Request the Conservation Station for Your 2018 Summer Event Today!


If you have a summer camp, county fair, farmers market or other community event in need of unique and educational entertainment, look no further than the Conservation Station. We are currently accepting requests for community events in June and July 2018. Get your requests in by Wednesday, March 21 for priority consideration!

IMG_2963The Conservation Station brings with it a multitude of activities that educate and inspire children, adults and families to think deeper about the world around them. Our rainfall simulator demonstrates the impacts of land management choices on water quality. Our hands-on, interactive activities and games emphasize that, if everyone does their part, we can all make a difference in water quality in Iowa and beyond.

Do you want to include the Conservation Station at your community event? Request the Conservation Station for your event this summer! Get your requests in by Wednesday, March 21 for priority consideration!

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Julie Winter

Watershed Management Authorities: Opening the Communication Line Between Cities and Farmers

Today’s guest post is by Mary Beth Stevenson, Eastern Basin Coordinator with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources Watershed Improvement Section.

Can you think of the last time you sat around a table with farmers and representatives from multiple Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCDs), counties and cities, and elected officials to discuss water quality and flood risk reduction in your watershed? If you live within an active Watershed Management Authority (WMA) region, then these opportunities may arise more than you realize.

WMA map

What exactly can a WMA do? The Iowa Code charges WMAs with assessing flood risk and water quality concerns, identifying conservation and water quality structures and practices that will minimize flood risk and improve water quality, monitoring federal flood risk programs, educating watershed residents and seeking funding for watershed work. The Iowa Legislature authorized the WMAs in 2010 as a response to the disastrous Flood of 2008.


Since 2012, when the first six WMAs were established, 23 have now been organized. Currently, 71 counties are covered by at least one WMA, encompassing over a third of the state. WMAs don’t have taxing authority or regulatory authority. In addition, the Iowa Code forbids WMA from condemning land through eminent domain.

The collaborative framework of WMAs is established through cooperative agreements. These agreements are common among cities, towns, counties and other local governments to share resources such as ambulance or fire services. WMAs do not create ‘new’ layers of government; instead, they facilitate more efficient government by allowing for shared resources and cooperation.

For example, a recent Middle Cedar WMA meeting in La Porte City exemplified how WMAs can open a critical line of communication among rural and urban stakeholders. Representatives from both small towns and larger cities gathered with staff and elected officials from several counties and SWCDs at the La Porte City community center.

Middle Cedar

Many of those sitting around the table were farmers. The chair of the Middle Cedar WMA is Todd Wiley, a Benton County Supervisor and successful farmer. It was powerful to observe farmers actively engaged in discussions with city and county officials, collectively making decisions about project funding and the future of the Middle Cedar watershed.

If no farmers had been present at the Middle Cedar WMA meeting, an essential perspective would have been missing. Farmers are an integral piece of the watershed jigsaw puzzle, and their voices are very much welcomed in any Watershed Management Authority.


If a WMA exists in your area, don’t be afraid to attend a meeting and be an active participant. After all, it is your watershed and your perspective is a valued and respected part of the conversation.

For more information about WMAs, go to the Iowa DNR’s website.

Mary Beth Stevenson

Watershed Scale, Not Field Scale

If we hope to significantly improve water quality in Iowa and still farm profitably, we are going to need to change our mindset about our agricultural systems. We are going to need to start thinking in terms of watersheds.

Each spring I teach a graduate course for the Iowa State University Master of Science in Agronomy distance program called “Agronomic Systems Analysis.” The course is comprised of field-scale case studies that require students to consider how complex decisions must be made by taking into consideration agronomic, economic, environmental, and social implications of the decisions. This year, I incorporated a new lesson that goes beyond field scale but encourages the students to address the issues at the watershed scale.

shelbyemphemeral-e1506974374896The point of this lesson is to have students think not about a single farm or field but to think about where to target practices to be the most effective. And which practices will draw the most reduction of nutrients being lost. This is not rocket science. It has been well established that sloping land is prone to erosion. These are the areas where no-tillage and cover crops are going to be the most effective at keeping soil and phosphorus in place. It’s well understood that well drained soils with very little slope are prone to nitrate leaching. These are the areas where bioreactors, wetlands and cover crops will be most effective in reducing nitrate movement into flowing water.

