Burnin’ grass at the University of Iowa

CLGHeaderEmily Heaton | Assistant Professor of Agronomy, Iowa State University and co-authors: Collin De Graaf, Valeria Cano, Perla Carmenate, Tyler Donovan, and Danielle Clark

If you have been driving in rural eastern Iowa and noticed a lot of choppers and wagons, you might have been seeing the UI Biomass Fuel Project Miscanthus harvest.

What the what?

Figure 1

Figure 1. Miscanthus harvest in eastern Iowa, where more than 1000 acres are being grown for the University of Iowa power plant. Photo credit: Nicholas Boersma

Miscanthus (Miscanthus × giganteus) is perennial warm-season grass used for energy and products in Europe, and increasingly, in the US. The University of Iowa (UI) has been developing Miscanthus as a replacement for coal in the UI power plant since 2013 as part of the Iowa Biomass Fuel Project (BFP). Using Miscanthus, wood chips, and oat hulls from Quaker oats, the UI plans to be completely off coal by 2025! The Heaton Lab and CLG partner with UI to provide agronomic and extension support to the BFP.

Why Miscanthus?

Miscanthus is a good choice for the UI because it is one of the most productive crops that can be grown in temperate climates like Iowa (producing ~8 tons of dry biomass per acre per year) and it does it without much need for fertilizer or pesticides, making it a very environmentally friendly crop. It has a big root system, like other perennial grasses, so it is great for holding soil and cleaning water, as well as providing a home to critters above and below ground (Figure 2). In addition to energy, Miscanthus is also being used for poultry bedding, mulch, and erosion control.

Figure 2

Figure 2. Miscanthus (left) has been shown to improve water infiltration and protect soil better than annual row crops like corn (right). Photo credit: Emily Heaton

So why is Miscanthus being harvested at the end of winter? A few reasons:

1) it needs to be dry if it is going to be efficiently burned, so the crop dries all winter in the field.
2) Leaving it in the field saves on storage.
3) Letting the plant fully senesce lets the crop to recycle nutrients from the shoots back to the below-ground rhizomes for use the following season.
4) Over the winter Miscanthus slows blowing snow, holds soil and provides shelter for wildlife.

Now that the crop has been harvested, new miscanthus shoots will start emerging when soil temperatures reach 50 ℉, so hopefully any day now!

Harvest Methods

Silage Chopping:A silage harvester can harvest whole plant material after it dries down in the field (Figure 1). Chopped material is blown into carts or traditional trailers similar to corn silage harvesting. If a cart is used, a tractor trailer stationed at the edge of the field can transport the miscanthus to storage or directly to the plant for energy generation (Figure 3). Check out a harvester in action here.

Figure 3

Figure 3. University of Iowa Miscanthus harvest. The fluffy biomass is hauled by truck to storage in plastic silage bags before use. Photo credit Emily Heaton

Mowing and baling: Miscanthus can be baled into round or square bales (Figure 4) similar to corn stalks. Travel and transport can be greatly improved with baling to increase crop density.

Figure 4. Miscanthus in round or square bales. Photo credit: ISU Biomass

Our research indicates a little of these crops can go a long way: replacing consistently low-yielding corn/soy with a perennial grass can meet Iowa’s water goals (reduce N in water by ~40%) while making farmers more money. That’s a refreshing alternative to the billion-dollar price tag we usually hear for improving agriculture’s water quality impact in Iowa! Stay tuned to CLG and @ISUBiomass to learn more about putting perennials like Miscanthus into underperforming row crop fields.

Do you have “cottage cheese” soil?


It was a beautiful evening yesterday to spend learning about the benefits of cover crops and no-till at Rob Stout’s farm in Washington County.

Rob Stout talking to a group of people in a field with cover crops growing

Rob Stout discusses cover crops at the field day

“There’s a learning curve. You just need to step up your management a little bit,” Stout explained, when discussing implementing cover crops for the first time.

He went on to talk about the benefits he has seen on his farm: an increase in earthworms and microbes, erosion control, water quality benefits and improved soil health.

A close up of no-till residue with rye growing

Cover crops and no-till on one of Rob Stout’s fields

“Rye is my go-to – I like it best,” said Stout, “Where we have the rye we don’t have any winter annual weeds. There’s no Marestail on any of these fields with the cover crop.”

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

Soil structure under the cover crops

Attendees also heard from Jason Steele from the NRCS. Steele described the soil health benefits of implementing no-till or cover crops.

