Lost in the Corn: The Search for Lysimeters

Today’s guest blog post was provided by summer student intern Laura Lacquement. A native Iowan, Laura grew up south of Des Moines, and went to school at Martensdale-St. Mary’s. She started her college career at Valparaiso University, and later transferred to ISU, where she is now a senior studying Environmental Science.  

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I enjoy travelling across the State of Iowa with Water Rocks! and Iowa Learning Farms. The location and events vary, while the field work remains consistent. One of the projects I’ve helped with all summer long is ILF’s cover crop mixtures project. Each week we travel to three of Iowa State University’s research farms to collect water samples from lysimeters located in plots of corn and soybeans.  Each block of plots contains 12 lysimeters placed between rows of corn or soybeans.

Lysimeters measure the movement or storage of water in the ground.  The lysimeters that the ILF team uses are composed of a tube two inches in diameter and two feet (24”) deep.  The bottom of the tube is composed of a porous ceramic cup that allows the movement of water into the lysimeter from the soil around it. Using a vacuum pump, we create suction inside the tube that pulls water inside.  Each week, we extract the water by using a flask that is connected to the vacuum pump on one side and a straw connected to its lid and inserted into the tube to its full depth.  Using the pump and flask, we pull water from the lysimeter into a small bottle, where it will later be analyzed for the amount of nitrates present. Each lysimeter tube is installed so it’s flush with the ground. To protect the lysimeter, a four inch PVC drainage pipe plug and small pipe is placed above it.

Most of our plots are located close to each other, with the exception of the plots at the ISU Northern Research and Demonstration Farm in Kanawha, Iowa. Finding the lysimeters there can be quite an adventure! At the start of the internship, all we could see of corn and soybeans in our plots were little sprouts an inch tall.  In just a couple weeks, the corn grew past our knees to over our heads.  I not only watched this growth, but experienced it firsthand by struggling to carry our devices and tools over and through the corn and soybeans to each lysimeter.

On Friday, June 30, I traveled to Kanawha, Iowa, with Elizabeth to extract water samples from lysimeters there. As I mentioned, the plots here are not located right next to each other, but in completely different fields separated by a grass driveway.  After we collected samples from the soybeans, we entered the corn in search of our small buried lysimeters in the shoulder-height corn.  We walked inside each row looking for our lysimeters … for an hour or so. Our ILF plots happen to be in the middle of a much larger field, and the challenge is that there’s no easy way to flag or label the plots once the corn is this tall! We eventually ventured a bit south of our current location, where we recognized our plots and finally spotted a lysimeter only a short distance away. Small victories!

Friday, July 7, I returned to Kanawha with Kaleb to collect more samples. This time, I knew exactly where to go to find the plot, but not the precise location of the lysimeters. In just one week, the corn had grown from the height of my shoulders to the height of me. I could no longer see over the corn.  As I finished extracting each water sample, Kaleb would move to the next lysimeter.  He may be the tallest of us interns, yet I still could not see him over the corn.  To find him and the next lysimeter, I followed the sound of corn rustling and looked for his bright red shirt through the corn.  If we do not wear bright colored shirts, a game of Marco Polo may be necessary!

After these experiences, I’m now very confident where ILF’s plots at Kanawha are located, plus how to find the other lysimeters and interns in corn taller than me. Each time I take samples from the lysimeters, I have learned a little more about corn and soybean cropping systems, as well as water quality issues in Iowa!

Laura Lacquement

Who Owns Any Creek?

“Who owns Cross Creek?”

That is a line from one of my favorite films, Cross Creek. Released in 1983, the film is based on a memoir of the same title by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, the author of the classic children’s book The Yearling. The film is about her life as owner of an orange grove in Florida and all the local residents of “the creek.”

“Who owns Cross Creek?”

This line popped into my head when I was talking to Ann about our winter workshops. It was clear from the brainstorming activity that many of the farmers and landowners were more knowledgeable and caring about questions concerning soil health than water quality.

When I pointed that out to Ann, she said, “Soil health happens on the land they own and they directly benefit from it. It’s personal. Water is a part of the common good and is less tangible.”

The common good is often a hard sell economically. No one owns the water. So no one is really responsible. Or everyone is responsible?

Let’s face it: when it comes to water quality, we have been slipping in through the back door, so to speak. As Marty Adkins points out in his previous blog post (Reducing Nutrient Losses While Building Iowa’s Soils and Economy), generally the practices that improve soil health also improve water quality.

That’s true. Cover crops are a good example. They are good for soil health, especially where land is highly erodible or degraded. On the water quality side, they play a major role in reducing both phosphorus and nitrogen loss. It is difficult to show a direct return on investment with cover crops in terms of soil health, and it could cost billions of dollars annually to implement the 12 million acres of cover crops needed every year to improve water quality (The Nutrient Reduction Strategy: Creating A More Resilient Iowa). That kind of investment is going to require a seismic change in attitudes toward water quality if it is going to happen.

