Cover Crops Taking Flight

Nate Voss started out a cover crop skeptic. He’ll openly admit that.

“I’ll be honest with you, I really wasn’t sure about this whole [cover crop] thing startin’ out 6 years ago. Now we’re getting a lot better at it!”

After 6 years of cover crop experience, I think it’s safe to say he’s now a believer, sharing his cover cropping experience at an Iowa Learning Farms field day yesterday hosted by Steier Ag Aviation near Whittemore. Voss farms near LuVerne in north central Iowa and also works with Steier Ag Aviation.

Voss’s experience with cover crops includes flying on oats, and some radish, into standing crops in late August/early September.  He is also just starting to get his feet wet with cereal rye.  One of the first things he noticed with the integration of a cover crop was at harvest – “it gives you great field conditions combining into beans.”


Voss goes on to share with field day attendees all the benefits he has observed with using cover crops as part of his cropping system.

“There’s lots of different angles you can take with cover crops:

  • A lot of guys like it for erosion, keeping soil in place. In the winter when I’m driving around, my ditches are not filled with dirt like a lot of them are.
  • I personally like cover crops for holding nitrogen in place, not sending it down the creek. Maybe I can do something about the water quality challenges we face—I’d rather be proactive, get a head start on this thing.
  • After 6 years, I’m really starting to see improvements with soil structure. My soil microbiology is really firing back up!
  • Some folks also are going into cover crops for grazing.
  • My ultimate goal is I want to have something living out there all year round.”


For Voss, the integration of cover crops also served as a springboard into strip till:

“I get bored pretty easy and the wheels start turnin’… a couple beers and some pizza later [with a neighbor who was a long-time strip-tiller], and we were pulling strips out in the field.

“I think we can all acknowledge that last fall was not great.  But my best yielding corn was in the field with strip till and 5 years of cover crops.

“I loved it so much, I called my banker to buy a strip till bar!”


On the fence about taking the plunge and trying out cover crops or strip till?   Consider Voss’s top tips for success along the way:

  • Go to field days and workshops to learn. You’ve taken the first step just by being here today—opening your mind to something new.
  • Be willing to get outside your comfort zone and give it a shot. [My grandfather is my biggest critic. Now I just like to get out there and prove him wrong!]
  • Ask questions.
  • Talk to others that are also givin’ it a try. Get together over coffee. Or pizza and beers. Talk to them about their failures so you don’t make the same ones.
  • Sometimes you’re gonna question yourself along the way.
  • There are tons of great resources out there for everyone—the big guys down to little peons like me.
  • Head in to your NRCS office to learn about cost share options.
  • Weather is always an uncertainty. Think about how you can best work with Mother Nature.

Now is the time to be planning ahead for cover crop seeding this coming fall!   Check out our Iowa Learning Farms Cover Crop Resources page and YouTube channel to learn more, along with reaching out to your local ISU Extension and Outreach field agronomist and USDA-NRCS staff—they are the local “boots on the ground” ready to help you out with making conservation practices happen!

Ann Staudt

Rockin’ Carroll County with Water Rocks! Days

It’s always exciting to see the Water Rocks! messages and lessons create a ripple effect to reach well beyond the direct activities of our small team. In Carroll County, under the guidance and creative leadership of Anjanette Treadway, human services program coordinator in the Carroll County Extension Office, the ripples are gaining momentum and turning into a tidal wave of activities for elementary and middle school students across the county.

Anjanette is responsible for supporting STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education for kindergarten through third grade in county schools. She is also the “conservation education” champion for all students up through the sixth grade.

She uses the Water Rocks! programming and materials to make waves in classrooms and beyond. Two major events that she produces in Carroll schools are a field day for third-graders, and a sixth-grade environmental field day.

During the summer of 2018, Anjanette also coordinated a six-hour day camp program open to all fourth- through sixth-grade students in Carroll County. She anticipates continuing this in future summers to provide education and outreach to students regarding the importance of environmental awareness and conservation.

