Working with Nature!

I spent this summer traveling to field days around Iowa as well as driving back from our American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE) annual meeting in Detroit, Michigan. One of my purposes in attending the ASABE meeting was to accept for the team the Blue Ribbon Award in the Educational Aids Competition for our revised version of the Water Rocks! Rock Your Watershed! online game (read more about it in our previous post Water Rocks! Brings Home a Blue Ribbon). Part of our revisions included adding more diversity to the land management choices that players can make and clearly showing the environmental benefits of diversifying our watersheds. Driving around the Midwest and Iowa really brought home to me how important this is and how far we need to go to still achieve the kind of diversity that will make a difference.

Prairie restoration and wetland west of West Lake Okoboji

But last week I traveled to the Iowa Great Lakes area for a field day and then stayed up there for some vacation time with my family. The field day near West Okoboji Lake focused on prairie and wetland restoration to clean the water before it enters the lake. The side benefit would be increases in wildlife including pollinators of all sorts. The next day we visited our prairie strips site that is directly east of Big Spirit that was installed a few years ago for the same purpose of protecting local water quality and increasing habitat. In both cases, local stakeholders came together to diversify the land to help protect a local asset. I could hear the pride in their voices when discussing the changes they had put into place.

I am an engineer and spend a lot of time writing and talking about new technology. However, this summer really highlighted to me that many of our fixes cannot be solved by technology alone. Instead, we need to strategically restore or implement more diverse natural systems where they can do the most good in terms of water quality, wildlife and overall land health. We are able to do these practices such as prairie strips and wetlands by combining technological advances with a solid understanding of the natural ecological system that was replaced with row crop agriculture and other development. Modern technology helps us know where to place the natural system for the greatest benefit. After that, the natural system will do all the work.

Both of the restored areas I visited near the Iowa Great Lakes are less than five years old. The local folks are doing a good job of ensuring diversity in the perennial plantings. I have seen other areas in Iowa under perennial vegetation that opted for monoculture grasses, mainly cool-season grasses. While the diverse native prairie restorations are more challenging to manage, the beauty alone makes it worth it to me. Factor in water quality, wildlife and land health benefits and it is a home run.

Prairie strip east of Big Spirit Lake

If this is something that interests you for the land you own or manage, there is assistance and information available to you. We are really fortunate in Iowa to have organizations such as the Tallgrass Prairie Center that have spent years figuring out how to support landowners in planting and managing prairie restoration on the land. For my part, I am going to continue to work to understand how to best manage these systems and what technology is needed to allow diversity to flourish. I would encourage you to go online to www.waterrocks.org and play the Rock Your Watershed! game to learn how we can work with better with the natural systems.

And also, take some time to find those natural areas around you and think about how we can use natural systems such as wetlands, prairie strips, oxbow restoration, riparian buffers, and others to help clean our water, diversify our landscapes, increase wildlife and enhance the beauty on the land. I know I felt a little “restored” after my time in these natural settings.

Matt Helmers

Incorporating Prairie on the Farm – Field Day June 21st

ISU STRIPS and the UNI Tallgrass Prairie Center will demonstrate the practical use of prairie on a working farm at a field day that will be held 5:30-7:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 21 near Elkader.

Neal_smith_beans_strips

Prairie Strips At Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge

Hosted by Roverud Family Farm, the field day will focus on integrating prairie into row crop fields for sediment and nutrient reduction.  The farm is located at 19575 Sandpit Rd, Elkader.

Other discussion topics include:

  • How to plant prairie on farms
  • Landowner insights
  • Maintenance and weed control
  • Water quality improvement
  • Benefits of prairie on the landscape

There will also be an opportunity to view infield prairie strips and take a field walk following the program.

There is no cost to attend this field day, which includes a complimentary meal with registration. Technical service providers, landowners, farm managers, conservation professionals, and those interested in learning more about the benefits of native vegetation are strongly encouraged to attend.

This event will be held rain or shine. Registration in advance is preferred for meal planning purposes and to be informed of location change in the event of inclement weather. To pre-register, contact Staci Mueller at (319) 273-3866 or staci.mueller@uni.edu by June 18.

For more information, go to www.prairiestrips.org or https:// tallgrassprairiecenter.org/ .

Elkader_Field Day_Final 20180609

 

Watershed Scale, Not Field Scale

If we hope to significantly improve water quality in Iowa and still farm profitably, we are going to need to change our mindset about our agricultural systems. We are going to need to start thinking in terms of watersheds.

