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.

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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/ .

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Thinking Like a Watershed

Today’s guest post is by Steve Hopkins, Nonpoint Source Coordinator with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources Watershed Improvement Section.

I had the privilege of visiting the legendary Aldo Leopold farm and shack near Baraboo, Wisconsin last August while attending the Soil and Water Conservation Society’s annual conference.  Although I had completed my master’s degree just down the road at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I had never before visited the Leopold farm. It was in many ways a pilgrimage to a sacred place.Oct2017_1Leopold Shack near Baraboo, Wisconsin (photo by Steve Hopkins)

While standing in awe in front of the Leopold shack, amidst the towering pines and deep-rooted prairie plants that the Leopold family had planted back in the 1930s, I was struck with the meaning behind Leopold’s concept of “Thinking Like a Mountain” in his 1944 essay bearing that name.

Leopold came up with the concept after watching a wolf die that he had shot, and seeing the “fierce green fire dying in her eyes.” Although he had previously been a staunch proponent of killing wolves with the idea of increasing the number of deer (which he and others wanted more of for hunting), he later realized that removing wolves resulted in an overpopulation of deer. Too many deer meant overgrazing and over-browsing of vegetation on the mountain, and the eventual destruction of the mountain from erosion.  Watching the wolf die was a pivotal event for Leopold—one that deeply affected his thinking about the value of predators to keep ecosystems in balance, and reinforced his understanding that removing even a single species can have serious negative consequences on the environment.

As Leopold wrote in 1944 in “Thinking Like a Mountain” (from Flader, 1974, p. 1)¹:

“We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes.  I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the fierce green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”

“Thinking Like a Mountain”, therefore, means we need to consider the importance of ecological balance—including the value of a single species of predator—in our land use decision-making and actions. When we remove even one single species from the ecosystem, it can have dire consequences. It means we need to see things from the mountain’s perspective before acting.

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Oct2017_2World’s 2nd oldest restored prairie, Leopold Farm, Baraboo, Wisconsin (photo by Steve Hopkins)

Likewise, for those of us working to improve the health of watersheds, we need to be thinking like a watershed.”  This means we need to consider the consequences of even a single action on the health of a watershed before acting.

Healthy watersheds are those that act like a sponge to soak in rainfall, enabling the watershed to minimize flooding and reduce runoff that carries pollutants to our lakes, rivers, and streams. Every time a single action takes place that adds more runoff in a watershed, such as adding more paved areas or converting land from soil-covering, deep-rooted perennials to tilled row crops, it reduces the watershed’s ability to act like a sponge and soak in rainfall. When this happens, a watershed “catches” less and “sheds” more. When multiple “single actions” take place in a watershed, it results in flooding and water quality problems. Our primary course of action after that point is to invest lots of time, money, and energy to fixing the flooding and water quality problems that we did not prevent in the first place.

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Many of us are already very well aware of the many practices that are available to soak in, trap, or store rainfall before it runs off our watersheds in Iowa. Many are also working to develop detailed watershed improvement plans to help fix flooding and water quality problems across the state. Just as Aldo Leopold advised us to incorporate “thinking like a mountain” into our actions to improve ecosystems, we would be wise to incorporate thinking like a watershed into each of our plans and actions to improve watersheds. I suspect Leopold would agree.

Steve Hopkins

Reference:
¹Flader, Susan L., Thinking Like a Mountain: Aldo Leopold and the Evolution of an Ecological Attitude toward Deer, Wolves, and Forests (University of Wisconsin Press, 1974).

Oct2017_3Leopold benches at the Leopold Farm, Baraboo, Wisconsin (photo by Steve Hopkins)

Is Palmer Paranoia a Threat to Conservation?

As a wildlife biologist, I admittedly have a less mainstream attitude towards weeds. For me, keeping those less obtrusive but often disgraced varieties of flowering and seed-producing plants on field edges and in barn lots is a good deal for the birds and the butterflies. But, as a wildlife biologist and a conservationist, I know that anything that affects efficiency in crop production affects conservation. So when I heard about the weed called Palmer Amaranth being found across Iowa last summer, I read the headline articles, watched the top stories, followed the unanimous senate vote, and learned how to identify the new pigweed to see where I could help.

