farmers markets, festivals and more) that are received annually – no small task with hundreds of event requests each year.

Over the last four years, the Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks! programs have grown significantly and have become widely recognized flagship conservation programs across Iowa. This is due in large part to Liz’s tremendous ability to keep track of details and ensure positive, clear communication internally and externally. We now average 30+ field days and 200+ outreach events each year, reaching 20,000+ people each year in quality educational encounters across Iowa!

With Iowa Learning Farms, Liz has also been instrumental in taking on a leadership role with field research/demonstrations, data collection, communications and outreach delivery. Since her hiring in 2013, the field research/demonstration arm of the Iowa Learning Farms has seen significant expansion and diversification, thanks in large part to being awarded multiple new research/demonstration grants. Each of these funded proposals involved the establishment of different cover crop trials across Iowa, collectively adding 20 new field research/demonstration sites statewide. Liz took the reigns as the farmer liaison, coordinating all project details with participating farmer-partners and research farm staff, as well as coordinating field data collection efforts with Iowa Learning Farms staff and student interns, training her co-workers on the appropriate protocols to follow both in the field and in the lab to ensure successful data collection.

However, data collection is just one portion of the job –another major component is how that content is delivered to the general public, making often complex science, social science and economic data accessible to farmers, other conservation stakeholders and youth across the state. A good example of her work is the ILF publication series titled Talking With Your Tenant that offers talking points and relevant research findings about a number of different conservation practices. Liz has grown into the role of being one of our team’s key educators on conservation issues in the state of Iowa.

For these and so many other reasons, Liz is more than deserving of this prestigious university honor. Quite simply, she is excellent! We are grateful to have her as a member of our team. Congratulations, Liz!

Jacqueline Comito

Podcast spotlights a pioneer of precision conservation

Precision agriculture is a unique, emerging field, and it is certainly one that is rapidly evolving before our very eyes. The complex world of remote sensing, big data, ag informatics, statistics, and on-the-ground farm management means there’s a whole lot of data out there … how do we make sense of it all?

Meet Dr. Amy Kaleita. High energy, eternal optimist. Agricultural engineer. Lover of learning. Passionate teacher and researcher. Soil Whisperer (or some might say Soil Listener).


Kaleita’s work at Iowa State University is truly at the intersection of conservation, information technology, and the world of precision agriculture. While precision ag technology is commonly used by farmers and crop consultants across the state of Iowa today in such applications as nutrient management (variable rate technology) and precision seed placement, Kaleita is on the forefront of the next generation of precision ag – precision conservation. Kaleita’s research efforts range from studying different sensor technologies, including both embedded [contact] sensors, such as in-the-ground soil moisture sensors, as well as non-contact sensors [data collected from drones], to optimizing the layering of those different technologies to obtain the best data sets possible.

However, collecting the data is just the start —  the real challenge emerges in sorting through huge amounts of data and trying to make sense of it all!  Which is just where Kaleita comes into play, evaluating and analyzing the vast amounts of data collected in the field. She strives to identify patterns and linkages that can help us better understand the relationships between such factors as crop yield variability, precipitation, soil moisture, hydrology, transport of dissolved contaminants (such as nitrate-nitrogen), and on-the-ground conservation practices. As Kaleita puts it, a big part of her job is trying to “understand uncertainty.”

She goes on to explain, “In an agricultural context, there are so many sources of unexplained variability … things that you do on the landscape that cause results, but they cause different responses under different conditions, and so how do those conditions change over time and space?

“The soil is very different, and it changes over time, and it certainly changes over space. The rain, and the air temperature, and the wind speed, and all of that stuff cause responses in the crop and they cause the interaction between the crop and the soil to change. And so [we’re] trying to understand all of the things that cause those differences, and then trying to design systems that can be responsive to that variability.”

Tune in to Episode 27 of the Conservation Chat for more of this fascinating conversation with Dr. Amy Kaleita!  You can also download or listen to any of the previous podcast episodes on the Conservation Chat website and on iTunes.

Ann Staudt

Winter Cover Crop Workshop Series Announced

The 2017 Iowa Learning Farms winter cover crop workshop series schedule is now available and we hope to see you there!

