Why the delivery scale?

When it comes to monitoring water quality, there are quite a number of factors to consider: What are you monitoring for? How is land utilized within the targeted area?  How, when, where, and for how long will water samples be collected? Under what flow conditions? The scale at which you monitor really makes a difference!

The plot scale is valuable for looking at the impacts of specific in-field management practices. Plot scale (or field-scale) monitoring is where most of the pollutant export and delivery data come from that informed the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Treatments can also be easily replicated on the plot scale. However, it’s challenging to properly scale up plot-level measurements to the area of practice implementation to truly assess water quality impacts across landscapes and with multiple practices.

Monitoring on the watershed scale allows us to look at the collective impacts over a much larger land area.  For instance, watershed-scale monitoring provides a broad picture of water quality challenges and aids in the identification of impaired waters. When monitoring on the watershed scale, measurements inherently include what’s happening on the land (field scale practices), plus field-to-stream transport, plus in-stream processes (bed and bank processes).  It certainly provides a comprehensive look the big picture, but you can’t “sort” out the different contributions of what’s happening in-field versus in-stream.

In between these two lies the delivery scale.  Delivery scale monitoring occurs at the point where water is delivered to a creek or stream. For instance, with drainage research, this would be the point where the tile main surfaces and water empties into a stream. In a nutshell, the delivery scale reflects the direct water quality impacts from an agricultural area, minus the potential confounding effects of in-stream processes like bed and bank erosion. Here at the Iowa Learning Farms, we’d argue that this is truly a sweet spot for looking at the impacts of specific conservation practices.

You need to monitor at the delivery scale if you want to know specifically what the agricultural impacts are.  That’s exactly what we’re striving towards with the Conservation Learning Labs project.

Within a small watershed area (several hundred acres), can we get a substantial percentage of producers adopting a conservation practice, like cover crops, and then measure corresponding water quality improvements at the delivery scale?  Modeling suggests so, and this project will quantify what nutrient load reductions are actually realized thanks to large scale, targeted adoption of cover crops.

Cover crops were seeded for the first time in fall 2017 within our two Conservation Learning Labs project sites.  Stay tuned for results as we look at the water quality (and soil health) impacts of substantial cover crop adoption on the delivery scale!

Ann Staudt

Conservation Chat: We must clean up our water sources voluntarily

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Ben Johnson and his wife Amy.

This month, host Jacqueline Comito has a conversation with a farmer in northeast Iowa. Ben Johnson is a sixth generation farmer that purchased his first farm with his brother Andy when he was a sophomore at Iowa State University. Conservation saves him one of his most valued resources on the farm: time.

Johnson takes part in our Conservation Learning Lab program with a small scale watershed and CREP wetland on a neighbors property. He and his family began using cover crops in 2013, a year that had a terribly wet spring. They had 200-300 acres that were too wet to plant and didn’t want them to sit bare all year so they took an old seeder and ran oats and radishes that August. He noticed an improvement in the soil tilth right away and in the beans produced that fall. 2013 was also the year that they introduced strip-tilling, increasing water absorption and yield in those areas.

Other conservation methods Johnson employs are buffer strips, prairie CRP, pollinator habitats, field windbreaks and a pheasant safe program. Johnson says, “The easiest place for somebody to start is no-tilling their beans. They don’t really seem to respond to tillage and it’s such a labor and money eater. That’s the biggest reason we switched. The most precious resource on my farm is time.”

“I hope my kids can be the seventh generation (to farm) so it means a lot to me to leave the land in as good or better shape than it was when I started,” that means the soil needs to be productive and the water needs to run clear “I want all my black soil still on top of my hills and not at the bottom of all of them, not in my road ditches and not in the Cedar River.”

Listen to this Episode of Conservation Chat to learn about the numerous benefits of strip-till, no-till and cover crops and how easy it can be to get started! You can subscribe to the podcast for future episodes as well.

Brianne Osborn

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

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)

Newton Students, Teacher & Iowa DNR Clean Up Name of Local Creek

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, organized citizens can change the world,” anthropologist Margaret Mead once said. Students and teachers at Newton High School, and Iowa Department of Natural Resources staff, proved exactly that this summer by raising awareness of the South Skunk River watershed by successfully changing the name of Sewer Creek to Cardinal Creek.

