Lost in the Corn: The Search for Lysimeters

Today’s guest blog post was provided by summer student intern Laura Lacquement. A native Iowan, Laura grew up south of Des Moines, and went to school at Martensdale-St. Mary’s. She started her college career at Valparaiso University, and later transferred to ISU, where she is now a senior studying Environmental Science.  

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I enjoy travelling across the State of Iowa with Water Rocks! and Iowa Learning Farms. The location and events vary, while the field work remains consistent. One of the projects I’ve helped with all summer long is ILF’s cover crop mixtures project. Each week we travel to three of Iowa State University’s research farms to collect water samples from lysimeters located in plots of corn and soybeans.  Each block of plots contains 12 lysimeters placed between rows of corn or soybeans.

Lysimeters measure the movement or storage of water in the ground.  The lysimeters that the ILF team uses are composed of a tube two inches in diameter and two feet (24”) deep.  The bottom of the tube is composed of a porous ceramic cup that allows the movement of water into the lysimeter from the soil around it. Using a vacuum pump, we create suction inside the tube that pulls water inside.  Each week, we extract the water by using a flask that is connected to the vacuum pump on one side and a straw connected to its lid and inserted into the tube to its full depth.  Using the pump and flask, we pull water from the lysimeter into a small bottle, where it will later be analyzed for the amount of nitrates present. Each lysimeter tube is installed so it’s flush with the ground. To protect the lysimeter, a four inch PVC drainage pipe plug and small pipe is placed above it.

Most of our plots are located close to each other, with the exception of the plots at the ISU Northern Research and Demonstration Farm in Kanawha, Iowa. Finding the lysimeters there can be quite an adventure! At the start of the internship, all we could see of corn and soybeans in our plots were little sprouts an inch tall.  In just a couple weeks, the corn grew past our knees to over our heads.  I not only watched this growth, but experienced it firsthand by struggling to carry our devices and tools over and through the corn and soybeans to each lysimeter.

On Friday, June 30, I traveled to Kanawha, Iowa, with Elizabeth to extract water samples from lysimeters there. As I mentioned, the plots here are not located right next to each other, but in completely different fields separated by a grass driveway.  After we collected samples from the soybeans, we entered the corn in search of our small buried lysimeters in the shoulder-height corn.  We walked inside each row looking for our lysimeters … for an hour or so. Our ILF plots happen to be in the middle of a much larger field, and the challenge is that there’s no easy way to flag or label the plots once the corn is this tall! We eventually ventured a bit south of our current location, where we recognized our plots and finally spotted a lysimeter only a short distance away. Small victories!

Friday, July 7, I returned to Kanawha with Kaleb to collect more samples. This time, I knew exactly where to go to find the plot, but not the precise location of the lysimeters. In just one week, the corn had grown from the height of my shoulders to the height of me. I could no longer see over the corn.  As I finished extracting each water sample, Kaleb would move to the next lysimeter.  He may be the tallest of us interns, yet I still could not see him over the corn.  To find him and the next lysimeter, I followed the sound of corn rustling and looked for his bright red shirt through the corn.  If we do not wear bright colored shirts, a game of Marco Polo may be necessary!

After these experiences, I’m now very confident where ILF’s plots at Kanawha are located, plus how to find the other lysimeters and interns in corn taller than me. Each time I take samples from the lysimeters, I have learned a little more about corn and soybean cropping systems, as well as water quality issues in Iowa!

Laura Lacquement

Do cover crops reduce phosphorus loss?

Cover crops are proven to reduce nitrate loss and decrease soil erosion on our agricultural landscape, but field scale studies on phosphorus loss are still in their infancy. Drs. Antonio Mallarino, Matt Helmers, Rick Cruse, John Sawyer with Iowa State University and Dan Jaynes with National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment have completed two years of a long-term field study and have released their preliminary results.

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The Hermann farm site south of Ames allowed Mallarino’s team to observe the effects of cover crops on phosphorus in the runoff study funded by the Iowa Nutrient Research Center.

The study is located at south of Ames on Iowa State’s Hermann Farm. The study includes replication on 12 areas ranging from one to three acres in a field that tested very high in soil phosphorus and is managed with a corn and soybean rotation. The study compares the use of winter cereal rye cover crops with and without tillage.

After two years, Dr. Mallarino observed:

“It is confirmed that cover crops reduce soil loss with tillage or no-till but mainly with tillage. Results also show that with tillage a cover crop reduces phosphorus loss. But it is not so clear that with no-tillage management a cover crop reduces phosphorus loss,” Mallarino said. “With no-tillage, there seems to be a small reduction in particulate phosphorus loss, but an increase in dissolved phosphorus loss.”
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Surface runoff at the testing site is evaluated for total solids and several forms of nutrients.

Why the focus on dissolved phosphorus? The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy is a technical, scientific and voluntary approach to reducing the loss of nitrogen and phosphorus to our waterbodies and the Gulf of Mexico that is home of a large hypoxic or dead zone.  Both particulate and dissolved phosphorus are part of the reduction goal, however dissolved phosphorus is responsible for algae blooms and has a visible impact on aquatic ecosystems.

Caution should be taken when drawing conclusions from only two years of data. Environmental factors play a role in nutrient dynamics with surface runoff, and during the two years of the study, major rain events at the test site had been minimal with very low runoff.

“We can’t make a strong conclusion from these two years of data. There needs to additional data collection from this site and better science-based projecting so we can encourage the addition of cover crops for the right reasons,” Mallarino said.

Click here to read the full article and learn more about project.

Questions about the project contact:

Antonio Mallarino, Agronomy, 515-294-6200, apmallar@iastate.edu

 

Liz Juchems

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.
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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).

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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.

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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