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

Youth Outreach: Updates from Jack

Hi, again! If you read our blog last month, you may remember me as Jack Schilling, the new AmeriCorps service member serving with Water Rocks!. A lot has happened in this last month and a half, and I wanted to share what I have been up to throughout!

To start, I have done a lot of Water Rocks! school assemblies. At assemblies, we teach in front of a large group of students (usually hundreds of them) ranging from kindergarten all the way up to 8th grade. So far at assemblies, I have taught students about watersheds and soil conservation with games and music to help. I also help with behind-the-scenes work such as organizing our posters before we present, setting up the sound system, and scouting for the nearest bathroom.

Thanks to these assemblies, I’ve been able to continue to sing and act outside of school, even getting to play Mr. Raindrop in the assemblies. Having to learn all the songs, lines, and timing was daunting at first, but now that I’ve adjusted, things are going great!

Secondly, I have helped with quite a few Water Rocks! classroom visits. These interactive presentations are given to one class at a time, so it’s a more intimate setting with class sizes ranging from the teens to over thirty. These visits can take anywhere from a few hours to the whole day, but that is mainly dependent on how far across the state we travel. Some days, it could be a school in Des Moines, and other days it could be all the way up to Decorah.

The classroom presentations don’t have singing in them, but I get to help the students participate in fun games like We all Live in a Watershed, where students get to develop a piece of land to put in our watershed. It’s always funny to see the amount of McDonalds that are drawn! I have also taught modules on biodiversity, conservation, soil, and wetlands.

All in all, this last month and a half has been busy, especially with assemblies, but has been fun and engaging as well. In November, the assemblies will become less frequent, but classroom visits will pick up, meaning more time with a smaller, tight knit group of students. I look forward to the coming months ahead and am excited for more opportunities to teach about water and soil conservation.

Jack Schilling

Schilling is a part of the Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach program, serving with Water Rocks! in 2017-2018.

Nurturing the Seeds of Conservation

In 2009, the Soil and Water Conservation District commissioners challenged us to teach Iowa’s youth about soil and water. The Conservation Station and Water Rocks! program were our answers. Since that time, we have been to every county in Iowa at least twice, reaching over 100,000 people, inspiring the next generation to be thinking about and talking about conservation issues.

Starting this year, we are reaching out to the next generation in a new way, by getting college students out to our field days and talking to college students who want to farm about water quality and conservation issues.

On August 30th, we held a field day at the Gilmore City Research and Demonstration Site. If you want to learn about conservation and water quality practices that work, this research site is the place to be. A few days before the field day, we sent an email out to all the Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering undergraduates to invite them to attend. Nine students enthusiastically took us up on the offer and joined us for this excellent event (read more about it in Ann’s blog Cover Cropping on the Lobe).

During the actual field day presentations, the college students quietly listened and didn’t say much. However, the faculty and staff who accompanied them said that when they got back into the van, they were filled with so many questions and were nonstop talk about what they were seeing and learning.

It is very likely that each of these students will either farm someday or work in the agricultural industry. We are doing our part to whet their curiosity about conservation practices such as cover crops and wetlands. We are also fertilizing the seeds that will grow into a lifelong conservation ethic. We plan to offer more of these field days with college students – in partnership with both ISU and our many other outstanding colleges/community colleges around the state —  in the months and years to come.

In addition, with the help of a new grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, we are developing and launching an “Emerging Farmers” program. This program takes a proactive approach to address the need for new programming that reaches out to limited resource farmers, emerging farmers and future landowners. We define emerging farmer as someone with ties to agricultural land, not currently farming but would like to return to the farm or have a voice in its management.

In collaboration with ILF farmer partners, Iowa Beef Center, Beginning Farmer Center and Practical Farmers of Iowa, we will produce a series of emerging farmers conservation publications. Partners will collaborate to create a sustainable business plan template for the emerging farmers. We will host workshops across the state, as well as a two-day intensive emerging farmer workshop. In the years to come, we will present emerging farmer seminars to ISU agricultural student groups, as well as to community colleges and colleges across Iowa to reach those individuals with ties to agricultural land, infusing the traditional agricultural curriculum with a strong conservation focus.

The SWCD commissioners challenged us in 2009 and we continue to listen to that challenge as the Iowa Learning Farms adapts to meet the needs in Iowa for conservation education. We cannot succeed if we are not engaging and inspiring our young people. Send me an email if you would like to get involved in these efforts.