Palmer, as it’s called, is a major challenge in cropping systems in the southern U.S. and until 2016 had only been found in five Iowa counties. Then, during the 2016 growing season, that list grew to at least 48  and experts predict that number could be higher.

The culprit? Seed mixes shipped to Iowa from southern dealers to meet burgeoning demand for high-diversity native plantings contracted under the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). The CRP fields where Palmer was rearing its ugly, thousands-of-seed-bearing head were the same fields lauded by conservationists as the best practice ever conceived under the CRP for addressing the plight of economically and ecologically important insects and many declining wildlife populations.

And, just as Palmer had entered the lexicon seemingly overnight, something else became apparent: “conservation plantings” had become synonymous with “Palmer.”

In the last year, I’ve seen this phenomena play out everywhere from professional meetings to farmsteads. I’ve heard stories from across the state about inquiries on CRP contract termination. I’ve talked with landowners that have dismissed high-diversity plantings out of fear for being the source of a new Palmer infestation. I’ve read gloom-and-doom articles implicating CRP in fueling the spread of Palmer on pages of periodicals from across the Midwest.

Vigilance and education are unequivocally important. My concern though is not with the messaging in educational efforts on this emerging threat, but rather the implicit deduction often drawn. That is, if Palmer is the effect and conservation plantings the cause, won’t less of the latter preclude more of the former?

I don’t have any data to support the veracity my concerns. Only my own experiences and anecdotes, which of course is shaky ground as a scientist. Dr. Bob Hartzler, the respected authority and defacto leader of the important response to the Palmer outbreak in 2016, recently told Iowa Learning Farms in his Conservation Chat podcast interview that he didn’t think concerns over Palmer were driving people away from conservation. I hope he’s right.

Professional educators and everyone in the agriculture and conservation community need to continue to address this emerging threat. But, we need to do so while retaining and building on progress for conservation of pollinators, soil, water, and wildlife that are fundamental to our quality of life and the sustainability of rural landscapes in Iowa. We need to be careful to not lose sight of the original goal of the high-diversity conservation plantings. We need to push a uniform message that less conservation isn’t the solution but rather that more vigilance is. Palmer is a huge deal. But I hope we don’t forget, conservation is a huge deal, too.

Adam Janke

Thank you to Adam Janke, Bob Hartzler, and Meaghan Anderson for their willingness to share photographs for this article!

Inger Lamb: On a Mission to Support Biodiversity With Prairies

Inger Lamb, landowner, PhD, and owner of Prairie Landscapes of Iowa, has a passion for prairie! She puts this passion for native prairie into practice with both her business ventures, and on the agricultural land she owns and co-manages in western Iowa.

Inger inherited her family’s century farm in Monona County in 2000. She entered into a crop-share agreement with her first cousin, who lives on the land and facilitates the daily farming operations, while together they handle land management decisions. The century farm, which has been in operation since 1894, is located in a flood plain. This means that the land contains heavy soils that aren’t well-suited for methods like no-till, paradoxically mixed with sandy areas. After a couple years, Inger and her cousin made the decision to begin transitioning the acres that were least suited to agricultural production into the Conservation Resource Program (CRP). A few years later they discovered that some of her land was eligible for the Wetland Resources Program (WRP) as well. Eventually 80 acres were converted to a permanent easement through the WRP, with an additional fourteen in CRP.

Inger made sure the land taken out of production was put into high quality, diverse prairie. She took advantage of some U.S. Fish & Wildlife cost share dollars available for the permanent easement acres but paid for the remainder of the improved seed mixes out of her own pocket. While Inger admits that farmers are sometimes cautious with new practices and methods, she vehemently disagrees with the idea that farmers are disinterested in conservation. She points out that farming is a business, and every farmer must balance the economic impacts of their decisions with ecological concerns. Establishing conservation practices on the land has to make economic, as well as ecological, sense for farmers to buy in.

