Kicking Off the 2021 Conservation Station Outreach Season With Soil and Water Conservation Week!

Happy Soil and Water Conservation Week! The Conservation Station season is just around the corner and our team has been busy getting the fleet ready to roll.

Each of our trailers houses a unique combination of highly visual and interactive Iowa-centric demonstrations that delve into the impacts of land management choices, both urban and agricultural, on water quality and the connections between our state’s water, soil, and wildlife. We are looking forward to the launch of our newest trailer this spring highlighting the importance of wetlands!

The 2021 Conservation Station experience will certainly be different from past years—just as all facets of our lives have changed with COVID-19. Conservation Station team members will wear face coverings and practice physical distancing, as per Iowa State University policy, and will include audio amplification for improved audio accessibility. All Conservation Station activities are being closely evaluated and adapted to ensure that they can be delivered safely and effectively.

We look forward to seeing you this summer at an event near you! The season kicks off on May 1st and we will be updating our calendar for summer events soon, so be sure to check back for updates.

Liz Ripley

Benefits of Organic Farming in Terms of Soil and Water Quality

During the webinar on Wednesday, Dr. Kathleen Delate, professor in the departments of agronomy and horticulture at Iowa State University, shared research results that show greater soil and water quality benefits in organic systems with longer crop rotations, when compared to conventional corn-soybean rotations.

Iowa is one of the largest producers of organic grains and demand for organic crops is continuing to increase. The practice standard set forth by the USDA National Organic Program instructs producers to utilize tillage and cultivation practices that maintain or improve the soil and minimize soil erosion. The standard also states that the producer must manage plant and animal materials in a way that does not contribute to contamination of crops, soil, or water by nutrients and other substances.

Dr. Delate shared soil and water data that has been collected to compare organic farming to conventional farming practices. The results of the studies show that the organic sites have less nitrate leaching, increased amounts of soil organic carbon, and larger beneficial soil microbe populations. Research is also being done into organic no-till and this is a promising combination, but more research is necessary. Dr. Delate also emphasized the importance of integrating livestock into organic systems.

To learn more about organic farming and the results of these studies, watch the full webinar!

Join us on Wednesday, April 28, for the webinar “Cover Crops and Pheasant Nesting in Iowa’s Ag-Dominated Landscape,” presented by Taylor Shirley, a graduate research assistant at Iowa State University.

Hilary Pierce

April 21 Webinar: Benefits of Organic Farming in Terms of Soil and Water Quality

Soil health and water quality benefits associated with organic farming will be the topic of the Iowa Learning Farms webinar at noon on Wednesday, April 21.

Dr. Kathleen Delate, professor in the departments of agronomy and horticulture at Iowa State University, will share research results that show greater soil and water quality benefits in organic systems with longer crop rotations, when compared to conventional corn-soybean rotations. Small grains and perennial legume species, like alfalfa, are integral to supporting greater soil microbial populations and aggregate stability. Certified organic production requires the use of slower-release forms of nitrogen, which are associated with less nitrate loading and improved water quality.

“Returns have been negative in conventional row crop farming in recent years—alternatives that consist of longer crop rotations with lower inputs and improved soil and water quality need to be explored,” said Dr. Delate, who is responsible for research, extension, and teaching in organic agriculture at Iowa State University. “Give organics a go. You might be surprised to see how your soil changes and how many more pollinators and beneficial insects show up on your farm!”

Webinar Access Instructions

To participate in the live webinar, shortly before 12 pm CDT on April 21:

Click this URL, or type this web address into your internet browser: https://iastate.zoom.us/j/364284172

    Or, go to https://iastate.zoom.us/join and enter meeting ID: 364 284 172 

Or, join from a dial-in phone line:

    Dial: +1 312 626 6799 or +1 646 876 9923

    Meeting ID: 364 284 172

The webinar will also be recorded and archived on the ILF website, so that it can be watched at any time. Archived webinars are available at https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars.

A Certified Crop Adviser board-approved continuing education unit (CEU) has been applied for, for those who are able to participate in the live webinar. Information about how to apply to receive the credit will be provided at the end of the live webinar.

