Cover Crops and Pheasant Nesting in Iowa’s Ag-Dominated Landscape

The Iowa Learning Farms webinar on Wednesday highlighted research being done on where pheasants nest and how to better manage areas to make them optimal for nesting. Taylor Shirley, a graduate research assistant at Iowa State University, discussed findings from a recent study on pheasant nesting in southeastern Iowa. The research sought to determine where pheasants are nesting, why they choose certain nest sites, and how to make cover crops more attractive to nesting pheasants.

This research project was carried out in Washington County, Iowa, due to the county having a high level of cover crop adoption and a large abundance of pheasants. Nest searches and vegetation surveys were carried out in three cover types: fall-seeded cover crops, native warm season grasses, and cool season grasses. More nests were found in the native warm season grass sites compared to the cover crop and the cool season grass sites. Visual concealment of the nests by the vegetation was an important factor in nest site selection, with more nests being found where there was higher litter cover and higher visual obstruction readings during the vegetation surveys.

The cover crop sites had the lowest amount of litter cover and the lowest visual obstruction reading, meaning that there are opportunities to manage these sites differently if attracting more pheasants is a goal. Management strategies that could improve cover crops as a nesting site for pheasants include earlier planting and later termination of the cover crop to allow for more growth and relay cropping to allow for more spring cover leading to better nest concealment.

To learn more about where pheasants choose to nest and how cover crops could be managed to be more attractive to nesting pheasants, watch the full webinar!

Join us next week, on Wednesday, May 5, for the webinar, “Can Small Grain, Soybean Relay Intercropping Be Successful in Iowa?” with Mark Licht, assistant professor and extension cropping systems specialist at Iowa State University.

Hilary Pierce

Benefits of Organic Farming in Terms of Soil and Water Quality

During the webinar on Wednesday, Dr. Kathleen Delate, professor in the departments of agronomy and horticulture at Iowa State University, shared research results that show greater soil and water quality benefits in organic systems with longer crop rotations, when compared to conventional corn-soybean rotations.

Iowa is one of the largest producers of organic grains and demand for organic crops is continuing to increase. The practice standard set forth by the USDA National Organic Program instructs producers to utilize tillage and cultivation practices that maintain or improve the soil and minimize soil erosion. The standard also states that the producer must manage plant and animal materials in a way that does not contribute to contamination of crops, soil, or water by nutrients and other substances.

Dr. Delate shared soil and water data that has been collected to compare organic farming to conventional farming practices. The results of the studies show that the organic sites have less nitrate leaching, increased amounts of soil organic carbon, and larger beneficial soil microbe populations. Research is also being done into organic no-till and this is a promising combination, but more research is necessary. Dr. Delate also emphasized the importance of integrating livestock into organic systems.

To learn more about organic farming and the results of these studies, watch the full webinar!

Join us on Wednesday, April 28, for the webinar “Cover Crops and Pheasant Nesting in Iowa’s Ag-Dominated Landscape,” presented by Taylor Shirley, a graduate research assistant at Iowa State University.

Hilary Pierce

Economic Considerations on Cover Crop Adoption

Alejandro Plastina, associate professor and extension economist at Iowa State University, addressed the profitability of winter cover crops in Iowa from the producer’s perspective, based on agronomic experiments and surveys of farmers, during the Iowa Learning Farms webinar on Wednesday.

There are several reasons to use cover crops, including improved soil health and reduced soil erosion, water quality benefits, and pest management. Despite these benefits, the adoption rate of cover crops in Iowa is low, only growing from 1% in 2012 to 4% in 2017. Plastina hypothesized why the adoption rate is so low and shared four analyses that he used to support his claims about why the cover crop adoption rate in Iowa is low.

Research started with several focus groups, during which experienced cover crop users were asked about their motivations for cover crop use, and partial budgets were used to put numbers behind the perceived returns and costs of cover crops. To get a larger sample size, they then conducted a regional online survey across several midwestern states. A state-wide mailed survey was also sent to producers in Iowa who indicated they planted at least 10 acres of cover crops in the 2012 Census of Agriculture. In response to criticism of the state-wide survey results, Plastina conducted surveys in other states and a study in Iowa that assessed net returns based on experimental data.

Plastina encouraged webinar attendees to use two tools to create their own partial budgets and see the expected economic benefits and costs of cover crops in their operations:

To learn more about the economics of cover crops, watch the full webinar!

