ILF Launches Conservation Learning Labs Project

cll_logoIowa Learning Farms has launched a project—The Conservation Learning Labs—that will study how implementation of conservation practices can reduce nitrogen and phosphorus loss at the watershed scale in Iowa. The project is funded by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) and the United States Department of Agriculture – Natural Resources Conservation Services (USDA-NRCS) of Iowa.

The project is specifically focused on small watersheds — between 500 and 1,300 total acres in size—and the widespread adoption of cover crops on a large percentage of the watershed’s agricultural land. The two pilot watersheds were chosen because of their size and because the watersheds already have a Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) wetland on-site that will provide baseline water quality monitoring data on nitrogen and phosphorus loads over several years. We will be able to see how nutrient loads might be affected in real time based on the implementation of cover crops on the land.

Our main focus: Can high levels of cover crop implementation be obtained on a small watershed scale, and water quality improvements documented accordingly?


Goldilocks and the Three Scales of Nutrient Load Research

The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS) lays out in-field and edge-of-field conservation practices that, if implemented, can improve Iowa’s water quality and reduce N and P export. Much of the research highlighted in the NRS is from small, plot-scale research projects. While these controlled studies are essential to our understanding of nutrient loads, results at the plot scale can differ from actual nutrient loads that we see at a larger scale (HUC-12 and larger watersheds). In-stream processes such as bed and bank erosion can add variability and complicate the overall picture in larger watersheds of how we assess agricultural source loads.

It’s the Goldilocks principle: plot scale research is too small, and HUC-12 watersheds are too large. The sweet spot is somewhere in between. This is why the Conservation Learning Labs project will target the scale at which nutrient loads are actually delivered: small watersheds containing less than 2,000 acres.


High Levels of Implementation Required

The NRS gives us a road map that we can use to reduce nutrient loads; however, high levels of adoption of conservation practices are required. Iowa has made great progress in recent years as we see farmers across the state adopting minimum or no-tillage practices and seeding more cover crops. If ones looks closely, more wetlands, buffers and bioreactors have also begun to dot the landscape. But we have a long way to go.

Despite our continued improvement, we will still need more than ten million total cover crop and no-till acres throughout Iowa to reach the goals of the NRS. Edge-of-field practices like wetlands and bioreactors will also be required at a much higher rate than we currently see.


Just like the NRS, the Conservation Learning Labs project will rely on high adoption of cover crops in the agricultural acres of the pilot watersheds. Iowa Learning Farms has reached out to landowners and farm operators in each of these pilot watersheds to talk to them about the project and to ask for their participation. Cost share dollars are available if they agree to seed a cover crop in fall of 2017.

So far, both pilot watersheds have at least 50% of the agricultural acres in the watershed tentatively committed to seed a cover crop in fall of 2017. We will continue to work with farmers in the months ahead to maximize cover crop adoption in each pilot watershed. Stay tuned for updates!

Julie Whitson

Working Together – Nutrient Reduction Practices and Tax Implications

A recent post by the Center for Agricultural Law and Taxation shed some light on the tax implications of various water quality measures including those addressing nitrogen reduction. Read the original version here.

Using the Iowa State University Publication, Reducing Nutrient Loss: Science Shows What Works as a guide, they reviewed a few common practices for their tax consequences and provided the general overview below.

Cover Crops
Cover_crop_April_Berger_FarmOne of the key strategies for reducing nitrate concentration in row crop farm ground is to plant cover crops. If a farm operator plants cover crops, they may deduct the cost of the seed and/or fertilizer as a trade or business expense in the year they plants the cover crop.[i]

            Cost Share: Often, cost sharing programs are available to fund these practices. If a farmer receives an EQIP payment, for example, to cover the cost of the cover crops, that payment would be treated as ordinary income, subject to self-employment tax. Cost-sharing payments are only eligible for income exclusion under the tax code if the payment is not associated with a deductible expense.[ii]

Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)
Another option for improving water quality is to enroll targeted lands in CRP. Under this program, farm operators or landowners receive annual payments for contractually agreeing to keep enrolled acres out of production. CRP payments are typically reported as Schedule F Income, subject to self-employment tax. (more information)

             Cost Share: Cost-share payments received under the CRP may be eligible for income exclusion to the extent permitted under IRC §126 (see full article).