Hilary Pierce

Algae: The Double-Edged Sword

Mark Rasmussen | Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture Director

We humans seem to have an affection and fascination with the color green—the green of money, the green grass of spring after a long winter, the green of a Christmas tree or the expanse of leaves in a deciduous forest.

Photo credit: Iowa Department of Natural Resources Beach Monitoring Program

But there are some forms of green that we look upon with suspicion or have grown to dislike—the green water of an algae bloom or the pond scum that covers the surface of our favorite beach.  We tend to lump different forms of life under the general term “algae” (including cyanobacteria, also referred to as blue-green algae, which are technically not algae at all!), so our relationship with algae can be confusing and somewhat complicated.

As photosynthetic organisms, algae use energy from sunlight to produce oxygen.  Over many eons of time, they are responsible for much of the oxygen in the atmosphere, and they are the original source of fossil carbon transformed deep in the earth into crude oil and natural gas. Algae are also the basis of many food chains in aquatic environments.

We look upon algae with favor when they are used to produce biofuels and nutrient rich dietary supplements. But then there are the “other” algae that are more suspect—blue-green algae.  (Remember, the blue-green algae are technically not algae at all, but early taxonomists used the term and it stuck.)  We especially need to be concerned with the blue-green algae that produce toxins as we enter another growing season here in Iowa.

Cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, tend to do well in warm, slow-flowing, or stagnant water when both nitrogen and phosphorus are abundant and available. These nutrients, along with sunlight and temperature are the primary drivers of their growth. Some species can grow very rapidly in what is called a bloom.  In a pond they can be part of the natural process of turning a water body eutrophic when dense growth can cause a reduction in animal life due to the absence or limitation of oxygen.  In our agricultural world, blue-green algae growth can be the result of poor nutrient management when high levels of nutrients get into surface waters and stimulate growth.

Along with rapid growth, the production of harmful toxins from certain species of blue-green algae is of great concern. Children and small pets with less body mass are highly susceptible.  The toxins can also impact wildlife when they drink contaminated water.  Dried biomass on shore can also be toxic if inhaled as dust. Research has discovered that people who live or spend a lot of time near contaminated water have a greater risk of health effects just from being near this kind of water.

Toxin production in critical species is also stimulated by increased water temperature.  Therefore, we see more problems later in the summer as bodies of water warm.  Iowa began testing surface water in 2000, and every summer, beach closings and alerts are issued for water that has elevated levels of algae toxins. Climate change and hot summers which warm the water faster also stimulate toxin production and can be expected to increase the problem. 

It is difficult and expensive to purify water for drinking when water sources are contaminated, and most water treatment plants do not have that kind of purification capacity.  Last year the water in the Des Moines River in central Iowa was not useable for many weeks as a primary source due to the high level of toxins contained in the water.  Once contaminated, dilution with cleaner water is about the only solution. 

Given that we can expect this problem to get worse, we must redouble our effort to keep nutrients out of the water.  We can’t control the water temperature nor the hours of sunlight, but we can do something about the nutrient loading in our surface waters.  Unless we do more, we can expect there to be more problems with water quality in Iowa.

Mark Rasmussen

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig Webinar

Iowa Learning Farms hosted a webinar on Wednesday with Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig. Secretary Naig discussed conservation adoption successes, water quality initiatives, and his vision for expanding a culture of conservation in Iowa during the webinar.

Even with the difficulties posed by the pandemic, 2020 was a record year for conservation adoption in Iowa. Secretary Naig explained that the success of soil health and water quality initiatives will depend on a multi-faceted approach, which will take into account the diverse landscapes across the state. He also discussed scaling up rural and urban Iowa Water Quality Initiative projects. Secretary Naig highlighted that 44 wetlands were under development in 2020, when it had previously taken about 15 years to build 100 wetlands across the state. In 2020 there were also 45 bioreactors and saturated buffers under development and 2.18 million acres of cover crops planted.

To learn more about Secretary Naig’s vision for conservation and water quality in Iowa, watch the full webinar!