Iowa Learning Farms, in partnership with the Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, will host five cover crop workshops this winter in Floyd, Linn, Marion, Sioux and Hardin counties. The workshops are free, open to the public, and include a complimentary meal.

At the beginning of the workshop, facilitators will invite questions and concerns from the participants using the Rapid Need Assessment and Response technique. For the remainder of the workshop, Matt Helmers, professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering, and Mark Licht, assistant professor of agronomy, will address the topics and questions raised by the participating farmers and landowners. They will also be prepared to discuss herbicide recommendations for termination and establishment, planter settings to handle higher amounts of biomass, cover crop seed selection, impacts on crop yields and soil health and more.


The workshops are free and open to the public, but reservations are suggested to ensure adequate space and food. Contact Liz Juchems at 515-294-5429 or email ilf@iastate.edu.

Liz Juchems

Register today for the Midwest Cover Crops Council 2017 Annual Meeting

The Iowa Learning Farms and Iowa Cover Crop Working Group (ICCWG) encourage you to register for the Midwest Cover Crop Council Annual Meeting March 14-15, 2017 in Grand Rapids, MI.

Registration, agenda and sponsorship information is now available online.  Early registration is encouraged, as prices go up after January 31, 2017!

The Midwest Cover Crop Council was first organized in 2006 and includes representatives from twelve states and Ontario, Canada. Representing Iowa is our very own ICCWG member Tom Kaspar with USDA-ARS and Andy Lenssen, Iowa State University.  Since its inception the organization has grown into a community that facilitates the sharing of cover crop knowledge within the Midwest and beyond.

While you are registering for the conference, be sure to check out their updated website. The goal of the update was to organize resources more consistently and enhance search capabilities to help users find information more quickly. Additionally, the new website is mobile responsive, meaning it will switch to a mobile-friendly design when viewed on a phone or tablet.

Liz Juchems

Celebrating our Soil!

wsdlogo_upd_enThe holiday season is in full swing, and today is no exception.  Perhaps a lesser-known holiday than some of the others, December 5 marks World Soil Day! Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly back in 2003, World Soil Day was designated “to celebrate the importance of soil as a critical component of the natural system and as a vital contributor to human wellbeing.”

With some of the richest, most fertile soil in the world, we certainly have a lot to celebrate here in Iowa! In honor of the World Soil Day celebration, we have two new videos to share with you today, highlighting the critical importance of our soil resources. We’ve got all ages covered – there’s something for everyone!

Interesting Things Underground

Created by Megan Koppenhafer as part of a summer student internship project, Interesting Things Underground celebrates in song the amazing diversity of living creatures right under our feet!  The peppy tune was written by our friend Marty Adkins with the NRCS.

This music video is great for preschool and elementary-aged students, helping them to see the “millions and billions and trillions and zillions” of unique living creatures in the soil ecosystem. Further, we also have enhanced learning activities + worksheets for Grades K-2 and 3-5 to accompany this video!


Keep That Soil Alive

For the middle school, high school, and adult audiences, we are thrilled to share with you a little sneak peek preview of our brand new music video called Keep That Soil Alive!  Dedicated to women who care for the land, this video explores our legacy and connection with the land, landowner-tenant relationships,  and the many different conservation practices that help our soil stay alive and thrive  — all woven together with a Johnny Cash-inspired tune.

Enjoy the short trailer, and stay tuned for the full video release in early 2017!


Slow Jam Soil Erosion

Our last video spotlight is NOT a new release, but still one of our favorites – Slow Jam Soil Erosion with the one and only Rick Cruse, aka Poor Rick/Dr. Soil.  Our soil here in Iowa is an incredible resource, but we’re losing that soil more quickly than it can be replenished through the process of erosion.

Let’s give our soil a shout out today on this day of celebration for World Soil Day!

Ann Staudt

Project Spotlight: Developing a Training Workshop on Wetlands Screening

In the midst of the Iowa State Fair last week, three of our team members – Jackie Comito, Liz Juchems, and Ann Staudt — traveled out to Bozeman, Montana for a collaborative project with USDA-FSA (Farm Service Agency). In collaboration with extension colleagues at five other universities across the country,* our Iowa Learning Farms team members have been tasked with training USDA-FSA field staff nationwide on wetlands!

