Incubating New Ideas at the Drainage Research Forum

Matt Helmers | Professor in Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering and Extension Agriculture Engineer, Iowa State University 

In my last column, I wrote about how we needed to scale up the human resources significantly in order to meet some of the goals of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. This month, I would like to assert that it is also critical we continue efforts on new technology development and research on the performance of practices – specifically new practices.

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Bioreactor Installation in Monroe Co. Iowa

One outlet for developing new ideas is the Iowa-Minnesota Drainage Research Forum. While edge-of-field nitrate reduction practices such as controlled drainage, bioreactors, wetlands, and saturated buffers are now household names, they were first discussed at the Drainage Research Forums when they were just preliminary ideas with some preliminary data. This event serves as an incubator for innovation to help us get feedback about how these practices might work.

The Drainage Research Forum is in its seventeenth year and was held in Ames this year. I have been attending these forums since I stated at Iowa State. The Forum averages around 75 people, mainly engineers and researchers from across the Midwest. Basically, when we present the new idea or practice at this forum, we are asking our colleagues to give us input on whether they think it will work on a larger scale and to see if anyone in the room can point out our flaws or give us another way to approach it. They can be really engaging and important discussions.


You can download most of the past Forum presentations from the Drainage Outlet website through University of Minnesota Extension.


Much of the initial funding for these types of unknown practices were from state agencies and local centers such as the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. These groups could be nimble and see the need and understand that small initial investments could lead to great outcomes and larger research funding which has happened in almost all cases.

So while we continue working on implementation of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy and continue with efforts to education farmers and other stakeholders about practices they can use to reduce downstream nutrient loss, we need to continue the behind the scenes efforts to develop new practices for nutrient reduction, conduct research to refine recommendations for practice implementation, and conduct research to enhance the performance of practices.

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Drainage Forum held in Ames, Iowa on November 15, 2017

In order to do this, we need forums like the Drainage Research Forum to help develop the innovation needed to develop practices or different approaches to old ones. Forums that bring together smaller groups of people with initial ideas and data to help them see how that information will work on the land.

The Iowa Learning Farms team likes to tease me about how excited I get to attend the Drainage Research Forum. They are right. It is one of my favorite gatherings. Some or much of that excitement comes from knowing I will get to learn about cutting edge practices, technology or management approaches that are in their early stages. I look forward to hearing what new ideas are discussed at the next seventeen (or more!) Drainage Research Forums. You are welcome to join us in 2018.

Matt Helmers

Post-Harvest Field Day Series Heading Your Way!

As the crop year is coming to an end, cover crop season 2017 is starting to take root! This fall Iowa Learning Farms is co-sponsoring nine cover crop workshops.  Be sure to mark your calendars and plan to attend one near you.

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November 7, Gordon Wassenaar Cover Crop Field Day
3:30-5:30pm

8718 West 109th St S
Prairie City, IA
Jasper County
Press Release
Flyer
RSVP to Jasper SWCD:641-792-4116 Ext. 3 or jessica.rutter@ia.nacdnet.net

November 8, Jim Lindaman Cover Crop and Soil Conservation Field Day
12:00-2:00pm

16969 310th St
Aplington, IA
Butler County
Press Release
Flyer
RSVP to 515-294-5429 or ilf@iastate.edu

November 15, Lucas Bayer Cover Crop Field Day
4:00-6:00pm

2310 430th Ave
Guernsey, IA
Poweshiek County
Press Release
Flyer
RSVP to 515-294-5429 or ilf@iastate.edu

November 16, Ben and Andy Johnson Cover Crop and Strip-Tillage Field Day
10:00am-12:00pm
1170 Hwy 218
Floyd, IA
Floyd County
Press Release
Flyer
RSVP to 515-294-5429 or ilf@iastate.edu

November 21, Jacob Groth Cover Crop Field Day
12:30-2:30pm
Winneshiek County NRCS Office
2296 Oil Well Rd
Decorah, IA
Winneshiek County
RSVP to 563-382-8777 ext 3 or Matt.Frana@ia.nacdnet.net

November 28, Walnut Creek Watershed Cover Crop Field Day
TBD
Montgomery County

November 30, Conservation Learning Lab Cover Crop Field Day
5:30-7:30pm

Roland Area Community Center
208 Main St
Roland, IA
Story County
RSVP to 515-294-5429 or ilf@iastate.edu

December 6, Elk Run Watershed Cover Crop and Soil Health Workshop
TBD
Sac County

December 13, Cover Crop Workshop
TBD
East Pottawattamie County

Liz Juchems

What’s In Your Water?:  Spotlight on Pharmaceuticals

Does your medicine cabinet have half a bottle of prescription medication left over from an injury years ago? How many random expired OTC medications can you find around your house?