Join us on Wednesday, April 14 for the webinar, “Cyclone Soil Health Sweepstakes Showcase.”

Hilary Pierce

Virtual Field Day April 15: Conservation Learning Labs – Exploring the Impact of Cover Crops on Water Quality

Iowa Learning Farms, in partnership with the Iowa Nutrient Research Center, and Conservation Learning Group (CLG), is hosting a free virtual field day discussing spring cover crop management tips and the impact of cover crops on water quality as part of the Conservation Learning Labs project on April 15 at 1 p.m. CDT. Join us for a live discussion with Mark Licht, Iowa State University Assistant Professor and Extension Cropping Systems Specialist, and Matt Helmers, Iowa Nutrient Research Center Director.

Cover crops are one of the key practices of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy aimed at reducing nutrient losses from the landscape to our rivers and streams. Additionally, cover crops offer a wide range of benefits including reducing soil erosion, improving infiltration and soil health, weed suppression and grazing opportunities. Best management practices for spring management of cover crops are key to maximizing those benefits and reducing potential yield reductions.

The Conservation Learning Labs project, started in 2016, explores the water quality impact of high levels of cover crop and reduced tillage implementation on a small watershed scale. The project focused on watersheds between 500 and 1,300 total acres in size located in Floyd and Story County.  The watersheds have existing Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) wetlands that provided baseline water quality monitoring data. The continued monitoring allows for the comparison of water quality before and after conservation practice implementation and to a similarly sized control watershed that did not implement conservation practices.

“Through three years of water quality monitoring we have not seen reduction in nitrate levels in the watersheds with conservation practices implemented possibly due limited growth of cover crops. This is a reason long-term water quality monitoring is critical,” noted Helmers. Be sure to tune into the live discussion for updated monitoring results.

To participate in the live virtual field day at 1:00 pm CDT on April 15 to learn more, click HERE or visit www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/events and click “Join Live Virtual Field Day”.

 Or, join from a dial-in phone line:

    Dial: +1 312 626 6799 or +1 646 876 9923

    Meeting ID: 914 1198 4892

The field day will be recorded and archived on the ILF website so that it can be watched at any time. The archive will be available at https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/events.

Participants may be eligible for a Certified Crop Adviser board-approved continuing education unit (CEU). Information about how to apply to receive the credit (if approved) will be provided at the end of the live field day.

Liz Ripley

April 7 Webinar: Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig

Iowa Learning Farms will host a webinar on Wednesday, April 7 at noon with Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig.

Secretary Naig will discuss conservation, water quality, and his vision for Iowa during the webinar. He will also discuss the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy and explain how Iowans are working to meet the nitrogen and phosphorus loss reductions outlined in the Strategy.

Webinar participants will be able to submit questions for Secretary Naig during the webinar through the Zoom software.

Webinar Access Instructions

To participate in the live webinar, shortly before 12 pm CDT on April 7:

Click this URL, or type this web address into your internet browser: https://iastate.zoom.us/j/364284172

    Or, go to https://iastate.zoom.us/join and enter meeting ID: 364 284 172 

Or, join from a dial-in phone line:

    Dial: +1 312 626 6799 or +1 646 876 9923

    Meeting ID: 364 284 172

The webinar will also be recorded and archived on the ILF website, so that it can be watched at any time. Archived webinars are available at https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars.

Hilary Pierce

Introducing the Cover Crop Corner!

Welcome to the Cover Crop Corner with Liz Ripley!

Let’s kick things off with a bit of cover crop trivia: According to the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy science assessment, winter cereal rye can reduce nitrate loss by what percentage?

A. 45%

B. 31%

C. 28%

D. 21%

Hands holding a clump of soil with green rye growing over a shovel

Answer:

B. 31%

Cover crops are a key tool in reaching the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy goals that aim to improve water quality here in Iowa and beyond through their ability to retain nitrate and reduce phosphorus loss through reduced soil erosion!

Be sure to subscribe to our blog and follow us on social media for timely tips, research updates, events and all things related to cover crops.

If you have cover crop or other conservation related questions, please email Liz Ripley at ejuchems@iastate.edu and watch the blog for news and updates.