Conservation Easements
Conservation easements can be an effective method of enhancing or maintaining water quality. These binding agreements implementing permanent land use restrictions can be purchased or donated or they may be implemented through a combination of both.

A purchased easement would include a Wetland Reserve Easement purchased by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Permanent and 30-year easements are treated for tax purposes like a sale of the property.

  • The landowner would reduce his or her basis in the property in the amount of the purchase price of the easement.
  • Any amount below zero would be IRC § 1231 gain reported on Form 4797. It is taxed at long-term capital gains rates as long as the property was owned for more than one year.
  • Easement payments offered for easements in place less than 30 years are taxed as ordinary income.
  • Easement payments are not subject to self-employment tax.
  • Easements granted for 30 years or more can qualify for like-kind exchange treatment under IRC § 1031.

Landowners can also donate conservation easements for the purpose of improving water quality. Such an easement, for example, might allow for the implementation of a wetland on a portion of current crop ground.  If tax code requirements are met, the landowner can claim the deduction as a charitable contribution and recognize significant tax savings. This is a complex area of tax law that requires the assistance of an experienced tax practitioner.

Saturated Buffers, Diversion Ditches, Filter Strips, Grade Stabilization, TerracesDSCN9206
Active farmers may be able to presently deduct the cost of conservation practices implemented as part of an NRCS (or comparable state)-approved plan.

Farmer Landowners:
The IRC § 175 soil and water conservation deduction (which is taken in the year the improvements are made) can be elected for conservation expenditures in an amount up to 25 percent of the farmer’s gross income from farming. The deduction can only be taken for improvements made on “land used for farming.” Excess amounts may be carried forward to future tax years.[ix]

Non-farming landowners:
Those who cash rent their ground) must capitalize these expenses (add the cost of the improvement to the basis of the property) because the IRC § 175 deduction only applies to taxpayers “engaged in the business of farming.”

           Cost share: Cost sharing or incentive payments received to implement these conservation programs would be taxed as ordinary income.

Drainage Water Management
Drainage tile modifications or installations are generally depreciable over a 15-year period. This should include the cost of most water control structures that are part of the system and the cost of the installation. Farming operators would also be eligible for IRC § 179 expensing and 50 percent bonus depreciation for the cost of new tile installation. Non-farming landowners could also depreciate the cost of the drainage tile improvements over a 15-year period. Although they would not be eligible for IRC § 179 expensing (since they are not in the business of farming), they would be eligible for 50 percent bonus depreciation for the cost of new tile.

            Cost share: Cost sharing or incentive payments would be taxed as ordinary income, unless determined to be excluded from income under IRC § 126. This might be especially useful for non-farming landowners not eligible for IRC § 179 expensing.

Stout bioreactor_installationBioreactors have become a very popular tool for removing significant amounts of nitrates from water passing out of a drainage tile system. These structures can cost thousands of dollars and don’t increase production or otherwise improve the bottom line of a farming operation. As such, economic incentives to implement bioreactors are particularly important.

A bioreactor does not show up on any MACRS table. It would likely be depreciated over a seven-year period. Materially participating producers installing a bioreactor would be eligible for Section 179 and 50 percent bonus depreciation. Non-farming landowners could likely depreciate the cost of the bioreactor over a 7-year period (as equipment) and would be eligible for 50-percent bonus depreciation.

           Cost share: Cost sharing or incentive payments could likely be excluded under IRC §126.This might be especially useful for non-farming landowners not eligible for IRC § 179 expensing.

To read the full article visit For questions, contact the author Kristine Tidgren at 515-294-6365 or

Liz Juchems


Field Days Really Do Matter!

Original article was printed in the May edition of the Wallaces Farmer and is available online here.

How close are we to reaching Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS) goals? Well, we would need:

  • 6 million more acres of no-tillage
  • 7,525 more wetlands
  • 115,000 more bioreactors
  • 12 million more acres of cover crops

That is a lot of conservation! How do we get there? One field day and one workshop at a time.