This Saturday, October 28, is your chance to dispose of those unused/unwanted medications properly!   National Drug Take Back Day is designed to provide a safe, convenient,“no questions asked” opportunity to dispose of medications, addressing a critical public health issue. Find a Take Back LOCATION near you.  While headlines across the state and across the nation have brought needed attention to such challenges as the opioid epidemic, pharmaceuticals also pose an emerging challenge to our water quality.


How exactly can pharmaceuticals and personal care products impact the surrounding environment?

Historically, unused medications were flushed down the toilet (that’s NOT the recommended disposal technique any longer).

However, in addition, the medicines and personal care products we use every day are having an unseen impact on our water resources. Pharmaceuticals like statins are prescribed to help us lower cholesterol levels, and headaches are banished by a few pills of ibuprofen. While the chemical compounds found in pharmaceuticals are metabolized internally, our bodies are not 100% efficient machines.

The remainder of the medications that our bodies do not use pass through our bodies and exit when we use the bathroom. Although wastewater treatment facilities do a great job of cleaning our water, these treatment processes cannot fully remove the multitude of complex chemicals within drugs, shampoos and other personal care products. These chemicals can build up in our water sources over time – consider the chemical “cocktail” of antibiotics, antidepressants, Viagra, painkillers, and more!  As trace amounts of these different chemical compounds accumulate in the environment, in our waters, the long-term impacts to fish, amphibians, and humans alike are yet to be determined.


Check out “The Shower” from our award-winning What’s In Your Water? video series to learn more!


Do your part and check that home medicine cabinet today!  Find a Take Back LOCATION near you and dispose of those medications this Saturday, October 28.

Ann Staudt


 

Read on for more information:

retaiN: Putting the Power of Data in the Hands of Farmers

One piece of the puzzle in encouraging farmers to adopt practices that reduce nitrogen loss is to show them how much nitrate is being lost through their tile lines, and if some fields have higher loss than others. Most water monitoring methods are expensive or labor-intensive and it is impractical now to professionally test every farm. We needed to come up with an idea that was effective, inexpensive, and easily done by farmers. The result was the retaiN project.

ILF Juchems 068The seeds for retaiN came from conversations Clare Lindahl and I had with farmers that had participated in tile monitoring. The farmers told us that it was an eye-opening experience. They found that while they were using practices that minimized soil loss and improved soil health, those practices weren’t addressing nitrate loss through their tile.

Afterwards, Clare (at the time Executive Director of Conservation Districts of Iowa) and I were trying to figure out how to make the tile monitoring process easier and accessible to a larger number of farmers. Building on the idea of citizen science, we decided that we could create less expensive testing kits that farmers could use privately on their land to help answer these questions. To get the funds we needed, we applied for and received a grant through the State Soil Conservation Committee.

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Oct_2017_Retain2This seed money enabled us to develop simple kits to make testing tile water for nitrate easy and to also provide farmers with solutions for retaining nitrogen on the farm. In two years, the project has distributed over 1,200 retaiN kits to farmers and landowners individually and through watershed project coordinators, ISU Extension field specialists and county offices, Iowa Corn Growers Association (ICGA) and agribusinesses.

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Oct_2017_Retain1The test kit provides an opportunity to collect on-farm nitrate concentration data and further engages farmers in water quality issues. Participants are encouraged to discuss their results with a specialist but there are no requirements to submit data. A new partnership with Iowa Corn Growers Association saw significant growth this year with ICGA distributing over 400 kits at Crop Fairs, Soil Health Partnership events, and watershed education and outreach events across the state.