Virtual Field Day March 18: Improving Water Quality through Stream Stabilization in the East and West Nishnabotna Watersheds

Iowa Learning Farms, in partnership with the Iowa Nutrient Research Center, and Conservation Learning Group (CLG), is hosting a free virtual field day highlighting the stream stabilization efforts in the East and West Nishnabotna Watersheds to improve water quality and reduce flooding on Thursday, March 18 at 1 p.m. CDT. Join us for a live discussion with Cara Marker-Morgan, project coordinator for the East and West Nishnabotna River Watersheds and Golden Hills RC&D, and Jake Miriovsky, Project Manager For JEO Consulting Group, Inc.

Located in the Loess Hills region of Iowa, the East and West Nishnabotna Watersheds were selected to work with the Iowa Flood Center at the University of Iowa and many other partners to develop Watershed Management Authorities as part of the Iowa Watershed Approach. Through the project, Iowans are working together to address factors that contribute to floods and nutrient flows and enjoy the improvements in quality of life and health resulting from upstream watershed investments. Supported by U.S. Housing & Urban Development dollars, this approach is leveraging the principles of Iowa’s innovative Nutrient Reduction Strategy to make communities more resilient to flooding and help improve water quality.

“One of the keys to success on projects within a watershed is collaboration.  This project is a perfect example of that with multiple landowners coming together to make a difference in our watershed,” noted Marker-Morgan.

L-R: Mills County Landowners and siblings Dale Evans and Roberta Overholser, Cara Marker-Morgan (project coordinator), Jake Miriovsky (JEO Consulting Group, Inc.), and Roberta’s son and grandson Bob and Joe Waters

To participate in the live virtual field day at 1:00 pm CDT on March 18 to learn more, click HERE or visit www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/events and click “Join Live Virtual Field Day”.

 Or, join from a dial-in phone line:

    Dial: +1 312 626 6799 or +1 646 876 9923

    Meeting ID: 914 1198 4892

The field day will be recorded and archived on the ILF website so that it can be watched at any time. The archive will be available at https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/events.

Participants may be eligible for a Certified Crop Adviser board-approved continuing education unit (CEU). Information about how to apply to receive the credit (if approved) will be provided at the end of the live field day.

Liz Ripley

Conservation Learning Lab: Implementation of Cover Crops at Small Watershed Scale

Matt Helmers, director, Iowa Nutrient Research Center, shared the results of three years of water quality monitoring data after cover crop implementation during the Iowa Learning Farms webinar on Wednesday. The Conservation Learning Lab (CLL) project, started in 2016, posed the question, “Can high levels of cover crop implementation and reduced tillage be obtained on a small watershed scale, and water quality improvement documented accordingly?” The project focused on small watersheds—between 500 and 1,300 total acres in size.

Two pilot watersheds were chosen in Floyd County and Story County. These watersheds were chosen based on their size and that they had existing Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) wetlands that provided baseline water quality monitoring data. This allowed for the comparison of water quality before and after conservation practice implementation and to a similarly sized control watershed that did not implement conservation practices. The figures above show the adoption of cover crops and strip-tillage in the two pilot watersheds for the CLL project.

The results of the study indicated that, to date, there has not been a noticeable reduction in nutrient loss at the small watershed scale due to the implementation of cover crops within the watershed. This may be because the entire watershed area was not treated with cover crops and a higher rate of adoption may yield noticeable water quality benefits. There may also be some lag time between implementation and noticeable results, which emphasizes the importance of continuing to monitor the results over several years. Growth of the cover crops is another factor that may impact the water quality benefits, as shown in other research, and may be the critical factor in this study. Some fields in the study were seeded with rye, while others were seeded with oats and it expected that oats will have less of an impact on water quality.

To learn more about this project, watch the full webinar!

Join us next week, on Wednesday, March 10 at noon, for the webinar, “Cropping System Diversification is a Path to Greater Sustainability,” presented by Dr. Matt Liebman, professor of agronomy and H. A. Wallace Chair for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University (ISU).

Hilary Pierce