A Challenge for the New Year

CLGHeaderJamie Benning | Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Water Quality Program Manager

Late last month, farm advisors, consultants, agronomists and farmers gathered for the 30th annual Integrated Crop Management Conference.  Over these years, participants have been able to choose from well over 100 sessions on the latest research and recommendations for soil management and water quality from the field to watershed scale. Since the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (INRS) was introduced in 2013, there have been additional sessions focused on reducing nitrate-nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) loss.

ICM 2018This year, Matt Helmers, Mark Licht and I led two interactive sessions with about 60 participants each with the objectives of reinforcing the goals of the NRS, discussing specific practices and their costs and effectiveness, and encouraging dialogue and deeper thinking about the challenges to meeting these goals. We used an online tool called Kahoot and participants responded to each question anonymously using their smartphones.

The groups did a great job identifying the major sources of nitrate-N and P loss from agricultural systems and selecting practices that will most effectively reduce loss within the field and at the edge of field.  This is positive feedback for ISU Extension, Iowa Learning Farms, and many other agriculture and conservation organizations that have developed and delivered outreach and professional development opportunities for this audience over the past five years.

Understanding and ranking cost effectiveness was a bit more challenging for the group, indicating that we need to double down on our outreach and education on recent research and scenarios to better reinforce this information as it is critical for decision-making.

As we moved into discussing the challenges of reaching the INRS goals, one of the discussion questions asked the participants to identify THE major barrier to adopting wetlands, saturated buffers, and bioreactors, three major edge-of-field nitrate-N reduction practices.  The four options we gave the groups are four very common barriers to adopting practices:

  1. Costs are too high
  2. It is too time consuming to work with agencies to install practices
  3. Landowner-tenant relationships are challenging
  4. Farmers and landowners are not feeling a sense of urgency to install these practices.

I was very surprised that 38% of both groups selected the lack of a sense of urgency as the top barrier to adoption. 

The costs of practice installation came in nearly tied with 33% selecting it as the top barrier. In discussions with similar groups and with conservation colleagues, I hear the cost limitations much more frequently, especially in the past few years of low commodity prices, along with the other two choices.  In response to the other three barriers, significant outreach and incentive programs have been developed and modified to address these concerns. Farmers’ sense of urgency is rarely discussed.

The response to this question caused me to reflect on how our outreach programs may be influencing this lack of urgency.  Leaders agree that we have measured increases in funding and technical assistance, the number of learning opportunities available to farmers, landowners and stakeholders, acres of implemented practices and many other indicators of progress but that we have a huge amount of work yet to do to reduce the size of the hypoxic zone.  The Hypoxia Task Force has set an interim goal of a 20% load reduction in both nitrate-N and P by 2025 and a 45% reduction by 2035.


river restorationMy goal for the New Year is to bring the timelines front and center to convey that the INRS, while voluntary, is not optional and we need to increase our efforts.  I also want to illustrate the relationship between reducing the size of the Gulf Hypoxic Zone and local drinking water quality protection, better habitat and quality of life that result from cleaner rivers and lakes, and the economic development opportunities for small businesses that design and install conservation practices, grow and sell cover crop seed, and beginning farmers seeking to grow their pasture-based livestock operations.

As you reflect on the 2018 growing season and think about goals for next year, I challenge you to set at least one goal related to improving the water quality leaving your farm.  To increase the chances that you will achieve this goal, write it down and talk to someone about it!

Here are a few draft goals to get you started:

  • Stop by your Soil and Water Conservation District office and meet with your local watershed coordinator, they may have financial and technical assistance opportunities for you
  • If you have tile on your farm and have easy access to an outlet, start measuring nitrate-N leaving in the tile.  There are several programs available to help you with tile monitoring, call 515-294-6038 or email me, benning@iastate.edu, and I can help you get started
  • Set a time to meet with farmers in your area that have tried cover crops to discuss their experiences and learn from them
  • Set an appointment with your NRCS District Conservationist to review your conservation plan and discuss changes that could be made to improve water and soil quality

To demonstrate to the public that the voluntary system can work, acres of cover crops, numbers of wetlands, bioreactors, and saturated buffers, acres of no-till and many other practices all need to increase sharply over the next few years.  Making one of the commitments I listed or setting your own unique water quality goal will lead to water quality improvement and may make your farm more profitable in the process.

Jamie Benning

November Webinar: Evaluating nutrient reduction at the delivery scale

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On Wednesday, November 14th at noon Dr. Matt Helmers, Professor Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering and Director of the Iowa Nutrient Research Center, will discussing the innovative Conservation Learning Lab (CLL) project that is key to understanding impacts of in-field conservation practices beyond the research plot scale.

