Conservation Practice Showcase Showdown

Who would have thought that the best time of year to catch a field day would be in the beginning of August? The temperature when we started was in the low 80’s and by the time we finished it was in the mid 60’s. No bugs, no humidity… perfect. The turnout was also fantastic with over 60 in attendance.

DSC_2170The event was held at the Iowa State University Uthe Farm near Madrid, in partnership with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, and Iowa State University Research and Demonstration Farms. Attendees had the opportunity to tour four conservation practices installed at the farm.

Saturated Buffers

Tom Isenhart, ISU Natural Resource Ecology and Management Professor kicked things off. He spoke about the origins of the saturated buffer practice and how incredibly effective they are at removing nitrates from the water.

“We raise the water table so that the water soaks into the black soil, where all the microbes are. We are sending water into the stream that is much cleaner than when we received it.” ~Tom Isenhart

An attendee asks, “Is that why they are called saturated buffers?” Tom replies, “Exactly!”

Bioreactors

Michelle Soupir, ISU Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering Associate Professor, and Natasha Hoover, ISU Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering Research Associate, led the discussion on bioreactors. They talked about installation, costs and how they are experimenting with corn cob bioreactors.

“We have some pilot scale bioreactors that have been replaced with corn cobs. We know they work better, but there are still design questions about how long they last.” ~Michelle Soupir

They took a sample and used a nitrate test strip at the inlet and outlet of the bioreactor to see how effective it was at removing nitrate from the water. The results were quick – 25ppm at the inlet and 0ppm at the outlet.

Oxbows

Adam Janke, ISU Natural Resource Ecology and Management Assistant Professor and Extension Wildlife Specialist, and Sean McCoy, Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship Environmental Specialist, talked about how important oxbows are to water quality as well as habitat.

“Oxbows are an attempt to slow the water down to allow denitrification to take place. However, there is a secondary benefit to oxbows and that is the aesthetics and the wildlife.” ~Adam Janke

When asked what his dream species would be in the oxbow, Janke replied that it would probably be the Topeka Shiner.

Pollinator Habitat

As the sun began to set, Seth Appelgate with ISU Monarch Research Team, spoke to the importance of reestablishing pollinator habitat. He suggested that there were many areas that people mow that could be converted with minimal cost.

“Pollinator habitat is actually cheaper over the long run because you save time and money mowing it. It’s more attractive, covers a larger area and has diverse stands that help with water infiltration. Plus, monarchs need these areas.” ~Seth Appelgate

If you’re interested in learning more about bioreactors, saturated buffers or other conservation practices, check out our upcoming field days to see if there will be one near you!

Nathan Stevenson

A Beautiful Evening for Bioreactors

The rain stayed to our south and we ended up having a perfect evening to see Bob Floss’s bioreactors on Wednesday, July 31. Over 50 people joined Iowa Learning Farms, Iowa Corn and Iowa State Extension & Outreach to learn more about how bioreactors work, the installation process, and get a chance to chat with farmer Bob Floss and contractor Chris Herbold.

DSC_2101After enjoying dinner, attendees got a chance to learn about the basics of saturated buffers and bioreactors while viewing the models in the Conservation Station “On the Edge” trailer. These models help to show how these practices work and what’s going on under the ground surface because once a saturated buffer or bioreactor has been installed, you can only see the control structures for them. Field day participants were very interested in learning more about these practices and asked us some great questions. To learn more about these practices, check out these saturated buffer and bioreactor infographics from Iowa State Extension & Outreach.

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DSC_2118Chris Herbold, the contractor who installed the bioreactors in the spring of 2018, was also on hand to answer specific questions about installation process. He explained that it took them about three days to do the first bioreactor, the first one he had installed, but that they learned throughout the process and were able to install the second bioreactor in about a day and a half. Herbold joked that he and his crew will be very busy for years to come, and may be able to get their installation time down even further, due to the large number of bioreactors that are needed to meet Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy goals.

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Attendees were curious about how the stop logs in the control structure worked and how often Floss and Herbold had to go out to check the bioreactors. They explained that they were checking and adjusting the water level about once a week during spring snow melt, but need to do so less frequently now. They were also excited to share that they have been using nitrate test strips and have been seeing impressive nitrate reductions from the inlet to the outlet of the bioreactor, when they remember their glasses, that is!

If you’re interested in learning more about bioreactors or other conservation practices, check out our upcoming field days to see if there will be one near you!

Hilary Pierce

“Hey dad, why don’t we…?”

