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

Lessons Learned from Farmer Interviews of the Lyons Creek Watershed Project

Today’s guest post was provided by Steve Hopkins, Nonpoint Source Coordinator with the Iowa DNR’s Watershed Improvement Section.

The University of Northern Iowa’s Center for Social and Behavioral Research recently completed a study of farmers and stakeholders involved with the Lyons Creek Watershed Project about the farmers’ participation in the project and their attitudes toward adopting conservation practices.  The study was a post-project evaluation done at the end of the Lyons Creek Watershed Project, administered through the Hamilton County SWCD in north central Iowa.

The primary goal of the watershed project was to reduce nitrate levels in Lyons Creek, which has the highest nitrate levels of all of the tributaries of the Boone River.  The Boone River is a tributary of the Des Moines River, which is a source of drinking water for the city of Des Moines.


Despite the fact that the primary goal of the project was to reduce nitrate levels, and that the project coincided with the release of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, the project fell short of its goals due to a lack farmer participation and adoption of nitrate-reducing practices.  The purpose of the study was to find out why.

The study, based on in-depth interviews with farmers and project stakeholders, found both positive and negative factors related to farmer participation in the watershed project:



The study included recommendations for future watershed projects, including providing funding for a full-time project coordinator, involving farmers early on in project planning, and making project goals clearer.

UNI will be presenting the results of the study at the 2017 Iowa Water Conference in March.

This study, funded by Iowa DNR with EPA Section 319 funds, is available on the DNR Watershed Improvement webpage under “Watershed News” at  http://www.iowadnr.gov/Environmental-Protection/Water-Quality/Watershed-Improvement.

Steve Hopkins


Water Rocks! Assemblies are Rockin’!

What do singing, dancing, dog poop, water quality, full audience participation, and a big blue Snuggie all have in common? You’ll get all of these things and more with the brand new Water Rocks! Assemblies!


This fall Water Rocks! rolled out a creative and exciting endeavor called Water Rocks! Assemblies, using music to teach the science of water quality for kindergartners through 8th grade across the state. The mission of Water Rocks! Assemblies is to educate, challenge, and inspire young people towards a greater appreciation of our water resources. Water Rocks! continues to reach students through its popular interactive classroom visits, but the Water Rocks! Assemblies are unique in that multiple classes, even multiple grades, with hundreds of students, can be reached at one time! Since Water Rocks! took their new show on the road in September, thousands of students across Iowa, along with their teachers, have rocked out with Water Rocks! Assemblies.

During the Assemblies, students learn about watersheds, natural resources, conservation, and land use. The teaching is done through music, dance, theater, games, and interactive lessons. This innovative approach of infusing science and music makes learning fun, and helps students commit valuable information to memory.

A teacher at Beaver Creek Elementary in Johnston said, “The team made the water facts exciting, fun, and informative. I believe my students will remember quite a few of the presented concepts. This was a great experience for my students!”

The Assemblies encourage students to participate by singing, dancing, performing in a play, and answering questions. Catchy Water Rocks! songs like “We all Live in a Watershed,” “What’s in Your Water?,” “Scoop That Poop” and “The Watershed Rap” bring students and teachers to their feet to sing and dance. Teachers are happy to see their students have such a great time while learning.


A teacher from Turkey Valley Elementary school in Jackson Junction told us, “Bringing music into the presentation had students saying they couldn’t get the tune out of their heads – a good thing!”

Students in 4th-8th grades are entertained by an activity called “Watershed Broadway.” Peer helpers from the school perform in a play that illustrates how various pollutants move from our land to waterways in the Mississippi River Watershed, eventually making their way to the Gulf of Mexico. A Water Rocks! team member donning a big blue Snuggie plays the part of a raindrop who has just fallen out of the sky, and has to travel to the river. Along the way the raindrop meets some friends who join her on the journey to the river. These friends are pollutants such as garbage, sediment, fertilizer, pesticide, oil, and dog poop. Their journey to the river culminates with a cannonball into the river, in which the audience gets to see how pollution affects our waterways.

Students in kindergarten – 3rd grades learn about harmful water pollutants by playing a gameshow-style game called “Clean River, Dirty River.” In the game, students are selected from the audience to come to the front. They are each given a picture of an item that can be found in a clean river or a dirty river. One at a time, they are asked to place their item on either the “Clean River” poster or the “Dirty River” poster. It serves as a great visual for younger students to see how pollution impacts our rivers!