Science teacher Courtney Wolken has worked at Newton High School (NHS) for 11 years. In the summer of 2016, Wolken met with Iowa DNR Nonpoint Source Coordinator, Steve Hopkins, and Jasper County DNR’s Keri VanZante, to brainstorm projects for her Advanced Placement (AP) Biology students that would benefit the Newton community. Hopkins and VanZante proposed the idea of changing the creek’s name from “Sewer” to “Cardinal,” in honor of the NHS mascot. Wolken was immediately receptive of the idea for her students. Wolken wrote the project into her AP Biology curriculum for the year, planning to have students begin water testing and watershed assessment during the project, in addition to facilitating the name change.

The creek lies just west of the school and connects to the South Skunk River. It is one of many creeks in Iowa with the descriptor “sewer” because of their historical use as sewage dumping areas. The practice of waste dumping has since been changed, but many creeks still bear the stinky names of their previous purposes.

Cardinal Creek photo2

Cardinal Creek,
Photo by Courtney Wolken

As part of the creek project, students began organizing trash clean up days. Wolken says:

It was rewarding to see the students take ownership of the project. The students took a day and cleaned up garbage at three site locations. They were always happy to take observations at the sites, and pictures to use for the habitat assessment.

Wolken’s class applied for official approval from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) to change the creek’s name in April 2017, and the USGS responded by asking for evidence of local support for the name change. Hopkins says:

When I learned of this from Ms. Wolken, I offered to contact several local agencies to solicit support letters for the effort.  Four local community agencies: the Jasper County Conservation Board, the Jasper Soil and Water Conservation District, the Newton School Board, and the Newton City Council, all responded with enthusiastic support letters. 

Wolken’s students also began talking with community members about the creek, and petitioning both the Newton Community School Board and the Newton City Council for approval of the project. Wolken states that her classes continually received positive feedback:

During the process, I have spoken with many community members who shared their stories about the creek that runs behind the school. Many spent time [there] enjoying nature. They had no idea why it was called “Sewer Creek.”

With support from the school board, the Newton community, and the DNR, Wolken’s class presented several letters of support to the USGS. On July 19 they received notice that the name change had been officially approved.

Wolken and Hopkins are both thrilled by the success of the students, and what it means for the future of the creek and the South Skunk River watershed. Hopkins says:

Making NHS students and local residents more aware of their local creek also fits with the statewide water quality education campaign that the Iowa DNR Watershed Improvement Program is embarking upon. …[M]any Iowans are not only unaware of the water quality of their local lakes and streams, many are even unaware of the name of their local creek…These efforts greatly enhanced awareness of a local creek whose new name bears enormous pride in the Newton community. 

While waiting for official word from the USGS, both AP Biology and AP Chemistry students started actively monitoring the creek to help assess the water quality long-term. “We would like a few more months of chemical assessment before analysis of the numbers [is shared],” says Wolken. In addition to water quality improvement goals, Wolken sees additional possibilities that could follow from this experience:

I would like this project to continue being a collaboration between the two AP science courses. I have an interest in more restorative projects, such as erosion control, native plantings, and [improvements with] urban water runoff from the school. The students would like to involve community members with some of these projects.

Because signage for creeks is not something the Iowa Department of Transportation normally provides, the DNR stepped forward to fund the DOT to create and install a Cardinal Creek sign. Wolken was present at the time the sign was installed to capture that wonderful moment on camera.

DOT installs signage,
Photos by Courtney Wolken & Sara Hopkins

Water Rocks! is thrilled about this example of positive change in support of local water quality improvement, and we are grateful to Courtney Wolken and Steve Hopkins for sharing their stories with us. We congratulate the students and teachers of NHS for showing that a small group of thoughtful, committed, organized citizens absolutely can—and will—change our world!

Newton High School AP Biology students & teacher, Courtney Wolken,
Photos by Steve Hopkins

Brandy Case Haub

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

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