The evaluation of the kits from farmers, agribusiness and organization partners, watershed coordinators, and ISU Extension and Outreach specialists has been overwhelmingly positive. In some cases, it has led to expanded on-farm water sampling to gather additional or more precise data, ongoing monitoring to gather baseline results, and changes in nitrogen management and practice adoption. Thanks to our funding partners, we are still able to offer farmers their first retaiN kit at no cost.  Additional kits can be purchased for $39 and can be requested through the project website www.retainiowa.com/.

The retaiN project demonstrates the power of information when it comes to reducing the amount of nitrate that leaves a farmer’s land through their tile lines. The more farmers learn about the quality of the water leaving their land, the closer we will get to achieving our Nutrient Reduction Strategy goals, one retaiN kit at a time.

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Jamie Benning

retaiN is a collaboration between Conservation Districts of Iowa, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach and Iowa Learning Farms with support from the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Division of Soil Conservation and Water Quality. Jamie Benning is an Iowa Learning Farms team member and Water Quality Program Manager at Iowa State University.

Thinking Like a Watershed

Today’s guest post is by Steve Hopkins, Nonpoint Source Coordinator with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources Watershed Improvement Section.

I had the privilege of visiting the legendary Aldo Leopold farm and shack near Baraboo, Wisconsin last August while attending the Soil and Water Conservation Society’s annual conference.  Although I had completed my master’s degree just down the road at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I had never before visited the Leopold farm. It was in many ways a pilgrimage to a sacred place.Oct2017_1Leopold Shack near Baraboo, Wisconsin (photo by Steve Hopkins)

While standing in awe in front of the Leopold shack, amidst the towering pines and deep-rooted prairie plants that the Leopold family had planted back in the 1930s, I was struck with the meaning behind Leopold’s concept of “Thinking Like a Mountain” in his 1944 essay bearing that name.

Leopold came up with the concept after watching a wolf die that he had shot, and seeing the “fierce green fire dying in her eyes.” Although he had previously been a staunch proponent of killing wolves with the idea of increasing the number of deer (which he and others wanted more of for hunting), he later realized that removing wolves resulted in an overpopulation of deer. Too many deer meant overgrazing and over-browsing of vegetation on the mountain, and the eventual destruction of the mountain from erosion.  Watching the wolf die was a pivotal event for Leopold—one that deeply affected his thinking about the value of predators to keep ecosystems in balance, and reinforced his understanding that removing even a single species can have serious negative consequences on the environment.

As Leopold wrote in 1944 in “Thinking Like a Mountain” (from Flader, 1974, p. 1)¹:

“We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes.  I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the fierce green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”

“Thinking Like a Mountain”, therefore, means we need to consider the importance of ecological balance—including the value of a single species of predator—in our land use decision-making and actions. When we remove even one single species from the ecosystem, it can have dire consequences. It means we need to see things from the mountain’s perspective before acting.

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Oct2017_2World’s 2nd oldest restored prairie, Leopold Farm, Baraboo, Wisconsin (photo by Steve Hopkins)

Likewise, for those of us working to improve the health of watersheds, we need to be thinking like a watershed.”  This means we need to consider the consequences of even a single action on the health of a watershed before acting.

Healthy watersheds are those that act like a sponge to soak in rainfall, enabling the watershed to minimize flooding and reduce runoff that carries pollutants to our lakes, rivers, and streams. Every time a single action takes place that adds more runoff in a watershed, such as adding more paved areas or converting land from soil-covering, deep-rooted perennials to tilled row crops, it reduces the watershed’s ability to act like a sponge and soak in rainfall. When this happens, a watershed “catches” less and “sheds” more. When multiple “single actions” take place in a watershed, it results in flooding and water quality problems. Our primary course of action after that point is to invest lots of time, money, and energy to fixing the flooding and water quality problems that we did not prevent in the first place.

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Many of us are already very well aware of the many practices that are available to soak in, trap, or store rainfall before it runs off our watersheds in Iowa. Many are also working to develop detailed watershed improvement plans to help fix flooding and water quality problems across the state. Just as Aldo Leopold advised us to incorporate “thinking like a mountain” into our actions to improve ecosystems, we would be wise to incorporate thinking like a watershed into each of our plans and actions to improve watersheds. I suspect Leopold would agree.