Peer helpers are an integral part of the assemblies. Peer helpers are students identified as leaders by the faculty and staff at the school. The helpers sing, dance, and perform alongside Water Rocks! staff. They also encourage the audience to participate in the songs and activities. If possible, high school students are used as peer helpers, which is always a big hit with younger students.

A high school peer helper from Turkey Valley said, “I had an amazing time working with you guys! I learned things about water and watersheds that I didn’t even know. A little girl that told me it was the greatest day ever, and she was so happy that she got to dance with high schoolers. It was the cutest thing ever. Thank you guys for coming and letting us participate in the assembly. We all had a great time, and so did all the students that we talked to! Thanks so much!”

The Assemblies were created keeping Next Generation Science Standards in mind, so that teachers can coordinate classroom lessons with the information presented in the assembly. After each Assembly, teachers are given a packet of follow-up resources that contain workbooks, enhanced learning activities, DVDs, CDs with award-winning Water Rocks! music, and more.

Would you like to bring a Water Rocks! Assembly to your local school? Sponsorship opportunities are available — this is a particularly unique opportunity for Soil and Water Conservation Districts, local businesses, and individuals to show your support for conservation and natural resources education! Water quality matters to us all! Contact Jacqueline Comito at 515-296-0081 or jcomito@iastate.edu to discuss sponsorship to reserve a School Assembly in your local district. Spots are filing quickly for spring, so act today!

Jenn Riggs

ILF Launches Conservation Learning Labs Project

cll_logoIowa Learning Farms has launched a project—The Conservation Learning Labs—that will study how implementation of conservation practices can reduce nitrogen and phosphorus loss at the watershed scale in Iowa. The project is funded by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) and the United States Department of Agriculture – Natural Resources Conservation Services (USDA-NRCS) of Iowa.

The project is specifically focused on small watersheds — between 500 and 1,300 total acres in size—and the widespread adoption of cover crops on a large percentage of the watershed’s agricultural land. The two pilot watersheds were chosen because of their size and because the watersheds already have a Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) wetland on-site that will provide baseline water quality monitoring data on nitrogen and phosphorus loads over several years. We will be able to see how nutrient loads might be affected in real time based on the implementation of cover crops on the land.

Our main focus: Can high levels of cover crop implementation be obtained on a small watershed scale, and water quality improvements documented accordingly?


Goldilocks and the Three Scales of Nutrient Load Research

The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS) lays out in-field and edge-of-field conservation practices that, if implemented, can improve Iowa’s water quality and reduce N and P export. Much of the research highlighted in the NRS is from small, plot-scale research projects. While these controlled studies are essential to our understanding of nutrient loads, results at the plot scale can differ from actual nutrient loads that we see at a larger scale (HUC-12 and larger watersheds). In-stream processes such as bed and bank erosion can add variability and complicate the overall picture in larger watersheds of how we assess agricultural source loads.

It’s the Goldilocks principle: plot scale research is too small, and HUC-12 watersheds are too large. The sweet spot is somewhere in between. This is why the Conservation Learning Labs project will target the scale at which nutrient loads are actually delivered: small watersheds containing less than 2,000 acres.


High Levels of Implementation Required

The NRS gives us a road map that we can use to reduce nutrient loads; however, high levels of adoption of conservation practices are required. Iowa has made great progress in recent years as we see farmers across the state adopting minimum or no-tillage practices and seeding more cover crops. If ones looks closely, more wetlands, buffers and bioreactors have also begun to dot the landscape. But we have a long way to go.

Despite our continued improvement, we will still need more than ten million total cover crop and no-till acres throughout Iowa to reach the goals of the NRS. Edge-of-field practices like wetlands and bioreactors will also be required at a much higher rate than we currently see.


Just like the NRS, the Conservation Learning Labs project will rely on high adoption of cover crops in the agricultural acres of the pilot watersheds. Iowa Learning Farms has reached out to landowners and farm operators in each of these pilot watersheds to talk to them about the project and to ask for their participation. Cost share dollars are available if they agree to seed a cover crop in fall of 2017.

So far, both pilot watersheds have at least 50% of the agricultural acres in the watershed tentatively committed to seed a cover crop in fall of 2017. We will continue to work with farmers in the months ahead to maximize cover crop adoption in each pilot watershed. Stay tuned for updates!