Join us on Wednesday, March 31 at noon, for the webinar, “When, Where and Why Soil Erosion Occurs and When, Where and How Do We Control It” with Rick Cruse, professor at Iowa State University and director of the Iowa Water Center.

Hilary Pierce

Cropping System Diversification is a Path to Greater Sustainability

The Iowa Learning Farms webinar on Wednesday featured results of a long-term study on the impacts of cropping system diversification at the Iowa State University (ISU) Marsden Farm. Dr. Matt Liebman, professor of agronomy and H. A. Wallace Chair for Sustainable Agriculture at ISU, shared the results of this study, which indicate that diversification of conventional corn-soybean systems with small grains and forage legumes, coupled with integration with livestock production, has many benefits. Cropping system diversification can allow for large reductions in the use of fertilizers and herbicides and lead to less environmental damage, equivalent profitability, improved soil quality, and higher crop productivity.

This study at the Marsden Farm involved a two-year rotation of corn-soybean and four-year rotation of corn-soybean-oat/alfalfa-alfalfa that was coupled with the integration of manure fertilizer. All of the phases of each rotation are present every year, so each phase is affected by the same weather conditions and other factors each year. Baseline sampling was completed in 2001 and 2002, with the mature period of the study occurring from 2006 to present. From 2008 – 2019, the four-year rotation showed an 85% reduction in mean annual nitrogen fertilizer use and a 50% reduction in mean annual herbicide use, compared to the two-year rotation.

In addition to the reduced fertilizer and herbicide inputs, the four-year rotation also had higher yields of corn and soybean compared to the two-year rotation. Another benefit of the diverse rotation was seen in 2010 when soybean sudden death syndrome was prevalent, due to the infestation of a soil-borne fungus that affects soybean roots and sends a toxin up to the leaves. Yield losses can be severe from this disease. It was observed that the soybean crop in the four-year rotation in 2010 was healthier than the soybean in the two-year rotation that year. This indicates that the diverse cropping system contributed to lower incidence and severity of the disease in the four-year rotation soybean crop.

The diverse rotation reduced costs and did not affect crop profitability during the study. Another benefit of the four-year rotation was decreased soil resistance to penetration, which allows corn roots to more quickly penetrate the soil to access water and nutrients. Models were used to evaluate other environmental effects and found that diversification reduced fossil energy use, pollution, and damage to human health related to air quality.

To learn more about this research project and the benefits of cropping system diversification, watch the full webinar!

Join us next week, on Wednesday, March 17 at noon, for the webinar “Incorporating Conservation Practices Into Your Farm Lease,” presented by Charles Brown, farm management specialist, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.

Hilary Pierce

Conservation Learning Lab: Implementation of Cover Crops at Small Watershed Scale

Matt Helmers, director, Iowa Nutrient Research Center, shared the results of three years of water quality monitoring data after cover crop implementation during the Iowa Learning Farms webinar on Wednesday. The Conservation Learning Lab (CLL) project, started in 2016, posed the question, “Can high levels of cover crop implementation and reduced tillage be obtained on a small watershed scale, and water quality improvement documented accordingly?” The project focused on small watersheds—between 500 and 1,300 total acres in size.

Two pilot watersheds were chosen in Floyd County and Story County. These watersheds were chosen based on their size and that they had existing Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) wetlands that provided baseline water quality monitoring data. This allowed for the comparison of water quality before and after conservation practice implementation and to a similarly sized control watershed that did not implement conservation practices. The figures above show the adoption of cover crops and strip-tillage in the two pilot watersheds for the CLL project.

The results of the study indicated that, to date, there has not been a noticeable reduction in nutrient loss at the small watershed scale due to the implementation of cover crops within the watershed. This may be because the entire watershed area was not treated with cover crops and a higher rate of adoption may yield noticeable water quality benefits. There may also be some lag time between implementation and noticeable results, which emphasizes the importance of continuing to monitor the results over several years. Growth of the cover crops is another factor that may impact the water quality benefits, as shown in other research, and may be the critical factor in this study. Some fields in the study were seeded with rye, while others were seeded with oats and it expected that oats will have less of an impact on water quality.

To learn more about this project, watch the full webinar!

Join us next week, on Wednesday, March 10 at noon, for the webinar, “Cropping System Diversification is a Path to Greater Sustainability,” presented by Dr. Matt Liebman, professor of agronomy and H. A. Wallace Chair for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University (ISU).