“If it looks like cottage cheese or Grape Nuts cereal, that’s what we want our soil to look like,” Steele said, “We want that granular structure. We don’t want it looking like concrete – if you do too much tillage it starts to look like concrete.”

Steele went on to say that despite the very wet fall we had last year, there were no ruts visible in Stout’s fields due to the fact that the fields were not tilled. The combination of no-till and cover crops reduced compaction and kept the top two inches of soil light and fluffy, with good soil structure and infiltration and the most biological activity.

Rounding out the program were Liz Juchems from Iowa Learning Farms, who shared research updates; Tony Maxwell from the NRCS, who talked about cost share; and Matt McAndrew and Paul Brandt from MB Water, who discussed testing water quality in tile drains.

Check out the events page of our website to find out about upcoming field days and workshops in your area!

Hilary Pierce

Conservation Stations Crisscross Iowa to Deliver Conservation Messages


If you’ve been to an Iowa county fair or attended a field day covering water quality, conservation, cover crops, edge of field practices or a range of other topics, there’s a good chance you’ve seen or even visited a Conservation Station operated by Water Rocks! and Iowa Learning Farms. Last summer we hit the milestone of attending all 100 county fairs in Iowa – (yes 100, Pottawattamie County holds two.) They also make appearances at community events, farmer’s markets and other settings.

The Conservation Stations are traveling resource centers and classrooms, staffed by the ILF and Water Rocks! team members and interns, providing water quality and conservation outreach activities built on a foundation of science, research and best practices.

Rain, Rain, Don’t Wash our Soil Away

The idea for the first Conservation Station was germinated in the early years of ILF – which is celebrating 15 years in 2019. The precursor was a trailer equipped with a simple rainfall simulator for demonstrating soil erosion. It was a good start, but frankly, it was a limited demonstration and the team quickly realized that they needed a more sophisticated rainfall simulator. In addition, ILF saw the potential to expand its impact by providing a broad canvas for education through visual, interactive and multimedia displays.

“We were awarded funding to purchase and develop a larger trailer and knew how to make a better rainfall simulator,” said Jacqueline Comito, executive director of Water Rocks! and ILF program director. “We just didn’t know how to realize our vision of a traveling and flexible unit. Ann Staudt joined the team to help us, and with her fresh ideas and creativity the Conservation Station was born.”

The trailer, dubbed the Big Conservation Station, allowed space for an improved rainfall simulator as well as a walk-through learning lab. Inside the learning lab, visual and multimedia presentations are designed to engage audiences in conversations and to elicit questions about conservation practices. The learning lab was updated in 2018 to incorporate mixed-media artwork and enhanced messaging with the purpose of eliciting visitors’ hopes for Iowa.


ILF faculty adviser Matt Helmers developed the new rainfall simulator which more accurately models both surface runoff and subsurface flow or drainage in tiled environments and uses soil blocks extracted from field environments to best parallel actual soil conditions in Iowa fields.

“The complexity of the new rainfall simulator was a challenge, but it also enabled us to tell a much more realistic story that farmers in Iowa could relate to,” noted Staudt.

img_2012.jpgA smaller trailer referred to as Conservation Station 3 was built specifically for outdoor classrooms and other youth activities. Along with a rainfall simulator, it is also equipped with the space to carry enough tables and chairs for students as well as a full complement of displays and activities resources.

Edge of Field Practice Demonstrations Expand Education Opportunities

InCSOTE-01 2018, the original rainfall simulator trailer (which we called the Lil’ CS) was redesigned to become the Conservation Station on the Edge, addressing best practices for nutrient runoff mitigation at the edge of tile-drained fields. Equipped with working saturated buffer and bioreactor models, this trailer takes the story of field runoff to a deeper level. The demonstration stations allow the audience to see what happens within structures –that when implemented in a field are completely underground and out of sight.

Each Conservation Station includes interactive demonstrations that appeal to all backgrounds, ages and walks of life. Games such as the Poo Toss tend to appeal to youngsters but provide tangible lessons about waste runoff that pertains to everyone –whether they live on a farm or in a city. The Watershed Game is another highly visual interactive game that helps make the concepts of a watershed and how pollution moves with water easy to grasp.


“The Conservation Stations are filling a tremendous need by providing easy-to-understand information about water quality, conservation, agricultural best practices, and other topics of importance to all Iowans,” concluded Staudt. “We intend to continue to share this knowledge as frequently and in as many venues as we can.”

