January 15 Webinar: Overview of the Iowa Nutrient Research Center


Iowa Learning Farms will host a webinar on Wednesday, January 15 at 12:00 p.m. about the Iowa Nutrient Research Center.

Matthew Helmers (Christopher Gannon/Iowa State University)Matt Helmers, Director of the Iowa Nutrient Research Center, will discuss the Center and some of the impacts from research projects funded by the Center, as well as its current activities. The research funded by the Center focuses on nutrient export from agricultural lands and the performance of conservation practices. This research is important for improving our understanding of the performance of nutrient reduction practices and development of new methods for reducing nutrient loss. “The Center is interested in hearing from stakeholders what they think are the most pressing research questions,” said Helmers.

Don’t miss this webinar!
DATE: Wednesday, January 15, 2020
TIME: 12:00 p.m.
HOW TO PARTICIPATE: visit 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 If you can’t watch the webinar live, an archived version will be available on our website:

Hilary Pierce

Harmful algal blooms connect the heartland to the coast

clgheaderEmily Heaton | Assistant Professor of Agronomy, Iowa State University | in conservation with Alina Corcoran | Research Scientist, New Mexico Consortium

Why should people on the coast care what happens in the heartland? I was recently asked this question by the producer of a major network TV show, and struggled to think of an answer. Our conversation went something like this:

TV producer: “Everyone cares about the place that raises their food! The Midwest produces the food I eat, right?”

Me (Emily Heaton): “That depends; do you eat meat?”

TV producer: “No.”

Me: “Hmm. Then no, we don’t produce the food you eat. How about your car? You probably drive a car that uses ethanol that we produce in the Midwest!”

TV producer: “I live in New York City and don’t own a car.”

Me: “Well, we mainly raise grain that goes to feed animals or ethanol plants”.

TV producer: “Ok, then. Other than the Iowa caucus, I am not sure why anyone on the coast should care what happens in the heartland”.

And this explains network news coverage of the “heartland”.

But then I saw a presentation about Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) by Dr. Alina Corcoran of the New Mexico Consortium. Alina is a biologist who studies the algae – good and bad – that grow in our lakes, rivers, and oceans.  This is what she had to say about blooms.

Algae-oxygen-bubbles_Wikimedia CommonsMe: I didn’t know algae were such a threat to our health, environment, and economy.  Can you tell me more about blooms?

Alina: Actually, not all algae are bad.  Take two deep breaths.

Me: (breathing, deeply)

Alina: You can thank algae for one of those breaths.  They produce half of the oxygen on our planet.  But you are right that sometimes their growth can get out of control.  We call that uncontrolled growth a Harmful Algal Boom or HAB for short.

Me: What causes HABs?

Alina: Different kinds of microscopic algae and cyanobacteria cause HABs.  Some organisms live in glass houses.  Some have flagella that allow them to swim.  Some form chains.  Each organism thrives under a  different set of environmental conditions.  For example, some blooms occur when water temperature increases or when water becomes stagnant.  Other blooms occur when there are favorable winds or currents.  But I think it is fair to say there is one commonality.

Me: What is that?

Mississippi River WatershedAlina: All algae need a source of nutrients, like nitrogen and phosphorus, to grow.  What that means is that we can overfeed algae with our waste and fertilizers. In some cases, man-made nutrient sources that feed blooms are quite close to where a bloom forms, like at a sewage outfall. In other cases, the nutrient source can be a thousand miles away. The best example of that comes from the Mississippi-Atchafalaya River Watershed (pictured).  That watershed drains over 40% of the US – transporting nutrients from the heartland to the Gulf of Mexico, where they feed blooms and the dead zone.

Me: You talked about toxic algae in your presentation.  Are all blooms toxic?

Alina: No, we tend to divide HABs into two categories: nuisance blooms and toxic blooms.  Nuisance blooms can discolor the water and deplete oxygen, causing fish kills.  But there is a handful of algae species that produce toxins that can harm people and other animals.  Do you remember the Toledo water crisis?

