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

Water in the Public Domain

Public domain: a concept that evokes thoughts of music, photographs, paintings, and other creative works of art … and their relationships with copyright policy. From another perspective, public domain is all about shared availability, the common good …  much like our natural resources.

As nearly 40 people gathered for a conservation field day at Paustian Family Farm just outside Walcott, IA this past week, this idea of water in the public domain was an ever-present undercurrent in the conversations among area farmers, landowners, rural and urban residents alike.

In addition to in-field conservation practices like reduced tillage, cover crops, and a close eye on nutrient management, host farmer Mike Paustian is now taking conservation to the edge of the field as well. In fall 2017, the Paustians installed a saturated buffer on their land to specifically address the challenge of nitrates in tile drainage water.

Saturated buffers are a field-scale practice, treating subsurface tile drainage water from 30-80 acres of cropland. The presence of an existing streamside vegetative buffer is a great first step, and makes the installation a breeze. In order to “saturate” the existing buffer, a flow control structure and lateral tile line running parallel to the stream (700’ long, in this case) are installed.

Quite a bit of the water then moves through that new perforated tile line parallel to the stream, slowly trickling out of the tile, working its way through the soil. On this journey to the stream, the water is in direct contact with plant roots and the soil itself – where the biological process of denitrification occurs. Under saturated, anaerobic conditions, naturally occurring bacteria breathe in the nitrate, and then transform it to atmospheric N2 gas, sending cleaner water to the stream (to the tune of 40-50% nitrate reduction).

As folks got to see the saturated buffer firsthand, one of the attendees asked Paustian, “As a city person, why should somebody from Davenport, Pleasant Valley, etc. care about what’s going on out here?”

Paustian responded, “We’re all in this together, using the same water. It’s a limited resource. We’ve got to find common ground – urban and rural – being good stewards of our land and water. That’s why saturated buffers matter out here.”

Washington Co. farmer Steve Berger, an early adopter and long-term user of cover crops, emphasized the benefits of cover crops for water quality, promoting infiltration and likewise minimizing soil erosion.  Berger added, “Anything that comes off this field ends up in the public domain somewhere … long-term no-till and cover crops are working together to keep soil and nutrients in place in the field!”

As Iowa’s water quality continues to garner attention locally, statewide, and even on the national level, that concept of water in the public domain resonates strongly. Bringing urban and rural people together to see how we can work for positive improvements in water quality is a step in the right direction. This field day was an excellent example of the engaging conversations and positive dialogue we at Iowa Learning Farms hope to facilitate surrounding water quality, soil health, and our agricultural production systems across the state of Iowa.

Ann Staudt

ILF and IDALS: Reaching Out Together for 13 Years and Counting…

Today’s guest post was provided by Jake Hansen with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS). Hansen serves as the Water Resources Bureau Chief in IDALS’ Division of Soil Conservation and Water Quality, as well as chair of the Iowa Learning Farms Steering Committee.

Back in 2004, we had no idea what a success Iowa Learning Farms would be and that it would last 13 years! Started as a partnership of the key conservation stakeholders in Iowa, Iowa Learning Farms was our way of responding to the Integrated Farm and Livestock Management (IFLM) legislation based in 2000.

The Iowa Legislature initiated the IFLM program to showcase the adaptability and effectiveness of conservation systems with farming operations.  New and emerging technologies are demonstrated on private farmland to refine management input to reduce erosion and soil loss, enhance soil quality, increase infiltration, reduce runoff and lessen nutrient and sediment loading to Iowa’s water bodies.


hansenblog-02Since its inception, Iowa Learning Farms has been a key partner and participant in the IFLM program, utilizing more than $3.1 million over 12 years to improve farmer outreach and landowner engagement using a broad array of programs and tools. We successfully leveraged those funds with dollars from our partners at Iowa Department of Natural Resources and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

During that time, ILF has evolved from hosting and programing field days to providing conservation information and education at fairs, libraries, and schools, and partnering throughout our great state with local farmers, agencies, conservation groups, the agribusiness sector, the research community, and the public. In addition to field demonstrations, ILF has made thousands of visits to groups all over the state with their Conservation Stations and reached out to even more of an audience through webinars, podcasts, and trade publications.

hansenblog-03As we begin our 13th year in partnership with Iowa Learning Farms, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship continues to embrace the value provided to our producers, watershed coordinators, state, federal, and private sector partners, and all of Iowa’s citizens in promoting conservation awareness and strengthening Iowans’ commitment to the preservation of our natural resources to sustain our quality of life.


ILF’s relentless, comprehensive, grassroots approach to outreach and education is critical to support continuing change for improved water and soil quality in improved tillage, cover crop, and residue management field demonstrations. At IDALS we are extremely grateful for the role ILF plays in supporting our vision for soil conservation and water quality, and we look forward to a continued partnership in 2017 and beyond!

ILF Steering Committee consists of members from IDALS Division of Soil Conservation and Water Quality, Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, Conservation Districts of Iowa, State Soil Committee and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.

Jake Hansen