The local farming community was a bit reticent of the prairie conversions when they first went in. But as the prairie established, wildlife populations soared. With increased populations of marsh hawks, deer, pheasants, owls, and other wildlife, locals have been eager to enjoy those abundances through hunting. Inger and her cousin are now learning to navigate the many requests for access to their CRP and WRP land for hunting activities, as the local community increasingly appreciates the benefits of their prairie habitat!

Inger has always had a deep connection with the land, and a love for plants especially. She received her undergraduate degree in botany at San Diego State University, and went on to graduate school. Inger completed her PhD at Ohio State University with a focus on plant physiology, specifically the symbiosis of legumes. After graduation she completed a year-long Post Doctoral position before moving with her husband and young son to St. Louis. Once in St. Louis, Inger took a break from the academic world to focus on her family, and to apply her knowledge and interests in plants in a more hands-on way. She began volunteering with the Missouri Botanical Garden, where they were putting in a native landscaping for the home garden demonstration area. This was her first exposure to the idea of using local, native species for gardening, and it is in this way that she started to familiarize herself with native plants.

When her family moved to central Iowa and her son began elementary school, Inger discovered that the school was badly in need of someone to take on the management and upkeep of its outdoor classroom and butterfly garden. Already devoted to volunteer work, Inger took on the role and spent the next six years shaping the native prairie beds into vibrancy, and taking classrooms of elementary students out into the gardens to learn about prairie plants and the wildlife they support. She balanced this volunteer work with her job with Prairie Rivers Natural Resources Conservation Service and Development. Her devotion to the work at her son’s school led Inger to start dreaming of a business model that would allow her to translate her love and knowledge of native prairie into a career.

In 2007, Inger started her own business, Prairie Landscapes of Iowa. Her clients include cities, schools and universities, businesses, homeowner associations, and individual landowners who want to utilize native landscaping on their properties. Prairie Landscapes of Iowa is currently managing sixty projects, including one for a private company in Ames that was started by planting nearly 8000 native plants, now in its fourth year of growth.

What is Inger’s primary motivation for spreading the word about planting native prairie in Iowa? To answer this question, she pulled an autographed book out of the backseat of her vehicle. “Bringing Nature Home,” by Douglas Tallamy, tells the story of how installing native plants in backyards all over the country can save many of our waning wildlife populations from mass extinction. Inger wholeheartedly agrees with this approach to sustaining biodiversity through re-building native habitat, and she routinely gives copies of the book out to her clients.

Iowa Learning Farms is grateful for Inger’s mission to bring native prairie back to Iowa’s landscape in both rural and urban landscapes. From her work to convert portions of her own farmland to CRP and WRP, to sustaining a thriving business that helps others learn how to support native plants on their land, Inger is bringing back a piece of the prairie in Iowa; supporting the survival and biodiversity of our state’s migrating bird and insect species along the way!

Brandy Case Haub

A Big Boost for Pollinators

Over the past few weeks, the City of Cedar Rapids has received a great deal of positive press for their plans to convert 1,000 acres into prairie/pollinator habitat! Their new 1,000 Acre Pollinator Initiative will begin taking root this spring as acres and acres of diverse prairie are seeded throughout the city, in large part to restore habitat for native pollinators – birds, bees, and the iconic monarch butterfly.

Where exactly do you fit 1,000 acres of perennial vegetation inside the City of Cedar Rapids?  Anywhere and everywhere!  They are starting this spring by seeding 188 acres of diverse prairie throughout the city. Numerous unused public land areas have been identified, including within community parks, select areas of golf courses, roadway medians, along trails, as well as in some less glamorous areas such as sewage ditches and water retention basins.

Future plans in the five year project also include working with homeowners to voluntarily convert 10% of traditional mowed lawn areas to perennial vegetation for pollinator habitat. They are also partnerships happening beyond the city limits to include Linn Co. Conservation and the Eastern Iowa Airport (who is already on the forefront of numerous conservation practices – read more about the field day ILF held there last fall).

It’s a truly fascinating project, and an excellent example of unique collaborations coming together to “make things happen” in the conservation world. Funding to date has come from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources-REAP Grant and the nonprofit Monarch Research Project. While the City is certainly a key partner in this work, the 1,000 Acres initiative has been fully funded outside of city and county budgets.

