Exploring the Case for Retiring (Or at Least Down-Sizing) the Mower on Farms and City Lots

On Wednesday, Iowa Learning Farms hosted a webinar about the benefits of reducing mowed land area across rural Iowa. Adam Janke, Assistant Professor and Extension Wildlife Specialist, discussed a project which considered the economic, ecological and aesthetic impacts of managing idle spaces differently.

Three different management scenarios were compared: traditional turfgrass, the “lazy lawnmower” and pollinator habitat establishment. In the traditional turfgrass management scenario, the space is planted to a monoculture and mowed weekly. In the “lazy lawnmower” scenario, mowing is done less frequently, about once every three weeks. Finally, in the pollinator habitat scenario, pollinator habitat is established in the area and managed to create a diverse source of nectar resources for pollinators.

The economic analysis of the three different management scenarios showed that both the “lazy lawnmower” and establishing pollinator habitat saved landowners money (and time, since their time was also valued in the analysis). Out of the three, the establishment of pollinator habitat had the lowest per acre cost per year. Janke also showed that, ecologically, there are no benefits to increased mowing.

Why maintain turfgrass when is is expensive and lacks environmental benefits? Literature on the subject acknowledges that this behavior might not be rational, but that it is part of our cultural norms. Worrying about what the neighbor might think of how you manage your land plays a big role in behavior. In order to increase adoption of different management scenarios for idle land, we need innovators who are trying out the practices and showing people that they can work.

Janke shared examples of three places that have adopted pollinator habitat instead of traditional turfgrass in idle areas. The image on the left shows a farmer who is a champion of monarch conservation who converted an idle area on his farm where to pollinator habitat. The middle image is from a farm that was part of a project with the Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium who partnered with pork producers to convert idle areas outside of livestock barns. Check out this video to learn more about this project. The image on the right shows pollinator habitat on idle land at Workiva in Ames, shortly after it was burned this spring as part of the management of the area.

To learn more about the benefits of managing idle land for pollinator habitat, or at least reducing how frequently they’re mowed, watch the full webinar here!

Be sure to join us next week when Kay Stefanik, Assistant Director of the Iowa Nutrient Research Center, will present a webinar titled: “Wetland Ecosystem Services: How Wetlands Can Benefit Iowans”.

Hilary Pierce

May 13 Webinar: Exploring the Case for Retiring (Or at Least Down-Sizing) the Mower on Farms and City Lots

Iowa Learning Farms will host a webinar on Wednesday, May 13 at noon about the benefits of reducing mowed land area across rural Iowa.

Reducing the size of mowed areas in rural Iowa has many layered benefits for landowners and land. Adam Janke, Assistant Professor and Extension Wildlife Specialist, will compare the costs and environmental benefits of three management options for existing idle turf grass areas in rural landscapes. Changing management of these areas from turf monocultures to diverse native perennial plants, like those found in pollinator plantings, can improve water quality, soil health and wildlife habitat. Making the change from turf to native perennial plants will also save landowners money and time.

“Farm margins are exceptionally tight and the need for every available acre in Iowa to work for soil, water and wildlife is greater than ever,” said Janke. “This work will show how creating new habitat areas on a farm can help to improve conservation outcomes while also saving time and money for the landowners.”

Janke, who studies wildlife habitat relationships in working agricultural landscapes, hopes that participants will take away new perspectives and ideas for what they can do with idle areas that already exist on their farms and acreages.

To participate in the live webinar, shortly before 12:00 pm on May 13:

Click this URL, or type this web address into your internet browser: https://iastate.zoom.us/j/364284172

    Or, go to https://iastate.zoom.us/join and enter meeting ID: 364 284 172 

Or, join from a dial-in phone line:

    Dial: +1 312 626 6799 or +1 646 876 9923

    Meeting ID: 364 284 172

The webinar will also be recorded and archived on the ILF website, so that it can be watched at any time. Archived webinars are available at https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars.

A Certified Crop Adviser board-approved continuing education unit (CEU) has been applied for, for those who are able to participate in the live webinar. Information about how to apply to receive the credit (if approved) will be provided at the end of the live webinar.

Hilary Pierce

Getting Conservation in the Hands of Local Citizens

Our newest episode of the Conservation Chat podcast, A Passion for Prairies, features Prairie Rivers of Iowa’s David Stein. He is truly passionate about helping people learn more about their local ecology through on-the-ground outreach across central Iowa. Enthusiastic may be an understatement when it comes to Stein’s zeal and motivation to provide a personal, education-minded, place-based approach to conservation on working lands!

As a Watershed Program Coordinator with the non-profit (former RC&D) Prairie Rivers of Iowa, Stein holds a unique position in that the area he serves here in the heart of Iowa is at the direct interface of urban areas and prime agricultural land. That presents both unique opportunities and challenges when it comes to water quality, soil health, and facilitating corridors of habitat for wildlife.

