Back in the seeding saddle again!

IMG_1668We were busy last week seeding our cover crop mixture project sites for the sixth year.  We are continuing the plots at three of our sites to take a closer look at the common nightcrawler, Lumbricus terrestris, as a biological indicator of soil health.

Between the storms, we were able to seed oats and a mixture of oats, hairy vetch and radish into the soybeans. We also seeded rye and a mixture of rye, radish and rapeseed into the standing corn to cover this fall but also next spring ahead of soybeans. This is a perfect example of using an overwintering cover crop species like cereal rye to #CoverYourBeans!

Many thanks to Emily Waring, Taylor Kuehn and Maddie Tusha for all your help!

IMG_20180828_111053-ANIMATION

Liz Juchems

Tea Bags Tell Story of Soil Health

Soil health is trending, there’s no doubt about that! But perhaps expensive soil tests aren’t your cup of tea.

Look no further than the Soil Decomposition Index: a simple, straightforward, citizen science approach to evaluating soil health that utilizes buried tea bags. Learn more about this novel approach to soil health from Dr. Marshall McDaniel, assistant professor of agronomy at Iowa State University, in his recent Iowa Learning Farms webinar titled Burying Tea to Dig Up Soil Health.

Microbes are the engines that drive the biology of our soils, especially the cycling of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur. Under the umbrella of soil health, McDaniel points out that biological indicators are the most sensitive to changing management practices, so this tea bag concept is built upon evaluating one aspect of the biology going on right beneath our feet.

The tea serves as food for the smallest soil microorganisms, including bacteria, actinomycetes, and fungi, that are able to squeeze through the tiny openings in the mesh tea bag. As the tea is consumed over time, the bags are dug up and weighed, providing an indication of the biological activity within the soil, particularly the decomposition activity of the smallest soil organisms.

In each field, McDaniel’s team is comparing two types of teas side-by-side: green tea, which simulates a high quality (low C:N) residue, and rooibos tea, which simulates a lower quality (high C:N, nitrogen-limited) residue. Based on how much of each tea is remaining, you can calculate a Soil Decomposition Index value.  Values range from 0 to 1, and the closer to 1, the healthier the soil is! Using two teas side-by-side lets you calculate a standardized Soil Decomposition Index value which accounts for temperature and soil moisture variability, as well as allowing results to be readily compared between different sites – so you can compare apples to apples.

Check out the full webinar, Burying Tea to Dig Up Soil Health, on the Iowa Learning Farms webinars page, to hear more details of this novel soil health test and preliminary results from on-farm studies evaluating the Soil Decomposition Index with cover crops.

For those active on Twitter, you can follow the McDaniel lab, @ Soil_Plant_IXNs, as they continue to evaluate this unique tea bag concept and many other aspects related to soil-plant interactions and agricultural sustainability.

Ann Staudt

August Webinar – Exploring Soil Health Through Tea Decomposition

On Wednesday, August 15th at noon Dr. Marshall McDaniel, assistant professor in soil-plant interactions at Iowa State University, will explore the decomposition of tea as a low-cost, scientifically-robust soil health indicator.

tea bag soil health studyThe term ‘Soil Health’ has recently become popular due, in large part, to the increased awareness of the importance of soil biology.  However, current biological soil health tests are expensive, highly variable, and difficult to interpret. Dr. McDaniel studies the relationship between soils and plants, and how this relationship is affected by management and the environment. The McDaniel Research Group’s ultimate goal is to understand what enhances soil-plant synergy, soil health, and agroecosystem sustainability.  One thrust of the research is using decomposition of tea bags as an inexpensive, yet scientifically-robust, indicator of soil health.

“Increasing soil health is not only good for the environment, but also for the bottom line through increased yields and decreased money spent on farm inputs,” commented Dr. McDaniel. “Citizen Science is a great way to educate and engage farmers in measuring their own soil health, and also help to inform professional scientists’ understanding of soil health.”

DATE: Wednesday, August 15
TIME: 12:00 p.m.
HOW TO PARTICIPATE: www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars and click the link to join the webinar

Don’t miss this webinar! More information about this webinar is available at our website. If you can’t watch the webinar live, an archived version will be available on our website: https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars.

Liz Juchems

Every Little Bit Counts

What do you know about earthworms? Before this internship, I knew a few basics: they’re useful for fishing and they live underground. But, what do these small creatures have to do with water quality and soil health? It turns out that they are very good indicators. Today I’m going to touch more on our most recent project for this summer, earthworm counting, and how it has shown me that every little bit of information counts.

Before we start each research project, the other interns and I all sit down with our supervisors and discuss what the projects are and how we’re supposed to go about them. When this project was presented to us, I was more than a bit skeptical about how this could help us. So far, through the two weeks of earthworm counting that we have completed, that skepticism I originally had has faded away.