ILFHeaderI amIMG_4902 a farmer’s daughter. Having lived on a farm my whole life, agriculture has always been my passion. This passion was given to me by my dad. From the time I could walk, you could find me out “helping” feed the cattle, riding (more like napping) in the tractor/combine, or running errands around town with my dad. As I have grown up, I became more involved in the daily activities of the farm. I have learned so much from my dad, but I also have so much more to learn. My dad utilizes some different conservation practices on the farm including cover crops, water ways, crop rotations, and no-till. He has taught me the importance of taking care of the land that God has given us and keeping it productive for the next generation.

My dad has heard me say “Hey dad, why don’t we do this?” “Have you ever thought about doing this?” “Why do we do this this way?” over the past year I have gone off to college. Since starting this internship, there are many things I have noticed we could do on the farm to improve the soil and water quality. My current goal is to get my dad talked into planting a prairie strip where we currently have a waterway that is not mowed for hay. This native prairie strip would be full of wildflowers for pollinators and a great habitat for pheasants!

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Watching a saturated buffer get installed at the Fawcett Farm field day on June 6th.

The other thing I think would be beneficial to the farm is a saturated buffer strip along a creek on one of our fields. While these things are very beneficial for water quality, I understand that they do take time and money to implement, even with cost share available for these things.

Coming from an agriculture background has benefited me in this internship. I am not only able to look at the environmental impacts of sustainable practices but also how they affect the farmers and landowners that implement them. Farmers and landowners are in a very interesting spot when it comes to using environmentally sustainable practices. They are stuck between using what they know works and change.

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Attending a field day about cover crops in Adams County on July 9th.

Change is scary, especially when you could be risking the ability of break even over total costs. For example, adding cover crops into your rotation can be beneficial in reducing compaction, erosion, and pesticide usage. But these benefits might not be seen right away so it can be easy to give up when those results are not seen quickly. Another example of how a farmer might be “stuck” is chemical pesticide usage. Pesticide one of the eight main water pollutants in the state of Iowa. But pesticides are something that farmers need in order to protect their crop yield from pests. This internship has helped me talk with farmers, and non-farmers alike, about what can be improved on and why farmers do what they do.

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Teaching students about a watershed and how what we do on land can affect the quality of our water.

My time as an intern has allowed me to apply what I have learned while talking to students, peers, and community members. It has also taught me much more about soil and water quality that I have been able to bring back to the farm. As someone who wants to take over the farm someday, I want to make sure that it is still there for me to come back to.

 

 

Ashley Armstrong is participating in the 2019 Water Resources Internship Program at Iowa State University.  Armstrong grew up near Montezuma and is attending Dordt College majoring in Agriculture Education. 

Discovering My Passion

ILFHeader(15-year)IMG_4905This is my second summer working with Water Rocks! and Iowa Learning Farms, my first being the summer of 2017. There have been a few moments throughout this summer that made me realize how much I have changed since I first began my internship here two years ago.

Back when I started, I had just changed majors to become a biosystems engineering major, and I was set that I was going to do the bioprocessing/biofuels track. Through my experience with the water resources internship, I found what I really wanted to do, which was working with water quality and other environmental issues.

When I first began the internship, I knew nothing about agriculture, water quality issues, or anything about what I wanted to do in the future. Now, besides the knowledge and experience I have gained through my education and my internships, I also have some solid ideas about what I want to do.

I realized this very recently through two very different workdays.

The first was field work we did for the monarch butterfly survey. We had to trudge through thick, soggy grass taller than me and fight off mosquitos and ticks while looking for milkweed plants in CRP fields. It was miserable, annoying, and painful, but also somehow fun! It was cool to learn how to identify the different species of milkweed, and it was a great feeling when you finally found a plant while walking in circles in chest tall grass for what seemed like hours (even though it was probably 5 minutes).

Monarch MonitoringIt was simultaneously one of the most fun and most miserable days of the summer. And with the help of an entire can of bugs pray, I’m still here! If you had asked me at the beginning of the summer 2 years ago to do that, I’m not sure what I would have done. I do know that I would have had a much worse attitude about it, and that I would not have had any fun whatsoever. I think that represents one way that I have grown, which is to be better at taking things as they come and dealing with it. I think is a very valuable attitude to have in the environmental field, because nothing ever goes as planned when it comes to nature.

The other day was one where I had to present the Conservation Station On the Edge trailer at a field day in NW Iowa. I had been on field days like this before, but with a staff member, and so I had heard this being presented but had never done it myself. I was nervous about doing this myself, because I was worried that I would get questions I couldn’t handle or forget to mention something important. I knew that I had learned a lot of this stuff through coursework and the internship, but I somehow felt that I still wasn’t prepared. But everything went well. I presented the models and information for both the saturated buffer and woodchip bioreactor, and it seemed like I was keeping the audience’s attention.

