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.

Infiltrometers-06

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

Prescribed Fires: Burning Iowa’s Prairies

Our final student intern guest blogger of the summer is Samuel Waite. During the academic year, Sam is a student at Hawkeye Community College in Waterloo, where he is studying Natural Resource Management. We were thrilled to have him spend the summer with us in Ames, working as an intern with the Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks! programs.

Native prairie near Waterloo, Iowa

Native prairie near Waterloo, Iowa

Should Iowa’s prairies burn? Do they deserve to be burned to the ground, to nothing but ash? I say yes, they should. Now, that may seem like just the thing that you wouldn’t want to happen in the remnants of prairies past, but it is completely necessary. Many think fires are bad no matter what the reason; they cause destruction, harm, and even death. That may be so, but fires that are controlled and used with the intent to improve natural areas are completely different. They help create life anew, enrich the soil, and provide essential functionality to wildlife.

Prescribed fires, controlled burns, or whatever you may call them, are a very important element in managing a tall or short grass prairie ecosystem. When the prairie was at its prime, covering about 99.9% of Iowa, fires were caused by lightning strikes. There were no prescribed burns, just the fire and the prairie. Native American tribes living in or near the prairies would set them alight for various reasons as well, whether it be to help with a growing season for their crops, or to drive wild game animals from the grasses.

Burn preparation, conducting a test burn, and beginning the burn

Burn preparation, conducting a test burn, and beginning the burn

The importance of prescribed fires is seen after the fire has done its job. I have seen first-hand how the native prairie plants return with new vigor, held nutrients are put directly into the soil from the ashes of previous vegetation, and invasive or non-prairie species are eradicated once again. The prairie itself is the goal of the prescribed fires. It provides necessary habitat for a wide array of animals, insects, birds, and even reptiles, and without the prairie in its native form all of those creatures would be lost to the world.

Today, various organizations use prescribed burns for their natural areas management plans. As for myself, it was for my Fire Management class at Hawkeye College in Waterloo, Iowa. I took part in conducting three separate prescribed burns at two locations: Hawkeye College in Waterloo, Iowa and Hickory Hills Park in LaPorte City, Iowa. I had various roles in each fire, but none without their importance in the overall scheme of the burns.

For example, the pictures you see are of two prescribed burns that I was a part of. I am shown in the various stages of the burn, with my responsibility being to light and control the direction of the fires. I am using a tool called a drip-torch to do so. The drip-torch is a canister that is filled with a mixture of diesel and gasoline fuels and has a tube with a wick attached to the end that acts as the delivery method for the fuel mix. Using the drip-torch, I was able to walk slowly enough to light a good fire and not waste the fuel.

The start of the burn (left), and the middle of the burn (right)

The start of the burn (left), and the middle of the burn (right)

Wildlife are not the only ones who benefit from a healthy, newly burned prairie. Humans can benefit from it in other ways. Burning a prairie will remove any of the piled up debris from dead vegetation, which would otherwise make an accidental or uncontrolled fire more volatile. The prairie vegetation also acts as a natural water filter as well. The dense vegetation will slow the passage of water, allowing the water to deposit much of the sediment it may have been carrying. The water will then be able to infiltrate into the soil, so that the vegetation may take in what it needs, then the soil will filter out any pollution that may have been present as well.

I have seen the benefits of a prescribed burn, but on the other hand, I also see the consequences of not burning. Some prairies are overrun by invasive species, small and large trees, and have so much debris covering up every available inch. Seeing these prairies, I always wonder if they are being managed responsibly. I firmly believe that management practices, including prescribed burns, are now a vital component of any natural area.

The fires  at their highest (15-20 foot flames)

The fires at their highest (15-20 foot flames)

Fully burned prairie

Fully burned prairie

If a healthy prairie is important, with its many benefits to wildlife and humans alike, then the fires used to perpetuate the prairies are equally as important. The only way to continuously restore the prairie remnants we have in Iowa today is through controlled burns. Hopefully, I will continue to implement these fires myself, for years to come. So, yes, Iowa’s prairies must burn, and they must be burned to the ground, to nothing but ash.

Sam Waite

Great Interest in Prairie Strips at the McNay Research Farm

McNay Strips Field Day2

Prairie strips installed at the McNay Research Farm near Chariton.

Last night kicked off the first of our STRIPS field days this month at the McNay Memorial Research and Demonstration Farm near Chariton.  There was a great turnout and good discussion about how prairie strips and cover crops can help meet the goals laid out by the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. By converting just 10% of a crop-field to diverse, native perennials, farmers and landowners can reduce the amount of soil leaving their fields by 90% and the amount of nitrogen leaving their fields through surface runoff by up to 85%. Prairie strips also provide potential habitat for biodiversity, including pollinators and other beneficial insects.

McNay Strips Field Day1

Tim Youngquist discusses the prairie strips program on June 16, 2015.

Gary Van Ryswyk, farm manager at the Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge, kicked off the field day by sharing his experiences managing the prairie strips installed at the Refuge in 2007 and fielding questions from the audience.  Tim Youngquist, STRIPS Farmer Liaison, then led the group outside to the strips installed on the farm and discussed how they seeded, managed and resources for technical and financial assistance.  With the stiff stemmed prairie plants, the flow of water from rainstorms is slowed, encouraging infiltration and reducing soil movement out of the field.  As Tim put it, “the water is walking off land instead of running.”

There are two more opportunities to attend a strips field day and we hope to see you there! Click the links below to read the press release for more information about the field days.

June 18, 5:30-7:30pm
Dick and Diana Sloan farm
3046 Harrison Ave., Rowley

June 23, 5:30-7:30 pm
Donna Buell farm
Southeast corner of Harvest Ave. and D15, northeast of Holstein

Each field day wraps up with a complimentary meal and fellowship.  All are free and open to the public.

Contact ILF to let us know which field day you are attending and the number of guests, and we’ll be glad to feed you!  You can reach us by phone 515-294-8912 or email: ilf@iastate.edu.

Visit the STRIPS website for more information.

Liz Juchems