Anjanette learned about Water Rocks! from a colleague in 2015. “My co-worker brought me some of the materials from the program and encouraged me to get involved with Water Rocks! to learn more,” said Anjanette. “I’m certainly glad I did. Water Rocks! provides an expansive set of activities and content which is applicable for all elementary and middle-school grades.”

She continued, “The Water Rocks! team has done an excellent job of aligning programming and educational resources with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and statewide curriculum requirements for STEM advancement. And the materials provided in the workshops and summits are ready to use in the classroom – something that is very helpful for teachers who are time-stressed and in need of creative and innovative ways to engage students.”

The third-grade conservation field day has become Water Rocks! Day, comprising hands-on outdoor activities and games as well as participation from key specialists and teachers. The next Water Rocks! Day will be held in May 2019.

Before Water Rocks! Day, Anjanette visits the classrooms and provides introduction to the Water Rocks! conservation lessons and plants some seeds with the students. “The students and the teachers get very excited about the music and the lessons from Water Rocks!,” she noted. “One teacher loved the musical element enough to provide copies to the school’s music teacher to suggest they explore using it in the music classroom as well.”

The introductory lessons get students up and moving as well. The students are outside, running, getting dirty, investigating such things as where water will run off from the playground and other tangible lessons which tie in to the classroom instruction.

On Water Rocks! Day, Anjanette sets up many of the fun Water Rocks! activities including Biodiversity Jenga, Creature Cache, Habitat Hopscotch, Wetlands Bingo and the Poo Relay. The Water Rocks! team presents its We All Live in a Watershed module, and other specialists present related material. In addition, the students participate in nature walks to extend the lessons beyond the classroom to incorporate their own observations.

For the sixth-grade Environmental Field Day, the lessons are more intensive, incorporate water quality topics as well as the core conservation message and involve guest presenters. At the most recent event, presenters included the naturalist from the Carroll County Conservation District, a speaker from Saving Our Avian Resources (SOAR), a raptor rehabilitation center, the Water Rocks! team from Iowa State University, and teachers – who were delighted to get a chance to step out of the classroom and teach in a different style.

Starting in 2018, the Environmental Field Day now also includes a Water Rocks! Assembly program with live music and skits. “The field day started with different presentations and lessons, leading to the capstone of the day, a ‘rock concert’ assembly program. Of course, it’s not all rock music, but the atmosphere among the performers, kids and teachers sure made it feel that way,” she commented.

Ann Staudt
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Looking to book a Water Rocks! Assembly in your neck of the woods? Limited openings remain for May, and we are also booking for the summer months!

Dig Into Soil

Today’s guest blog post is provided by Joshua Harms, part of the Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach program, serving with Water Rocks! in 2018-19.

As a continuation of my monthly blog series highlighting our educational approaches working with youth, today I will be explaining our “Dig Into Soil” module which we present in classrooms with Water Rocks!. We start off our soil module with a trivia question as we always do. Next we explain the definition of natural resources and then ask students for some examples. Then we let the students know that Iowa has some of the best soil in the entire world.

Our next step in this module is to define soil – how is it different from dirt? Soil is alive! It supports us here on earth and we could not live here without it. Next we show the students a poster with pictures of different items to help them guess the different ways soil is used, including food, clothing, habitat, and filter (filtering our water).

Now that we have explained some of the very important things soil does, we move on to see how soil is formed. We go old school for this part, using a felt board to help show the different layers of soil. This includes bedrock, subsoil, top soil, many different species that live in the top soil, and many different things that grow out of the soil.

We continue by explaining that soil is endangered here in Iowa because it takes the earth 500-1,000 years to form 1 inch, but we are losing that inch in 20 years. The reason we are losing soil so fast is because of erosion, the process of soil being moved by wind and water.  Soil is most valuable in place, in our fields and gardens – it becomes a problem when it makes it to the water.

