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


Conservation Chat 38: Go Deep with Earthworms

WebEpisode 38 of the Conservation Chat digs in deep to talk about earthworms, why they matter, where they thrive and what they can tell us about soil health. The chat features two heavy-hitters of earthworm research related to cover crops: Ann Staudt who leads research on the relationship between night crawlers and cover crops with the Iowa Learning Farms and Dr. Tom Kaspar, a plant physiologist who is also considered to be “the grandfather of cover crop research” in Iowa.

To study earthworms, you must be able to count them. In the earthworm literature, there are four common ways that researchers have approached the counting of earthworms:

  1. Excavate an area of soil to find and count the earthworms
  2. Use a mustard solution or wasabi to chemically extract the earthworms, drawing them to the surface
  3. Apply an electrical current to the soil surface and electrically extract the earthworms, drawing them to the surface
  4. Count middens (well-defined clumpy mounds that an earthworm leaves behind on the soil surface). This is the only method of counting earthworms in which earthworms are not harmed!

Iowa Learning Farms took the latter route and decided to count middens (pictured on the left). Ann Staudt wanted to study whether there were observable differences in the population of nightcrawlers (a type of earthworm) in corn and soybean fields with and without a cereal rye cover crop. The research was completed in fields that had side-by-side cover crop and no cover crop strips. The research found that there were 38% more nightcrawlers in the strips that contained cover crops!


RyeThis research is unique, as very little research has been done about earthworm populations within corn and soybean systems. And, there is much more research that can be done related to earthworms in a corn and soybean system. Future research could include looking at cover crop growth related to earthworm populations, how earthworm populations may respond to different types of cover crop species and mixes, and even nutrient ability in a crop field related to earthworm tunnels, which some literature cites as “hot spots of nutrients.”

The podcast gets down to the heart of why earthworms matter. We often talk about why soil health is important, but it can take many years to detect indicators of soil health with current tests and methods. Ann Staudt suggests that earthworms may be a “reverse canary in the coal mine” for soil health:

“In some ways, it’s like a reverse canary in the coal mine. It’s showing us some of the positive benefits perhaps earlier than we’re seeing it in a lot of the other parameters that we’re trying to measure.”

There is one particularly unique benefit of earthworms that is not commonly considered. Dr. Kaspar explains:

“In [a no-till system], earthworms are basically tilling the soil for you. They’re creating these burrows or holes . . . the nightcrawler in particular is the only worm that produces a relatively vertical hole that goes from the surface down as deep as five or six feet, depending on the soil. . . Those holes allow water and air to enter the soil, which is really important and they provide a pathway for roots to go deeper into the soil.”

This last point is particularly important in a corn and soybean cropping system with tight spacing between plants. In order for crop roots to grow and have a greater ability to access water and available nutrients deeper into the soil profile, they must grow down. Earthworm tunnels can help crop roots do just that.

Listen to the most recent episode of the Conservation Chat with Ann Staudt and Dr. Tom Kaspar! You can now listen in a variety of ways:

Like the podcast? You can help us out by sharing with a friend! Do you agree that earthworms could be a mascot for life in our soil?

Julie Winter

Webinar highlights cover crop, water quality connections

In case you missed it, this past week’s Iowa Learning Farms webinar offered an excellent overview of the research findings related to the potential of winter cover crops to reduce nitrate leaching in corn and soybean cropping systems. Dr. Tom Kaspar, plant physiologist with the USDA-Agricultural Research Service, shared results from numerous studies that show the ability of cover crops to reduce nitrate concentrations and loads in tile drainage water.

The press headlines about nitrates and water quality are seemingly ubiquitous, and Kaspar provided solid data that help to paint a complete picture of the challenges and opportunities. Our land uses have changed dramatically, and over the past 60-70 years, our cropping systems have likewise changed dramatically with significant reductions in small grains, hay and perennial vegetation.  With corn and soybeans having a 7-month brown gap when they are not actively uptaking nutrients, that leaves a significant amount of time with nutrients vulnerable to leaching.

However, Kaspar’s research clearly demonstrates that cover crops help transition that brown gap to a green gap, providing the ability to “capture” nutrients in the soil that would otherwise be vulnerable to leaching loss. One of Kaspar’s long-term research studies in central Iowa found that rye cover crops in a corn-soybean cropping system reduced nitrate concentrations in tile drainage water by 57%. Additional studies by Kaspar and collaborators around the state found nitrate reductions of anywhere from 20% to 40%. This variability is expected, with different amounts of cover crop growth, weather, rainfall, soil types, tile systems, and field histories.

Kaspar also pointed out that it takes quite some time for nitrate to move through the system – there is a noticeable lag effect.  For instance, Kaspar and collaborators found that nitrate concentrations in subsurface tile drainage continued to decrease through the summer, long after spring cover crop termination.

Check out the full webinar, Lessons Learned from Using Cover Crops to Reduce Losses of Nitrate for 15 Years, on the Iowa Learning Farms webinar archives page.  And to hear more perspectives from Dr. Kaspar, tune in to Episode 06 of the Conservation Chat podcast!

Ann Staudt

Iowa Learning Farms Webinar to Explore Lessons Learned from Using Cover Crops to Reduce Nitrate Losses

DSCN0571Even with excellent nutrient management, nitrate losses from corn and soybean fields can occur because these cash crops only grow and take up nitrate and water for five months of the year. Cover crops like winter rye can be an effective strategy for reducing nitrate losses to groundwater or tile drainage because they can take up water and nitrate during the period between harvest and planting of the next year’s crop.

