Exploring the Case for Retiring (Or at Least Down-Sizing) the Mower on Farms and City Lots

On Wednesday, Iowa Learning Farms hosted a webinar about the benefits of reducing mowed land area across rural Iowa. Adam Janke, Assistant Professor and Extension Wildlife Specialist, discussed a project which considered the economic, ecological and aesthetic impacts of managing idle spaces differently.

Three different management scenarios were compared: traditional turfgrass, the “lazy lawnmower” and pollinator habitat establishment. In the traditional turfgrass management scenario, the space is planted to a monoculture and mowed weekly. In the “lazy lawnmower” scenario, mowing is done less frequently, about once every three weeks. Finally, in the pollinator habitat scenario, pollinator habitat is established in the area and managed to create a diverse source of nectar resources for pollinators.

The economic analysis of the three different management scenarios showed that both the “lazy lawnmower” and establishing pollinator habitat saved landowners money (and time, since their time was also valued in the analysis). Out of the three, the establishment of pollinator habitat had the lowest per acre cost per year. Janke also showed that, ecologically, there are no benefits to increased mowing.

Why maintain turfgrass when is is expensive and lacks environmental benefits? Literature on the subject acknowledges that this behavior might not be rational, but that it is part of our cultural norms. Worrying about what the neighbor might think of how you manage your land plays a big role in behavior. In order to increase adoption of different management scenarios for idle land, we need innovators who are trying out the practices and showing people that they can work.

Janke shared examples of three places that have adopted pollinator habitat instead of traditional turfgrass in idle areas. The image on the left shows a farmer who is a champion of monarch conservation who converted an idle area on his farm where to pollinator habitat. The middle image is from a farm that was part of a project with the Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium who partnered with pork producers to convert idle areas outside of livestock barns. Check out this video to learn more about this project. The image on the right shows pollinator habitat on idle land at Workiva in Ames, shortly after it was burned this spring as part of the management of the area.

To learn more about the benefits of managing idle land for pollinator habitat, or at least reducing how frequently they’re mowed, watch the full webinar here!

Be sure to join us next week when Kay Stefanik, Assistant Director of the Iowa Nutrient Research Center, will present a webinar titled: “Wetland Ecosystem Services: How Wetlands Can Benefit Iowans”.

Hilary Pierce

More Than Milkweed!

ILFHeaderFarmer Partner, Nathan Anderson, opened his farm to a pasture restoration and monarch habitat field day on Tuesday, September 10th. It was a great day to explore the hard work Nathan and his family has done to remove cedar trees and nurture the native grasses and flowering plants.


“Our primary goal for this work was livestock management for profitability, but we were seeing these added benefits (to improving the pasture) to creatures needing nectar – like monarch butterflies. That keeps us motivated to keep going and provide these flowering plants in multiple areas on our farm,” stated Nathan.

IMG_5165From our initial stop in the pasture, Nathan pointed to a large cottonwood tree (pictured behind him). “In 2017, when we were just starting on improving the pasture, you couldn’t see that tree due to all the cedar trees. To date we have worked to remove cedars from about 20 acres and have plans to keep working on it.”

The native grasses and flowering plants are working to reclaim the area now that the competition from the cedar trees has been removed. Adam Janke, ISU Extension Wildlife Specialist, pointed out that this time of year is especially difficult for creatures that rely on nectar.

IMG_5178“The corn and soybeans that cover the majority of Iowa do not have nectar available this late in the season. With the rotational grazing Nathan is using on this land, resting portions while the cattle graze elsewhere in the pasture, those grasses and flowering plants can be a value nectar source,” noted Janke.

From a monarch habitat perspective, providing milkweed plants is important for them to lay eggs and access food source early in their lives. Just as important are flowering nectar sources throughout the year to assist on their migratory journey.  That journey is completed by four generations of monarchs and research has shown that the majority of third and fourth monarchs originate in Iowa and the Midwest.


As you travel the state, you will notice the monarchs making their way south for the winter.  To help future generations of monarchs, consider adding a diversity of flowering plants on your property to help provide them some food on their return journeys this time of year.

For more information on monarchs, visit the Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium website. For resources on pasture restoration, visit your local Natural Resource Conservation Service office for technical and financial assistance opportunities.

Liz Juchems

More than Outreach

ILFHeader(15-year)IMG_4897The majority of my summer internship with Water Rocks! and Iowa Learning Farms has consisted of various types of outreach events all over the state of Iowa. But when we aren’t doing outreach, you may be able to find us in the field helping collect data for a research project. One of the projects we have been working on is monarch monitoring.

Our part in this monarch research starts in a CRP field. We work through 10 different designated points in each of the fields that we survey. Once at a point, our job is to look at the area around that point to find milkweed, as well as flowering plants that serve as a nectar source for the monarchs and other pollinators. I wasn’t familiar with what a milkweed plant looked like before starting this research. The best way to learn is by going out into the field and identifying milkweed over and over, with the help of others that are familiar, until I’m comfortable on my own. Common patterns that milkweeds have to help identify them are the opposite leaves and a milky sap you find when you break a leaf.