There are a few very important things that should be done to protect the soil. Keeping the soil covered is key, which can be done through mulching, planting trees and grasses, plus farmers can do no-till and cover crops.

Next we transition into a game that shows how important soil is, considering that nearly everything that we use comes from the soil. The game is called Six Degrees of Soil. In this game, we give the students an item and they have to work together in teams to figure out how to get from soil to said item in no more than six steps. An example that always makes students laugh is underwear. One would start with soil, next plant some cotton, then pick the cotton, then process that into thread, and lastly send it to a factory so they can sew it into underwear.

The last important topic we cover related to soil is decomposition. This process takes place when the different organisms break things back down into soil.  We explain that certain items get broken down quicker than others. To help the students understand this topic even better, we play another game. In the decomposition game, we give the students 5 different items and they must put these items in order from fastest to slowest in terms of decomposing.

We wrap up by asking the students for ways we can help protect the soil and protect the larger environment around us. Common conversation points include planting grasses and trees, no-till farming, reusable water bottles, taking your own bags to the grocery store, setting up a compost pile, organizing a trash pick-up day, etc. Finally we finish with the same trivia question that we asked at the beginning of our presentation.

Joshua Harms

Conservation Stations Crisscross Iowa to Deliver Conservation Messages

If you’ve been to an Iowa county fair or attended an Iowa State University (ISU) extension field day covering water quality, conservation, cover crops, edge of field practices or a range of other topics, there’s a good chance you’ve seen or even visited a Conservation Station operated by Water Rocks! and Iowa Learning Farms. Last summer we hit the milestone of attending all 100 county fairs in Iowa – (yes 100, Pottawattamie County holds two.) The trailers also make appearances at community events, farmer’s markets and other settings.

The Conservation Stations are traveling resource centers and classrooms, staffed by ILF and Water Rocks! team members and interns, providing water quality and conservation education and outreach activities built on a foundation of science, research and best practices. These events also provide great learning opportunities for the team to sharpen trailer pulling and backing skills.

Rain, Rain, Don’t Wash our Soil Away
The idea for the first Conservation Station was germinated in the early years of Iowa Learning Farms (ILF) – which is celebrating 15 years in 2019. The precursor was a trailer equipped with a simple rainfall simulator for demonstrating soil erosion.

It was a good start, but frankly, it was a limited demonstration and the team quickly realized that they needed a more sophisticated rainfall simulator. In addition, ILF saw the potential to expand its impact by providing a broad canvas for education through visual, interactive and multimedia displays.

“We were awarded funding to purchase and develop a larger trailer and knew how to make a better rainfall simulator,” said Jacqueline Comito, executive director of Water Rocks! and ILF program director. “We just didn’t know how to realize our vision of a traveling and flexible unit. Ann Staudt joined the team to help us, and with her fresh ideas and creativity, the Conservation Station was born.”

The trailer, dubbed the Big Conservation Station, allowed space for an improved rainfall simulator as well as a walk-through learning lab. To facilitate use in different environments such as field days, outdoor classrooms and county fairs, the trailer accommodates interchangeable displays. Inside the learning lab, visual and multimedia presentations are designed to engage audiences in conversations and to elicit questions about conservation practices.

The learning lab was updated in 2018 to incorporate mixed-media artwork and enhanced messaging with the purpose of eliciting visitors’ hopes for Iowa.

ILF faculty adviser Matthew Helmers developed the new rainfall simulator which more accurately models both surface runoff and subsurface flow or drainage in tiled environments and uses soil blocks extracted from field environments to best parallel actual soil conditions in Iowa fields.

“The complexity of the new rainfall simulator was a challenge, but it also enabled us to tell a much more realistic story that farmers in Iowa could relate to,” noted Staudt.

A smaller trailer referred to as Conservation Station 3 was built specifically for outdoor classrooms and other youth activities. Along with a rainfall simulator, it is also equipped with the space to carry enough tables and chairs for students as well as a full complement of displays and activity resources.