Hilary Pierce

March 3 Webinar: Conservation Learning Lab: Implementation of Cover Crops at Small Watershed Scale

The impact of cover crop implementation on water quality in two small watersheds is the topic of the Iowa Learning Farms webinar on Wednesday, March 3.  

During this webinar, Matt Helmers, director, Iowa Nutrient Research Center, will highlight three years of water quality monitoring data after cover crop implementation. The Conservation Learning Lab project, started in 2016, posed the question, “Can high levels of cover crop implementation and reduced tillage be obtained on a small watershed scale, and water quality improvement documented accordingly?” The project focused on small watersheds—between 500 and 1,300 total acres in size—and two pilot watersheds were chosen in Floyd County and Story County.

The watersheds were chosen for their size and existing Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) wetlands that provided baseline water quality monitoring data. The continued monitoring allows for the comparison of water quality before and after conservation practice implementation and to a similarly sized control watershed that did not implement conservation practices.

“Water quality monitoring at the watershed scale is critical for documenting nutrient reduction from practice implementation,” said Helmers. “Seeing water quality improvement may take years.”

Helmers’ research focuses on agricultural water quality, including the impact of nutrient management, cropping practices, drainage design and management, and strategic placement of buffer systems on nutrient export in agricultural landscapes.

Webinar Access Instructions

To participate in the live webinar, shortly before 12 pm CST on March 3:

Click this URL, or type this web address into your internet browser: https://iastate.zoom.us/j/364284172

    Or, go to https://iastate.zoom.us/join and enter meeting ID: 364 284 172 

Or, join from a dial-in phone line:

    Dial: +1 312 626 6799 or +1 646 876 9923

    Meeting ID: 364 284 172

The webinar will also be recorded and archived on the ILF website, so that it can be watched at any time. Archived webinars are available at https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars.

A Certified Crop Adviser board-approved continuing education unit (CEU) has been applied for, for those who are able to participate in the live webinar. Information about how to apply to receive the credit will be provided at the end of the live webinar.

Hilary Pierce

Nutrient Retention Capacity of Newly Restored Wetlands in Southwestern Ontario

During the webinar on Wednesday, Bryan Page, research biologist with Ducks Unlimited Canada, shared the first year of results investigating the nutrient retention capacity of newly restored wetlands in the Canadian portion of the Lake Erie watershed. In 2016, the US and Canada adopted a goal to reduce phosphorus in Lake Erie by 40% and wetlands were identified as natural infrastructure to help protect downstream water quality. The goal of this project was to assess the nutrient retention capacity of newly restored wetlands and provide a quantitative value to determine if wetland restoration should be used as a best management practice to help restore and protect Lake Erie water quality.

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This project measured all of the phosphorus and nitrogen species, rather than just total phosphorus and nitrogen, to allow for a greater understanding of nutrient retention and how biologically available the nutrients that were not retained are. Some species are more biologically available than others, making it important to consider the species when assessing nutrient retention capacity. The project assessed eight newly restored wetlands in southwestern Ontario, which had an average age of 4 years, average basin area of 0.33 hectares, and average contributing area of 16.4 hectares.

To learn more about this project and the first year results, including a breakdown of the different phosphorus species, watch the full webinar!

Join us next week, on Wednesday, February 24, for the webinar “Silvo-what?: Exploring Opportunities for Livestock with Silvopasture Management” with Ashley Conway, PhD, PAS, assistant research professor at the University of Missouri Center for Agroforestry.

Hilary Pierce

February 17 Webinar: Nutrient Retention Capacity of Newly Restored Wetlands in Southwestern Ontario

The Iowa Learning Farms webinar on Wednesday, February 17, will highlight research being done on the nutrient retention capacity of newly restored wetlands in Ontario, Canada.

Wetlands have been identified as natural infrastructure to help protect downstream water quality. However, wetland drainage has resulted in widespread loss of wetlands across the rural working landscape of southwestern Ontario, Canada. Bryan Page, research biologist with Ducks Unlimited Canada, will report on the first year of results investigating the nutrient retention capacity of newly restored wetlands in the Canadian portion of the Lake Erie watershed.

“In settled areas of Canada, up to 70% of our wetlands have already been destroyed or degraded. As they continuous to disappear, so too do the many benefits they provide,” said Page. “Newly restored wetlands retain nutrients on the landscape and help protect our lakes.”

