Iowa Climate Outlook for Spring: Wetter in the North; Drier in Southeast

Today’s guest post is by Dr. Dennis Todey, USDA Midwest Climate Hub Director, with timely climate information as we prepare for crop year 2017.

Planting season is quickly approaching, with field prep work and crop insurance dates for corn only days away.  Initial season concerns include the early spring progression from late winter warmth and its impact on alfalfa and soil N levels. The warm and wet conditions allow soil nitrogen to convert to nitrate, which can be easily lost. A late spring nitrate test would help determine if additional nitrogen is needed to meet crop demands.

As crop year 2017 begins, key factors to consider include:

Current Soil Conditions

Background precipitation issues for Iowa differ for northern versus southern Iowa.  Heavier rain fell across northern Iowa last fall producing wetter harvest conditions.  Some soil wetness issues are likely to carry over into the spring.  In contrast chunks of southern Iowa were much drier – not only in the fall but through the summer.  National soil moisture models currently support this difference in soil conditions indicating overall wetter north and drier in the far southeast.

Precipitation Outlook

While several current storms have produced more rain in southern Iowa, the focus on precipitation should again switch to northern Iowa.  The current 30 day April outlook and spring (April-June) outlook from NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center has better chances for above average precipitation in northern Iowa.  Combining this rainfall potential with the carry-over wetness from the fall creates the highest risk for wetter planting conditions across the north.Precip Outlook 2017

Growing Season Outlook

Looking ahead to the rest of the growing season utilizes a few tools including the status of El Niño conditions and computer-based outlooks.  The current El Niño situation is neutral, but hinting toward El Niño conditions by late summer.  The switch to El Niño would reduce the risk of a poor growing season, but seems unlikely to start in time to affect the growing season.  The progress will be monitored through the season.

Drought Risk

Computer outlooks lean toward less chance of dry conditions across most of the state.  Thus, the overall drought risk seems fairly small at this point.  It should be noted that longer range precipitation outlooks are more difficult to assess.

Temperature Outlook

Temperature outlooks Iowa and the whole Midwest are likely warmer than average.  This is based mostly on recent trends of warmth in the summer, which has been driven by warmer overnight temperatures.  The risk of excessively high day temperatures seems lower at this point. 2017 Temp Outlook

Severe Weather Risk

Overall storminess would likely be increased along with more precipitation.  But the chances of severe weather currently are similar to climatology at this point.

Engineers are Integral!

We are in the heart of National Engineers Week, so let’s give a shout out to all of the engineers out there who are combining science, technology, and problem solving to address real world challenges across the globe!

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Engineers Week is an annual celebration, striving to get the word out about what engineers do, helping to increase understanding and build excitement around science and engineering. Founded by the National Society of Professional Engineers in 1951, Engineers Week is traditionally held around the time of George Washington’s birthday. In addition to serving as our first president, Washington is widely recognized as our nation’s first engineer thanks to his extensive surveying work.

Here in the conservation world, our work today is certainly much different from GW’s, but no less important in terms of working on some grand challenges here in the state of Iowa!  Engineers are integral to so many pieces of the puzzle, from developing agricultural machinery and grain handling/storage,  to working with big data and precision conservation (check out Amy Kaleita’s work for more), studying the interactions of land and water (read about the work being done by Michelle Soupir’s team and Matt Helmers’s team), designing and optimizing practices like wetlands and bioreactors for maximum effectiveness, plus designing water treatment and wastewater treatment facilities that treat millions of gallons of water each day.

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However, technical solutions alone will certainly not solve the water quality challenges that we face here in the state of Iowa – the social sciences, music, and the arts are equally important pieces of the puzzle when it comes to making emotional appeals and helping people better understand and connect with the land and water resources around them.

I’m proud to be an engineer working in water quality and conservation here with Iowa Learning Farms, as well as inspiring the next generation to get super excited about science and engineering through our classroom visits with Water Rocks!. Happy E-Week to all!

Ann Staudt

P.S. Today is an especially unique day within National Engineers Week – it’s Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day. DiscoverE is celebrating #GirlDay2017 with a live Twitter Chat “Role Models Unite to Inspire Girls” coming up very soon — TODAY at noon ET (11:00am central)!