Me: I do.  That was about five years ago, right?  Residents of Toledo could not use their water!

algalbloom_Erie 2017_NOAA

Image of the Sept. 23, 2017, bloom. Source: NOAA derived from Copernicus Sentinel-3a data from EUMETSAT

Alina: Right. There was an extensive HAB in Lake Erie caused by toxic cyanobacteria. Cyanobacteria are also called blue-green algae, even though they are not true algae. Cyanobacteria tend to bloom in freshwater systems that are polluted with nutrients from agricultural runoff. People, pets, livestock, and wildlife can be exposed to the toxins when they swim, drink the water, or breath bloom aerosols.  Cyanotoxins (like microcystin) can cause gastrointestinal symptoms like vomiting and diarrhea or neurological symptoms. There are also toxic blooms in estuaries and in the ocean.  In 2017, residents of Florida experienced a particularly damaging bloom caused by another type of algae, a dinoflagellate. The bloom, which lasted over a year, caused respiratory irritation in people, fish kills, and manatee deaths.  Blooms like that also have devastating effects on tourism and the shellfish industry.

Me: Because the shellfish die?

Alina: No. Actually, most shellfish survive toxic HABs but can accumulate the toxins in their tissue.  If we eat contaminated shellfish or seafood, we can become sick.  There are different poisoning syndromes that generate different symptoms. To protect human health, shellfish harvesting areas are closed when shellfish become toxic.  Unfortunately, this is a huge hit to shellfish farmers and their families.

Me: So what can we do about blooms?  You talked about prevention and control in your talk, but you didn’t really mention talking with farmers and land managers about nutrient loss.

Alina: Farmers and land managers are definitely part of the solution. There are a few notable success stories, like the Iowa Great Lakes, where blooms have been reduced or eliminated when communities have made an effort to reduce runoff and point sources of nutrients.


Alina: It is important for everyone to think about the downstream effects of their practices.  Fertilizer applied to a farm or lawn is not contained — ultimately unused nutrients make their way to water bodies.  There have been strong efforts to monitor blooms and protect public health, but there is definitely work to be done to both prevent and control blooms.

Me: Thanks for the work you do, Alina. We are all in this together.

Emily Heaton

For more information:







Conservation Chat Podcast Returns!

Water quality takes center stage in the Conservation Chat podcast’s long-awaited return!  The Chat debuts its new format, featuring multiple guests on the program together for a roundtable-type discussion. In the newest episode, Improving Water Quality, host Jacqueline Comito visits with two rockstars on Iowa State University’s water quality scene, Matt Helmers and Jamie Benning.

Tune in to this latest episode for an engaging discussion on timely topics related to water quality and agricultural production here in the state of Iowa, centered around the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Having been released five-plus years ago, Comito, Helmers, and Benning discuss the progress made thus far, but also the immense scale of implementation needed to achieve tangible progress in terms of nutrient reduction and improved water quality. Tune in as they bounce ideas about the interwoven relationships between dollars spent, practices implemented, nutrients reduced, policy structure, and progress towards true paradigm shift.

In addition, Helmers and Benning both emphasize the importance of translating pure scientific research to more accessible, digestible outreach materials for general public consumption through such means as short videos, webinars, field days, and infographics. Helmers shares a great anecdote about the power of video to reach broad audiences around the world – he is currently hosting a student intern from Honduras, and this student had recently seen the Iowa Learning Farms’ Rainfall Simulator video in one of her engineering classes back at her home institution!

Tune in to Episode 40 of the Conservation Chat to hear the full interview with Matt Helmers and Jamie Benning. You can also download or listen to any of the previous podcast episodes on the Conservation Chat website and through iTunes.

Ann Staudt

Scaling Up Conservation Implementation: An Investment in Practices AND People

CLLHeaderDr. Matt Helmers, Professor Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering and Director of the Iowa Nutrient Research Center presented our November webinar and discussed the innovative Conservation Learning Lab (CLL) project that is key to understanding impacts of in-field conservation practices beyond the research plot scale.

Floyd Co CLLHow does watershed delivery scale compare to a research plot? Plots are kept relatively small (e.g. 6 rows wide by 50 feet long) for easy replication at a research site. Whereas for this project, watershed delivery scale is capturing both surface and subsurface delivery of water from a small watershed (540-1,300 acres) of row crop production agriculture.  The goal is to assess the performance of conservation practices, specifically cover crops and strip-tillage, as the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy calls for large scale adoption of these practices.