Dr. Tom Kaspar, Plant Physiologist at the USDA-ARS National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment, will share his lessons learned over his storied career researching the use of cover crops and no-till to improve water quality and soil health in corn and soybean production systems.

DATE: Wednesday, December 13, 2017
TIME: 12:00 noon
HOW TO PARTICIPATE: Log on as a guest shortly before 12:00 p.m.:

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.

Julie Winter

Time for your Soil Health Check Up!

Today’s guest post is by Marty Adkins, Assistant State Conservationist for Iowa Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), a member of the Iowa Learning Farms Steering Committee.

I had my yearly medical check-up last week.  It was a routine visit, time to have prescriptions refilled and get my flu shot.  It was also a good time to chat with my doctor about my overall health and to ask questions.

Check up clip boardAs we round the corner from one crop year to the next, it’s a good opportunity to conduct a “check-up” of soil health, too.  Only living things can have health, and soils are amazing, complex living ecosystems.  Soils are home to organisms that cycle nutrients, build water-holding capacity and help make soils “spongy” to capture precipitation.  And remember, the health of the soil on your farm will affect the health of your bank account, now and in the future.

The Iowa Soil Health Assessment Card is a helpful tool for assessing soil health. Soil Health Assessment Card

Use the Card, and a spade, to check on some key soil health indicators this fall:

  • Root growth – Are roots growing vertically and penetrating into the soil with lots of fine roots?  That’s a good sign.  Roots traveling horizontally signal soil compaction which limits root growth and crop yields.
  • Soil structure – Does your soil have the look of cottage cheese, with stable aggregates and lots of pore space?  If so, great!  On the other hand, hard, massive clods indicate your soil structure needs attention.
  • Water holding capacity – Did water soak in or run off this past year?  Did you have fields that experienced drought stress earlier than expected?  If so, it’s likely time to re-think tillage practices that burn off water-storing organic matter.

To build soil health, keep in mind the following principles:

  • Minimize soil disturbance – Over time, tillage reduces soil’s ability to soak in and hold water.  It also leaves soil susceptible to erosion and nutrient loss.
  • Maintain plant diversity – through crop rotations and cover crops.  Plant diversity leads to more diversity in soil microorganisms, and also helps break up disease and pest cycles.
  • Living roots growing throughout the year – to feed soil microorganisms and keep nitrates in the root zone where they can be used in the next crop.
  • Keep the soil covered to help prevent erosion and to moderate root zone temperatures.  Crop residues left on the soil surface will decompose in place, helping to build soil organic matter.

Check-ups aren’t just for people.  Monitoring and working to improve soil health is important for your farm, too.

Marty Adkins

On-the-Ground Experience with Cover Crops

“What’s building organic matter worth to you?”

For Prairie City, IA farmer Gordon Wassenaar and tenant farmer Will Cannon, it’s worth using no-till and cover crops on every single one of their 1300 acres of cropland.  In a field day hosted by Iowa Learning Farms, Jasper Co. NRCS and SWCD, Wassenaar and Cannon shared their perspectives on cover crops and how they can be very successfully integrated into corn and soybean cropping systems.

Wassenaar, who has farmed for over 50 years, stated that he first got into cover crops for the purpose of protecting the soil from erosion. He started with cereal rye, broadcast seeded from an airplane.

As time has gone on, Wassenaar’s reasons for using cover crops have evolved from simply erosion control, to improving the structure and functioning of the soil — raising soil organic matter, aggregate stability, and water holding capacity. Cannon commented that on top of that, another big benefit is feeding the biodiversity of the soil, like the beneficial mycorrhizal fungi, all while growing a healthy crop.

Timing and seed-soil contact are two big factors with establishing successful cover crop stands, and it’s a balancing act between the two. Aerial broadcast seeding (or interseeding with a high clearance vehicle) allows for a larger window of time for fall growth, while drilling provides greater seed-soil contact. Today, Wassenaar and Cannon have moved to drilling all of their cover crops, ideally getting them in the ground 24 hours or less behind the combine.

When asked about the financial considerations of cover crops, Cannon responded, “We’ve got to be willing to be a little creative and inventive to make it work.”  And they certainly are.

Cannon outlined several approaches they are taking to minimize costs and improve efficiencies in their operation:

  1. Shop around for cover crop seed.
    Compare prices with different cover crop seed houses in order to get the best bang for your buck. Wassenaar and Cannon are even considering growing their own cover crop seed down the road.
  2. Consider your seeding techniques.
    Aerial broadcast seeding and custom planting carry a significant cost.  Cannon explained that they have moved to seeding all of their acres now with a drill, which has provided greater seed-soil contact, and thus improved the seeding efficiency in terms of the number of seeds that actually grow (they’ve subsequently optimized/reduced seeding rates accordingly).  They are also saving dollars through the use of a smaller 120hp tractor and a cover crop drill that was bought used.
  3. There are a lot of good programs out there that can help.
    Take a look at the conservation programs and personnel on the federal, state, and local levels that can help out.

With years of experience implementing conservation practices of no-till and cover crops, Wassenaar reflected on how much the technology advances make conservation readily doable today.

“Back in the day, we plowed because we didn’t have planters that could plant into high residue. The equipment is so good today, that now we can plant into just about any residue.  … With cover crops out there, it’s almost like planting onto a mattress.”

Wassenaar is clearly passionate about conservation, and left field day attendees with the following thoughts:

“I don’t know any other way you can farm and save your soil than with no-till and cover crops.  … I’m convinced that if Iowans take care of their soil, the soil will take care of Iowa.”

Ann Staudt