Each spring I teach a graduate course for the Iowa State University Master of Science in Agronomy distance program called “Agronomic Systems Analysis.” The course is comprised of field-scale case studies that require students to consider how complex decisions must be made by taking into consideration agronomic, economic, environmental, and social implications of the decisions. This year, I incorporated a new lesson that goes beyond field scale but encourages the students to address the issues at the watershed scale.

shelbyemphemeral-e1506974374896The point of this lesson is to have students think not about a single farm or field but to think about where to target practices to be the most effective. And which practices will draw the most reduction of nutrients being lost. This is not rocket science. It has been well established that sloping land is prone to erosion. These are the areas where no-tillage and cover crops are going to be the most effective at keeping soil and phosphorus in place. It’s well understood that well drained soils with very little slope are prone to nitrate leaching. These are the areas where bioreactors, wetlands and cover crops will be most effective in reducing nitrate movement into flowing water.

For several years, the Iowa Learning Farms and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach have been talking about implementing conservation practices and the scale of conservation practice adoption that must occur to reach nutrient reduction goals. For instance, one scenario calls for statewide adoption of MRTN (maximum return to nitrogen) rates along with 12 million acres of cover crops, 12 million acres of no-tillage, 6 million acres treated by bioreactors, and 7.5 million acres treated by wetlands. That effort to date has achieved approximately 625,000 acres of cover crops, 5 million acres of no-tillage, 950 acres treated by bioreactors and 42,200 acres treated by wetlands. We have a long way to go.

Cover crops

Reaching conservation practice goals will take everyone thinking about how his or her footprint impacts the watershed as a whole. It will take targeting practices for maximum effectiveness with minimal impact to the cost of production. Wetlands can be installed to treat water flowing from multiple fields. Prairie strips in strategic locations can minimize sediment and phosphorus loss. Saturated and riparian buffers will reduce nutrient movement and streambank sloughing of rivers and streams. It can even be as simple as installing a waterway to connect waterways from adjacent fields or no-tilling soybean into corn residue.

There can be watershed and community benefits that extend beyond the fence. Many practices can support efforts to provide habitat for pollinators, monarchs, song birds, game birds, waterfowl and deer.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

We cannot meet the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy goals and improve habitat without changing our mindset about how we farm and the use of conservation. Conservation practices are most effective if they are targeted specifically in areas that will result in a continuous, complimentary system across the watershed.

How can we help you think on a watershed scale?

Mark Licht

Mark Licht is an Iowa Learning Farms team member and Assistant Professor and Extension Cropping Systems Specialist at Iowa State University.

Season’s Greetings

“When I grow up, I want to farm just like you…”

dreams

CropOrnamentOne simple, thought-provoking statement in this short video challenges the status quo and gets us thinking about conservation farming practices.

As your family gathers together this holiday season, think about the stories you are sharing with each other and the gifts that don’t come in packages. Does your granddaughter understand how important preventing soil erosion is? Does your grandson understand why there are green cover crops all over the farm? Do your children know that rotational grazing and prairie strips are two ways that you are leaving the land healthier and the water cleaner for them? Do they know that conservation is something you value? If they farm just like you, will they be doing everything they can to protect the land and water resources for generations to come?

It is when we get together with our families and tell stories of our past, we are also CowOrnament
expressing what we hope for the future. Your children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews are listening and watching. What are you teaching them through your words and your deeds?

Wishing you and your family a wonderful holiday season and a new year filled with peace, good will and good stories!

The Iowa Learning Farms Team

Extra! Extra! Field Day near Iowa City Planned for April 13

McNay Strips Field Day2In partnership with Rapid Creek Watershed Project, we are hosting a filter strips and soil health workshop on Thursday, April 13, from 5:30-7:30 p.m. at the Morse Community Club near Iowa City.  We hope to see you there!

Field Day Agenda:

Tim Youngquist, discussing the Science-based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips (STRIPS) project where a small percentage of a field is planted into strips of perennial prairie plants to reduce soil erosion, water runoff, improve soil health and to create habitat for pollinators and wildlife.

Matt Berg, Johnson County Farm Service Agency Director, to lead a discussion on the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).

Adam Janke, Iowa State University Extension Wildlife Specialist and newest ILF team member, will talk about ways to incorporate wildlife habitat on the farm.

Wren Almitra, Rapid Creek Watershed Coordinator, with a project update.

SoilScan360Attendees are encouraged to bring their own soil samples for a free SOILSCAN 360 analysis by Johnson County NRCS staff during the event.

The field day will be held at the Morse Community Club located at 2542 Putnam St NE, Iowa City, IA. The workshop is free and open to the public, but reservations are suggested to ensure adequate space and food. Contact Liz Juchems at 515-294-5429 or ilf@iastate.edu.