When it got to time to ask questions, I was nervous, but as they came, I found myself naturally answering them. It turns out, shockingly, that I learned something in college. I think that a major reason that I was nervous for grad school was that somehow, I felt that I wasn’t ready, and that I had managed to fake my way through college. That presentation was one of the first times that I felt confident in what I had learned and my ability to explain it to someone effectively. This has given me a lot of confidence for the future. Going from not knowing a thing about this field two years ago all the way to explaining edge of field practices to landowners is quite a jump, and something that I’m proud of.

Water Rocks! and ILF have really shaped my educational career, and it is an experience that I will take with me and remember for a long time.

Andrew Hillman is participating in the 2019 Water Resources Internship Program at Iowa State University.  Hillman grew up in Bettendorf and graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in Biosystems Engineering. He is off to North Carolina State University to pursue a graduate degree in the fall.

A Challenge for the New Year

CLGHeaderJamie Benning | Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Water Quality Program Manager

Late last month, farm advisors, consultants, agronomists and farmers gathered for the 30th annual Integrated Crop Management Conference.  Over these years, participants have been able to choose from well over 100 sessions on the latest research and recommendations for soil management and water quality from the field to watershed scale. Since the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (INRS) was introduced in 2013, there have been additional sessions focused on reducing nitrate-nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) loss.

ICM 2018This year, Matt Helmers, Mark Licht and I led two interactive sessions with about 60 participants each with the objectives of reinforcing the goals of the NRS, discussing specific practices and their costs and effectiveness, and encouraging dialogue and deeper thinking about the challenges to meeting these goals. We used an online tool called Kahoot and participants responded to each question anonymously using their smartphones.

The groups did a great job identifying the major sources of nitrate-N and P loss from agricultural systems and selecting practices that will most effectively reduce loss within the field and at the edge of field.  This is positive feedback for ISU Extension, Iowa Learning Farms, and many other agriculture and conservation organizations that have developed and delivered outreach and professional development opportunities for this audience over the past five years.

Understanding and ranking cost effectiveness was a bit more challenging for the group, indicating that we need to double down on our outreach and education on recent research and scenarios to better reinforce this information as it is critical for decision-making.

As we moved into discussing the challenges of reaching the INRS goals, one of the discussion questions asked the participants to identify THE major barrier to adopting wetlands, saturated buffers, and bioreactors, three major edge-of-field nitrate-N reduction practices.  The four options we gave the groups are four very common barriers to adopting practices:

  1. Costs are too high
  2. It is too time consuming to work with agencies to install practices
  3. Landowner-tenant relationships are challenging
  4. Farmers and landowners are not feeling a sense of urgency to install these practices.

I was very surprised that 38% of both groups selected the lack of a sense of urgency as the top barrier to adoption. 

The costs of practice installation came in nearly tied with 33% selecting it as the top barrier. In discussions with similar groups and with conservation colleagues, I hear the cost limitations much more frequently, especially in the past few years of low commodity prices, along with the other two choices.  In response to the other three barriers, significant outreach and incentive programs have been developed and modified to address these concerns. Farmers’ sense of urgency is rarely discussed.

The response to this question caused me to reflect on how our outreach programs may be influencing this lack of urgency.  Leaders agree that we have measured increases in funding and technical assistance, the number of learning opportunities available to farmers, landowners and stakeholders, acres of implemented practices and many other indicators of progress but that we have a huge amount of work yet to do to reduce the size of the hypoxic zone.  The Hypoxia Task Force has set an interim goal of a 20% load reduction in both nitrate-N and P by 2025 and a 45% reduction by 2035.


river restorationMy goal for the New Year is to bring the timelines front and center to convey that the INRS, while voluntary, is not optional and we need to increase our efforts.  I also want to illustrate the relationship between reducing the size of the Gulf Hypoxic Zone and local drinking water quality protection, better habitat and quality of life that result from cleaner rivers and lakes, and the economic development opportunities for small businesses that design and install conservation practices, grow and sell cover crop seed, and beginning farmers seeking to grow their pasture-based livestock operations.

As you reflect on the 2018 growing season and think about goals for next year, I challenge you to set at least one goal related to improving the water quality leaving your farm.  To increase the chances that you will achieve this goal, write it down and talk to someone about it!