Find out where to see a Conservation Station near you!

The Conservation Stations are used April through October. Click here for the schedule of appearances or to request a visit. In most circumstances, a Conservation Station can join an event at no cost, due to the generous funding received from our partners.

Liz Juchems

Conservation Chat Podcast Returns!

Water quality takes center stage in the Conservation Chat podcast’s long-awaited return!  The Chat debuts its new format, featuring multiple guests on the program together for a roundtable-type discussion. In the newest episode, Improving Water Quality, host Jacqueline Comito visits with two rockstars on Iowa State University’s water quality scene, Matt Helmers and Jamie Benning.

Tune in to this latest episode for an engaging discussion on timely topics related to water quality and agricultural production here in the state of Iowa, centered around the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Having been released five-plus years ago, Comito, Helmers, and Benning discuss the progress made thus far, but also the immense scale of implementation needed to achieve tangible progress in terms of nutrient reduction and improved water quality. Tune in as they bounce ideas about the interwoven relationships between dollars spent, practices implemented, nutrients reduced, policy structure, and progress towards true paradigm shift.

In addition, Helmers and Benning both emphasize the importance of translating pure scientific research to more accessible, digestible outreach materials for general public consumption through such means as short videos, webinars, field days, and infographics. Helmers shares a great anecdote about the power of video to reach broad audiences around the world – he is currently hosting a student intern from Honduras, and this student had recently seen the Iowa Learning Farms’ Rainfall Simulator video in one of her engineering classes back at her home institution!

Tune in to Episode 40 of the Conservation Chat to hear the full interview with Matt Helmers and Jamie Benning. You can also download or listen to any of the previous podcast episodes on the Conservation Chat website and through iTunes.

Ann Staudt

Farmed Prairie Potholes: Consequences & Management Options


Yesterday, during an Iowa Learning Farms webinar, Amy Kaleita discussed current research being carried out at Iowa State University on the hydrology, water quality implications and management options of prairie potholes in Iowa farm fields.

Prairie potholes are enclosed depressions with no natural drainage, until a spill point is reached, that retain water for some portion of the year. Forty-four percent of the Des Moines Lobe drains to potholes and they are a common feature in row crop fields. Potholes are a nuisance to farmers because they are usually the last places in the field to dry out and spring rains can cause ponding in the potholes, which can drown young row crops in as few as 3-5 days (for total yield loss).

feb webinar potholecloudy

Despite efforts to drain potholes using subsurface drainage systems (95-99% of potholes in Iowa are drained), there has been very little research done on the effectiveness of these drainage systems for potholes. In less than ideal conditions, water can actually enter the pothole through the drainage system instead of leaving the depression. Potholes also have water quality implications due to having higher soil nitrate stocks than uplands and studies have shown an increase in dissolved reactive phosphorus concentration in potholes over the course of an inundation event.

Management solutions that are being studied include conservation tillage, retirement of the pothole, planting the pothole with flood tolerant crops and improving pothole drainage. These solutions are being tested using a small watershed model, which is calibrated to reflect the monitored conditions and then changed to reflect the new management practices. Upcoming data results will show the effects of management changes on the studied potholes, some of which are being changed to grass, while others will remain in row crops. 

If you’re interested in learning more about the research being done at Iowa State on prairie potholes in farm fields, you can watch the full webinar here.

Join us live for the next Iowa Learning Farms webinar on March 20 at 12:00 pm when Dr. Mark Rasmussen (Director, Leopold Center) will discuss the topic “Are Cattle Really Wrecking the Planet?”.

Hilary Pierce

February 20 Webinar: Farmed Prairie Potholes – Consequences & Management Options

ILFHeader(15-year)On Wednesday, February 20th at noon Iowa Learning Farms will host a webinar with Dr. Amy Kaleita, Professor of Agricultural & Biosystems Engineering at Iowa State University about the consequences of farming prairie potholes and management options for these common Iowa landscape features.

feb webinar potholeskyIn Iowa, many of the features known as prairie potholes are actively farmed. Because of their position in the landscape and their topographic and soils characteristics, prairie potholes flood frequently after rain events, even with artificial drainage. Kaleita will explain this flooding behavior, and the effects it has on crops and watersheds. She will also discuss options for managing these features to decrease the frequency of negative impacts.