The webinar is a remote training opportunity for all stakeholders, including watershed coordinators, who are working on watershed improvement projects and implementation of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

CLL LogoThe CLL is providing the opportunity to examine how in-field conservation practices impact nutrient loss at the scale at which water and nutrients are delivered to the stream. Through one-on-one meetings with farmers to complete the conservation planning process, the project team has helped these farmers implement cover crops, strip-tillage and CRP on their land. Pre-implementation and preliminary post-implementation water quality data will be shared from ongoing monitoring within the project areas.

“This research is critical to understanding impacts of in-field management beyond the plot scale,” commented Helmers. “Examining the results of large-scale adoption of practices at delivery-scale is critical to meeting the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy goals. It is also important to note the high amount of time and human capital needed to get farmer and landowner adoption of conservation practices at the level of implementation we need.”

Don’t miss this webinar!

DATE: Wednesday, November 14, 2018
TIME: 12:00 p.m.
HOW TO PARTICIPATE: www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars and click the link to join the webinar

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.

Liz Juchems

Five-Year Cover Crop Mixtures Study: Significant Nitrate Reduction and Unchanged Crop Yields

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The results of a five-year study conducted by the Iowa Learning Farms, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach and Practical Farmers of Iowa, reinforced that cover crops added to a corn-soybean rotation have no negative effect on yield and result in statistically significant reductions in nitrate concentration in subsurface water. The details of the study are included in a brand new infographic now available for download.

Throughout the 22 site-years of yield data, there was no significant difference in cash crop yields between control strips without cover crops and those planted with cover crops. Is it important to note that planter settings may impact yield if not properly managed to accommodate residue from the cover crops.

yield results

Iowa soils are highly vulnerable to nitrate losses between April and June when natural nitrate production exceeds typical crop demands. The analysis of water samples from those three months, showed a statistically significant reduction in nitrate concentration in the cover crop strips.
nitrate reduction

We are really excited to see this significant reduction in nitrate concentration when cover crops are present, as addressing nitrate levels is a key component to reaching our Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy goals.

Project MapSince this project had locations located throughout the state, we were able to see how the different cover crop species performed in different soil regions and weather patterns. We observed consistent establishment and biomass production of the rye and oats at all sites and gained the largest reduction in nitrate concentration from those single species treatments. Rye and oats provided the most biomass and had the lowest cost of establishment, helping make them the top choice for cover crops in Iowa!

The infographic is available online at the ILF website. Funding for this study was provided by NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant and Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

-Liz Juchems

Have we reached a tipping point for phosphorus saturation?

CLG-BannerImages-180213-04Phosphorus is one of the main nutrients of focus in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. It is essential to the growth of plants, but when phosphorus enters our water bodies it leads to excessive plant growth and increases in toxic algae that are harmful to human and animal health.

A recent study from the University of Montreal quantified, for the first time, the maximum amount of phosphorus that can accumulate within the watershed before additional pollution is released into the water.

Their results indicate a relatively low threshold compared to current application rates and notes that tipping points could be reached in less than a decade.

Research supervisor, Roxane Maranger, aquatic ecosystem ecologist at University of Montreal, compared the relationship of the land and phosphorus accumulation like this:

“Think of the land as a sponge,” Maranger said. “After a while, sponges that absorb too much water will leak. In the case of phosphorus, the landscape absorbs it year after year after year, and after a while, its retention capacity is reduced. At that point historical phosphorus inputs contribute more to what reaches our water.”

Be sure to read the full article to learn how they conducted the study and further implications of the results.

Locally, the implementation of nutrient reduction strategy practices like no-till, cover crops, phosphorus application management, perennial vegetation, buffers and more are imperative to the long-term sustainability on our water resources.

Liz Juchems

What a Night for a Field Day

While 2.5 inches of rain the previous day forced the field day location to be moved on to the Dordt College campus that did not diminish the enthusiasm and discussion. It also helped that at least for those of us from Ames it was the first time we had seen the sun in quite a few days.

The field day was hosted by Dordt College, Iowa Learning Farms, and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach on September 5.  The field day stations included Joel Dejong, NW Iowa Crop Extension Specialist, talking about protecting soil resources, Colton Meyer, West Branch of the Floyd River Watershed Project Coordinator, talking about saturated buffer planning, and our Iowa Learning Farms group demonstrating the Conservation Station On the Edge.

This was a unique event as there were approximately 150 students from the Dordt College Agriculture Program in attendance in addition to local farmers and landowners. This provided a great opportunity to discuss the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy with them and how edge-of-field practices such as bioreactors, saturated buffers, and wetlands can be used to reduce nitrate loss from agricultural lands.

 

Not only did the students ask questions during our allocated time but many came back after the end of the field day to make sure they fully understood how these practices work including how tile drainage worked. If we had not had a 4 hour drive ahead of us I think we might have been there discussing these practices until long after dark.