LEFT: I am looking for the middens within the area of our research point. RIGHT: Cutting the cover crop and removing residue to find the middens.

Earthworm counting is exactly what it sounds like. We head to test plots all over the state to take a look at the number of earthworms within a 19” x 30” frame between the rows of crops, corn or soybeans. We count the middens, the tops of the worms’ holes where the organic matter is pulled into the tunnel, closely examining the soil surface looking for the mounds they leave behind. When we think we found one, we dig with a pair of scissors to look at the underside of the midden and find the tunnel. The main variable that we look at is cover crops – are there observable differences in the number of earthworms between strips with cover crops and those without? Earthworms are very good for our soil and the more we have, the better the soil health of that area is.

One of our other interns, Kaleb, found a midden while we were at a farm in southwest Iowa.

The last time that I went home, my cousin, who is in 6th grade, asked me what some of the projects were that I was working on and I told her that I was doing earthworm counting. She didn’t sound very impressed when that’s what I told her, so I decided to have her complete the experiment herself at home. After about a week of testing the fields at home I had my cousin tell me any conclusions that she came up with. She told me that in the places with cover crops, the number of earthworms was higher than places with no cover crops — which is the same exact results we have been getting in the research plots across the state. But, that wasn’t all. To me, the best part about all of this was that I allowed a 6th grader to conduct an experiment that can provide important information about soil health in about 30 minutes of instructions.

Research can come from anywhere and anything and the impact it can have is limitless. It also appeals to me in that it allows for all generations to be involved with the same issues. You can have a 6th grader counting earthworms to find out more about soil health while at the same time you can have a farmer taking core samples to test for the same thing. Research is a big part of my internship, but it’s also a big part of the future. When understanding complex issues such as soil health, every little bit of information counts, and I’m super excited that I get to experience all of this research firsthand this summer!

Donovan Wildman

Donovan Wildman is participating in the 2018 Water Resources Internship Program at Iowa State University.  Wildman grew up near West Branch, IA (Clear Creek Amana High School). In the fall, he will be starting his sophomore year at Iowa State University, majoring in Agricultural Engineering with an emphasis in Land and Water Resources.

Field Day Recap: Management Matters with Cover Crops!

Cover crops and conservation leases were the theme of an Iowa Learning Farms Women Landowners Cover Crop Workshop held in Marshalltown on June 7.  While cover crops offer numerous benefits out on the landscape, one common theme emerged clearly from the workshop presentations and discussion  — it all comes down to active management when integrating a cover crop.

Allen Burt, who farms 3 miles north of Marshalltown, kicked off the workshop by sharing his experience with cover crops and some of his key management considerations.

He emphasized, “Start with something easy.”  In Burt’s playbook, that means getting oats out on soybean ground as soon as you can in September (drill or broadcast), let them winterkill, and then plant corn into that in the spring.

On corn ground, he suggests starting with cereal rye and a little bit of starter fertilizer (something like a 10-23-23 mix) after the corn is harvested, ideally in early October. The cereal rye will survive over the winter, and then Burt recommends terminating in the spring with glyphosate.

Burt’s recommendations align nicely with the Iowa Learning Farms’ findings, as well, shared at the workshop by Liz Juchems, Conservation Outreach Specialist.

Juchems also shared findings about yield impacts following cover crops. Farmer-partners working with cereal rye reported that in 59 of 63 site-years, strips with cover crops were yield neutral compared to strips without a cover crop – no negative impact on corn and soybean yields. The only significant yield declines were in the first two “learning” years of this long-term study, when producers faced challenges regarding spring termination and planter adjustments to accommodate the additional residue from the cover crop. Over time, those management challenges were overcome to realize cover crop success.

Interwoven with the presentations was an earthworm midden counting hands-on demonstration, as well as lively discussion and dialogue from the 25 people in attendance, including area landowners, operators, and conservation/ag professionals.

One producer in attendance brought up, “The #1 problem in farming today is soil erosion.”  Another producer added to that, commenting that a close second in terms of challenges today is the perception of “This is the way we’ve always done it,” acknowledging there can be some resistance to new practices like cover crops, despite the benefits to reducing erosion, benefitting soil structure, etc.

Charles Brown, Farm Management Specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, noted, “When you talk about using cover crops, it’s a different management practice – you can’t just do the same thing you’ve always done.”  He shared with the group his own experience with growing cover crops, as well as numerous suggestions for landowners and operators to work together to integrate cover crops into a written conservation lease.

Farmer Allen Burt emphasized, “As a producer, my message for you is, ‘Get out there and try it!  If you have the right attitude, you can do it! … Cover crops are a small investment to make things better in the long run.”