 

 

From the Director: A Faith-Based Approach to Conservation

fromthedirectorBack in November 2015, Drake University hosted a conference called Sustaining Our Iowa Land (SOIL), focused on the past, present and future of Iowa’s soil and water conservation policy. Jamie, Ann and I attended the conference. On the first day, a couple of the panelists asserted that a faith-based approach to increased conservation might be an added tool in our outreach and education strategy. Everyone was buzzing about this idea. It seemed to capture imagination. I think we are always looking for that approach that can bring better success. Perhaps it is also an acknowledgment that we need to appeal to folks’ “higher angels” if we hope to make the kind of change needed for a sustainable future.

My mind had already been considering the faith-based approach. Not many of you know that my environmental work started back in 2004 when I coordinated a symposium called “Caring for Creation.” I brought together religious and environmental leaders from across Iowa to the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge for a discussion on the environment and religion. I led the effort to craft a series of proposals on energy usage that were later given to the Governor. In summer 2007, I was asked to be a speaker at a religious-based young adult workshop in Boston that was focused on the environment. As a result of that, I was asked to be a speaker at Union College in Kentucky to give a talk on weaving faith and my work. By that time, I was working for the Iowa Learning Farms.

raindropripples2toneSo, this idea of a faith-based approach was not new to me. Nonetheless, the faith side of my environmental work was put on the back burner as I embarked on a secular journey to motivating change in my position at Iowa State University.

In 2015, when Pope Francis issued his environmental encyclical (letter) Laudato Si’, I started wondering how I might be a part of motivating Catholics and other people of faith toward the ecological conversion the Pope calls for in this document. I knew whatever I did would need to be on my own time. I met with Tom Chapman at the Iowa Catholic Conference and we started brainstorming ways that we might help spread Pope Francis’s message in Iowa.

iowalanduseThen the Drake SOIL conference happened and the call for a faith-based approach. Jamie, Ann and I met to discuss this. All three of us are practicing Catholics. One of us — Ann or Jamie — suggested that we create a Lenten reflection booklet that taught the science of Iowa’s ecology framed by the Pope’s Catholic teaching. Lenten reflection booklets generally provide daily content each of the 40 days of Lent to help in your spiritual renewal journeying to Easter. Booklets like this usually build on the Lenten pillars of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. We met with Tom Chapman and agreed to partner with him and Susie Tierney of the Center for Social Ministry to create the booklet. We wanted it ready for Lent 2017.

Jamie, Ann and I would supply the science as a part of our positions at Iowa State. Let me be very clear here: Iowa State University, Iowa Learning Farms, and Water Rocks! are not promoting or endorsing the views of the Catholic Church or any other faith-based organization. Our jobs were to ensure that the science was represented accurately and explained clearly. Outside of work, Ann and I volunteered the rest of our time to help Tom and Susie finish the booklet.

It was a labor of love. My team can tell you that I often take on projects that are a lot more work in the end. This was certainly true of this booklet. We needed to come up with the format that would work. We knew we wanted the science juxtaposed with information from the Pope’s work. We also knew we wanted some kind of daily “action.” The encyclical gave us a natural form: See, Reflect and Act. “See” would be the science. “Reflect” would be a section from the Pope’s encyclical. “Act” would be their daily action – that one’s pretty self-explanatory.

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We decided to link each week of Lent to one of the videos from the award-winning Culture of Conservation video series, offering this as a supplemental resource to help deepen people’s knowledge of the interwoven connections between agriculture and the environment, soil and water, and our dynamic, ever-changing rural and urban populations here in the state of Iowa. Jamie and Ann got their parts completed and that left me to do the editing, write my sections and weave these in with the Pope’s words. I spent my June vacation on Rainy Lake, MN, reading the Pope’s letter and highlighting parts that really struck me. Don’t let the idea of a “letter” fool you — this encyclical is 184 pages!

leaveswitharrowAfter we completed the first draft, we sent it to Tom and Susie to supply the “action” statements. When they finished their part, Ann took over and used her design skills to create the booklet layout. Again, Ann volunteered her time outside of work at that point to complete the booklet.

