Are you an emerging farmer?

No-till_cornfieldWe are excited to announce the launch of our new Emerging Farmers Project! This is a proactive approach to address the need to reach out to emerging farmers and future landowners. We define an emerging farmer as someone with ties to agricultural land who would like to return to the farm as an operator or have a voice in its management.

A goal of this innovative project is to help address a variety of social factors influencing the adoption of conservation practices and assist emerging famers in the creation of a sustainable business plan for their operation.  According to the USDA-National Agricultural Statistics Service’s 2014 Tenure, Ownership and Transition of Agricultural Land (TOTAL) Survey, in Iowa:

  • 1/2 of the land is rented or leased
  • Owner/operators make up 19.4% of landowners – 40% of landowners have never farmed before
  • Forty percent of agricultural land is owned by women, with 33% by women over age 65
  • By 2019, ~9% of all the agricultural land will be transferring ownership and ~9% put into a will

This large transference of land and significant demographic shift in Iowa’s agricultural land management and ownership calls for new approaches to conservation outreach and education.

To kick off the project, we are hosting a series of Rapid Needs and Response Workshops to discuss soil conservation practices like no-tillage and cover crops, grazing best management practices and water quality. If you or someone you know is an emerging farmer, please plan to attend a workshop!

February 20, 6-8 pm: Emerging Farmer No-Till Workshop
Hampton United Methodist Church
100 Central Ave E
Hampton, IA 50441
Franklin County
In partnership with Franklin County Extension and Outreach
Press Release
RSVP: Michelle Sackville 641-456-4811 or

March 6, 6-8 pm: Emerging Farmer Workshop
1306 Elings Hall
Iowa State University
Ames, IA 50011
Story County
RSVP: Liz Juchems 515-294-5429 or

March 15, 6-8 pm: Emerging Farmer Soil Health and Grazing Workshop
Creston Pizza Ranch
Corner Corral
520 Livingston Avenue
Creston, IA 50801
Union County
RSVP: Liz Juchems 515-294-5429 or

The program is a collaborative effort led by the Iowa Learning Farms with farmer partners,  Iowa Beef Center, ISU Extension and Outreach, Beginning Farmer Center and Practical Farmers of Iowa.

Liz Juchems

Conservation Chat 38: Go Deep with Earthworms

WebEpisode 38 of the Conservation Chat digs in deep to talk about earthworms, why they matter, where they thrive and what they can tell us about soil health. The chat features two heavy-hitters of earthworm research related to cover crops: Ann Staudt who leads research on the relationship between night crawlers and cover crops with the Iowa Learning Farms and Dr. Tom Kaspar, a plant physiologist who is also considered to be “the grandfather of cover crop research” in Iowa.

To study earthworms, you must be able to count them. In the earthworm literature, there are four common ways that researchers have approached the counting of earthworms:

  1. Excavate an area of soil to find and count the earthworms
  2. Use a mustard solution or wasabi to chemically extract the earthworms, drawing them to the surface
  3. Apply an electrical current to the soil surface and electrically extract the earthworms, drawing them to the surface
  4. Count middens (well-defined clumpy mounds that an earthworm leaves behind on the soil surface). This is the only method of counting earthworms in which earthworms are not harmed!

Iowa Learning Farms took the latter route and decided to count middens (pictured on the left). Ann Staudt wanted to study whether there were observable differences in the population of nightcrawlers (a type of earthworm) in corn and soybean fields with and without a cereal rye cover crop. The research was completed in fields that had side-by-side cover crop and no cover crop strips. The research found that there were 38% more nightcrawlers in the strips that contained cover crops!


RyeThis research is unique, as very little research has been done about earthworm populations within corn and soybean systems. And, there is much more research that can be done related to earthworms in a corn and soybean system. Future research could include looking at cover crop growth related to earthworm populations, how earthworm populations may respond to different types of cover crop species and mixes, and even nutrient ability in a crop field related to earthworm tunnels, which some literature cites as “hot spots of nutrients.”