Page received his B.Sc. majoring in Environmental Science and his M.Sc. in Chemistry both at the University of Manitoba. Since he joined Ducks Unlimited Canada’s Institute for Wetland and Waterfowl Research in 2008, his research has focused on the behavior of nutrients in restored, constructed, and intact wetlands across the prairie pothole region and southwestern Ontario.

Webinar Access Instructions

To participate in the live webinar, shortly before 12 pm CST on February 17:

Click this URL, or type this web address into your internet browser: https://iastate.zoom.us/j/364284172

    Or, go to https://iastate.zoom.us/join and enter meeting ID: 364 284 172 

Or, join from a dial-in phone line:

    Dial: +1 312 626 6799 or +1 646 876 9923

    Meeting ID: 364 284 172

The webinar will also be recorded and archived on the ILF website, so that it can be watched at any time. Archived webinars are available at https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars.

A Certified Crop Adviser board-approved continuing education unit (CEU) has been applied for, for those who are able to participate in the live webinar. Information about how to apply to receive the credit will be provided at the end of the live webinar.

Hilary Pierce

The Iowa State Rural Drinking Water Survey: Some Preliminary Results and Insights

A survey about rural Iowa’s drinking water quality was the topic of the Iowa Learning Farms webinar on Wednesday. Gabriel Lade, assistant professor of economics, Macalester College, shared information about the survey and some of the preliminary results.

The survey asked rural residents about how they use their well water, any filtering or testing behavior, and their perception of local water quality. Another part of the study is to test whether water quality information can influence these behaviors and perceptions, which was done by sending some residents of the surveyed counties nitrate test strips and information on how to get more accurate testing done. The participants willingness to pay for water quality information was also assessed by offering participants a choice between receiving four nitrate test strips or a cash payment of either $2, $5, or $10.

The study was carried out in 14 rural Iowa counties that are in located in regions that have shown high levels of nitrate in groundwater, as shown above. Iowa is a global leader in agricultural production, but there are nutrient impairments in many areas of the state and little is known about the water quality of rural residents who use private wells, which are not regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Lade shared some preliminary results from the surveys, including information about respondents’ well age and depth, how they use their well water, how frequently they have their well water tested, and if they use a filter. He also shared some information on how respondents valued water quality information, by reporting how many respondents opted to receive nitrate test strips instead of a cash payment of $2, $5, or $10. The study was recently completed, so more analysis will need to be done.

To learn more about this study, some preliminary results, and the next steps that will be taken, watch the full webinar here!

Join us next week, on Wednesday, February 3 at noon, for the webinar “Electricity as Weed Management for the Future” with Levi Lyle, a Washington County farmer.

Hilary Pierce

January 27 Webinar: The Iowa State Rural Drinking Water Survey: Some Preliminary Results and Insights

The Iowa Learning Farms webinar on Wednesday, January 27 at noon will feature preliminary results from a survey about rural Iowa’s drinking water quality.

Among the greatest challenges associated with annual row crop production in the region are its impacts on water quality.  Little is known about the degree to which rural residents are exposed to unsafe drinking water, what efforts rural residents take to avoid possible exposure, and how information provision might improve the welfare of rural residents.

Gabriel Lade, assistant professor of economics, Macalester College, will present preliminary results from a drinking water survey aiming to fill this knowledge gap and discuss future research directions.

“Residents across midwestern states have raised important questions related to the quality of their drinking water. Surveys like this represent one of the best tools we have to learn more about these concerns and the value of public policies that aim to improve rural residents’ lives,” said Lade. “The biggest preliminary takeaway from our findings is that we need to better inform residents about the importance of testing their water quality.”

Lade is an applied economist, studying environmental policies and pollution in the agricultural and energy sectors.

Webinar Access Instructions

To participate in the live webinar, shortly before 12 pm CST on January 27:

Click this URL, or type this web address into your internet browser: https://iastate.zoom.us/j/364284172

    Or, go to https://iastate.zoom.us/join and enter meeting ID: 364 284 172 

Or, join from a dial-in phone line:

    Dial: +1 312 626 6799 or +1 646 876 9923

    Meeting ID: 364 284 172

The webinar will also be recorded and archived on the ILF website, so that it can be watched at any time. Archived webinars are available at https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars.

Hilary Pierce