Here are a few draft goals to get you started:

  • Stop by your Soil and Water Conservation District office and meet with your local watershed coordinator, they may have financial and technical assistance opportunities for you
  • If you have tile on your farm and have easy access to an outlet, start measuring nitrate-N leaving in the tile.  There are several programs available to help you with tile monitoring, call 515-294-6038 or email me, benning@iastate.edu, and I can help you get started
  • Set a time to meet with farmers in your area that have tried cover crops to discuss their experiences and learn from them
  • Set an appointment with your NRCS District Conservationist to review your conservation plan and discuss changes that could be made to improve water and soil quality

To demonstrate to the public that the voluntary system can work, acres of cover crops, numbers of wetlands, bioreactors, and saturated buffers, acres of no-till and many other practices all need to increase sharply over the next few years.  Making one of the commitments I listed or setting your own unique water quality goal will lead to water quality improvement and may make your farm more profitable in the process.

Jamie Benning

A Legacy of Conservation

Conservation is a legacy that runs generations deep with the Whitaker family. Go back 165 years, and there were Whitakers farming this same ground, now recognized as a Heritage Farm, in southeast Iowa.

As nearly 50 farmers and landowners gathered in Hillsboro earlier this week for a conservation field day, area farmer Clark Whitaker shared the importance of conservation to the family over the years, and how that has carried through to their farming operation today. His father had been a district conservationist with the Soil Conservation Service in the 1970s, brother John has been actively involved with conservation through USDA-FSA and Conservation Districts of Iowa, and today Clark is the “boots on the ground” guy making conservation happen on their land.

Clark commented, “The land needs to be cared for and maintained.  Part of that care is trying to keep the soil on the farm instead of road ditches and waterways.”

Back in the 1970s, that meant installing broadbase terraces. In the 1980s, the Whitakers’ conservation focus transitioned to no-till. Today, the Whitakers’ approach to conservation includes variable rate technology, prescription planting, cover crops, and they have also recently installed a saturated buffer to help reduce nitrate levels in drainage water.

Cover crops were the main focus at the Hillsboro field day, where Clark shared that his goals in using cover crops are two-fold: keeping the soil in place, while also raising levels of organic matter in their soils. He has experimented with cereal rye, oats, and radishes thus far.

For best results with cover crops, Clark made several recommendations to the group based on his experience in southeast Iowa:

To learn more about cover crops and how to integrate them into your farming operation, check out Cover Crop Videos and Cover Crop Resources on the Iowa Learning Farms website.

Ann Staudt

This field day was a partnership of Iowa Learning Farms, Lower Skunk Water Quality and Soil Health Initiative, and Henry County Soil and Water Conservation District.

Every practice has its place

As we consider water quality and land use across our state, every practice has its place. Which conservation practices and land use changes make the most sense where in terms of keeping soil in place? In terms of reducing nutrient export? In terms of building wildlife habitat?

The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy’s goals of 45% nitrogen and phosphorus load reductions will only be achieved through a broad suite of practices – including in-field management (reduced tillage, cover crops, and fine-tuned nutrient management) AND edge-of-field conservation practices.  It’s an AND, not an OR!

Farmers and landowners from Dallas and Polk Counties got to see and learn about edge-of-field conservation practices firsthand at last evening’s Iowa Learning Farms field day hosted by Dallas Center farmer Tim Minton. Located in the Walnut Creek Watershed, this area faces unique challenges being at the interface of productive agricultural lands and urban expansion. Walnut Creek Watershed is losing 430 acres of farmland each year to urban development, while clean, healthy waters are needed for an ever-growing population base.



At the end of the day, it’s all about being good stewards out here. How well can we keep that soil in place?  How can we keep the water resources clean?  I’m really taking the long view here – What’s it going to do next year? 5 years down the road? 10 years? 20 years? When it’s in my kids’ hands?  It’s definitely a long-term approach. Tim Minton, Farmer

If you want to protect your investment, you’re got to put money back into it. Working with partners (NRCS and state) is a great way to do that. They want it to be win-win – ease of use and ease of execution. They can help you think outside the box, plus use their resources and expertise to help you do these things you want to do! Practices like these [saturated buffer and wetland] are in our best interest, AND in the best interest of society. Tim Minton, Farmer

I’ve been on this neighboring land for over 70 years. Back in the 1940s-50s, we would go down to the creek and it was always muddy. There were no minnows. You couldn’t see anything – didn’t matter if there had just been a heavy rain or no rain at all. When this [wetland] got put in, right away, it looked just like tap water. – Neighbor Jim

It’s all about finding the right practice for the right place. At just a 40% nitrate removal efficiency, this 5.7 ac wetland is equivalent to taking 567 acres of cropland out of production. PLUS the grasses and emergent vegetation provide wildlife habitat – it’s a definite magnet for waterfowl. It’s really beneficial for the ecology of the whole system!
– Brandon Dittman, IDALS

Every practice has its place, and we’ll continue showcasing these practices at field days and workshops across the state. Contact Iowa Learning Farms if you’re interested in talking about edge-of-field conservation practices on your land!

Nathan Stevenson and Ann Staudt