Steve Hopkins

Reference:
¹Flader, Susan L., Thinking Like a Mountain: Aldo Leopold and the Evolution of an Ecological Attitude toward Deer, Wolves, and Forests (University of Wisconsin Press, 1974).

Oct2017_3Leopold benches at the Leopold Farm, Baraboo, Wisconsin (photo by Steve Hopkins)

IDALS and Iowa Learning Farms: A Partnership on the Edge

Today’s guest post is by Jake Hansen, Chief of the Water Resources Bureau Division of Soil Conservation & Water Quality at Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS). 

The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship has a long history of working together with USDA-Natural Resource Conservation Services, Farm Service Agency, Iowa Department of Natural Resources, and numerous other state and federal partners.

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Water Quality Field Day in Wright County September 2015

Many of you have been partnering at the local level for years to such great depths that you may not consider your conservation team to be a collection of partners anymore. Local extension councils, county boards of supervisors, county conservation boards, and local Farm Bureau chapters throughout Iowa are working with soil and water conservation districts to share staff, complete outreach, and identify local priorities. Additionally, local retailers, particularly in the agronomic sector, are coming to the table to assist in promoting conservation plans and practices as they are seeing increased value in conservation practices, and taking advantage of growing markets for sustainable commodities. These local partnerships will be essential in taking new practices from concept to mainstream adoption through the Iowa Water Quality Initiative.

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Bioreactor installation in Monroe County July, 2015

IDALS is looking to take the next step in putting together a water quality program that can be scaled up quickly to put water quality investments to work for farmers and all Iowans. One way we are doing this is by showcasing new practices that work in targeted locations to improve water quality at the field scale. While IDALS has assisted in construction of some of these wetlands, bioreactors, and saturated buffers, we are now looking at ways to deploy these practices intensely at a watershed scale.

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Wetland and Cover Crop Field Day in Pocahontas County August 2017

Beginning in late 2017, IDALS will partner with Iowa Learning Farms to conduct watershed-scale planning and landowner outreach in high-priority watersheds. Our goal will be to develop a model for identifying suitable sites and working with landowners to complete edge-of-field practice installation. Iowa Learning Farms will conduct field days in the selected areas to showcase water quality practices, and will give landowners an opportunity on the spot to sign up for conservation planning assistance. It is our hope that together we will be able to create an efficient process for edge-of-field project development that can be replicated statewide as a key component of a long-term water quality improvement program.

The daunting task of improving water quality, soil health and environmental stewardship in Iowa is one that cannot be completed successfully by a single person or agency. Economic challenges and competing priorities will continue to change the way we are able to deliver programs at IDALS, which means that perhaps more than ever, we will have to find creative ways to partner at all levels. IDALS is excited to look to the future in our long-standing partnership with Iowa Learning Farms to continue to advance water quality efforts in our state!

Jake Hansen

Reducing Soil Erosion with Cover Crops: New Infographic

Iowa Learning Farms is pleased to announce the release of a new infographic publication titled Reducing Soil Erosion with Rye Cover Crops.

This visually engaging document highlights one of the biggest benefits of cover crops — the ability to significantly reduce soil erosion. Based upon long-term cover crop work conducted by Korucu, Shipitalo, and Kaspar, colleagues at the USDA-ARS National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment here in Ames, this study looks specifically at one of Iowa’s most popular cover crops, winter cereal rye.

The USDA-ARS team conducted in-field simulated rainfall studies on plots with and without cereal rye cover crops, and their findings are powerful in terms of quantifying erosion reduction – 68% less sediment in surface runoff water with a rye cover crop. Further, the amount of surface runoff water decreased, while the amount of water infiltrating was found to increase with the cover crop.

This study was conducted in central Iowa, in the heart of the Des Moines Lobe, on land with a 2% slope. Substantial erosion reductions were found here with rye cover crops — consider the benefits of cover crops to reduce erosion on more sloping lands across the state!

The full infographic is available as a free PDF download on the Iowa Learning Farms website. Clicking on the image below will also take you right there.

Ann Staudt