A year later and the Lenten reflection booklet is available to the public. To obtain copies of Caring for our Common Home: A Lenten Reflection for Iowans, contact the Iowa Catholic Conference at 515.243.6256. Booklets cost $4.75 each. The full booklet can also be downloaded as a free PDF from the Iowa Catholic Conference’s website at http://www.iowacatholicconference.org.

We know that this approach is not for everyone. It is available to those who want it. It is another way of reaching people. As The Most Reverend Richard E. Pates, Bishop of the Diocese of Des Moines, writes in his forward to the booklet, “This resource, Caring for our Common Home: A Lenten Reflection for Iowans, is a way to re-imagine our place in the created order and put us in touch with Iowa’s bounty and the world’s needs….In this resource, we are called to be mindful of how actions can have consequences for our land, water, air, all creatures and especially humankind.”

Jacqueline Comito

5 Lessons Learned with Rye Cover Crops

Here at Iowa Learning Farms, we’ve been working with cereal rye cover crops since 2008. That’s not nearly as long as our good friend and colleague Tom Kaspar with USDA-ARS, but we can certainly say that, with our partners in the Iowa Cover Crop Working Group, we’ve been exploring and promoting cover crops long before they were cool!

Our longest ongoing study involves the use of cereal rye as a winter cover crop in on-farm trials within corn/soybean cropping systems across the state of Iowa. Over the years, twelve farmers have participated as partners in this project, with each demonstration site featuring field-length replicated strips with a cereal rye cover crop as well as replicated strips without a cereal rye cover crop.

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In our eight years of on-farm cover crop demonstrations, what have we learned?  Here are our Top 5 takeaways regarding cereal rye cover crops:

1. Rye cover crops are largely yield neutral.
In the vast majority of this study (55 of 59 site-years), farmers found that a properly managed cereal rye cover crop had little to no negative effect on corn and soybean yields. Soybean yield actually increased in 7 site-years and corn yield increased in 2 site-years. There can be a learning curve up front, but in the long run, this study’s findings dispel the myth that rye negatively impacts crop yields (especially corn yields) in the following season.
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2. Cover crops require active management.
Additional considerations/management factors when using a rye cover crop include seeding rate and method in the fall, and then cover crop termination and adjusting planter settings to accommodate additional residue in the spring. In the few cases of this study where crop yields were negatively impacted, farmers identified insufficient cover crop termination and improper planter settings as reasons for the few years where there were crop yield reductions.

3. Spring growth is key to realizing rye’s benefits.
Unlike winter wheat, oats, radishes and turnips, cereal rye survives over winter and continues its growth into the spring months. Large amounts of spring over crop biomass can be produced – variable to location and termination date.
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4. Soil health is hard to define and even harder to measure.
Five years into the study, we found no measurable differences in soil health variables (soil organic matter, total carbon, total nitrogen, pH, infiltration and runoff) between the strips with and without the cereal rye cover crop at individual locations. A much greater intensity of sampling and additional time (years) may be required to quantify significant changes. Plus many of Iowa’s soils have relatively high levels of organic matter to begin with, so detecting very small changes can be challenging.

5. Earthworm numbers have increased with a cereal rye cover crop. Looking at the common nightcrawler (Lumbricus terrestris), our 2016 midden count data indicate a statistically significant difference of 38% more earthworms with a cereal rye cover crop. Earthworms can serve as tangible, early biological indicators of soil health.
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These findings and more will be highlighted at ISU’s Soil Health Conference coming up later this week. Stop by and see our poster, and let’s talk cover crops – we hope to see you there!

Ann Staudt

 

Additional information on our work with rye cover crops:

ILF Cover Crop Research webpage
Additional ILF Cover Crop Resources
Earthworms, Cover Crops and Soil Health

The Iowa Cover Crop Working Group is a collaboration of Iowa Learning Farms and the following organizations:

  • Practical Farmers of Iowa
  • Iowa State University Extension and Outreach
  • Iowa Dept. of Agriculture and Land Stewardship
  • USDA-Agricultural Research Service, National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment
  • USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service
  • Midwest Cover Crops Council

Funding for this demonstration project has been provided by Iowa’s State Soil Conservation Committee, Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Iowa State University Extension Water Quality Program, and NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant 69-6114-15-005.

Field day highlights cover crops & soil health

Well, the groundhog indeed saw his shadow yesterday, so we are in for six more weeks of cold weather. While the temperatures outside were certainly brisk, it was a great day to be inside learning some new perspectives on cover crop management, soil health, and even earthworms!

