We’re All In This Together

I grew up in Northeast Iowa on a family farm, where we grow corn, raise cattle and have horses. Growing up, I remember riding around in the tractor with my dad just for the fun of it. Today I still ride in the tractor with my dad, but now I do so having a greater depth of knowledge of farming and conservation as a whole.

As an Agricultural Studies student at Iowa State University, I run into so much diversity through my classes. I get to hear different perspectives on farming, land stewardship, natural resources, ranching, raising livestock, and so much more! I’ve learned a lot and gained new perspectives when it comes to using and managing the land.

I’ve also gained new perspectives through this summer internship with the Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks!, focused on water quality. This summer I have been able to interact with rural and urban community members and teach them about soil and water quality. I visit with active community members who are curious as to what they can do to care for the land we live on.

This summer has really opened my eyes. This internship has motivated me to want to see a change in land management before our water quality gets worse, and I have learned more about how we can all work together to do that.

Consider what you would have seen walking in Iowa two hundred years ago. A pioneer would have walked on Iowa’s land through vast tallgrass prairie, dotted with abundant wetlands and intersected by rivers.

Today, the landscape is vastly different –  I walk around today surrounded by crop fields and larger urban areas. I find it hard to want to go swimming in the rivers today because of the pollutants we have in our waters today. I respect farming and its purpose, but we need to find that balance with farming and land stewardship.

In the last 200 years we have lost 90+% of our wetlands and 99.9% of our prairie in Iowa. Those prairies and wetlands have very important jobs that act as a habitat and a filter for getting rid of possible pollutants. Now, as an agricultural student I understand how chemicals are being used and how much soil is getting exposed. These are two of many pollutants that we find in our water bodies today. We all need to work together and try to eliminate the amount of pollutants that are getting into our water bodies.

This summer I have been able to learn about the multiple conservation solutions we have available to us. In both rural and urban areas we are trying to reach out to landowners and introduce them to practices that can eliminate some of the pollutants in our water. During this internship, we discuss how buffer strips, wetlands, bioreactors, saturated buffers, cover crops and no till can lead to improvements in water quality. I have also learned that urban communities can help out by putting in permeable pavers and installing green roofs. These practices are great ways to start protecting our soil and water.However, one big challenge is that the improvements we want to see will not happen overnight because they take money and time. Not only that, but it takes everybody’s help to see a change. It is all of our responsibility to make sure we are doing what we can to prevent polluted water bodies and protect our great Iowa soil. We’re all in this together!

Taylor Kuehn

Taylor Kuehn, a New Hampton native, is participating in the 2018 Water Resources Internship Program. In the fall, she will be starting her senior year at Iowa State University, majoring in Agricultural Studies.

Art and Science create Vision for Future in Conservation Station

The Big Conservation Station trailer is trailblazing to county fairs across the state with a brand new, interactive display presenting a simple question: “What is your hope for Iowa?” Inside the Conservation Station’s learning lab are new mixed media murals showcasing the past, present and future of Iowa’s natural resources. Conservation Station visitors will have the opportunity to engage in discussion and artistic expression of their own – each fairgoer is invited to share their own #HopeForIowa.

“I am hoping to evoke an emotional response to the land, by depicting not a particular place, but ‘every place,’ so each person can relate to it,” explains artist Cecelia Comito of Artworks Studio in Carroll.

Comito collaborated with Ann Staudt, Water Rocks! science director, to create the original mixed media artwork for the Conservation Station trailer, representing an artistic vision that reflects the past, present and the future of our state. The artwork panels illustrate advances in conservation efforts over time, and the potential possibilities as farmers and other Iowans continue to implement effective land management practices to build soil health, improve water quality and increase wildlife habitat.

All the artwork was done on large canvasses at Artworks Studio. Each mixed media panel was built up with extensive layers of torn and cut paper, including such materials as stained and textured papers, pages from recipe books, story books, road maps, plat maps and even sewing patterns. Fine details were added through image transfer, paints, gelatos, watercolor pencils and pastels. Click through the slideshow below for a behind-the-scenes look at how the artwork came together. The finished pieces were imaged on a large scanner and then digitized in order to produce them large enough to place on the walls of the trailer.

“Farming practices have evolved over time, and not always in ways that have been positive for the ecosystem,” explained Staudt. “This new interactive art display will help people envision what’s possible for Iowa’s future and maybe inspire us to see what is possible.”

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In addition to the new artwork, Conservation Station team members employ perennial favorite interactive games and activities including The Watershed Game, The Poo Toss and the Rainfall Simulator to engage fairgoers of all ages.

Upcoming Big Conservation Station Trailer Appearances:
July 17                  Public Radio On Tap, Iowa City
July 18                  Polk Co. Fair
July 19                  Jones Co. Fair
July 20                  Tama Co. Fair
July 21                  Poweshiek Co. Fair
July 25                  Wayne Co. Fair
July 26                  Monroe Co. Fair
July 27                  Fayette Co. Fair
July 28                  Independence Farmers Market
Aug. 4                    Lakes Area Farmers Market, Spirit Lake
Sept. 2                  Glow Wild at Jester Park, Granger

Ann Staudt

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

 

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