Farmer Profile: Ben and Andy Johnson

Ben and Andy Johnson_cropCLLThe Johnson brothers farm in Floyd County where they grow corn and soybeans and manage a ewe flock and feeder lamb operation. The duo are no strangers to conservation and trying new practices. They began no-tilling soybeans over fifteen years ago and have nearly ten years of experience strip-tilling corn. Other conservation methods they have employed on their farm include buffer strips, prairie CRP, pollinator habitats, field windbreaks, a pheasant safe program and cover crops.

Ben began using cover crops in 2013 when a wet spring delayed planting on hundreds of acres until it was too late to plant a cash crop. Not wanted the fields to remain empty all year, Ben planted oats and radishes for the first time. As to why he does it, Ben explained, “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.” Within his no-till system for soybeans and strip-till system for corn, he found that using cover crops helped control erosion and improved organic matter and overall soil structure.


“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.” – Ben Johnson


In 2016, Iowa Learning Farms approached Ben and Andy to be a part of a new Conservation Learning Labs* (CLL) project that is studying changes in nitrogen and phosphorus loss at the delivery scale. The Johnsons farm near an existing Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) wetland in Floyd County that has measured water quality for about three years.

Using the CREP wetland monitoring system, the project will be able to measure changes in water quality after cover crops are planted in the project area over the next three years. The Johnsons agreed to participate in the CLL project, and in fall of 2017 they seeded cover crops on over 54% of the nearby research watershed acres.

Ben 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.”

Ben Johnson and his wife Amy have two sons, Jackson and Riley. Andy Johnson had his wife Abbie also have two young sons, Kyle and Carter. Ben was featured in our Conservation Chat podcast – listen to the episode to hear more about his operation and what drives his conservation ethic.

Julie Winter

*The Conservation Learning Labs 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.

Iowa Learning Farms Webinar to Explore Lessons Learned from Using Cover Crops to Reduce Nitrate Losses

DSCN0571Even with excellent nutrient management, nitrate losses from corn and soybean fields can occur because these cash crops only grow and take up nitrate and water for five months of the year. Cover crops like winter rye can be an effective strategy for reducing nitrate losses to groundwater or tile drainage because they can take up water and nitrate during the period between harvest and planting of the next year’s crop.

Dr. Tom Kaspar, Plant Physiologist at the USDA-ARS National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment, will share his lessons learned over his storied career researching the use of cover crops and no-till to improve water quality and soil health in corn and soybean production systems.

DATE: Wednesday, December 13, 2017
TIME: 12:00 noon
HOW TO PARTICIPATE: Log on as a guest shortly before 12:00 p.m.:
https://connect.extension.iastate.edu/ilf/

More information about this webinar is available at our website. If you can’t watch the webinar live, an archived version will be available on our website: https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars.

Julie Winter

Fly the “W”

blog-header-cubsI love October especially when the Cubs are still playing baseball. Of course as I write this, the series is tied 1-1 and so by the time this is published, the Cubs might not still be playing baseball. But for right now, it is October and the Cubs are in the playoffs and life is good!

Along with postseason baseball, October also brings the fall colors. The other day I was walking through Ames’ largest cemetery and enjoying the beauty of all the trees. Cemeteries are havens of peace and good places to think. My ILF E-News column was due soon and I had no good ideas. I was hoping this walk might shake something loose.

I asked myself, can I tie the Cubs, cemeteries and the Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS) together for my column?

cubsgameAs I walked, I noticed a half a dozen graves that were flying the blue “W” near the headstones. For those of you who are not Cubs fans and were in a foreign country last year when they finally won the World Series, the blue “W” represents a Cubs’ win. Now I didn’t check the tombstones for year of death but I am guessing that a few of them died before November of last year and this was the family’s way of acknowledging how important the win would have been for them.

As I walked, I called fellow Cubs fan Jamie Benning and shared with her my observation about the “W” in the cemetery. Did she think I could link the nutrient reduction strategy and Cubs for my column? Jamie suggested exploring if there was anything to learn from the road to the Cubs 2016 World Series victory and the power of a symbol such as the “W” that could apply to NRS implementation.

Of course, we both thought that was a good idea so I went home and gave it some thought. In order for the Cubs to have a chance at a national championship, several things had to happen.

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Most of this work happened in the off-season and most national championships are won by what happens during the periods when the team is not playing ball.

If we want to have greater success in implementing Iowa’s NRS, I think we have some valuable lessons to take from the Cubs’ success.

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It is October. The growing season is over (if you haven’t planted cover crops) and the cash crops are being harvested. The next several months could be considered the “off-season” for those who don’t have livestock. There is a lot of work to do right now to lay the groundwork for greater success in implementing the NRS in the years to come. ‘Cause just like in baseball, next year begins right now.

Jacqueline Comito

Webinars Are Back, New Outreach Tool Debuted

Our Iowa Learning Farms webinars are back! This week, Matt Helmers, professor in the Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering and Iowa Learning Farms team member, kicked off our webinar series for 2017. Dr. Helmers spoke on nitrate reduction, and specifically, nitrate reduction practices that can help treat tile-drained water.

