Have we reached a tipping point for phosphorus saturation?

CLG-BannerImages-180213-04Phosphorus is one of the main nutrients of focus in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. It is essential to the growth of plants, but when phosphorus enters our water bodies it leads to excessive plant growth and increases in toxic algae that are harmful to human and animal health.

A recent study from the University of Montreal quantified, for the first time, the maximum amount of phosphorus that can accumulate within the watershed before additional pollution is released into the water.

Their results indicate a relatively low threshold compared to current application rates and notes that tipping points could be reached in less than a decade.

Research supervisor, Roxane Maranger, aquatic ecosystem ecologist at University of Montreal, compared the relationship of the land and phosphorus accumulation like this:

“Think of the land as a sponge,” Maranger said. “After a while, sponges that absorb too much water will leak. In the case of phosphorus, the landscape absorbs it year after year after year, and after a while, its retention capacity is reduced. At that point historical phosphorus inputs contribute more to what reaches our water.”

Be sure to read the full article to learn how they conducted the study and further implications of the results.

Locally, the implementation of nutrient reduction strategy practices like no-till, cover crops, phosphorus application management, perennial vegetation, buffers and more are imperative to the long-term sustainability on our water resources.

Liz Juchems

Who Knew? Cover Crops, Corn and Water Molds Webinar Recap

Cover crops have numerous benefits, but not everyone is using them. Decreased yield is a major barrier but terminating at the right time can minimize risk. What are the factors that may impact yield and why does timing matter?

Dr. Alison Robertson, professor of plant pathology and microbiology and extension field crops pathologist at Iowa State University, wondered if corn seedling disease could be the culprit.

“As a pathologist, when I look at reduced stands, more barren plants, and slower emergence, I automatically think of seedling disease.”

In this month’s podcast, Robertson details the research her team is doing to determine what management practices could reduce yield drag.

They first had to determine if winter rye can even host pathogens that infect corn seedlings. They discovered that rye can host Fusarium graminearum and Pythium sylvaticum.

Next, they set up a field trial experiment seeding winter rye ahead of planting corn. They terminated five plots at different times, anywhere from 25 days before planting to two days after planting.

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Cover crop test fields in Boone, Iowa.

They found that when conditions are favorable, winter rye acts as a ‘green bridge’ for Pythium to infect the corn. Fusarium was present whether cover crops were used or not and Rhizoctonia did not appear at all.

Watch Dr. Robertson’s webinar here to learn the optimal time for termination and what additional factors may change it.

Brianne Osborn

Meet Conservation Learning Labs Farmer Brian Sampson

CLL Brian.jpg

Brian Sampson and his wife Deb raise corn and soybeans as well as operate a cattle feedlot in rural Story County. In 2016, Iowa Learning Farms approached Brian to be a part of a new Conservation Learning Labs (CLL)* project that is studying changes in nitrogen and phosphorus loss at the delivery scale.

Brian lives near an existing Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) wetland in Story County that has measured water quality for about three years. Using the CREP wetland monitoring system, the project will be able to measure changes in water quality after the implementation of conservation practices like cover crops and strip-tillage in the project area over the next three years.

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CREP Wetland near Roland in Story County

Brian tried cover crops on some of his fields in the past, but his results were mixed. In the fall of 2012, Brian says, “I flew cover crops onto my corn. I wanted to grow them to boot stage for my cattle. In the spring, it got wet and my bean planting was delayed . . . but it was a beautiful stand. I ended up baling it.” Brian tried cover crops again in 2013, but a dry fall hindered germination. The start of the CLL project was the assistance he was looking for to give cover crops another try.


“I flew cover crops onto my corn. I wanted to grow them to boot stage for my cattle. In the spring, it got wet and my bean planting was delayed . . . but it was a beautiful stand. I ended up baling it.”


In 2017, through the NRCS conservation planning process, Brian seeded a cereal rye cover crop and started strip-tillage on his fields, treating 42% of the project watershed. With technical support from CLL project partners and Key Coop, Brian hopes to be successful as he makes changes to his operation.

“I’m not an island. I need help,” Brian commented. “I have felt very supported through the project help I have received from ISU Extension, NRCS and Iowa Learning Farms.”