While the Iowa Learning Farms uses many different outreach approaches, the importance of farmer-to-farmer interactions cannot be overstated. In other words, field days do matter.

Field days and farmer workshops have been at the heart of ILF since its inception in 2004. Over the years, we’ve developed a multi-tiered approach to evaluation as a feedback mechanism to improve the effectiveness of our outreach. We call this our “Field Day Success Loop” based on the findings of our 2015 field day evaluation data. Before we go into the Success Loop, let’s look closer at the evaluation process and results.

SHARE THEIR EXPERIENCE: Field days help farmers gain knowledge and support they need to have confidence to increase their soil and water conservation practices. Once they are using conservation on their farm, they feel more comfortable networking with other farmers about the practices.

SHARE THEIR EXPERIENCE: Field days help farmers gain knowledge and support they need to have confidence to increase their soil and water conservation practices. Once they are using conservation on their farm, they feel more comfortable networking with other farmers about the practices.

ILF Evaluations Measure Conservation Education Progress

In 2015, ILF held 31 field days statewide with 1,381 attendees. Participants at every field day are asked to sign in by filling out Comment Cards to gain a better understanding of who they are and why they are there. In addition, farmers and landowners are asked to complete Planning Cards to understand their intention to implement conservation practices.

Three weeks after the event, participants are mailed a Follow-up Evaluation that focuses on the clarity and accessibility of the information received and to ask if they plan to make any changes to their land management choices as a result of the event. The last tier of ILF’s process is a January Evaluation, mailed to only farmers and landowners to see if the participants did indeed make the changes they said they were going to make. In 2015, we got a 40% response rate to the two mailed surveys—an excellent result for a one-time mailing.

Highlights from evaluations taken at 2015 ILF Field Days:
•  89% of the attendees were farmers and landowners.
  93% of respondents rated the overall quality of the field day as good or excellent.
  Respondents reported planting 40,257 acres of cover crops in 2015, 35% of which were new acres of cover crops.
  ILF is reaching new potential conservationists. An estimated 38% of respondents used neither cover crops nor no-tillage on any of their acres.
  71% said they networked with other farmers, and these respondents reported influencing 61% more farmers outside of the field day!

Field day attendees are networking with their peers, influencing farmers who did not attend the field day, thus creating a multiplier effect.

What is the relationship between attending field days, adopting conservation practices, networking and influencing other farmers? If a farmer attended three or more field days, they were more likely to report influencing other farmers than if they only attended one field day. We also found that the more cover crop acres the farmer reported, the more successful they were at influencing others to try conservation.

Field Day Success Loop shows: Field days make sense!

Iowa Learning Farms surveys show: field days matter!

Field days help farmers gain the knowledge and support they need to have confidence to increase their conservation practices. Once they are implementing conservation, they feel more comfortable networking with other farmers about the practices. The more conservation on their land, the more likely they are able to influence others to try conservation farming practices. This feedback loop continues with the conservation farmers playing a bigger role in encouraging other farmers to attend field days and to adopt conservation practices.

Can Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy be implemented?
The percentage of respondents who said they thought the goals of the NRS were achievable went from 55% in 2014 to 65% in 2015. That number jumps to 75% among respondents who planted more than 160 acres of cover crops in 2015. Among the respondents who weren’t using cover crops or no-tillage, 18% had never heard of the NRS and were significantly less likely to see the goals as achievable.

Field days and workshops do make a difference. If there is any hope of the NRS succeeding, we will need to significantly increase the number of conservation-focused field days across Iowa. A conservation field day or two in every county every year would be a great start. Iowa Learning Farms will continue to do its part. We are counting on good conservation farmers to use their influence to encourage neighbors to attend local field days and consider increasing conservation practices on the land.

At Iowa Learning Farms, we are excited to keep the good work going.  Visit our events page to find information on future field days near you! To read this full report and reports from previous years, visit our website:

Jackie Comito


A Wetlands Walk with Charlie

This morning, the sun woke me early and so I jumped out of bed, got dressed and called out to my dog.