Learn more about the 1,000 Acre Pollinator Initiative on the Cedar Rapids Pollinator and Natural Resources Initiatives page, as well as an article in Popular Science: A small city in Iowa is devoting 1,000 acres of land to America’s vanishing bees.

Ann Staudt

 

 

A Cy-Hawk Collaboration on Conservation

With the entire state of Iowa picking sides as the Cyclones and Hawkeyes meet on the gridiron tomorrow, the Iowa Learning Farms team helped to showcase an outstanding collaboration between the two “teams” with a field day last evening at the Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapids!

dscn1158cIt was an absolutely beautiful evening, with 70 people in attendance to learn about how the Eastern Iowa Airport is implementing a number of innovative conservation practices on its land, in collaboration with the University of Iowa’s Biomass Fuel Project and Iowa State University’s STRIPS project. Our field day was situated right between the field sites for these two projects, and it was great to see the support of the airport, the City of Cedar Rapids, and the two universities – a truly collaborative effort, and a definite win for conservation!

Cedar Rapids mayor Ron Corbett kicked things off, emphasizing the power of collective action for good – whether it be through sandbagging to save the City of Cedar Rapids’ final drinking water well in the floods of 2008, or working together on efforts to implement unique conservation practices on the ground to benefit both water quality and water quantity.

ISU’s Emily Heaton then jumped right in to lead a discussion and answer people’s questions about the use of giant miscanthus as a potential bioenergy crop. Giant miscanthus has been planted on 63 acres of the airport’s property, and is being harvested for use in the University of Iowa’s Biomass Fuel Project. Several area farmers are also growing miscanthus to supply the U of I with this feedstock.

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dscn1139cField day attendees had many questions for Heaton about planting, growing, and harvesting the miscanthus – see a sampling of the outstanding questions below!

  • What are the water quality benefits (nutrient reductions) with miscanthus?
  • What is the water use of miscanthus? Does it reduce runoff?
  • What are the habitat/wildlife benefits of growing miscanthus?
  • How long does miscanthus remain viable?
  • Do you need to harvest it annually?
  • How does miscanthus tolerate extemes – flood and drought?
  • What are the production costs of miscanthus – seed, fertility program, etc.?
  • What does it do for the character of the soil?
  • When is the best planting window for miscanthus?
  • How does miscanthus compare in terms of energy content to other fuel sources?
  • How much is it worth when you harvest it?
  • If I want to plant some of this miscanthus on my farm, where do I get seed?

dscn1150cISU’s Lisa Schulte Moore was up next, highlighting the other “on the ground” practice at our field day site – prairie strips!  The idea behind prairie strips is to transition approximately 10% of a row cropped landscape to strips of perennial prairie vegetation, reaping benefits for soil health, water quality, and biodiversity. Schulte Moore emphasized the important steps in establishing and maintaining the prairie strips, and with proper care, the amazing disproportionate benefits these strips can offer.

We also heard from the University of Iowa’s Ingrid Gronstal-Anderson and Ben Anderson, talking about the University of Iowa’s sustainability goals with these projects and how the U of I power plant is working to integrate different bioenergy feedstocks into their energy stream.

dscn1175cFinally, Eastern Iowa Airport Director Marty Lenss wrapped things up by praising the collaborative nature of this work, just as the sun was setting and giving us a spectacular show across the western horizon. No matter which side you’ll be cheering for in tomorrow’s football game, this is one outstanding collaboration that we can all celebrate!

Ann Staudt

 

Infiltration + Appreciation

Hi there, my name is Amanda Marlin and I am a senior in Agricultural Engineering with a Land and Water emphasis here at Iowa State. I grew up in the country outside of the small town of Melcher-Dallas, Iowa. Saying I was a girl with a passion for the outdoors would be putting it lightly! I loved being outside and took any chance I could get to explore the timber out back or go check out the creek and try to catch some tadpoles with my brothers. I was what they would call a “tomboy” — a girl who wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty. Getting my hands dirty is just what I have done while being an intern for Water Rocks! and the Iowa Learning Farms. I’m also involved with several different research projects with the ISU Ag Water Management team. I will explain one of my recent research projects that I was involved with so you can get a small glimpse of the type of work we do!

