The Goat Effect: A reflection on creative ways to bring more people to the conservation table

2018_AdamDSCN9843During my first full year in extension, I spent a lot of time at field days. There’s a constant debate among folks that organize field days about the recipe for a successful event. Timing matters. So does location. Advertising and promotional efforts make a difference. And of course food—everyone knows that free food fills seats. But I learned at a field day last August that goats also turn out a crowd.

2018_Adam_buckthorn_textThe Clear Lake Watershed Project is working with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources at McIntosh Woods State Park on the north shore of the lake to improve runoff from the park into the project’s namesake. Exotic invasive woody shrubs like European buckthorn have changed the structure of the forest vegetation in the park in a way that negatively impacts everything from wildlife to water quality. A wide variety of methods are being employed throughout the state to fight these invasions, including the one on display that day in Clear Lake: goat grazing.


As I drove to the field day to provide remarks about the threat invasive species pose for forest health and wildlife habitat, I was admittedly skeptical about the prospects for turnout at a field day that seemed to have a rather narrow focus. My skepticism was unfounded. Over 50 people from all different walks of life showed up that evening to learn about the watershed project, the challenges facing the lake and its surrounding forests, and, the star of the show, the goats. There were farmers, business people from the city, community leaders, retirees, kids, and forest landowners, all at the table together talking and learning about conservation.

Moving goats in McIntosh State Park. Credit: The CLEAR Project

That evening, we just had fun with the group, watching the goats and talking about the project and what it hopes to accomplish. As I drove back that night and in the time since the event, I’ve thought a lot more about how unique the night was. The diversity in the crowd. The number of topics we covered. The interest and engagement in the project from across a wide berth of the community the Clear Project seeks to engage. It seems the novelty of the topic appealed across this wide cross section of people, piqued an interest and led to conversations and learning in a way that felt different from many other field days I’ve attended.

A video from the perspective of a grazing goat in McIntosh Woods State Park in 2016

Now, I should say, the other ingredients at the field day were just right too: great weather, solid planning and advertisement, and of course, that all-important ingredient for a successful field day, food. On the menu that night: baked beans, fruit, and goat burgers. The latter was a surprise to attendees and drove home a key lesson. That is, we’re all in this together, working within the agricultural system to bring positive changes to the landscape while growing food and ensuring healthy soil, farms, habitat, and water for the future.

Adam Janke

Adam Janke is an Iowa Learning Farms team member, Assistant Professor in Natural Resources Ecology and Management and Extension Wildlife Program Specialist at Iowa State University.

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

Get Your Requests in for the Conservation Station Today!

If you have a summer camp, county fair, farmers market or other community event in need of unique and educational entertainment, look no further than the Conservation Station. We are currently accepting requests for community events in June, July and August 2017.

The Conservation Station brings with it a multitude of activities that educate and inspire children, adults and families to think deeper about the world around them. Our rainfall simulator demonstrates the impacts of land management choices on water quality. Our hands-on, interactive activities and games emphasize that, if everyone does their part, we can all make a difference in water quality in Iowa and beyond.

Do you want to include the Conservation Station in your summer camp, county fair, farmers market or other community event? Request the Conservation Station for your event this summer!

2016 Highlights: Summer Events Across Iowa 

Julie Whitson

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!


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.


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.


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


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

ILF Webinar Recap: talking Rivers and River Restoration!

Did you miss our latest webinar? Good news: all the Iowa Learning Farms webinars are available to watch (or to re-watch) here.

The latest webinar was a great one!  Rosalyn Lehman of Iowa Rivers Revival and the Iowa DNR’s River Programs Coordinator Nate Hoogeveen discuss rivers and river restoration.

Rosalyn and Nate are full of interesting information and bring with them photographs that do a fantastic job depicting the conditions and practices that Rosalyn and Nate describe.  By the end of this webinar, you’ll feel like you’ve traveled quite a few waterways and gained a vivid understanding of the challenges facing our rivers as well as the effort involved in restoring them.Interstate 94 Protection- After

Watch Rosalyn and Nate today! Any other webinars you missed? Take a look at the archive and see what you might be missing.

-Ben Schrag

How does your grass grow?

For many years, even decades, the norm has been to skim off topsoil from new construction sites, leaving landowners with yards composed largely of clay.  Current Iowa regulations,  enacted in 2012, require that builders return 4 inches of topsoil — in areas where there was at least 4 inches of topsoil in the first place —on tracts of an acre or more in certain Iowa cities, with the goals of reducing stormwater runoff and flooding.

The regulation has been under debate and has received much media attention, as summarized in the Quad-Cities Times and Cedar Rapids Gazette.

When presenting to the Advisory Board for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture back in June, Iowa Learning Farms program managers Jackie Comito and Matt Helmers were approached with a question of whether we could create two trays for our Conservation Station Rainfall Simulator, demonstating side-by-side one lawn with 4” of topsoil returned, and a second lawn with only the compacted clay layer.

Newly-created sod trays in June 2014 (C=Clay, T=Topsoil). Pictured below are the soils used to create each respective tray.

Student intern Lance Henrichs was tasked with creating the two trays in mid-June, one with a topsoil base and the second with a clay/sand base.  He then rolled pieces of sod on top of each one.  Henrichs observed, “The first time I put them in the Simulator, the top soil tray had much more infiltration than the clay-based tray.”

Fast forward two months, and the differences between the two trays are even more stark.   The quality of grass is very different between the two trays.   Ask any landowner who lives in an area where the topsoil was removed, and they’ll confirm that growing grass or a garden on clay alone is pretty tough!   The tray with topsoil also allows for water to infiltrate, while the compacted clay layer does not allow for any infiltration, forcing all rain water to run directly off the surface of the land.

Come see it for yourself at the Iowa State Fair!    Visit us in Farm Bureau Park, just off the Grand Concourse, from 9:30 – 5:00pm every day this week (9:30am – 2:00pm on Sunday).

Ann Staudt