Photo 3

Our area of interest at each site is a circle around the point that has a radius of 30 meters. We divide that circle into four quadrants (NE, SE, SW, and NW) and then start our search. We are looking for a milkweed plant and a blooming plant closest to the center point in each quadrant. If the milkweed plant is flowering then it will double as our flowering plant. The distance of the plants are measured by one of us standing at the center point with a rangefinder. The milkweed plant is inspected for any monarch eggs or caterpillars. As we move through the quadrants we are also on the lookout for adult monarchs flying around or resting on flowers. We repeat this process with each point at each field.

The overall reason for this surveying is to see if the cropland that has been converted into CRP areas is providing food and habitat for the monarchs. Milkweed is that plant we focus on because it is the only thing monarch larvae can eat. That is also why we check each of our milkweed plants for monarch eggs and caterpillars. We look for blooming plants since they will be the nectar source for the adult monarchs and other pollinators. The surveying is repeated at the sites each month to see changes in the habitat being provided for the monarchs.

This internship has allowed me to learn so much whether it was through a research project like this or an outreach event in an Iowan city. And with the summer and this internship coming to an end, I am thankful for every opportunity that has come my way.

Taylor Manemann is participating in the 2019 Water Resources Internship Program at Iowa State University.  Manemann grew up in Huntington Beach, CA and graduated from Johnston High School (IA). She is a senior in Environmental Science with minors in sustainability and agronomy.

Discovering My Passion

ILFHeader(15-year)IMG_4905This is my second summer working with Water Rocks! and Iowa Learning Farms, my first being the summer of 2017. There have been a few moments throughout this summer that made me realize how much I have changed since I first began my internship here two years ago.

Back when I started, I had just changed majors to become a biosystems engineering major, and I was set that I was going to do the bioprocessing/biofuels track. Through my experience with the water resources internship, I found what I really wanted to do, which was working with water quality and other environmental issues.

When I first began the internship, I knew nothing about agriculture, water quality issues, or anything about what I wanted to do in the future. Now, besides the knowledge and experience I have gained through my education and my internships, I also have some solid ideas about what I want to do.

I realized this very recently through two very different workdays.

The first was field work we did for the monarch butterfly survey. We had to trudge through thick, soggy grass taller than me and fight off mosquitos and ticks while looking for milkweed plants in CRP fields. It was miserable, annoying, and painful, but also somehow fun! It was cool to learn how to identify the different species of milkweed, and it was a great feeling when you finally found a plant while walking in circles in chest tall grass for what seemed like hours (even though it was probably 5 minutes).

Monarch MonitoringIt was simultaneously one of the most fun and most miserable days of the summer. And with the help of an entire can of bugs pray, I’m still here! If you had asked me at the beginning of the summer 2 years ago to do that, I’m not sure what I would have done. I do know that I would have had a much worse attitude about it, and that I would not have had any fun whatsoever. I think that represents one way that I have grown, which is to be better at taking things as they come and dealing with it. I think is a very valuable attitude to have in the environmental field, because nothing ever goes as planned when it comes to nature.

The other day was one where I had to present the Conservation Station On the Edge trailer at a field day in NW Iowa. I had been on field days like this before, but with a staff member, and so I had heard this being presented but had never done it myself. I was nervous about doing this myself, because I was worried that I would get questions I couldn’t handle or forget to mention something important. I knew that I had learned a lot of this stuff through coursework and the internship, but I somehow felt that I still wasn’t prepared. But everything went well. I presented the models and information for both the saturated buffer and woodchip bioreactor, and it seemed like I was keeping the audience’s attention.

When it got to time to ask questions, I was nervous, but as they came, I found myself naturally answering them. It turns out, shockingly, that I learned something in college. I think that a major reason that I was nervous for grad school was that somehow, I felt that I wasn’t ready, and that I had managed to fake my way through college. That presentation was one of the first times that I felt confident in what I had learned and my ability to explain it to someone effectively. This has given me a lot of confidence for the future. Going from not knowing a thing about this field two years ago all the way to explaining edge of field practices to landowners is quite a jump, and something that I’m proud of.

Water Rocks! and ILF have really shaped my educational career, and it is an experience that I will take with me and remember for a long time.

Andrew Hillman is participating in the 2019 Water Resources Internship Program at Iowa State University.  Hillman grew up in Bettendorf and graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in Biosystems Engineering. He is off to North Carolina State University to pursue a graduate degree in the fall.

The Epic Outdoor Classroom Adventure

Today’s guest blog post is provided by Joshua Harms, part of the
Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach program, serving with Water Rocks! in 2018-19.

On May 7th Ann and I were tasked with an adventure to go teach 8 We All Live in a Watershed presentations at the Carroll County 5th Grade Outdoor Classroom. This adventure started at 7:15 when Ann and I left the parking lot. Our drive was about an hour and a half which isn’t much compared to some of the other epic journeys across Iowa that we have taken. After we arrived at Swan Lake State Park Nature Center in Carroll, we were met at the door by our contact Anjanette Treadway. She then showed us to the room in which our presentations would take place so that Ann and I could set up.