Edge of Field Practice Demonstrations Expand Education Opportunities
In 2018, the original rainfall simulator trailer (which we called the Lil’ CS) was redesigned to become the Conservation Station on the Edge, addressing best practices for nutrient mitigation at the edge of tile-drained fields. Equipped with working saturated buffer and bioreactor models, this trailer takes the story of nutrient reduction to a deeper level. The demonstration stations allow the audience to see what happens within structures –that when implemented in a field are completely underground and out of sight.

Each Conservation Station includes interactive demonstrations that appeal to all backgrounds, ages and walks of life. Games such as the Poo Toss tend to appeal to youngsters but provide tangible lessons about waste runoff that pertains to everyone –whether they live on a farm or in a city. The Watershed Game is another highly visual interactive game that helps make the concepts of a watershed and how pollution moves with water easy to grasp.

“The Conservation Stations are filling a tremendous need by providing easy-to-understand information about water quality, conservation, agricultural best practices, and other topics of importance to all Iowans,” concluded Staudt. “We intend to continue to share this knowledge as frequently and in as many venues as we can.”

Find out where to see a Conservation Station near you
The Conservation Stations are used April through October. Check out the Water Rocks! website to request a visit (requests for summer events are being accepted now!).  In most circumstances, a Conservation Station can join an event at no cost, due to the generous funding received from our partners.

Conservation Stations Crisscross Iowa to Deliver Conservation Messages

ILFHeader(15-year)

If you’ve been to an Iowa county fair or attended a field day covering water quality, conservation, cover crops, edge of field practices or a range of other topics, there’s a good chance you’ve seen or even visited a Conservation Station operated by Water Rocks! and Iowa Learning Farms. Last summer we hit the milestone of attending all 100 county fairs in Iowa – (yes 100, Pottawattamie County holds two.) They also make appearances at community events, farmer’s markets and other settings.

The Conservation Stations are traveling resource centers and classrooms, staffed by the ILF and Water Rocks! team members and interns, providing water quality and conservation outreach activities built on a foundation of science, research and best practices.

Rain, Rain, Don’t Wash our Soil Away

The idea for the first Conservation Station was germinated in the early years of ILF – which is celebrating 15 years in 2019. The precursor was a trailer equipped with a simple rainfall simulator for demonstrating soil erosion. It was a good start, but frankly, it was a limited demonstration and the team quickly realized that they needed a more sophisticated rainfall simulator. In addition, ILF saw the potential to expand its impact by providing a broad canvas for education through visual, interactive and multimedia displays.

“We were awarded funding to purchase and develop a larger trailer and knew how to make a better rainfall simulator,” said Jacqueline Comito, executive director of Water Rocks! and ILF program director. “We just didn’t know how to realize our vision of a traveling and flexible unit. Ann Staudt joined the team to help us, and with her fresh ideas and creativity the Conservation Station was born.”

The trailer, dubbed the Big Conservation Station, allowed space for an improved rainfall simulator as well as a walk-through learning lab. Inside the learning lab, visual and multimedia presentations are designed to engage audiences in conversations and to elicit questions about conservation practices. The learning lab was updated in 2018 to incorporate mixed-media artwork and enhanced messaging with the purpose of eliciting visitors’ hopes for Iowa.

conservationstation_trailer

ILF faculty adviser Matt Helmers developed the new rainfall simulator which more accurately models both surface runoff and subsurface flow or drainage in tiled environments and uses soil blocks extracted from field environments to best parallel actual soil conditions in Iowa fields.

“The complexity of the new rainfall simulator was a challenge, but it also enabled us to tell a much more realistic story that farmers in Iowa could relate to,” noted Staudt.

img_2012.jpgA smaller trailer referred to as Conservation Station 3 was built specifically for outdoor classrooms and other youth activities. Along with a rainfall simulator, it is also equipped with the space to carry enough tables and chairs for students as well as a full complement of displays and activities resources.