Jacqueline Comito

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

Cover Cropping on the Lobe

Last evening, a group of 40 area farmers, Soil & Water Conservation District commissioners, and a nice delegation of ISU students from the Ag & Biosystems Engineering department gathered up at Gilmore City, Iowa for a conservation field day hosted by Iowa Learning Farms. Located between Humboldt and Pocahontas, in the heart of the Des Moines Lobe, the Gilmore City research site is home to some of the longest running research in the state on nutrient management and drainage water quality. Last evening’s field day focused on conservation practices that could be utilized in-field (emphasis on cover crops) as well as edge-of-field (bioreactors, saturated buffers, and wetlands).

Kicking things off were father-son duo Bob and Jay Lynch, who farm just outside of Gilmore City. The Lynchs have been long-term ridge tillers, and in recent years, have largely transitioned to strip tillage. In addition, they began integrating cover crops into their corn and soybean operation in 2012, and they have continued to increase cover crop usage since then. With five plus years of cover crop experience under their belts, Bob and Jay shared some words of wisdom and lessons learned with field day attendees.


Benefits of Cover Crops
Bob and Jay Lynch see soil health as the biggest reason to use cover crops. Bob commented, “To see the real benefits of cover crops, you need to go below the ground surface. I go out in my fields where I had rye, and take a shovel out there – the biologicals in the soil are a big deal. I hope I get an earthworm in EVERY handful of my soil! The cover crop roots give them something to eat for much more of the year. In addition to the earthworms, you have all of the other beneficial microbes, too.”

The “feel” of the soil is improved with cover crops, as well. The Lynchs spoke about cover crops giving their soil “a really nice spongey-ness.” The benefits of soil aggregation are there, too, with a cover crop – Bob referenced that the ground would come apart just like cottage cheese with a rye cover crop!

While the Des Moines Lobe is known for its rich, fertile soils, cool temperatures can pose a challenge. The Lynchs commented that cover crops help to moderate soil temperatures, and those results are consistent with data collected from the research plots at Gilmore City, as well.

The Lynchs have also seen some weed suppression benefits with cover crops – when the rye gets knee high in the spring, they’ve seen its potential for blocking out/reducing the abundance of some competing spring weed species.


Fall — Cover Crop Seeding
Aerial application of the rye cover crop has resulted in the best cover crop stand for the Lynchs. They emphasized that fall growth is a function of light availability, so the amount of crop canopy cover will be a big factor with the cover crops starting out.

With adequate moisture, rye cover crops will germinate quickly and begin their fall growth. Here is some emerging rye at the Gilmore City research site, just five days old!


Spring – Cover Crop Termination
With rye and other overwintering cover crop species, spring termination is necessary ahead of planting your row crops. The Lynchs prefer to terminate their rye via chemical in the spring. For the greatest effectiveness, Bob and Jay have found success in separating out herbicide application into two passes – even on the same day — applying glyphosate first to begin the rye termination process, then following with the pre-emergence residual herbicide.

While rolling, roller crimping, and tillage are also possibilities for cover crop termination, they require very particular conditions for success, and as Bob puts it, “It you try to till rye, you’re just making it mad … and then it comes back with a vengeance!”


Spring – Planting into Cover Crop Residue
When rye is growing ahead of corn, the Lynchs presented two options for termination timing: plant your crop the same day you terminate your rye, OR it needs to be dead for 14 days before planting corn.

With abundant cover crop growth, they emphasized that planter settings should definitely be taken into consideration. When planting soybeans into rye residue, the Lynchs recommend that your soybean seeds be planted using similar settings as if you were planting corn. If you use the same bean setting as you would without cover crops, you run an increased risk of the bean seeds sitting on top of the surface.


Management Matters
Bob and Jay concluded, “With cover crops, it all comes down to management. What works with YOUR individual farm?


Wetlands in the Spotlight
The evening field day concluded out at a CREP wetland just a few miles from Gilmore City, sited specifically for nitrate removal. It was a stunning end to the field day as the sun dropped lower and lower on the horizon!  The beauty of the wetland and its ability to benefit water quality clearly piqued people’s interest, as the questions and conversations continued even after the sun went down.

Ann Staudt