MeetTheInterns-Amanda

The project we have been currently working on is called Science-based Trials of Row Crops Integrated with Prairie Strips (native perennials), or the STRIPS project for short. The first prairie strips were planted in 2007 as Phase 1 of the project, and monitoring has showed that a 10% conversion to prairie strips from row crop can reduce soil loss by 90%, nitrogen runoff by 85%, phosphorus runoff by 90%, and 40% less runoff volume overall. It is a relatively inexpensive conservation practice with multiple, measurable benefits: wildlife habitat, bird habitat/food, pollinator habitat/food, beneficial insect refuge, reduced runoff, reduced nutrient concentration in runoff and groundwater, and reduced sediment loss from the field.

In Phase 2 of the project, implementation of prairie strips at research farms in Iowa as well as by private landowners began. Currently there are five paired comparison sites with flumes and groundwater wells to compare within the same field the effect of having strips present. Paired comparison sites ensure very similar slopes, soil types, and weather, allowing for direct comparison between treatments.

In the Field…
Traveling with my research team to the Iowa State University Armstrong Research Farm in Southwest Iowa last week, we spent long days in the field working with infiltrometers. An infiltrometer is a device used to measure the rate of water infiltration into the soil. Using a Cornell infiltrometer, we had 24 sites to collect data from that were either in prairie strips or a no-till field planted in soybeans, and four different soil types.

To begin, we would use GPS to find our location and then find a good area with no cracks in the soil so as to get accurate infiltration results. Using a 25 lb weight, we would pound in the ring with an impact-absorbing hammer so that the ring was about 5 cm in the ground. Making sure the hole faced downslope and the bottom of that hole was right at the surface, we also had to level the ring. Next we would place our outflow tube in the surface runoff hole to determine where to dig a hole to place our beaker. After digging the hole for the beaker, it was time to fill and calibrate the infiltrometer.

Infiltrometers-01-03Infiltration Preparation …

 

  1. Leveling the ring of the infiltrometer.
  2. Equipment setup before the infiltrometer is placed on top.
  3. Filling the infiltrometer.

The goal was to get the infiltrometer to rain at about 0.5 cm/min and then seal the air entry tube to stop the rainfall before placing it on the ring. Once the capillary tubes on the bottom of the infiltrometer stopped raining, then it could be placed on the ring and the height of the water in the infiltrometer recorded. From here the air entry tube was released and the stopwatch started.

The infiltrometer began to rain and the next step was to watch for initial runoff into the beaker.

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Intern Amanda Marlin waiting for initial runoff in the field.

Time and height of the water were recorded at initial runoff and from there, every three minutes the height of the water in the infiltrometer was recorded while simultaneously switching beakers to record the volume of water through runoff.

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Intern Nathan Waskel recording the time and water level after initial runoff.

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Nathan finding his volume of water three minutes after initial runoff.

 

The goal was to keep the 0.5 cm/min infiltration rate and then watch for steady-state runoff. This could happen after anywhere from 15-60 min of infiltration to sometimes even longer than an hour. It was interesting to see the difference in runoff between the prairie strips and the no-till field planted in soybeans. The prairie strips clearly had better infiltration compared to the crop fields, and that’s what was found in Phase 1 of the project, as well. Overall the data collection with the infiltrometers went well and is now being put altogether into one spreadsheet to compare each soil type and where it is located.

Working with the infiltrometers will give us a better idea of how long it takes for the different types of soil and soil locations to infiltrate. Although we have gathered the data, we still have to take into consideration the many other factors that affect the infiltration rate such as the soil structure, the condition of the sediment surface, the chemical and physical nature of the soil, the atmospheric pressure, and biological activity in the soil. Taking all of these into consideration, these infiltrometers are used for comparative data and not specific values.

So some night when you are at home enjoying a rainstorm, just think where all that rainwater is going and what is happening to our soil. Is it infiltrating into the soil or is it running off into our lakes and rivers? These are things I would have never thought of when I was younger, but have now come to see that it is a big part of our environment and how our land and water interact.

Amanda Marlin