Edge of Field Practice Demonstrations Expand Education Opportunities

InCSOTE-01 2018, the original rainfall simulator trailer (which we called the Lil’ CS) was redesigned to become the Conservation Station on the Edge, addressing best practices for nutrient runoff mitigation at the edge of tile-drained fields. Equipped with working saturated buffer and bioreactor models, this trailer takes the story of field runoff to a deeper level. The demonstration stations allow the audience to see what happens within structures –that when implemented in a field are completely underground and out of sight.

Each Conservation Station includes interactive demonstrations that appeal to all backgrounds, ages and walks of life. Games such as the Poo Toss tend to appeal to youngsters but provide tangible lessons about waste runoff that pertains to everyone –whether they live on a farm or in a city. The Watershed Game is another highly visual interactive game that helps make the concepts of a watershed and how pollution moves with water easy to grasp.

fullsizeoutput_49f

“The Conservation Stations are filling a tremendous need by providing easy-to-understand information about water quality, conservation, agricultural best practices, and other topics of importance to all Iowans,” concluded Staudt. “We intend to continue to share this knowledge as frequently and in as many venues as we can.”

Find out where to see a Conservation Station near you!

The Conservation Stations are used April through October. Click here for the schedule of appearances or to request a visit. In most circumstances, a Conservation Station can join an event at no cost, due to the generous funding received from our partners.

Liz Juchems

Biodiversity Bonanza

Today’s guest blog post is provided by Joshua Harms, part of the Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach program, serving with Water Rocks! in 2018-19.

Biodiversity Bonanza is another one of our awesome classroom presentations with Water Rocks!. As we start all of our presentations, we introduce ourselves and then we ask the students a (pre-assessment) multiple choice trivia question: “What is biodiversity?”  After everyone has answered the question, we then explore the term biodiversity, asking the students to break the word into two parts, bio- and diversity. When the students define what bio- and diversity are, we then put the full word back together, explaining that biodiversity is all the different living things in a certain area.

We then transition to another important science term, ecosystem, which is a community of living organisms and their environment. At this point, it’s time for another game, our ecosystem guessing game, where students identify ecosystems from around the world.

After the game, we define the next amazing science term which is niche, defined as the specific job that each creature does within the ecosystem. We then continue by asking the students what it would be like if everybody in their school did the same job. The answers are usually like it would be boring or maybe a bit crazy. A diversity of niches keeps a school operating properly, and the same holds true for ecosystems! Then we play another guessing game where we show them a poster with a zoomed-in picture of an airplane wing. Students must try to guess what they’re seeing. After they eventually guess it, we then ask them what would happen if each of the rivets were a different species and what would happen if the rivets were to be pulled out one by one. The wing would eventually collapse, which ultimately represents the collapse of the ecosystem.

Next we use a banner to show the students the trophic level pyramid. After we explain the pyramid, we play a game of Biodiversity Jenga. In this competitive game, the Jenga blocks are painted in different colors that match the colors of the previously seen trophic level pyramid. We then pull situations out of a jar that determine which blocks are to be pulled out each round. It’s survival of the fittest – which team can keep their ecosystem standing the longest? We continue the game until one of the Jenga towers has fallen. We then recap some of the situations that took place during the game.

We want to be sure that students are thinking about biodiversity right here in Iowa, not just faraway places like the Amazon Rainforest, so we like to bring local species and examples into the conversation. In particular, we focus on the Topeka Shiner, a native fish (endangered species) whose habitat has been altered. They prefer to live in oxbows, with slow-moving water and surrounded by trees and other plants that keep the water temperature cool. Yet many of the oxbows have gone through a process called channel straightening, which makes the living conditions much harder for the Topeka Shiner.

So to allow the students to walk a mile in the Shiners’ shoes, we play a game called Musical Oxbows. This game is very similar to musical chairs except instead of using chairs we use carpet squares, painted to represent the meandering bends in rivers. This game also has situations that affect the available habitat for the Topeka Shiner – each round, a new situation is read which means 3-4 habitat spaces are removed. When the music stops, Topeka Shiners must find a spot in the oxbow or they are eliminated! As this game continues, eventually there will only be a couple Topeka Shiners remaining and then the game is complete. Again, we ask the students to recap the different situations that affected the Topeka Shiner, to help solidify those concepts in their minds.