When Ann and I had finished setting up we made our way to the commons area where orientation was taking place with 170+ 5th graders and their teachers. During orientation Anjanette explained that one of the speakers did not show up. This speaker happened to be someone that was going to talk about bees/pollinators. As Ann and I heard this we started thinking if there would be any way that we could help Anjanette out. Now it just so happened that we had brought one of our pollinator games along with us because Anjanette had requested to borrow it for another event that she was hosting a few days later. So we came to an agreement that we would split up and I would teach a modified pollinator presentation while Ann would teach the watershed presentation. 

Now to be honest I was a little nervous because I had never taught an entire presentation by myself let alone 8. I had around 5 minutes to quickly come up with talking points to accompany the game. After I quickly came up with some talking points, I made my way to the place in which I would be teaching to start the epic adventure of doing 8 presentations all by myself. As the day of presentations went on I started to feel really comfortable with what I was doing plus I was also remembering more things that I could talk about.

I taught the students that pollinators actually complete the process of pollination on accident as they fly to different flowers looking for nectar. I also explained that these creatures are responsible for a lot of the different foods that we as people enjoy. After explaining the process of pollination and how important it is, I focused in on monarch butterflies in particular. I explained the super long journey that they take, known as migration. I emphasized that this journey comes with lots of different challenges and that led right into a game called Monarch Migration Madness.

The Monarch Migration Madness game is all chance-based. There are 10 circles in both the summer habitat (with each circle depicting a milkweed plant) and winter habitat (with each circle depicting an oyamel fir tree). I started off by giving each student a number, which represented which number circle they started on in the summer habitat. After they got to their starting positions, I counted down from 3 and then the students migrated to the opposite side of the room, where the winter habitat was, and at that point they could pick any number circle. The only thing is that there cannot be any more than 3 monarchs per circle. After they made their migration, I read a situation that would affect some of their habitat, removing the designated oyamel fir trees as called for in the situation. This game goes on for several rounds until there are only a few remaining monarchs. When the game was complete I then finished off with some different things that we as people can do to help our pollinator friends continue to thrive.

I was definitely a little worn out after the completion of all the presentations, but all that was left was to pack up and drive back to Ames so I wasn’t complaining. During the drive back Ann and I talked about how we felt our adaptation to the situation went. We came to the conclusion that it went quite well. As we eventually arrived in Ames we knew that the epic adventure had come to an end. It was an exhilarating and successful adventure—the students had FUN, they learned a ton about the environment around them, and I felt a lot more confident after giving 8 presentations on my own!

Joshua Harms

Water Rocks! Launches New Pollinator Classroom Presentation

The Power of Pollinators classroom education module extends the Water Rocks! portfolio designed to assist teachers in teaching about environmental science in Iowa

Water Rocks! has announced the launch of “The Power of Pollinators, its newest conservation-focused, interactive classroom presentation for upper-elementary and middle school classrooms. The new Pollinators module was developed with assistance and input from Iowa State University experts as well as classroom teachers across Iowa. Water Rocks! piloted the programming with Turkey Valley Schools fourth and fifth grade classes in late October.

“Turkey Valley Schools have shown leadership in conservation thinking through the establishment of native prairie and butterfly garden projects, and inclusion of critical conservation lessons in multiple grade levels across the district,” said Ann Staudt, director of Water Rocks!. “The pilot experience allowed us to learn as much as we taught. The teachers and students were very motivated to help fine-tune the learning modules.”

Turkey Valley 4th grade students and teacher Robyn Vsetecka show off their school garden plot. The students chose to plant a mix of vegetables and flowering plants to attract pollinators.

Conservation takes center stage at Turkey Valley Community Schools; their native prairie plot was established over twenty years ago on school grounds.

Water Rocks! classroom education modules are designed primarily for grades four through seven. Content is adjusted in collaboration with each classroom teacher to ensure the best outcomes. And, each module is aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards.

“The Water Rocks! team really grabbed the attention of the students and helped them quickly learn new vocabulary and scientific concepts in a high-energy and fun way,” said Robyn Vsetecka, fourth grade teacher at Turkey Valley Schools. “They covered a lot ground, but the approach wasn’t overwhelming for those students unfamiliar with pollinators, yet still informative and engaging for the ones who already had some experience.”

Students eagerly listen to instructions as they prepare to compete in the Monarch Migration Madness game.

Pollinator Jenga was quite a hit with the students and teachers alike at Turkey Valley!

The Pollinator module uses a variety of visual aids, interactive games and on-your-feet activities, to facilitate age- and grade-appropriate learning for all learners. Favorites among the students were the Pollinator Jenga game, Monarch Migration Madness game, and seeing bee houses.

“We were delighted to see the students’ faces light up when we helped them realize that each could make an impact on supporting pollinators by doing things a simple as planting wildflowers or even adding potted plants on a patio or balcony,” noted Staudt.

To learn more about Water Rocks! classroom education modules, or to request a free school visit, please go to https://www.waterrocks.org/classroom-visits/.