Although scaling up requires investments in the practices, by the producer and taxpayers through cost-share, this project has highlighted also the importance of investing in the people that are helping make the implementation possible.

On average it took 12 hours per completed plan – from initial contact to signed contract. If the goal is 50% implementation in a HUC-12 watershed, it can take an estimated 47 weeks to complete the planning process!

Be sure to tune into the archived version of the webinar to see the preliminary water quality monitoring results and the next steps of the project.

Liz Juchems

November Webinar: Evaluating nutrient reduction at the delivery scale


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:

Liz Juchems

October 17 Webinar: Wet spots as hot spots for nitrogen losses

On Wednesday, October 17th at noon Dr. Steven Hall, Iowa State University assistant professor of ecology, evolution, and organismal biology, will present a webinar that aims to improve the understanding and management of nitrogen losses from hydric soil landscapes.

05209012018WLThe leaching of nitrate and emissions of nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas, are key environmental impacts of Corn Belt agricultural systems. Dr. Steven Hall is leading a research group that studies the biological and geochemical processes that control the cycling of organic matter and nutrients across the plant-soil-water-atmosphere continuum.  One of their focus areas is the interactions across that continuum in former prairie potholes. These occasionally flooded hydric soils in topographic depressions can contribute disproportionately to nitrogen losses at the landscape scale, suggesting the promise of management interventions that specifically target these features.

“Crop nitrogen use efficiency, farm profitability, and environmental impacts of nitrogen loss are intimately connected,” commented Hall. “Innovative management of cropped hydric soils could yield disproportionate environmental and economic benefits.”

Don’t miss this webinar!

DATE: Wednesday, October 17, 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:

Liz Juchems

Every practice has its place

As we consider water quality and land use across our state, every practice has its place. Which conservation practices and land use changes make the most sense where in terms of keeping soil in place? In terms of reducing nutrient export? In terms of building wildlife habitat?

The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy’s goals of 45% nitrogen and phosphorus load reductions will only be achieved through a broad suite of practices – including in-field management (reduced tillage, cover crops, and fine-tuned nutrient management) AND edge-of-field conservation practices.  It’s an AND, not an OR!

Farmers and landowners from Dallas and Polk Counties got to see and learn about edge-of-field conservation practices firsthand at last evening’s Iowa Learning Farms field day hosted by Dallas Center farmer Tim Minton. Located in the Walnut Creek Watershed, this area faces unique challenges being at the interface of productive agricultural lands and urban expansion. Walnut Creek Watershed is losing 430 acres of farmland each year to urban development, while clean, healthy waters are needed for an ever-growing population base.

At the end of the day, it’s all about being good stewards out here. How well can we keep that soil in place?  How can we keep the water resources clean?  I’m really taking the long view here – What’s it going to do next year? 5 years down the road? 10 years? 20 years? When it’s in my kids’ hands?  It’s definitely a long-term approach. Tim Minton, Farmer

If you want to protect your investment, you’re got to put money back into it. Working with partners (NRCS and state) is a great way to do that. They want it to be win-win – ease of use and ease of execution. They can help you think outside the box, plus use their resources and expertise to help you do these things you want to do! Practices like these [saturated buffer and wetland] are in our best interest, AND in the best interest of society. Tim Minton, Farmer

I’ve been on this neighboring land for over 70 years. Back in the 1940s-50s, we would go down to the creek and it was always muddy. There were no minnows. You couldn’t see anything – didn’t matter if there had just been a heavy rain or no rain at all. When this [wetland] got put in, right away, it looked just like tap water. – Neighbor Jim

It’s all about finding the right practice for the right place. At just a 40% nitrate removal efficiency, this 5.7 ac wetland is equivalent to taking 567 acres of cropland out of production. PLUS the grasses and emergent vegetation provide wildlife habitat – it’s a definite magnet for waterfowl. It’s really beneficial for the ecology of the whole system!
– Brandon Dittman, IDALS

Every practice has its place, and we’ll continue showcasing these practices at field days and workshops across the state. Contact Iowa Learning Farms if you’re interested in talking about edge-of-field conservation practices on your land!

Nathan Stevenson and Ann Staudt