Brian and Deb have two children, Alex and Brice. In addition to farming, Brian is a member of the Story County Cattlemen’s Association and the Story County Farm Bureau.

Julie Winter

*The Conservation Learning Labs project is funded by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) and the United States Department of Agriculture – Natural Resources Conservation Services (USDA-NRCS) of Iowa.

ILF Steering Committee Helping Make A Difference

Jake Hansen | Water Resources Bureau Chief at the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS)

ILF_Badge_Multi_SMFor nearly 14 years, Iowa Learning Farms has established and maintained a presence as a respected and trusted source of conservation outreach and education in the state of Iowa and beyond. While many similar programs have come and gone over the years in shorter cycles, ILF has managed to remain at the forefront of the public dialogue around great things happening in conservation and opportunities that lie ahead.

The lion’s share of the credit for this should be given to the staff and the cooperators that have worked tirelessly to advocate for good land stewardship by farmers and urban dwellers alike. However, there is another group of key stakeholders that have worked with Iowa Learning Farms over the years to identify emerging education needs. That group is the Iowa Learning Farms Steering Committee.

Led by Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, the ILF Steering Committee includes representatives of six organizations that provide financial and technical support to the program. In addition to ISU Extension and Outreach, other agencies and organizations on the committee include the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS), USDA- Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Iowa Farm Bureau, and Conservation Districts of Iowa (CDI).

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Bioreactor: an edge-of-field conservation practice designed to reduce nitrate loss from the field scale

These organizations contribute decades of knowledge on conservation practices and outreach efforts along with access to statewide networks of farmers, agricultural decision makers, and local leaders. Our job is to identify emerging challenges faced by our farming community, as well as opportunities to use demonstrations by local conservation champions. In addition, we want to find means of scaling up implementation of key conservation activities.

The ILF Steering Committee typically meets 3-4 times per year and reviews program activities completed by staff while helping to identify future programming needs. The committee also provides insight and support on outreach funding sources and advises ILF leadership on potential funding opportunities. Perhaps most importantly, committee members are constantly in touch with a broad range of constituents and can provide real-time input on challenges to conservation adoption, ranging from management of cover crops to the economics of land use decisions and much more.

DSCN9848Even if you don’t interact regularly with the Iowa Learning Farms staff, don’t hesitate to reach out to one of these partners if you have a suggestion for a field day or a conservation issue that might merit some attention. ILF and the Steering Committee are always looking for input from our audiences on how to help decision makers balance conservation ethics with the economic realities of modern farming. Additionally, if you have recently attended an ILF field day, consider attending others, as the topics and the network of people you will meet continue to evolve!

Jake Hansen

Nurturing the Seeds of Conservation

In 2009, the Soil and Water Conservation District commissioners challenged us to teach Iowa’s youth about soil and water. The Conservation Station and Water Rocks! program were our answers. Since that time, we have been to every county in Iowa at least twice, reaching over 100,000 people, inspiring the next generation to be thinking about and talking about conservation issues.

Starting this year, we are reaching out to the next generation in a new way, by getting college students out to our field days and talking to college students who want to farm about water quality and conservation issues.

On August 30th, we held a field day at the Gilmore City Research and Demonstration Site. If you want to learn about conservation and water quality practices that work, this research site is the place to be. A few days before the field day, we sent an email out to all the Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering undergraduates to invite them to attend. Nine students enthusiastically took us up on the offer and joined us for this excellent event (read more about it in Ann’s blog Cover Cropping on the Lobe).

During the actual field day presentations, the college students quietly listened and didn’t say much. However, the faculty and staff who accompanied them said that when they got back into the van, they were filled with so many questions and were nonstop talk about what they were seeing and learning.

It is very likely that each of these students will either farm someday or work in the agricultural industry. We are doing our part to whet their curiosity about conservation practices such as cover crops and wetlands. We are also fertilizing the seeds that will grow into a lifelong conservation ethic. We plan to offer more of these field days with college students – in partnership with both ISU and our many other outstanding colleges/community colleges around the state —  in the months and years to come.