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I was invited to be a part of a Cover Crop & Soil Health Field Day in Houghton yesterday, put on by the Lower Skunk River Watershed & Soil Health Initiative. Approximately 55 farmers, landowners, crop advisors, and NRCS staff from across southeastern Iowa and northeastern Missouri gathered together to spend the morning digging in with cover crops and soil health issues.

Dave Otte, of Green Valley Seed (Kahoka, MO) kicked things off by sharing his experiences with cover crops over the years, both in corn/soybean farming systems and as a “cattle guy.” He explained the many different benefits that he’s seen with cover crops, including soil health and quality (feeding the biology under the ground surface), water control (promoting infiltration), erosion control, moderating soil temperatures, nutrient management (creating, capturing, holding, and releasing fertility), weed suppression, and forage. He was also very open in discussing the challenges with cover crops, but emphasized that the benefits are well worth it. We were quite entertained by his analogy that cover crops are a lot like marriage. As he put it, “I’ve been married 40 years, and there have certainly been ups and downs. But the positives definitely outweigh the negatives!” I liked how he emphasized that going with cover crops will make you THINK more – rethinking your farm management in a positive way.

Rebecca Vittetoe, ISU Extension field agronomist in south central Iowa, was up next, helping the attendees think ahead to creating a game plan for cover crop termination in advance of planting in the spring. She shared a number of different termination options, ranging from mechanical means (like mowing, rolling, or roller-crimping) to chemical means (herbicide). It was very interesting to hear her discuss data from the University of Missouri Weed Science program regarding the effectiveness of different herbicides on different cover crops, and how much that effectiveness can vary with termination date. Lots of food for thought!

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After a short break, NRCS soil scientist Jason Steele shared his wealth of knowledge on all things soil health, offering perspectives on what exactly soil health is, improvements in soil organic matter that can be realized with practices like no-till and cover crops, and the benefits of increasing water infiltration across our landscape. He also performed the Slake test, demonstrating aggregate stability and how healthy soils are “glued together” biologically.

Steele also offered some great analogies about how cover crops fit into our farming operations … “Cover crops are a lot like small children. For those of you that have small children (or have raised kids), you know that it takes patience and it takes time.”

And regarding earthworms and soil health, “It’s a lot like the movie Field of Dreams … ‘If you build it, they will come’ …  well, with earthworms, they’re probably close by in your fencerows. If you make them a home, they will come!”

That was a great transition, because I concluded the learning portion of the field day by sharing findings from our  ILF study of earthworm populations related to cover crops!  I highlighted the fact that we found 38% more nightcrawlers in corn/soybean fields with a cereal rye cover crop compared to those without, and how earthworms can serve as a tangible, early biological indicator of soil health. There were also questions earlier in the day about tenant/landowner relationships regarding the implementation of cover crops, so I also promoted our new Talking With Your Tenant publication series which offers tips for starting that conversation, as well as ways to potentially share the cost of implementing a conservation practice like this.

While we are certainly still very much in the throes of winter, take a look at these beautiful cover crops that I spotted while journeying through southeastern Iowa yesterday (Feb. 2)!  I’ll leave you with a few photographs from just south of Swedesburg in Henry County.

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Ann Staudt

Podcast spotlights a pioneer of precision conservation

Precision agriculture is a unique, emerging field, and it is certainly one that is rapidly evolving before our very eyes. The complex world of remote sensing, big data, ag informatics, statistics, and on-the-ground farm management means there’s a whole lot of data out there … how do we make sense of it all?

Meet Dr. Amy Kaleita. High energy, eternal optimist. Agricultural engineer. Lover of learning. Passionate teacher and researcher. Soil Whisperer (or some might say Soil Listener).

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Kaleita’s work at Iowa State University is truly at the intersection of conservation, information technology, and the world of precision agriculture. While precision ag technology is commonly used by farmers and crop consultants across the state of Iowa today in such applications as nutrient management (variable rate technology) and precision seed placement, Kaleita is on the forefront of the next generation of precision ag – precision conservation. Kaleita’s research efforts range from studying different sensor technologies, including both embedded [contact] sensors, such as in-the-ground soil moisture sensors, as well as non-contact sensors [data collected from drones], to optimizing the layering of those different technologies to obtain the best data sets possible.