In his 2012 book, Navigating Environmental Attitudes, social psychologist Thomas Heberlein argues that the way to change attitudes is by changing social norms. Norms are different than attitudes because they are tied directly to behavior, whereas attitudes are based on values and beliefs. In order for norms to change behavior, they must be focused on and activated by how society shapes what we do—i.e., what shapes the status quo. Norms influencing environmental behaviors do change, but it takes years (decades) for norms to emerge, change and strengthen. For norms to function, individuals must feel responsible for their acts.

I am not saying that farmers are deliberating doing wrong—they are following the norms within our current agricultural system. While many farmers could add more conservation practices to their operations, it is the system itself that needs changing. Policies over the last several decades have intensified row crop agriculture and led us to our current water quality and soil erosion challenges. The long-term vision for Iowa must include policies that more readily allow for a diversity of cropping systems and land use (Expand Beyond a Two Crop System, Clean Up Our Water).

Poor water quality is the unintended consequence of agricultural norms that aren’t sustainable. To change this is going to require a seismic change in attitudes.

As we try to implement Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, we need to do a better job of helping farmers see where we are, how we got here, and where we need to go. As we heard from one of the speakers at ISU Extension and Outreach’s Agriculture and Natural Resources spring inservice training earlier this year, “Farmers don’t need any help to stay the same.”

In 1983, I couldn’t have imagined how the answer to a question posed at the end of a loved film would become one of the central questions of my career. It has. Who owns Cross Creek? Or any creek?

Here’s how Rawlings responds to her haunting question:

“Who owns Cross Creek?

The red-birds, I think, more than I, for they will have their nests even in the face of delinquent mortgages…It seems to me that the earth may be borrowed, but not bought. It may be used, but not owned. It gives itself in response to love and tending, offers its seasonal flowering and fruiting. But we are tenants and not possessors, lovers, and not masters. Cross Creek belongs to the wind and the rain, to the sun and the season, to the cosmic secrecy of seed, and beyond all to time…”

Jacqueline Comito

 

The Nutrient Reduction Strategy: Creating A More Resilient Iowa

Have you ever fallen in love with a new car at the dealership and wanted to take it home until you look at the sticker price? Well, as I travel around Iowa, it seems like folks are pretty enthusiastic about the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS) until they hear the “sticker price,” i.e. the scale of practice implementation and cost.

NRS Goals_3-24-2017

One example scenario to reach the nitrate-N reduction targets of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy includes 60% of corn-soybean and continuous corn acres having cover crops (~12.5 million acres), 27% of all agricultural land being treated with a wetland, and 60% of the tile-drained acres being treated with a bioreactor.

For wetlands, it was assumed that each wetland (10 acres of wetland surface area with 35 acres of buffer) treats 1,000 acres of agricultural land, which would result in approximately 7,600 wetlands for this scenario. For bioreactors, it was assumed that each bioreactor treats 50 acres of subsurface-drained land, which would total approximately 120,000 bioreactors in Iowa alone.

See what I mean – quite a sticker price!

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But, while the scale of implementation and costs associated with reaching the NRS goals seem daunting, it is important to recognize the additional benefits that could come from pursuing nutrient reduction such as the economic benefits of cleaner water as well as the employment and labor opportunities to implement the various strategies.

Throughout the Midwest, discussions have begun on resources needed to implement the various state nutrient reduction strategies. While this is encouraging and exciting, most of the discussion has focused on the resources needed to implement the practices. There is very little discussion of the labor needed to successfully scale up the practices.

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I believe that for large-scale implementation of the NRS to be successful, we need to make the necessary investment in people. We need trained individuals that can work with farmers and landowners on implementing these practices. We need them both in the private and public sectors. Developing and delivering programs and classes that can train individuals to promote and assist in NRS practice implementation is crucial if we are going to make significant progress on reaching our nutrient reduction goal. There will be a significant increase in job opportunities for individuals who are trained and willing do this work.

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I firmly believe that if we accelerate the rate of practice implementation, we will see numerous small business opportunities throughout rural Iowa to site, design, and maintain these various practices and provide technical assistance to farmers and landowners.

 

It is a win-win for our state. Yes, it is a big investment, but it could stimulate our economy and make for a more resilient Iowa in every way.

Matt Helmers

Matt Helmers is an Iowa Learning Farms team member and Professor of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering at Iowa State University. To hear more about implementing Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, listen to Matt’s Conservation Chat with ILF Program Director Jacqueline Comito.