It was encouraging to say the least to see the interest among the students in these systems. Some of their questions  we have heard many times throughout the summer including how long will the woodchips last, what kind of wood should we use, and can we crop over a bioreactor. Many of the answers to these questions are touched on in our Talking With Your Tenant: Denitrifying Practices publication.

However, the questions went beyond this. We had a discussion about whether diversifying our landscape and cropping system can also play a part in reducing downstream nutrient delivery which it absolutely can.

There were also questions about what time of the year we see the most nitrate lost. Which based on nearly thirty years of data from our drainage water quality site near Gilmore City we see about 60-70% of our annual drainage and nitrate loss in April-June.

Overall, it was exciting seeing the interest from the students and really highlighted the need to provide these out of class learning opportunities to students of all ages.

Matt Helmers

What is your hope for Iowa?

As the Conservation Station travels the state this summer, citizens of Iowa are being asked to share “What is your hope for Iowa?” hope for iowa Many inspiring speakers at the One Water Summit conference I attended last week gave me a chance to think about this question and my hope for Iowa.

The One Water Summit is an annual event organized by the U.S. Water Alliance to further their mission to build a sustainable water future for all.  I was part of the Iowa Delegation of 52 farmers, watershed coordinators, city and municipal utility officials, and agriculture and conservation organization, Iowa Water Center, and ISU Extension and Outreach representatives.

Iowa farmers and water leaders spoke on several panels, sharing how Iowa is approaching water quality improvement, implementation of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (INRS), and monitoring and tracking progress of the INRS.

What struck me, and many of the Iowa delegation, was that the INRS embodies the One Water approach. Across the state, several rural and urban stakeholder groups are working together to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus loss by 45%.  Do we have progress to make in achieving the goals and engaging landowners, farmers, agribusiness and other partners on the scale we need to succeed?  Absolutely.  But the work of the past five years is a good foundation for moving forward.

To understand more about this regional approach and to learn how you can be involved in this effort, you are invited to attend the North Central Region One Water Action Forum on December 11-13, 2018, in Indianapolis, Indiana. The North Central Region Water Network, Iowa Soybean Association, Soil and Water Conservation Society and the US Water Alliance are organizers of this event.

The Forum will bring together researchers, educators, practitioners, farmers and policy-makers to advance more connected and cohesive approaches to water and watershed management in the North Central Region. Together, we will deepen the one water conversation, localize lessons learned by delegates and attendees of the National 2018 One Water Summit, and take steps to put one water to action in the Midwest.
One Water

So what is my hope for Iowa?  I hope that our collaborative approach to improving water quality continues to gain momentum and achieve ever increasing successes and that you all will join me at the One Water Action Forum in December.
Jamie Benning

Jamie Benning is an Iowa Learning Farms team member and Water Quality Program Manger for Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.

Webinar Recap: Dan Jaynes Provides Updates on Saturated Buffers

Dan Jaynes, Research Soil Scientist with the National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment (USDA-ARS), hit the high points on saturated buffers last week in the latest Iowa Learning Farms webinar. Watch the archived version now.

Saturated Buffer Effectiveness and Price Per Pound of N Removed
Saturated buffers can divert about half of the water coming out of a tile outlet (red bars). From this diverted water, the practice can remove between 8-84% of N (blue bars). Saturated buffers costs about $1 per pound of N removed. The practice ranks similarly to other nitrate reduction edge-of-field practices. A comparison table is shown below.

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Recent Updates to the Conservation Practice Standard
See the most recent conservation practice standard for a saturated buffer here. Watch the presentation to hear the discussion on specific changes.

Saturated Buffer Design
Saturated buffers should be designed to treat 5% of the drainage system capacity, or asDesign much as is practical based on the available length of the vegetated buffer. To determine the drainage system capacity, use this excellent tool from the Illinois NRCS. Option 1 (determining capacity using slope and diameter) is the most common option used if limited information is available on the drainage system.

Frequently Asked Questions You Should Know
If you field questions from producers about saturated buffers, make sure you know the answers to these commonly asked questions. Dan covered his list of FAQs:

  • Are we trading a water quality problem for an air quality problem?
  • Does denitrification account for all of the nitrate lost?
  • How wide should the buffer be?
  • What should the buffer vegetation be?
  • What about multiple distribution pipes?
  • What about roots plugging distribution pipes?

Roots Plugging Distribution Pipes
On the issue of whether roots plug distribution pipes, Jaynes says that, generally, the answer is no. For a more in-depth look, here is a great video of a look inside a saturated buffer distribution pipe.

To learn more about site suitability for saturated buffers in your local area, explore the ACPF Saturated Buffer Viewing Tool. The suitability of an area in central Iowa is included below. This can be a great tool to determine potential saturated buffer sites (followed by a trip to ground-truth site conditions).

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If you want to learn the latest information about saturated buffers, tune in to the archived webinar!

Julie Winter