The podcast gets down to the heart of why earthworms matter. We often talk about why soil health is important, but it can take many years to detect indicators of soil health with current tests and methods. Ann Staudt suggests that earthworms may be a “reverse canary in the coal mine” for soil health:

“In some ways, it’s like a reverse canary in the coal mine. It’s showing us some of the positive benefits perhaps earlier than we’re seeing it in a lot of the other parameters that we’re trying to measure.”

There is one particularly unique benefit of earthworms that is not commonly considered. Dr. Kaspar explains:

“In [a no-till system], earthworms are basically tilling the soil for you. They’re creating these burrows or holes . . . the nightcrawler in particular is the only worm that produces a relatively vertical hole that goes from the surface down as deep as five or six feet, depending on the soil. . . Those holes allow water and air to enter the soil, which is really important and they provide a pathway for roots to go deeper into the soil.”

This last point is particularly important in a corn and soybean cropping system with tight spacing between plants. In order for crop roots to grow and have a greater ability to access water and available nutrients deeper into the soil profile, they must grow down. Earthworm tunnels can help crop roots do just that.

Listen to the most recent episode of the Conservation Chat with Ann Staudt and Dr. Tom Kaspar! You can now listen in a variety of ways:

Like the podcast? You can help us out by sharing with a friend! Do you agree that earthworms could be a mascot for life in our soil?

Julie Winter

A Year of Thanks!

On behalf of the Iowa Learning Farms team, I would like to thank all of our hosts, speakers and partners for an amazing 2017 Field Day season. The year our 28 field days were attended by 1,280 farmers, landowners, government employees, media and agribusiness staff. The topics included: cover crops, grazing cover crops, soil health, strip-till/no-till, bioreactors, rotational grazing, water quality, and monarch butterflies.  The combinations of these practices implemented on our landscape are key to helping reach our Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy goals.

Keep an eye out this January! We will be mailing a brief survey to all farmers/operators and landowners who attended an ILF-sponsored field day or workshop.


Be sure to check out our events page on our website to attend a 2018 event near you.

Liz Juchems

Conservation Chat: We must clean up our water sources voluntarily

Ben&Amy Johnson2

Ben Johnson and his wife Amy.

This month, host Jacqueline Comito has a conversation with a farmer in northeast Iowa. Ben Johnson is a sixth generation farmer that purchased his first farm with his brother Andy when he was a sophomore at Iowa State University. Conservation saves him one of his most valued resources on the farm: time.

Johnson takes part in our Conservation Learning Lab program with a small scale watershed and CREP wetland on a neighbors property. He and his family began using cover crops in 2013, a year that had a terribly wet spring. They had 200-300 acres that were too wet to plant and didn’t want them to sit bare all year so they took an old seeder and ran oats and radishes that August. He noticed an improvement in the soil tilth right away and in the beans produced that fall. 2013 was also the year that they introduced strip-tilling, increasing water absorption and yield in those areas.

Other conservation methods Johnson employs are buffer strips, prairie CRP, pollinator habitats, field windbreaks and a pheasant safe program. Johnson says, “The easiest place for somebody to start is no-tilling their beans. They don’t really seem to respond to tillage and it’s such a labor and money eater. That’s the biggest reason we switched. The most precious resource on my farm is time.”

“I hope my kids can be the seventh generation (to farm) so it means a lot to me to leave the land in as good or better shape than it was when I started,” that means the soil needs to be productive and the water needs to run clear “I want all my black soil still on top of my hills and not at the bottom of all of them, not in my road ditches and not in the Cedar River.”

Listen to this Episode of Conservation Chat to learn about the numerous benefits of strip-till, no-till and cover crops and how easy it can be to get started! You can subscribe to the podcast for future episodes as well.

Brianne Osborn

Got a Gully? Fix It, Don’t Disc It.