Higher Adoption of Cover Crops in Watershed Projects Areas

Today’s guest post is by Steve Hopkins, CPM, Nonpoint Source Coordinator, Iowa Department of Natural Resources 

The increase in cover crop acres across Iowa is encouraging news for soil health and water quality. According to a news release sent out on May 31, 2017 by Iowa NRCS and IDALS, the number of acres of cover crops increased to 353,000 in 2016 for landowners receiving financial assistance, plus another 247,000 acres in cover crops planted outside of cost-share programming, for an estimated total of 600,000 acres in cover crops statewide.

Of Iowa’s 23 million acres of land in corn and soybeans, approximately 1.2% of row crop acres are in cover crops through financial assistance programs, and an estimated 2.1% of row crop acres are in cover crops when including all cover crop acres. The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy calls for a goal of cover crops on 12.5 million of Iowa’s row crop acres, close to 50% of the state’s row crop acres. Since we have a long way to go to reach that goal, it makes sense to look closely at where cover crops are being adopted most quickly and ask why.

Where are the Highest Percentages of Cover Crop Acres in Iowa?

Where in Iowa are the highest percentages of row crop acres in cover crops? Below is a list I compiled showing the top ten counties by percentage of row crop acres planted under cost-shared cover crops (this excludes cover crop acres planted without cost-share, which is not reported), based on the county data from NRCS and IDALS:

1.   Washington (7.5% of row crop acres in cover crops)
2.   Cedar (4.6%)
3.   Monroe (2.9%)
4.   Buena Vista (2.6%)
5.   Audubon (2.26%)
6.   Wapello (2.23%)
7.   Polk (2.20%)
8.   Black Hawk (2.17%)
9.   Marion (2.1%)
10. Jefferson (2.06%)

Why Cover Crops There?

Washington County leads the state in both the percent of row crop land in cover crops and total acres in cover crops. This is very likely due to the presence of a successful Water Quality Initiative (WQI) project in the county, plus the presence of several prominent producers and producer-led groups who have championed cover crops for a number of years. Social science research shows that farmers are most influenced by other farmers, and this seems to be exemplified by Washington County’s lead among all Iowa counties in cover crop adoption.

Most of the other top ten cover crop counties are located within or near watershed projects, such as a WQI project, which focus solely on practices to reduce nutrients, a DNR Section 319 project, which focus on restoring impaired waters (many of which focus on reducing phosphorus), or a watershed project funded by some other source. This is not surprising, given that water quality practices do not sell themselves. The presence of a watershed project means that local producers have access not only to additional cost-share for cover crops, they also have increased access to technical information on how to manage cover crops, plus an outreach program on why cover crops are important for soil health and water quality in Iowa.

The map below–a statewide map of watershed project areas, plus the top ten cover crop counties highlighted in yellow–shows the correlation between watershed projects and cover crop areas:

July 2017 Hopkins Blog

“Boots on the Ground”

Watershed project coordinators serve as needed “boots on the ground” who deliver key information directly to producers about water quality practices, like cover crops. Given the declining numbers of federal and state agency staff who deliver conservation information to producers, the presence of a highly skilled watershed project coordinator can help fill the gap and boost local adoption of practices like cover crops.

Along with experienced cover crop producers who are sharing information with other producers, watershed project coordinators are key to continuing the expansion of cover crop acres in Iowa.  To continue the progress made so far, the map shows we need to fund not only the cost-share for cover crops themselves, we also need to keep funding the “boots on the ground” who sell the practice.

Steve Hopkins

Expand Beyond a Two Crop System, Clean Up Our Water

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Seth hosted a 3rd grade field trip to his farm on May 11, 2016 and invited us to visit too!

Earlier today Iowa Learning Farms farmer partner, Seth Watkins, was featured in the Des Moines Register Editorial: To clean up our water, go ‘nuts’ like this Iowa famer. Seth has shifted away from a two crop (corn/soybean) rotation on his family farm near Clarinda.  He still grows corn, but has also added oats, alfalfa, and cover crops.  Seth also actively raises 600 cows and has converted nearly 400 acres to prairie, ponds, and other wildlife areas. As a result of this diversification, he has seen better financial returns while improving soil health and water quality.

Be sure to also take a listen to Episode 20 of our Conservation Chat to hear first hand as Seth shares his whole farm approach to conservation.

Seth is no stranger to trying something new.  He agreed to be interviewed by our Conservation Pack for a video series produced by Water Rocks!  It continues to be one of our most viewed videos and is a sneak peak into Seth’s farm and management choices.

You don’t miss out on a great read and fun video as you head into the weekend!

-Liz Juchems

 

Your Personal Invite to the Soil and Water Conservation “Emmys” on July 17 & 18

Today’s guest post is by Clare Lindahl, Executive Director of Conservation Districts of Iowa, a member of the Iowa Learning Farms Steering Committee.