The last few things that we talk about are few different solutions/ideas of what we can all do to protect nature around us. Lastly, we have them answer the same trivia question that we asked at the beginning of the presentation, which helps us to evaluate our effectiveness in the classroom. We then send the students on their way and reorganize our posters, rebuild each Jenga tower, pick up Musical Oxbows, and more — resetting for the next class which usually starts in just 3-5 minutes!

Joshua Harms

The Fabulous World of Wetlands

Today’s guest blog post is provided by Joshua Harms, part of the Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach program, serving with Water Rocks! in 2018-19.

As a continuation from last month’s blog, I will be explaining another one of our great modules with Water Rocks!. Our presentation over wetlands has many interesting and important facts along with a few games as well. The module is meant to feel like the students are on a game show and we are their game show hosts. This presentation, like all the others, has been fine-tuned by our team to make it run super smoothly in the classroom with elementary and middle school students.

Our Fabulous World of Wetlands module starts with an audio “field trip,” where we have all the students close their eyes as we play some sounds from out in nature. We then ask them what different sounds they heard. After they have given us some of the different creatures they heard, we ask them where they think the sounds were recorded, hoping that they eventually answer wetlands. We then ask them to answer a trivia/evaluation question to establish their baseline understanding of the subject.

We then continue into our first game, a guessing game in which the students have to try and guess what the three main characteristics of wetlands are (hydric soils, presence of water, and water-loving plants). After the students eventually get all three things, sometimes with the help of some hints, we move on to show them three objects that represent the three main jobs of wetlands. The first object is a coffee filter and we explain that wetlands filter the water and leave it cleaner after it passes through the wetlands. The second object is a sponge and we explain that hydric soils store water like a sponge would if it was dropped in a bucket of water. The third and final object is a small house, which we use to explain that wetlands are a habitat to many different creatures. After we get done explaining the three jobs we have the students repeat them to lock the knowledge into their brains.

We then transition to talking about some certain creatures that rely on wetlands, particularly migratory birds and butterflies. We ask the students to think about if we were all to get on a bus and take a long journey down to Texas, what would be some reasons that we would stop on our journey? They usually answer with things such as food, water, bathroom, sleep, etc. We then explain that for those same reasons that we would stop, birds and butterflies need those same things and they stop at wetlands to take care of all of it along their journeys. This leads us into the next game which is Habitat Hopscotch. This game involves different states that are on the birds’ and butterflies’ migratory paths, as pictured above. But there is a twist—there are some situations that remove wetlands in certain states, which means we remove that state from the game. We then go through all the situations one-by-one, and by the end of the game, there are only three of the original ten squares remaining. That means there are not many wetlands left for the birds and butterflies to stop at!

After the completion of Habitat Hopscotch, we show two maps of Iowa, one of what Iowa looked like 200 years ago and the other one of present day Iowa. What we are showing the students is that our state used to be almost all prairie and wetlands but now the state is mostly covered by corn and beans. We then let them know that 90% of our original wetlands have been converted into other things. We also tell them that 99.9% of our state’s prairie land has also been converted. But it’s not all bad news—there has been good work with farmers to restore both prairie and wetlands on part of their land, which is great for all the creatures that call wetlands home.

This leads us into our game of Wetlands Bingo, which allows the students to see many more of the creatures that live in wetlands. After each wetland bingo, we ask that student a trivia question that gives them a chance to win a prize. When we have had multiple winners, we then finish with the same trivia/evaluation question that we did near the beginning of our presentation. We also leave each classroom teacher with a set of Wetland Bingo cards, so they and their students can continue learning about the Fabulous World of Wetlands and all the amazing creatures that call wetlands their home!

Joshua Harms