Liz Juchems

Starting the Conservation Conversation

Land rental relationships can vary, but many face similar challenges of discussing new conservation practices with your tenant or landlord.  To help begin the conversation, Iowa Learning Farms created a new publication series with talking points and relevant research findings about a variety of conservation practices.

Tenant banner.png

“A large number of Iowa cropland acres are rented every year; nearly 50% according to recent surveys. These rented acres are greatly influenced by the tenant who farms them,” stated Mark Licht, Iowa State University assistant professor of agronomy and Iowa Learning Farms advisor, who cultivated the idea of the series.

“Landowners are integral in the decision-making process: from leasing structure and understanding farming practices, to being considerate of practice costs and profitability.  With emphasis being placed on nutrient loss reduction and practices ranging from in-field to land use changes, it’s imperative for landowners and tenants to have conversations about reaching production, profitability, and environmental goals,” said Licht. “These conversations can lead to improvements of soil health and water quality, along with meeting productivity and profitability goals.”

cover-crop-share-the-expenses

Examples of leasing structures that can be used when adding cover crops included in the series.

As land is passed from one generation to another, or is sold, it can lead to uncertainty for tenants and landowners alike.

strip tillage benefits.png“We developed this series in response to questions we heard from landowners. They wanted to understand how conservation practices such as strip-tillage and cover crops would affect both their land and the tenant’s bottom line before asking them to add these practices to their management plans,” explained Jacqueline Comito, Iowa Learning Farms director.

“While the name of the series is ‘Talking to Your Tenant,’ the reverse is also true. We think tenants will find the series also helpful as they educate their landowners on implementing these important practices,” adds Comito.

The series addresses in-field practices like cover crops, no-tillage and strip-tillage, and edge-of-field practices such as denitrifying bioreactors and wetlands.

If you have ideas for future topics for this series, contact Liz Juchems at ilf@iastate.edu or call 515-294-5429.  The four-part series, along with other print and video resources, are available online. Copies will also be available at field days and workshops, or mailed to you upon request.

Liz Juchems

Chatting with Lisa Schulte Moore about Ecology and Biodiversity

Have you heard our newest Conservation Chat? Our 26th podcast in the Conversation Chat series features Dr. Lisa Schulte Moore, Iowa State University Professor in the Department of Natural Resource Ecology & Management. Iowa Learning Farms Director, Jacqueline Comito, speaks with Schulte Moore, who is co-founder of the STRIPs (Science-based Trails of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips) project. This project, based out of ISU with test strips in operation on the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge and various private lands, is the first scientific field study promoting the use of prairie strips on agricultural land as a water quality and conservation practice.

dscn1150c“I’ve always been, when it comes to science, an innovator,” Schulte Moore tells Comito. Schulte Moore worked as a post-doctoral associate for the U.S. Forest Service before coming to ISU thirteen years ago. Her research specialty is in historical ecology and forestry land management, with an emphasis on bird habitats and populations. While her educational background is highly focused on forest ecology, she has found herself more focused on prairie ecosystems and row crop agriculture through her work with the STRIPs project. She says this about the transition in her research focus:

A prairie isn’t that different from an old growth forest, it’s just that all the biomass is below the ground. But you can get something that looks, at least above ground, like a prairie much more quickly than you can get an old growth forest. And so in some ways it’s a little bit more satisfying because I can see more of my impact in my lifetime.

Schulte Moore tells Comito about not only the dramatic water quality benefits from converting 10-20% of agricultural land into prairie, but the increase in wildlife biodiversity and its benefits as well. She says the results from just the first five years of scientific data on twelve experimental catchments at the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge are unprecedented: a 7-fold increase in native birds and insects, a 4-fold increase in the total abundance of insects (including a 3.47-fold increase in native pollinators), and a 15% increase in natural enemies (insects that feed on crop pests).

Why should we care about having greater biodiversity of wildlife in our agricultural lands? Schulte Moore tells us that birds, for example, offer humans many benefits—they act as a “canary” for measuring the health of an ecosystem: the more bird biodiversity, the healthier and more balanced the surrounding ecosystem. Birds control insect pests by preying on insect populations, and also eat weed seeds in cropland. And many humans enjoy observing and feeding different types of birds.

Are you a farmer who is interested in learning more about how to put prairie strips onto your land? Are you interested in learning more about the benefits of adding strips to row crops, the funding and costs, and possibilities for implementing prairie strips in new locations on your land in the future? Or maybe you are curious about Dr. Schulte Moore’s self-affirmed obsession with fire, or her special talent related to ornithology. If any of these things spark your interest, then this Conservation Chat is right up your alley. Click on the image below to be taken to the Conservation Chat with Dr. Lisa Schulte Moore!

cons-chat-image

Brandy Case Haub