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It was July 15th last year and I stood before the National Association of Conservation District’s Executive Board, both nervous and excited. I knew I was prepared for the pitch I was about to deliver to bring the first National Soil and Water Conservation District event to Iowa. I had been working on it for months. I also knew I was about to embark on the biggest event planning endeavor our office of two staff at the time had ever experienced.

Iowa’s 100 Soil and Water Conservation Districts and 500 elected Commissioners are part of a national effort to protect and enhance natural resources. Just like Conservation Districts of Iowa represents and supports Iowa’s Districts and Commissioners, the National Association of Conservation Districts represents America’s 3,000 conservation districts and the 17,000 men and women who serve on their governing boards.

After the pitch, I looked around the room and I knew I had landed it! One Executive Board member stated, “Heck, I might just move to Iowa!”  Full disclosure, he was from Oklahoma. : )

I felt in that moment I knew just a little how Hugh Hammond Bennett felt when he nailed his presentation 82 years ago, passing the conservation bill that established the Soil Conservation Service as a permanent agency in the USDA. The bill authorized them to assist farmers to conserve soil and prevent erosion without a single dissenting vote. I said just a little!

In my pitch to come to Iowa, I touted Iowa Learning Farms and their award-winning, innovative conservation education programming. They have the ability to make conservation education and outreach a science, and to quantify the impacts they have after a farmer leaves one of their field days.

June_Summer-Meeting-Logo2017So on July 17-18, 2017, the National Association of Conservation Districts Summer Forum and Tour will be held in conjunction with the Iowa Soil and Water Conservation District Commissioners 71st Annual Conference.  Hundreds of Conservation District Commissioners and partners from across the state and nation will descend on Prairie Meadows Conference Center in Altoona, Iowa, and participate in tours across the state.

The forum, which will start with lunch and Iowa awards after the Iowa and national business meetings, will include invited speakers Governor Kim Reynolds, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey, and United States Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Purdue. We will follow up with an inspirational speaker and then break into simultaneous panels on public-private approaches to conservation planning and community and agriculture working together for clean water.

That evening, we will have an exhibitor social with hors d’oeuvre preceding our banquet with awards and a live auction with father-son auctioneer team Jeff and Dylan Webber. Leadership from the National Association of Conservation Districts and the Natural Resources Conservation Service will deliver talks as well.

wqThe next morning, after breakfast and an Iowa Natural History Primer, we will divide up into two tours. The water quality tour will feature urban conservation practices in Ankeny, a visit to Iowa’s Land Improvement Contractors Farm to view conservation practices, a water quality monitoring demo, a driving tour of Iowa State University and a visit to Alluvial Brewing Company.

soilThe Soil Health Tour will feature the Badger Creek Lake Watershed Project, a talk on Palmer Amaranth, a drive by a Madison County Covered Bridge, lunch at historic Keller Brick Barn and a presentation from the Dallas County Soil and Water Conservation District and a demonstration of soil health – in town and on the farm.

If this sounds as fun to you as it does to me, consider this your personal invite to the Soil and Water Conservation event of the century – register here.

Clare Lindahl

Field Days to Help Participants Improve Profit and Water Quality

Five field days are being offered as part of Iowa State University (ISU) Extension and Outreach’s Nitrogen and Water Week, which runs from June 27-29.

June_FieldDay140The purpose of these field days is for farmers and their consultants to learn the research related to profitable nitrogen management and water quality. They will also allow participants to visit the sites where research is occurring relating to nitrogen management and water quality.

The field days will be held throughout the state at ISU Research and Demonstration Farms, providing an opportunity to learn about the university’s research facilities that evaluate nitrate loss. A tour of plots where ISU researchers study the effects of fall application, cover crops and nitrification inhibitors is included in the event. The field days will also provide an opportunity to learn about factors that are used to make nitrogen fertilizer recommendations and nitrogen deficiency in corn and how to correct it.

Participants will leave the field day with a better understanding of research and the breadth of projects and practices that they are evaluating. They will also receive a better understanding of tools that are available to them like the N Rate Calculator and how they can help farmers be more profitable while minimizing impact on water quality.

Each field day will provide the same format and program, with ISU Extension and Outreach field agronomists and agricultural engineering specialists providing instruction. Registration at the research farm meeting room begins at 9:15 on the day of the event, with the program beginning at 9:45. The program concludes at 12:15 p.m. with lunch following.

The format provides for four 30-minute sessions during the field day, discussing how a water quality research site works, what practices are being studied, how effective the various management practices are in reducing nitrogen loss, and the impact of those practices on farm profitability.

2017 Nitrogen and Water Week Field Days

There is a $25 registration fee for the program that includes lunch, refreshments, and course materials and publications. Attendees are asked to pre-register to assist with facility and meal planning. For additional information or to register online visit www.aep.iastate.edu/nitrogen.

Jamie Benning

Jamie Benning is an Iowa Learning Farms team member and Water Quality Program Manager at Iowa State University.