“It’s National Wetlands Month, Charlie! Let’s go to the lake!”

Charlie did his slow morning stretch, slanted his head to one side and looked at me.

“The lake!,” I repeated, and then grabbed my car keys and jingled them at him. While he doesn’t really know the word lake, he understands that car keys in the morning mean a trip to the lake. His tail began a wagging and he waited impatiently for me to grab his leash and get into the car.


Ada Hayden Lake is the reserve water supply for the City of Ames. It is a smallish lake that has several adjacent wetlands and prairies. This year, I made a pledge to myself to try to walk out there once a week all year regardless of the weather. It is always beautiful there, whether it is covered with ice and snow or a beautiful spring day like today.

I took my camera with me because I knew I wanted to blog about wetlands. I also knew that photographs and sounds would tell the story better than I can with words.

The walk was amazing and the sights and sounds were balms to my soul. April had been one of those months where I always felt about three paces behind where I needed to be. This morning it was good to take a leisurely walk with Charlie to just enjoy the moment. Charlie loves it when I am not in a hurry because I allow him to stop, smell, touch and sometimes pursue.



As we were walking around the lake, I was thinking about how amazing wetlands are and how important they are for so many reasons. The three most important functions of prairie wetlands are waterfowl habitat, nutrient removal and flood control. In Iowa, wetlands are particularly important for the Des Moines Lobe area where pre-settlement there were 3.5 million acres of wetlands. By the 1970s, we were down to 30,000 acres. Today, there are anywhere from 94,000 to 143,000 acres of wetlands in the Des Moines Lobe.

So, we are making progress, slowly, but still progress. A few of the impacts of the loss of wetlands in this part of Iowa has been the loss of wildlife, especially waterfowl, and the decline in lake and river water quality due to nonpoint source pollution (see Wetland Restoration in Iowa: Challenges and Opportunities for more details).


Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy suggests that we would need 7,600 nutrient reduction wetlands in the Des Moines Lobe if we want to see water quality improvements. Currently, there are less than 100 of these wetlands in the region. How are we going to get there? It will take a change of mind, heart and reallocation of resources like we haven’t seen for a really long time in Iowa. Where do we start?

Pope Francis, in his encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si, suggests that the first step to this kind of change is contemplation. You don’t need to be Catholic or even religious to practice contemplation. In the simplest terms, contemplation means to listen. In listening, you come to see. In seeing you come to know. In knowing, you come to care.

Care suggests passion, love and commitment.



How do we implement Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy? Maybe the process would be quickened if more people entered into dialogue with nature. It is a huge change that is being asked of the people in our state. Can we stop and listen, pay attention and be aware? Can we care?

Nothing will change if we don’t.

I am not saying that I have all the answers. Or that I am doing everything I can to be a part of the solution. I am saying that I felt hopeful after this morning’s walk. I also felt confident that if we can bring wetlands back, they would do their part to care for the Earth and all the creatures who call wetlands home.

It’s National Wetlands Month. Do you know where a wetland is?

Wetlands (and lake, rivers, etc), should come with a warning label:
Caution! Sitting here could change your life.

Jacqueline Comito

Check out this video of overseeding in action!

On August 27th, Iowa Learning Farms partnered with Hagie Manufacturing and Practical Farmers of Iowa to overseed cover crop demonstration plots in north central Iowa.  Here is some footage from the seeding at the ISU Research Farm near Kanawha.

For more information about overseeding or this research project, check out our earlier blog: Cover Crop Seeding Techniques: Overseeding.

Liz Juchems

Growin’ Green

Today marks the official start of fall and there are many signs of its arrival as we travel around Iowa.  The tree leaves are beginning to change colors and preparations for harvest have begun. As the crops begin to turn brown and drop their leaves, there is something just beginning to green up – cover crops!

On Monday, I visited the Northeast Research Farm near Nashua to collect groundwater lysimeter samples from our cover crop plots.  I was very happy to see the seeds we broadcasted on September 3rd had germinated and were off to a good start. Below are some pictures I snapped while collecting samples.