However, collecting the data is just the start —  the real challenge emerges in sorting through huge amounts of data and trying to make sense of it all!  Which is just where Kaleita comes into play, evaluating and analyzing the vast amounts of data collected in the field. She strives to identify patterns and linkages that can help us better understand the relationships between such factors as crop yield variability, precipitation, soil moisture, hydrology, transport of dissolved contaminants (such as nitrate-nitrogen), and on-the-ground conservation practices. As Kaleita puts it, a big part of her job is trying to “understand uncertainty.”

She goes on to explain, “In an agricultural context, there are so many sources of unexplained variability … things that you do on the landscape that cause results, but they cause different responses under different conditions, and so how do those conditions change over time and space?

“The soil is very different, and it changes over time, and it certainly changes over space. The rain, and the air temperature, and the wind speed, and all of that stuff cause responses in the crop and they cause the interaction between the crop and the soil to change. And so [we’re] trying to understand all of the things that cause those differences, and then trying to design systems that can be responsive to that variability.”

Tune in to Episode 27 of the Conservation Chat for more of this fascinating conversation with Dr. Amy Kaleita!  You can also download or listen to any of the previous podcast episodes on the Conservation Chat website and on iTunes.

Ann Staudt

Announcing the 2017 Water Resources Internship Program!

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We are looking for a great group of college interns that are passionate about conservation and natural resources, and eager to learn more about the many water and soil issues here in the state of Iowa. This competitive internship program is not just limited to ISU students – it’s open to undergraduate college students from any institution across the country.

Read on for full details of our 2017 Water Resources Summer Internship Program.  Applications are being accepted through this Thursday, January 26, at 5:00pm! Perhaps you know a college student who might be interested. Please pass this information along to them!

2017 Water Resources Summer Internship Program

Position Description:
Have an interest in the environment, conservation, and agriculture, particularly water and soil quality? We are seeking undergraduate student interns for summer 2017 who are self-motivated, detail-oriented, strong communicators, enthusiastic, and have a sense of fun!
Interns’ time will be split between research and outreach, all centered around environmental issues and challenges in Iowa. Summer interns will have the opportunity to:

• Work with two exciting Iowa State University education and outreach programs:
Water Rocks!, focused on youth outreach, and
Iowa Learning Farms, focused on adult/community outreach
• Help children and adults better understand environmental and agricultural issues
• Travel throughout the state of Iowa with the fleet of three Conservation Station trailers
• Develop strong oral communication skills
• Contribute to water and soil quality research projects in ISU’s top-ranked Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering
• Gain technical skills related to environmental science, soil and water quality through both field and lab research

The program is based on campus at Iowa State University and will involve travel to research sites and various outreach events around the state, which includes some scheduled night and weekend events. This is a paid internship, with students working up to 40 hours/week. The internship program begins Wednesday, May 10 and runs through Friday, July 28, 2017.

The Iowa State University water resources internship program serves as an outstanding springboard for careers in agriculture, engineering, the environment, and/or further studies. Past participants in our internship program have gone on to such careers as project engineer, watershed coordinator, environmental educator, field research specialist, and USDA-FSA program technician, while others have pursued graduate school opportunities.

Job Skills and Requirements:
• Currently enrolled undergraduate student (open to all majors)
• Demonstrated interest and/or background in environmental science, natural resources, conservation, soil and water quality, agriculture, and/or education
• Evidence of strong communication skills
• Ability to learn new tasks quickly
• Teamwork skills
• Self-motivated
• Detail-oriented
• Time management skills

Additional internship requirements:
• Participation in 5-week spring training course for internship (one night per week, beginning week of March 27)
• Possession of valid driver’s license
• Background check with ISU Risk Management for working with youth

How to Apply:
Required application materials include:
• Resume (Include your GPA, major, related coursework, and previous work experience)
• Cover Letter (Tell us what interests you about this internship and why you’d be a great fit!)

Internship application deadline is 5:00pm on Thursday, January 26, 2017. Please submit your complete application package to Ann Staudt via email – astaudt@iastate.edu. We will conduct interviews with qualified students in early February.

Ann Staudt