In addition, with the help of a new grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, we are developing and launching an “Emerging Farmers” program. This program takes a proactive approach to address the need for new programming that reaches out to limited resource farmers, emerging farmers and future landowners. We define emerging farmer as someone with ties to agricultural land, not currently farming but would like to return to the farm or have a voice in its management.

In collaboration with ILF farmer partners, Iowa Beef Center, Beginning Farmer Center and Practical Farmers of Iowa, we will produce a series of emerging farmers conservation publications. Partners will collaborate to create a sustainable business plan template for the emerging farmers. We will host workshops across the state, as well as a two-day intensive emerging farmer workshop. In the years to come, we will present emerging farmer seminars to ISU agricultural student groups, as well as to community colleges and colleges across Iowa to reach those individuals with ties to agricultural land, infusing the traditional agricultural curriculum with a strong conservation focus.

The SWCD commissioners challenged us in 2009 and we continue to listen to that challenge as the Iowa Learning Farms adapts to meet the needs in Iowa for conservation education. We cannot succeed if we are not engaging and inspiring our young people. Send me an email if you would like to get involved in these efforts.

Jacqueline Comito

Reducing Soil Erosion with Cover Crops: New Infographic

Iowa Learning Farms is pleased to announce the release of a new infographic publication titled Reducing Soil Erosion with Rye Cover Crops.

This visually engaging document highlights one of the biggest benefits of cover crops — the ability to significantly reduce soil erosion. Based upon long-term cover crop work conducted by Korucu, Shipitalo, and Kaspar, colleagues at the USDA-ARS National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment here in Ames, this study looks specifically at one of Iowa’s most popular cover crops, winter cereal rye.

The USDA-ARS team conducted in-field simulated rainfall studies on plots with and without cereal rye cover crops, and their findings are powerful in terms of quantifying erosion reduction – 68% less sediment in surface runoff water with a rye cover crop. Further, the amount of surface runoff water decreased, while the amount of water infiltrating was found to increase with the cover crop.

This study was conducted in central Iowa, in the heart of the Des Moines Lobe, on land with a 2% slope. Substantial erosion reductions were found here with rye cover crops — consider the benefits of cover crops to reduce erosion on more sloping lands across the state!

The full infographic is available as a free PDF download on the Iowa Learning Farms website. Clicking on the image below will also take you right there.

Ann Staudt

Field Days to Help Participants Improve Profit and Water Quality

Five field days are being offered as part of Iowa State University (ISU) Extension and Outreach’s Nitrogen and Water Week, which runs from June 27-29.

June_FieldDay140The purpose of these field days is for farmers and their consultants to learn the research related to profitable nitrogen management and water quality. They will also allow participants to visit the sites where research is occurring relating to nitrogen management and water quality.

The field days will be held throughout the state at ISU Research and Demonstration Farms, providing an opportunity to learn about the university’s research facilities that evaluate nitrate loss. A tour of plots where ISU researchers study the effects of fall application, cover crops and nitrification inhibitors is included in the event. The field days will also provide an opportunity to learn about factors that are used to make nitrogen fertilizer recommendations and nitrogen deficiency in corn and how to correct it.

Participants will leave the field day with a better understanding of research and the breadth of projects and practices that they are evaluating. They will also receive a better understanding of tools that are available to them like the N Rate Calculator and how they can help farmers be more profitable while minimizing impact on water quality.

Each field day will provide the same format and program, with ISU Extension and Outreach field agronomists and agricultural engineering specialists providing instruction. Registration at the research farm meeting room begins at 9:15 on the day of the event, with the program beginning at 9:45. The program concludes at 12:15 p.m. with lunch following.

The format provides for four 30-minute sessions during the field day, discussing how a water quality research site works, what practices are being studied, how effective the various management practices are in reducing nitrogen loss, and the impact of those practices on farm profitability.

2017 Nitrogen and Water Week Field Days

There is a $25 registration fee for the program that includes lunch, refreshments, and course materials and publications. Attendees are asked to pre-register to assist with facility and meal planning. For additional information or to register online visit www.aep.iastate.edu/nitrogen.

Jamie Benning

Jamie Benning is an Iowa Learning Farms team member and Water Quality Program Manager at Iowa State University.