Nashua Cover Crops Fall 2015

For more information on cover crops, visit our cover crops resources page on our Iowa Learning Farms website.

We would love to see photos of your cover crops as harvest begins.  Please send them to or share them with us on Facebook and Twitter @iowalearningfarms.

Liz Juchems

Cover Crop Seeding Techniques: Drilling


Farmer partner Rick Juchems drilling cereal rye following soybean harvest.


Another popular method for seeding cover crops is by drilling or planting them after harvest.  In fact, the majority of the farmer partners in our long term rye cover crop study choose to drill the rye strips, and their additional cover crops acres, following the harvest of corn or soybeans.



Drilling provides uniform seeding depth and excellent seed to soil contact.

Drilling cover crops allows for uniform seeding depth, good seed to soil contact for germination, higher consistency in the stand and often requires a lower seeding rate (i.e. lower overall seed cost) when compared to overseeding, broadcast or aerial application.

Similar to the other seeding methods, weather can prove to be a significant challenge.  Because the seeding is completed after crop harvest, the growing season length following a corn/soybean rotation is fairly short especially if an early frost occurs.  Cereal rye or other overwintering species are a potential better fit for drilling cover crops as they are more tolerant of cold than non-overwintering species that may only have a few growing degree days in the fall before they are terminated.


Juchems drilling cover crops following corn harvest.

Timing can also prove to be a significant challenge for corn/soybean rotations.  Ideally, the drill or planter is following the combine to get the cover crops seeded as soon as the grain crop is removed.  For many farmers short on labor, this can prevent this seeding method from being effective.  However, if the previous crop is a shorter season variety, small grain or seed grain crop, the window for getting the cover crop seeded after harvest is much larger.

Farmer partner Mark Pokorny shows the grass seed drill he borrows from the Tama County Soil and Water Conservation District to seed his cover crops. Photo Credit: Practical Farmers of Iowa.

Access to a drill can be a limitation for some farmers, but some Soil and Water Conservation Districts have purchased grain drills that are available to rent for cover crop seeding in the fall.  Wright and Tama counties both have grain drills available for rental and Jasper County is exploring the option.  Check with your local or neighboring county office to see if they have a drill available.


The Iowa Learning Farms and Practical Farmers of Iowa have partnered with Hagie Manufacturing near Clarion, the ISU North Central Research Farm in Kanawha and Tim Smith near Eagle Grove to compare different seeding methods including overseeding above and below canopy and drilling post harvest.  We are in year two of the seeding and will be collecting fall and spring biomass and crop yields from the sites to measure the effectiveness of the different seeding methods.

The Iowa Learning Farms has also created a downloadable Excel Cover Crop Cost Calculator tool to help calculate and compare the cost of drilling or aerial seeding cover crops. The tool calculates the total cost of using the cover crop including seed, application, and chemical termination. You can use the calculator for a single cover crop species or up to six species in a mixture. The tool calculates the cost of drilling and aerial application for easy comparison.

To use the calculator, download and open the Excel file (Microsoft Excel software must be installed on your computer in order to use the file). Any cell that is shaded in yellow can have a value inserted including the cost of the seed in $/lb, and the cost of application.

Liz Juchems

Cover Crop Seeding Techniques: Broadcast Seeding

Cover crop seeding season is upon us and the decision of how to seed them is an important one to consider.

This post is part two of our series on cover crop seeding techniques.  In Part One: Overseeding, Ann discussed the importance of getting the cover crops seeded into standing corn and soybeans due to the short growing season if planted after harvest. Broadcast seeding is another way to get the cover crop seeds in the field earlier to extend the growing season in the fall.

Between August 25 and September 4, the Iowa Learning Farms and Practical Farmers of Iowa traveled the state to hand broadcast seed cover crops and collect water samples. This is the third seeding season for these plots at six ISU Farmer Association Research Farms.  The plots are part of a National Conservation Innovation Grant project comparing cover crop mixtures and single species vs. no cover crop check strips and the impact the treatments may have on soil and water quality as well as crop yields.