In order to achieve the goals of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS), we know that a wide array of practice implementation will be necessary. And, Dr. Helmers stressed, “It’s not just a few people making a change, it’s all farmers in the state of Iowa.” To drive that point home, we can refer to Dr. Laura Christianson’s catchy slogan: One practice might not be right for every acre, but every acre needs at least one practice.

“It’s not just a few people making a change, it’s all farmers in the state of Iowa.”

One scenario in the Iowa NRS calls for almost all agricultural acres to more effectively manage nitrogen, 12-13 million acres to be in cover crops, 7 million acres to be treated by wetlands and 7 million acres to be treated by bioreactors. This scenario requires an incredible amount of implementation of practices from many Iowan. It also requires in-field changes as well as treatment of tile-drained water at the edge of the field. Dr. Helmers zeroes in on those edge-of-field practices and just how effective they can be for nitrate reduction in the treatment of tile-drained water.

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Dr. Helmers has spoken at hundreds of events since the initial release of the Iowa NRS in 2012. Based on his experience, he sees one thing clearly: “We need to create a sense of urgency because the level of implementation must be increased!”

“We need to create a sense of urgency because the level of implementation must be increased!”

Many are familiar with the need for financial and technical resources to get more edge-of-field practices on the ground, but we also need people who can help design these practices. Education could play a key role in this need – workshops for contractors, new curriculum for students, and field days as these practices are being installed are necessary. After the practices are installed, many edge-of-field practices lose their magic, as the magic is going on right below our feet, out of sight.

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The Iowa Learning Farms team and our project partners*, have created one unique way to start addressing the edge-of-field outreach need: The Conservation Station On the Edge! Dr. Helmers said it best: “When you can’t go out to see the practices being installed, Iowa Learning Farms has created a way to bring the practice, and the field day, to the people!”

The Conservation Station On the Edge will be available to travel to events beginning in Fall of 2017. Contact ilf@iastate.edu to inquire about availability for your event. Another popular outreach tool, the Rainfall Simulator, is still running.

Watch the webinar from our webinar archives!

Julie Whitson

*We thank our project partners, including the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Department of Natural Resources (Section 319 of Clean Water Act), USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and Agri Drain Corporation.

Cover Crops: One Piece of the Puzzle in CLL Project

Cover crops are an important tool for helping keep soil, nitrogen and phosphorus in the field – instead of our water bodies. Because they grow outside the typical corn/soybean growing season, cover crops help reduce soil erosion and take up nutrients that could otherwise leave the field. It is also the most popular practice among our Conservation Learning Lab (CLL) farmer partners.

The CLL project is studying the impact of conservation practices implementation at the watershed scale in Floyd and Story County.  The conservation planning process within the watersheds has yielded cover crop contract enrollment of 675 acres and 1,081 acres, respectively, starting this fall covering 50-68% of the crop acres within the watershed.

Cover_crop_April_Berger_FarmThe farmer partners chose to seed either winter cereal rye and oats.  These grass species are easy to establish, relatively inexpensive and are the leading biomass producers in our cover crop research projects – keeping that soil covered (reducing the loss of phosphorus) and taking up nitrogen.

The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy team reviewed cover crop research results from across Iowa and the Midwest and found that cereal rye and oats reduced nitrogen loss by 31% and 29%, respectively.  Similarly, the reduction of phosphorus when adding cereal rye is about 29%, primarily as a result of reduced soil erosion. According to our RUSLE2 calculations, a cereal rye cover crop added to a no-till system can reduce soil erosion by 30-80% and can be even larger when transitioning from a conservation tillage system.

Be sure to keep checking back as we will be providing updates as the cover crops are seeded this fall!

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.

Who Doesn’t Want to See More Cattle on the Rolling Green Pastures of Iowa?

I have a soft spot for beef cattle. I mean, who doesn’t like to see cattle on rolling green fields on a beautiful Iowa summer day? While this pastoral scene can bring tranquility and enjoyment, returning more land to grazing has water quality benefits and social benefits.

gilmorecity1As you know, I spend most my time thinking or talking about the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS). Most of my presentations are on edge-of-field nitrate reduction practices. My job is to study specific engineering solutions to our water resource issues. Perhaps not all of our problems can be solved through engineering? Radical thought.

When you really look at our nutrient loss issues, the most important factor affecting nutrient loss is that today there are primarily annual row crops where once there was perennial vegetation pre-settlement or diverse crop rotations during the early 1900’s.

These cropping systems have made Iowa an agricultural leader. We are unlikely to see major land use changes in the near future, but I do think there is potential for more
diverse land uses, especially in certain areas in Iowa. One way to diversify would be an March_img_4373increase in pasture and hay land. For this to work, we would need more cattle to forage.

The Iowa NRS Nonpoint Source Science Assessment estimated that grazed pastureland had 85% nitrate-N reduction and 59% P reduction compared to an annual corn-soybean system. Another added value of having greater need for forage by cattle might be that this could greatly improve the potential economics of cover crops. Late fall and early spring grazing could provide some of the forage needs for the cattle.