“Some research has shown that farmed prairie potholes lose money more often than they make a profit. Because they also have significant environmental impacts, conservation-minded management of these features may provide benefits at a lower cost than changes in more productive parts of the field,” said Kaleita, whose research on precision conservation focuses on how to use publicly available or low-cost data to improve conservation decision-making within production agriculture.

Don’t miss this webinar!
DATE: Wednesday, February 20, 2019
TIME: 12:00 p.m.
HOW TO PARTICIPATE: www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars and click the link to join the webinar

More information about this webinar is available at our website. If you can’t watch the webinar live, an archived version will be available on our website:

Hilary Pierce

A Conservation Chat with Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig

ILFHeader(15-year)Jacqueline Comito| Iowa Learning Farms Program Director

naig_comito_frame_webIowa’s Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig joined me for a live Conservation Chat as a part of the monthly Iowa Learning Farms (ILF) webinar on January 16. Secretary Naig was elected to office in November 2018, but has been in the role since spring of 2018 when he was appointed to fill the post when Bill Northey was confirmed as the U.S. undersecretary for farm production and conservation.

Mike joined the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship five years ago as deputy secretary. He noted that the opportunity to get involved in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy from inception was one of the key reasons he moved from the private sector into government.

Mike grew up on a farm in Palo Alto county during the 1980s and saw the farm crisis firsthand. His parents and other farmers of their generation encouraged their children to find careers off the farm – so they would not have to experience the same challenges later in life. Mike took these sentiments to heart and continues to work to help ensure farmers in Iowa have the resources and opportunities to build successful and sustainable businesses.

When asked about his connection to the land, he expressed delight in the broad diversity of landscapes and natural settings across Iowa. He and his family love to explore the outdoors and enjoy everything Iowa has to offer. It also provides an opportunity to teach his three young sons about the importance of our natural resources and conservation.

Mike made it clear that it was time to significantly scale up implementation of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy. He noted “We are five years into implementation of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy. I am proud of what we’ve accomplished, but if we only do the same for the next five years, we will be seriously behind. This is the time to start scaling successful approaches so we can protect, preserve, and promote Iowa’s productivity and its most abundant natural resource – Texas has oil, Iowa has soil.”

We talked about urban and rural mindsets and how to bridge the understanding gap. “Pointing fingers and assigning blame does not move anyone in the right direction. Fostering mutual understanding of the impact any individual can have, regardless of whether they own a quarter acre lot in Ames or a quarter-section plot in northwest Iowa, is crucial to building a culture of conservation statewide.”

With new funding in the current budget year, the Department of Agriculture has hired additional employees to address conservation practices in several major watershed areas. They are also working with private-sector organizations and partners to expand conservation efforts, outreach and education. Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks! are examples of partners in conservation and education that help deliver these messages. “We partner and contract with organizations such as Iowa State University to take advantage of the innovation, skilled minds, and advanced research that isn’t available elsewhere. The allow us to do the most with what we have and continue to move toward our goals.”

Mike stressed that farmers needed to look at conservation practices with a broad lens. “You can’t just look at cover crops or tiling or bioreactors and saturated buffers as individual things, you must look at the full scope of improving soil health, employing edge of field practices in combination with tile, and ultimately maintaining or improving productivity and water quality.”

I noted that he had appropriated ILF’s Culture of Conservation tagline during his campaign and asked what that means to him. “It means thinking about conservation as priority. If Iowa wants to continue to be a global production leader, it’s crucial to protect and conserve what makes that leadership possible. And to do it through conservation, not regulation.” Mike agreed that youth education is an important piece of the culture of conservation puzzle, and changing the mindset and approach in Iowa will take a long time and must become inherent to the thinking of current and future generations. “You’re not going to reach everyone right away, just like in marketing any idea or product, there will be early adopters through late adopters. Our challenge is to build out a message to entice and encourage adoption of a lasting change over time.”

More Conservation Chats

Be sure to view the archive visit with Mike Naig on our website.

Our conversation will also be released as a Conservation Chat podcast available at the Conservation Chat website and here on iTunes. New Conservation Chat podcasts will be released every month. February’s Chat will be a conversation with Dr. Matt Helmers, Director of the Iowa Nutrient Research Center and Jamie Benning, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach water quality program manager.

Please join us live for next Iowa Learning Farms Webinar February 20 at 12:00 PM with Dr. Amy Kaleita, Iowa State University professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering. The topic will be: Farmed Prairie Potholes – Consequences and Management Options.