Before we headed to the field, a seed packet for each row was weighed out and labeled.  The goal is to seed one million seeds per acre, so the seed packet weight is calculated based on the plot size and the cover crop species (or mixture) being used. Each plot is 50 feet in length. The sites vary in plot width – 6 rows, 8 rows or 12 rows.  The packets are bundled together for each plot for easy access in the field.  They are then placed in a backpack destined for the field.


Once we reach the plot and double-check the map, we prepare to seed.  The packet bundle is loaded into a tool pouch and the seeder takes the end of the tape measure.  Ripping off one corner of the packet, the seeder begins to walk backwards down the row, sprinkling out seeds as he/she goes.  At the end of the 50ft, the seeder switches out for a new packet and returns down the next row, as shown in the photos below.




Seeding cover crops into standing soybeans at the Northeast Research Farm near Nashua on September 4, 2015.




The process is repeated in the corn plots until all the seed packets have been dispensed.  Below is a video of seeding in the corn plots at the Southeast Research Farm near Crawfordsville on September 3, 2015.


If you are interested in establishing a small test plot, we have a Test Strip Calculator Tool available to help. The cover crop test strip seeding rate calculator allows the user to input the dimensions of the plot, select the seeding method, and choose from 14 cover crop options.  The tool automatically calculates the amount of total seed needed based on the plot size and reports the seeding rate per row for easy measurements. The calculations are based on recommended seeding rates from the Midwest Cover Crops Council Cover Crop Decision Tool.

Liz Juchems


For more information about this cover crop mixtures project check out our previous posts about the project:

To Mix or Not to Mix My Cover Crop Species

It’s Alive!

Adventures in Soil Sampling

Spring Field Work is Under Way

Spring Cover Crop Biomass Sampling

Behind the Scenes: Water Quality Monitoring

Friday Photos: Cover Crops Thriving!

Another Month of Growth…

Cover Crop Sampling with Practical Farmers of Iowa

Goin’ Green…

A Cover Crop Snapshot

I Spy in the Rye…

Guest Blog: Behind the Scenes with Water Sampling, Part I


May ILF webinar: Source Water Protection

Greenfield8-25-05I’m guessing that many people living in an Iowa municipality might not know where their drinking water comes from beyond the water tower. Where does your community’s water—or source water—come from? A nearby river or lake? Or from a well that pumps water from underground?

Today’s ILF webinar focused on source water and how some communities are improving theirs.

Rebecca Ohrtman is the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Source Water Protection Program Coordinator. She explained what source water is and where it comes from. She gave examples of three communities that are reducing nitrogen levels in their municipal water supply through a pilot project. There are 15 pilot projects going on in Iowa now. The projects bring many individuals and groups together to improve their source water.

Jamie Benning is the ISU Extension and Outreach Water Quality Program Manager. She talked about the how the Source Water Ag Collaborative is working with communities to reduce nitrogen levels in both source water and non-point source water.

There are many similarities between the Source Water Protection Program and the Nutrient Reduction Strategy, which Jamie highlighted in the webinar. The urban-rural disconnect that many Iowans feel should be erased when we see how we are all connected by the flow of water.

Watch the recorded May webinar any time. The link is found on the webinar page of the ILF website. In fact, links to all of our 52 webinars are found here!

— Carol Brown

Funds Available For Water Quality Practices

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey has announced availability of funds to help farmers use the nutrient reduction practices below:

Cost Share Funds 2015


Farmers are eligible for cost share on up to 160 acres, with priority consideration for any farmer not already using these practices:

For first time users

  • Cover Crops = $25 per acre
  • No-till or strip till = $10 per acre
  • Nitrapyrin nitrification inhibitor for fall fertilizer = $3 per acre

For past participants in WQI funding or non-first time users – New for 2015

  • Cover Crops = $15 per acre

The funds will be made available in July, but farmers can immediately start submitting applications through their local Soil and Water Conservation District office.  Farmers are also encouraged to visit their local Soil and Water Conservation District office to inquire about additional opportunities for cost share funding through other programs offered at their local SWCDs.

Click for more detailed information about the available funds for water quality practices.


Liz Juchems