Mattblog_crop2

The infrastructure to increase beef cattle on pasture is not what it once was. We have taken out miles of fence throughout the state and there are substantial labor needs for an integrated livestock-cropping system. On the other hand, adding some diversity to agricultural operations could open up opportunities for young farmers to get back on the landscape.

DSCN0318As we move forward with implementation of nutrient reduction practices, it is important to think about our livestock system and how we might be able to increase the number of cattle on pasture in Iowa. Not only could this benefit our environment and maybe provide more opportunities for young people to get into agriculture, it could also add substantial beauty to our landscape with cattle grazing green pastures.

Matt Helmers

To explore the benefits of pasture-based livestock operations, check out Dr. Helmers’ Conservation Chat or Leopold Center Dr. Mark Rasmussen’s Conservation Chat. Matt Helmers is an Iowa Learning Farms team member and Professor of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering at Iowa State University. 

Introducing the Iowa Watershed Approach

Today’s guest post was provided by Adam Wilke, ISU Extension and Outreach Water Specialist.

The Iowa Watershed Approach (IWA) is a new five-year project focused on addressing factors associated with flood disasters in the state of Iowa. The IWA project will also provide benefits of improved water quality by implementing conservation practices outlined in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

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Assessing Cedar River flood waters, September, 2016. Photo courtesy Brain Powers / DSM Register.

The “HUD Project,” as it is commonly referred, was awarded $96.9 million by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The National Disaster Resilience Competition provided $1 billion to communities that have experienced recent significant natural disasters, including Iowa’s three flood-related Presidential Disaster Declarations in 2013. Iowans remember the devastating floods of 2008 and 1993, and some are still working to repair damage from September 2016 flooding.

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Map of Iowa Watershed Approach. Courtesy of Iowa Flood Center.

The IWA focuses on nine watersheds throughout the state, representing varying soil types, topographic regions, and land uses. These watersheds were prioritized as regions that have been most impacted and distressed from previous flood events and have unmet recovery needs. The IWA is a vision for both rural and urban resilience, and three cities (Storm Lake, Coralville, and Dubuque) are priority areas for the project.

Previous efforts to address flooding impacts were piloted through the Iowa Watersheds Project in five watersheds throughout the state in 2010. By 2016, over 65 constructed practices—such as ponds, wetlands, and terraces—have been completed.

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Road damage from Cedar River flood, June 2008. Courtesy Iowa Dept. of Transportation.

The theme of year one is “The Iowa Watershed Approach: A Visions for Iowa’s Future Under Changing Hydrologic Conditions.” Climate science indicates that annual average precipitation in Iowa has trended upward over the last 100 years and extreme precipitation events (more than 1.25 inches per day) have increased throughout the state. University of Iowa research of 774 U.S. Geological Survey stream gauges found an upward trend in frequency of flooding throughout the Central U.S. over the past 50 years. This has contributed to crop loss and destruction of infrastructure, such as homes, roads, and bridges.

The IWA will work to achieve six specific outcomes:

  1. Reduce flood risk
  2. Improve water quality
  3. Increase flood resilience
  4. Engage stakeholders through collaboration and outreach/education
  5. Improve quality of life and health, especially for susceptible populations
  6. Develop a program that is scalable and replicable throughout the Midwest and the United States

The IWA focuses on innovative in-field and edge-of-field practices to reduce flood potential and decrease nutrient concentration in surface water. The practices include:

• Wetland Construction                              • Farm Ponds
• Storm Water Detention Basins              • Terraces
• Sediment Detention Basins                    • Floodplain Restoration
• Channel Bank Stabilization                    • Buffer Strips
• Saturated Buffers                                       • Perennial Cover
• Oxbow Restoration                                     • Bioreactors
• Prairie STRIPS

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Courtesy ISU Extension and Outreach.

The IWA project creates Watershed Management Authorities (WMA) and these organizations allow for a broad range of stakeholders—including scientists, state agencies, counties, municipalities, farmers, and citizens—to organize and work towards the common goals of flood reduction and water quality improvement. Some watersheds, such as the Middle Cedar, have established WMAs, while others are beginning the formation process.

Stream gauges will provide data for the Iowa Flood Center to conduct hydrological assessments in each watershed and allow researchers to assess risks associated with flooding and water quality, including developing and evaluating future scenarios to maximize results from project resources.

WMA will use these findings to best select eligible subwatersheds at the HUC 12 (Hydrologic Unit Code) scale and prioritize implementation of constructed projects. Stakeholder inputs, watershed plans, and hydrological assessments will guide the WMAs in selecting the most beneficial practices and appropriate locations.

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Courtesy ISU Extension and Outreach.

This project combines the strengths and efforts of Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, the Iowa Nutrient Research Center, and the Daily Erosion Project by the Iowa Water Center to achieve these goals. The IWA is a new way to think about the movement of water across the Iowa landscape. One of the most important pieces of completing such a large and complicated project is to ensure stakeholder engagement throughout the project. We look forward to hearing your questions, thoughts, and concerns as we all seek the common goal of reducing flood disaster and ensuring water quality for generations to come.

Adam Wilke