Ann Staudt

This workshop was put on as a partnership of Iowa Learning Farms and Marshall Co. Farm Bureau.

Learning about the Water Cycle – Across the Ocean!

During the first part of January, I had the opportunity to travel abroad before returning to the Water Rocks! team. As part of a lifelong dream realized, I took a class with the University of Iowa, called the India Winterim trip, and my section was focused on Water Poverty in Rural India. The class combined my favorite place on Earth (India) with my favorite topic on Earth (water quality). As an added bonus we had the opportunity to learn about strategies for dealing with saline soils from some of the smartest scientists in the field.

Our class partnered with an NGO called the Sehgal Foundation, a group who is doing a lot of work with rural communities in the Nu district (formerly the Mewat district) near New Delhi. While our class was there we had the incredible opportunity to help Sehgal do some wider scale sampling and design work with them.

Our team included Sehgal scientists, engineers and volunteers along with University of Iowa students and professors.

Sehgal serves as the Extension and Outreach department for this district and many others. They educate people on sustainable farming practices and seek to improve water quality for drinking and irrigation purposes.

Drip irrigation in a test plot by the Sehgal radio site.

Our team during the debrief of our tasks for the class. Photo courtesy of Amina Grant.

 I was excited to go out in the field and collect data because with a background in Environmental Science, I felt like I would be the most useful outside. I also wanted to be out in the 70 degree weather!

Our class exploring our site for the first time next to the Aravali Hills.

Being out in the field, I had the opportunity to work with Sehgal water monitors to locate sites and take water salinity samples. Sites were often a bit of a scavenger hunt as wells run dry during the years we are not there or become dysfunctional for a variety of reasons. We worked with the local water monitors to line up our sites to the ones they had been using as best as possible. Then we used a tool called the Solinst to measure water temperature, conductivity and depth.

Me, using the Solinst to take readings. Photo courtesy of Amina Grant.

We went out to the field on three different occasions. My classmates and I worked to efficiently sample as many sites as we could, while making sure we were being accurate about the sites we were testing. It really tested my coordination skills to try and pay attention to what everyone was doing and end up with usable data. I definitely gained some skills in data management because along with my conductivity readings, my friend and classmate Amina Grant had to collect her own samples and that required an entirely different set of numbers to be recorded.

Amina found a Daphnia (small water creature) in one of the wells she was testing. 

We were hoping our measurements would add to the body of knowledge Sehgal and the local volunteers have been building about the water over time. We understood that our measurements were only a small piece of the puzzle, but hopefully some answers can be gained as a result of our cumulative efforts.

Sehgal test plots provide alternative methods for sustainable agriculture in the region. In the back, you can see the drinking water filtration system.

The water challenges in the Nu district are different than ours because their main problem is poor water quality and soil quality due to salinity. But the same principles of hard work, long days, and an interdependency on the water cycle bind across oceans and cultures.

Megan Koppenhafer

 

It’s alive! Scientists get closer to identifying what lives in our soil

Iowa Learning Farms has been spreading the word about soil health, and its preservation, for over a decade, and Iowa farmers have long touted the benefits of soil health for crop growth. Now, the importance of soil is gaining an even wider audience when earlier this year researchers from the University of Colorado-Boulder published findings of a study leading to the first global atlas of soil bacterial communities.

Researchers at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at the University of Colorado-Boulder published their study in the January issue of the highly respected journal, Science. Analyzing 237 soil samples from eighteen countries across six continents of varying climates, the researchers discovered that 2% of soil bacteria—about 500 species—accounted for nearly half of the soil bacterial communities found worldwide!

Images of soil bacteria from the dominant Proteobacteria and Actinobacteria phylotypes courtesy of MicrobeWiki.

While scientists have long known that soil bacteria make up a substantial percentage of earth’s living biomass, contributing to plant productivity, carbon cycling, and nutrient availability, the immense numbers and diversity of soil bacteria (total counts are estimated to be in the tens of thousands!) have kept them from fully understanding soil bacterial distribution and function. The CIRES study is a major breakthrough in soil science as it documents the most abundant and dominant types of soil bacteria found worldwide.

CIRES researchers believe this discovery sets up a “most wanted list” of soil bacteria, as it points to which bacteria should be targeted in future studies seeking to understand soil microbes and their contribution to soil fertility and ecosystem functioning. The next step is to begin categorizing these dominant bacteria into groups of co-occurring bacteria and habitat preferences, resulting in data that the CIRES group hopes will shed more light on the function of certain groups of bacteria, eventually leading to agricultural applications.

The full journal article from Science can be viewed at A global atlas of the dominant bacteria found in soil.

Brandy Case Haub