Iowa NRCS has launched a new campaign, “Fix It, Don’t Disc it” to help inform Iowa farmers about a conservation compliance change that requires treating ephemeral gully erosion on highly erodible land (HEL).  Continue reading for their recent newsletter article regarding the rule change.

If you discover areas of ephemeral gully erosion this fall, visit your local Natural Resources Conservation Service office before discing any areas of highly erodible fields.  Iowa famers who participate in USDA programs will now be required to provide additional control of ephemeral gully erosion on their highly erodible fields after recent changes in conservation compliance requirements, State Conservationist Kurt Simon said.


This change is in response to a recent Office of Inspector General (OIG) report comparing compliance review procedures in several states. OIG recommended modifications to NRCS’ compliance review procedures to provide more consistency across the nation. Thus, Iowa NRCS has made compliance review procedure adjustments that might impact farmers.

Since the passage of the 1985 Farm Bill, farmers have been required to control erosion on fields that are classified as highly erodible. Each spring, NRCS conducts compliance reviews on a random selection of highly erodible fields to determine if erosion has been adequately controlled. A non-compliance ruling can affect benefits that farmers receive from USDA agencies in a number of ways—from Conservation Reserve program payments to Price Loss Coverage.

“Affected farmers will need to consider installing additional conservation practices to better control ephemeral gully erosion,” Simon said.

Typical practices used to control ephemeral gullies include no-till farming, cover crops, grassed waterways, and terraces. Simon said NRCS employees will work closely with farmers to help them meet erosion-control requirements.


“We are available to help farmers identify ephemeral erosion in their fields or where it may occur in the future, and assist them with applying the conservation practices that best fit their farming operations,” he said.

If erosion control issues are identified during compliance reviews, producers may be given time to make adjustments and install needed conservation practices. He said Iowa NRCS offers financial assistance to help farmers install or implement conservation practices across the state. Landowners can sign up for voluntary Farm Bill conservation programs on a continual basis.

When in doubt, visit your local NRCS office before performing any tillage that is not part of your conservation plan on any land classified as HEL. For more information, visit NRCS at your local USDA Service Center.

Iowa’s Future Begins with Healthy Soils

Today’s guest post is by Marty Adkins, Assistant State Conservationist for Iowa Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), a member of the Iowa Learning Farms Steering Committee.

The quality of Iowa’s soils make this a unique place. How we manage Iowa’s agricultural soils affects just about everything else here. From increasing wildlife to improved water quality to sustainable economic development, our future begins with healthy soils.

Janke-PheasantWildlife – Over 97% of Iowa’s land is privately owned, and a vast majority is a part of farms. Most Iowa wildlife spends some or all of their lives on farms.

The same practices that are good for Iowa soils – no-till farming, cover crops, buffer strips, diverse native plant seeded areas, waterways, diverse crop rotations, well-managed pastures – are good for wildlife. The practices provide cover, food and travel corridors. They protect water sources on which wildlife depends. Practices that protect and build soils are good for wildlife too.

Water Quality – Water bodies reflect the condition of their watersheds. Eroding fields deliver sediment and nutrients to streams and lakes. Soils protected from erosion keep that soil and associated nutrients in fields where they belong.


Fields protected by cover crops or other vegetation growing throughout the growing season retain nutrients in the root zone that would otherwise find their way into streams or ground water. Practices that protect and build soils are good for water quality

Economic Development – Over one-third of the largest 100 food manufacturers have Iowa operations. These companies are located in Iowa because the commodities they depend on are produced here.

HC-SoilStatistics from 2014 showed that agriculture and related industries contributed $31.6 billion to the Iowa economy and was responsible for 122,764 jobs. They also showed that 37 of Iowa’s counties derived at least one half of their economic output from agriculture and related industries.

The foundation of all of this economic activity, now and into the future, is Iowa’s productive soil.

No matter what issue you care about, you need to be interested in protecting and building Iowa’s soils.

Marty Adkins

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.


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.”

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,


Liz Juchems