Stein is particularly passionate about native prairie establishment, and its benefits to reduce runoff, improve water quality, build soil health, and provide habitat/food resources to many species of wildlife. Tune in to the Conservation Chat to hear about Prairie Rivers of Iowa’s targeted efforts to establish corridors of habitat, creating uninterrupted flyways between publicly-owned and privately-owned lands.

Photographs by Prairie Rivers of Iowa

Interested in doing some native landscaping, establishing a pollinator garden, or other native plantings on your land?  Look no farther that Prairie Rivers of Iowa’s Native Plant Seed Bank! Tune in to the podcast to learn more about this awesome new initiative, the brainchild of Stein (and his proudest accomplishment on the job thus far). The seed bank is currently offering 10 different species of native plants (flowers and grasses), and they are accepting deposits of native seed, as well—an incredible conservation resource for central Iowa.

Catch this episode and all previous podcast episodes on the Conservation Chat website and through iTunes.

Ann Staudt


ISU Bee Research and Best Management Practices


CassOn Wednesday, Randall Paul Cass, Extension Entomologist at Iowa State University presented an Iowa Learning Farms webinar. He discussed research being conducted at Iowa State University, which focuses on observing the challenges and opportunities for bees in Iowa’s agricultural landscapes.

Cass began by discussing some common misconceptions people may have about bees – including being able to identify bees that don’t look the way that most people expect bees to look. He went on to talk about native bees in Iowa and honeybees, which were introduced from Europe for honey production. Most native bees in Iowa are solitary bees that nest in the ground or in stems and many have more specialist relationships with native flowering plants than the introduced honeybees.

Because of Iowa’s annual crop production, limited forage availability and extreme weather conditions/changing temperatures, Iowa presents a challenging landscape for honeybees. Cass discussed research that has been done on how bee hive mass differs depending on the landscape (areas of high cultivation vs. areas of low cultivation) where the hives are placed. The study found that hives got heavier in areas of high cultivation (soybean fields), due to the availability of food resources for the bees from flowering soybean plants. This study also found that all hives, in both high and low cultivation areas, lost weight toward the end of the season.

bee study 1.PNG

Results from the study comparing hive mass of hives placed in areas of high cultivation to hives placed in areas of low cultivation

The study led to a recent research project which looked at prairie vs. soybean field placement of hives – this project started with all hives placed in soybean fields and then after the beans had flowered, half of the hives were moved to a prairie environment. The study found that hive mass increased in the hives moved from the soybean fields to the prairie in late summer. Cass discussed other results from this study, related to insecticide treatments, as well as a survey conducted with landowners on their interest in perennial vegetation establishment, allowing beekeepers onto their property, and if they feel pollinator friendly practices are important.

bee study 2

Results of the study comparing hive mass of hives placed in soybean fields (agricultural sites) throughout the year to hives that were moved from soybean fields to prairie sites in late summer

To learn more about the research being done on bees and agriculture at Iowa State University, watch the full webinar here!

Join us next month, on Wednesday, November 20 at noon when Erika Lundy, Extension Beef Specialist, and Rebecca Vittetoe, Extension Field Agronomist, will present a webinar titled “ISU Research Focuses on Integrating Cover Crops for Grazing into Row Crop Enterprises”.

Hilary Pierce

October 16 Webinar: ISU Bee Research and Best Management Practices


Iowa Learning Farms will host a webinar on Wednesday, October 16 at 12:00 p.m. about the research being done at Iowa State University on bees in agricultural settings.Cass

Did you know there are between 300 and 400 species of bees in the state of Iowa? Randall Paul Cass, Extension Entomologist at Iowa State University, will present research that is currently being conducted at Iowa State University, which focuses on observing the challenges and opportunities for bees in Iowa’s agricultural landscapes.

“We thrive when bees thrive,” said Cass, whose research focuses on honey bees and native bees and on exploring how Iowa’s landscapes impact bee health and abundance. Join us at noon on October 16 to learn more about Iowa’s native bees and the research being done at Iowa State University on the relationship between bees and agriculture.

A Certified Crop Adviser board approved continuing education unit (1 CEU: Crop Management) is available for those who are able to watch the live webinar. Information for submitting your CCA/CPAg/CPSS/CPSC number to earn the credit will be provided at the end of the presentation.

Don’t miss this webinar!
DATE: Wednesday, October 16, 2019
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

Bioreactors, Birds and Butterflies – Oh My!


On Thursday Rob Stout hosted a bioreactor and monarch field day at his farm near Washington, IA. After dinner, attendees got a chance to check out Iowa Learning Farms’ Conservation Station “On the Edge” trailer to see how saturated buffers and bioreactors look and work underground. After the trailer demonstration we all headed out to Stout’s bioreactor.