What is the point of this project?
When a farmer/landowner approaches USDA-FSA to request a farm loan, whether that be to put in an access road or a grain bin, the area of land to be developed must first be evaluated for potential wetland impacts.

How exactly do we know if an area of land could potentially be a wetland?
Wetlands are characterized by having unique soils, unique hydrology, and unique vegetation living there.

So, in a nutshell, our national project team was tasked with developing a multi-faceted training program to help USDA-FSA staff get more comfortable with identifying potential wetlands and also understanding the many environmental benefits of these vibrant ecosystems.

The first part of the training was an online training course (delivered through AgLearn) that was developed collaboratively by the six university partners across the country, although our colleagues at the University of Wisconsin deserve a big shoutout for their outstanding efforts here.

After the FSA staff members have completed the online training, it’s time for the in-person training, which is what we piloted out in Bozeman last week!  We presented the pilot training session to USDA-FSA field staff from Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, as well as several FSA leaders from Washington, DC and across the country.

Our Iowa Learning Farms team started out the morning with a recap of what wetlands are, why they are important, and FSA’s role in protecting them. However, this was not just a dry, boring lecture (e.g. death by PowerPoint) … we kicked things off by turning it into a quiz game show, bringing the signature energy and enthusiasm that the Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks! teams are known for!  Yes, for those who are wondering, I even packed markerboards, erasers, and dry erase markers in my luggage just so the participants could all experience the TRUE game show feel.


20160816_145340450_iOSWe were particularly pleased (and entertained) by how receptive the FSA staffers were to this interactive game show format … they were super competitive, which got everyone engaged right from the start!

20160816_144324322_iOSAfter reviewing the wetlands basics, our colleagues from the other universities moved into more details about the FSA-858 wetland screening form and the full process involved. Students then reviewed two online tools, Wetlands Mapper and Web Soil Survey, to evaluate the possible presence of inventoried wetlands and hydric soils, respectively. The classroom portion continued with a discussion of hydrology indicators and vegetative (plant) indicators – then everyone grabbed snacks and we prepared to hit the road!

20160816_161428325_iOSThe second half of the course was spent out in the field, giving participants the opportunity to practice identifying both hydrology indicators (things like debris lines, sedimentation, and squishy soils where your footprints fill in with water) and well as vegetative indicators. We were given a field guide of common wetlands plants, and the plant experts on the collaborative team taught us all the basics of plant identification!

West-LudgiwiaAlternifoliaThe first site we visited was clearly a wetland based on both the hydrology and plant indicators – this gave us all the opportunity to practice our plant ID skills and identify a good number of plant species under ideal conditions.

The second site we visited was unclear whether or not it could potentially be a wetland – it was an irrigated pasture area where the landowner was considering putting in an access road. This was a good practice run for all involved, as this is exactly the situation many of the FSA staffers will be in, not knowing a definite yes or no in terms of whether it could be a wetland. This gave us all a chance walk through all of the steps of the FSA-858 process to really determine whether or not the potential was there for this to be a wetland.

The participants divided into groups of 2-3, and together we looked for hydrology indicators and then practiced our plant ID skills. Coming into this with no background knowledge of the vegetative indicators, Liz and I teamed up, and we were very proud to find both a sedge and a rush, both positive plant indicators of a potential wetland!

By this point, it was late afternoon, and time to wrap up the day’s training. The group returned to the Montana State University campus in Bozeman, upon which the classroom and field training sessions were evaluated thoroughly by the FSA participants and leaders.

Overall, the wetlands training session that we collectively developed was very well-received! We will continue to work with the other university partners over the coming months to refine the training. Then come spring, all of us will begin delivering these trainings to FSA staff across the country!  Our Iowa State University team will be leading the training sessions across the Midwest – Iowa and surrounding states.

Ann Staudt

Thank you to Brian Adams and Kevin Erb, University of Wisconsin-Extension, for the photographs included with this blog post!

*University partners on this project include: University of Wisconsin, Penn State University, University of Georgia, University of Arizona, Montana State University, and Iowa State University.