For several years, the Iowa Learning Farms and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach have been talking about implementing conservation practices and the scale of conservation practice adoption that must occur to reach nutrient reduction goals. For instance, one scenario calls for statewide adoption of MRTN (maximum return to nitrogen) rates along with 12 million acres of cover crops, 12 million acres of no-tillage, 6 million acres treated by bioreactors, and 7.5 million acres treated by wetlands. That effort to date has achieved approximately 625,000 acres of cover crops, 5 million acres of no-tillage, 950 acres treated by bioreactors and 42,200 acres treated by wetlands. We have a long way to go.

Cover crops

Reaching conservation practice goals will take everyone thinking about how his or her footprint impacts the watershed as a whole. It will take targeting practices for maximum effectiveness with minimal impact to the cost of production. Wetlands can be installed to treat water flowing from multiple fields. Prairie strips in strategic locations can minimize sediment and phosphorus loss. Saturated and riparian buffers will reduce nutrient movement and streambank sloughing of rivers and streams. It can even be as simple as installing a waterway to connect waterways from adjacent fields or no-tilling soybean into corn residue.

There can be watershed and community benefits that extend beyond the fence. Many practices can support efforts to provide habitat for pollinators, monarchs, song birds, game birds, waterfowl and deer.

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We cannot meet the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy goals and improve habitat without changing our mindset about how we farm and the use of conservation. Conservation practices are most effective if they are targeted specifically in areas that will result in a continuous, complimentary system across the watershed.

How can we help you think on a watershed scale?

Mark Licht

Mark Licht is an Iowa Learning Farms team member and Assistant Professor and Extension Cropping Systems Specialist at Iowa State University.

From the Director

ilfbadge_youtube-01As the Iowa Learning Farms turns 14, we will not be resting on our past successes. This upcoming year will bring new ways of engaging farmers and all Iowans in conservation and water quality improvement practices.

05-17-bioreactorWhile we will still continue to work with our partners to increase the number of cover crop and no-tillage acres in Iowa, starting in 2018 we will also be offering assistance with edge-of-field practice implementation through conservation planning.

Working with local stakeholders, we will hold farmer meetings and field days in the North Raccoon and Middle Cedar watersheds to encourage participants to begin the process of conservation planning so they can implement an edge-of-field practice, which include bioreactors, saturated buffers, wetlands, and drainage water management.

Assistance with conservation planning can help determine eligibility for cost share for the practices. Our goal is to assist with about 10 plans and get commitments to implement about 5 edge-of-field practices to serve as demonstration sites to encourage others in these areas to consider these important water quality improvement practices.

It is our hope that we exceed our goals and need to ask the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship for additional funding to accommodate all those folks interested in conservation planning to install edge-of-field practices.

DSCN0199Keep your eyes on future e-news to learn when we will host an “edge of field” field day in your area. These field days will feature presentations by farmers and experts, as well as our new Conservation Station “On the Edge” demonstration so you can see first hand how saturated buffers, bioreactors and wetlands work to improve water quality. We might even throw in a goat or two if that will get you to come to the field day.

If you are in those watersheds and interested in completing a conservation plan and implementing an edge-of-field practice, please contact Liz Juchems at or 515-294-5429.

Jacqueline Comito

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

Ben&Amy Johnson2

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.


November 7, Gordon Wassenaar Cover Crop Field Day

8718 West 109th St S
Prairie City, IA
Jasper County
Press Release
RSVP to Jasper SWCD:641-792-4116 Ext. 3 or

November 8, Jim Lindaman Cover Crop and Soil Conservation Field Day

16969 310th St
Aplington, IA
Butler County
Press Release
RSVP to 515-294-5429 or

November 15, Lucas Bayer Cover Crop Field Day

2310 430th Ave
Guernsey, IA
Poweshiek County
Press Release
RSVP to 515-294-5429 or

November 16, Ben and Andy Johnson Cover Crop and Strip-Tillage Field Day
1170 Hwy 218
Floyd, IA
Floyd County
Press Release
RSVP to 515-294-5429 or

November 21, Jacob Groth Cover Crop Field Day
Winneshiek County NRCS Office
2296 Oil Well Rd
Decorah, IA
Winneshiek County
RSVP to 563-382-8777 ext 3 or

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

November 30, Conservation Learning Lab Cover Crop Field Day

Roland Area Community Center
208 Main St
Roland, IA
Story County
RSVP to 515-294-5429 or

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

December 13, Cover Crop Workshop
East Pottawattamie County

Liz Juchems