Rob Stout addresses field day attendees at his bioreactor site

Stout had his bioreactor installed in 2014 thanks to cost share funds available through the West Fork Crooked Creek Water Quality and Soil Health Initiative. The bioreactor is 100′ x 30′ with an 8″ tile and drains about 68 acres. Water quality monitoring done at the inlet and outlet of the bioreactor over the last 5 years has shown that the bioreactor has been effective at reducing the nitrate load. Average nitrate removal has been around 90% for August – October, with slightly lower amounts removed (~43 – 83%) in April – July. Check out the installation video here to see how the bioreactor was built! Stout explained that the monitoring has also shown a decrease in the nitrate loads at the inlet of the bioreactor over the 5 years it’s been installed, due to changes he’s made in his nitrogen management (splitting up applications) and likely also related to his use of cover crops.


Attendees also heard from Taylor Shirley, an Iowa State University Graduate Research Assistant in the department of Natural Resources Ecology and Management. Shirley is working on a research project in the Washington area related to pheasants, quail and their habitat. She described the methods used for tracking and monitoring the birds, as well as biomass measurements and vegetation surveys to analyze how the birds are using cover crops and if they are using them for nesting. One unique finding that Shirley mentioned was an Upland Sandpiper nest found in cover crops when they were conducting nest searching.


The evening wrapped up with Holly Shutt, from Pheasants Forever, discussing monarch butterflies and monarch habitat. She explained the monarch lifecycle and the importance of milkweed being available for monarchs since it provides the only food that they can eat during their caterpillar stage. After seeing the lowest recorded monarch populations around 2012-2013, a lot of work has been done to educate the public about the importance of monarch habitat – not just milkweed, but also other flowering plants that they can get nectar from. Although there has been progress made, there is still a lot of work to be done! Stout’s bioreactor area is planted with a pollinator habitat seed mix and Shutt explained some of the basics of seeding and management for those interested in establishing their own pollinator habitat.

If you’re interested in attending an Iowa Learning Farms field day, check out our events page to see if there will be one in your area!

Hilary Pierce

The Epic Outdoor Classroom Adventure

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.

On May 7th Ann and I were tasked with an adventure to go teach 8 We All Live in a Watershed presentations at the Carroll County 5th Grade Outdoor Classroom. This adventure started at 7:15 when Ann and I left the parking lot. Our drive was about an hour and a half which isn’t much compared to some of the other epic journeys across Iowa that we have taken. After we arrived at Swan Lake State Park Nature Center in Carroll, we were met at the door by our contact Anjanette Treadway. She then showed us to the room in which our presentations would take place so that Ann and I could set up.

When Ann and I had finished setting up we made our way to the commons area where orientation was taking place with 170+ 5th graders and their teachers. During orientation Anjanette explained that one of the speakers did not show up. This speaker happened to be someone that was going to talk about bees/pollinators. As Ann and I heard this we started thinking if there would be any way that we could help Anjanette out. Now it just so happened that we had brought one of our pollinator games along with us because Anjanette had requested to borrow it for another event that she was hosting a few days later. So we came to an agreement that we would split up and I would teach a modified pollinator presentation while Ann would teach the watershed presentation. 

Now to be honest I was a little nervous because I had never taught an entire presentation by myself let alone 8. I had around 5 minutes to quickly come up with talking points to accompany the game. After I quickly came up with some talking points, I made my way to the place in which I would be teaching to start the epic adventure of doing 8 presentations all by myself. As the day of presentations went on I started to feel really comfortable with what I was doing plus I was also remembering more things that I could talk about.

I taught the students that pollinators actually complete the process of pollination on accident as they fly to different flowers looking for nectar. I also explained that these creatures are responsible for a lot of the different foods that we as people enjoy. After explaining the process of pollination and how important it is, I focused in on monarch butterflies in particular. I explained the super long journey that they take, known as migration. I emphasized that this journey comes with lots of different challenges and that led right into a game called Monarch Migration Madness.

The Monarch Migration Madness game is all chance-based. There are 10 circles in both the summer habitat (with each circle depicting a milkweed plant) and winter habitat (with each circle depicting an oyamel fir tree). I started off by giving each student a number, which represented which number circle they started on in the summer habitat. After they got to their starting positions, I counted down from 3 and then the students migrated to the opposite side of the room, where the winter habitat was, and at that point they could pick any number circle. The only thing is that there cannot be any more than 3 monarchs per circle. After they made their migration, I read a situation that would affect some of their habitat, removing the designated oyamel fir trees as called for in the situation. This game goes on for several rounds until there are only a few remaining monarchs. When the game was complete I then finished off with some different things that we as people can do to help our pollinator friends continue to thrive.

I was definitely a little worn out after the completion of all the presentations, but all that was left was to pack up and drive back to Ames so I wasn’t complaining. During the drive back Ann and I talked about how we felt our adaptation to the situation went. We came to the conclusion that it went quite well. As we eventually arrived in Ames we knew that the epic adventure had come to an end. It was an exhilarating and successful adventure—the students had FUN, they learned a ton about the environment around them, and I felt a lot more confident after giving 8 presentations on my own!

Joshua Harms