Julie Whitson

Conservation practices in the Black Hawk Lake watershed improve water quality


Michelle Soupir presenting at Black Hawk Lake Field Day Sept. 15, 2016

Note: Today’s guest blog was written by Michelle Soupir, Leigh Ann Long, Katherine van der Woude.  They are conducting a monitoring and research project in Black Hawk Lake watershed in Sac County.  Michelle presented at our Iowa Learning Farms field day on September 15th in Lake View. It was a great chance to share with area folks what they have been learning about water quality in the small streams feeding Black Hawk Lake and we wanted to share it with you too!


We have been collecting water samples from three subwatersheds in the Black Hawk Lake watershed since March 2015, and the data we have clearly shows the positive impact that conservation practices have on water quality.


Katherine van der Woude collects samples from their automated samplers and meets a new amphibian friend near Black Hawk Lake.

One part of our work is comparing two subwatersheds with similar soils and of similar size, about 450 acres each.

Subwatershed 12 has various conservation practices implemented over nearly all of its area including: cover crops, terraces, nutrient management plans and CRP on both sides of the stream near where we collect our samples.  The second location, subwatershed 11 has only about 25% of the subwatershed in conservation practices. See map below.


2015 was a wet year with nearly 35 inches of rainfall in the watershed, compared to a long term average of 20 inches.  Much of the extra rainfall came as highly intense storms, which has an impact on soil erosion and nutrient movement.

From the site with fewer practices (11), average nitrate loading in 2015 was 153 lbs/ac, while the site with lots of conservation practices (12) had an average load of 115 lbs/ac.  This calculated to about a 33% increase in nitrate load from the site without conservation practices.

Total phosphorus loads were also higher from the site without conservation practices (11) at approximately 2.7 lbs P/ac., with 92% of the losses occurring during storm events.  Two-thirds of those total P losses came from a single storm event in June 2015 that delivered 4.1” rainfall in 2 ½ days.  In the subwatershed 12, the average total P loads were nearly half of those from the site with fewer practices.

And finally, enormous differences were observed between the total suspended solids; 2,900 lbs of soil per acre were lost from subwatershed 11, but less than 89 lbs/ac were lost from the site with many conservation practices.  Again, most of the soil losses came from storm events.

Another way to look at it:

These results show what a tremendous difference conservation practices can make and how important it is to use many different approaches to meet water quality goals.

For more information on the Black Hawk Lake Watershed Water Quality Project follow them on Facebook and Twitter. Questions about the monitoring project can be directed to Michelle Soupir at msoupir@iastate.edu.

Conservation Station a Hit at the Iowa State Fair


Butter cow carver, Sarah Pratt stopped by the Conservation Station to play the poo shuffle.

Another year at the Iowa State Fair has come to a close. A whopping 1,031,278 people attended the fair, apparently a down year. That wasn’t the case for the Water Rocks!/Iowa Learning Farms team. We spoke to 9,802 people — that’s a 38% increase from the previous year.

That means 9,802 people learned about what a watershed is, and why it matters to have clean water with our watershed game. They saw how important it is to keep the soil covered with our rainfall machine, and why we should pick up after our pets with our famous poo shuffle. These interactions were less, “Hello, are you having fun at the fair?”, and more “What can you do for clean water?”

This amazing outreach effort would not have been possible without the help from our dedicated partners, interns, and numerous volunteers. A big thank you from the entire Water Rocks!/Iowa Learning Farms team!


Jim Gillespie (top left), Mark Rasmussen (top right), John Lawrence (bottom left), and Mark Hanna (bottom right), all did an outstanding job working the rainfall machine.


The signage outside the poo shuffle was a real eye opener for participants.


The Conservation Station offered a water quality lesson for all ages and all backgrounds.

Corn Dogs, Cotton Candy, & Conservation

It’s mid-August, it’s steamin’ hot and humid outside, and that means, of course, it’s time for the start of the great Iowa State Fair!   The Fair is now officially underway (as of 7:00am this morning, for you early birds that want to beat the crowds), and runs August 11-21, 2016.


Photo courtesy of Iowa State Fair

Along with the obligatory stops like the Butter Cow, scouting for freebies in the Varied Industries Building, and the fair food, you should make the Conservation Station a part of your fair adventure this year! The Iowa Learning Farms/Water Rocks! team will be out at the fair every day sharing the water quality and conservation message – we’ve got something for everyone at the Conservation Station!

dscn0108Stop by the Rain Machine to check out how different land management practices can affect water quality and soil health. Yes, we make it rain! We’ll also be talking all about the Nutrient Reduction Strategy and the multitude of different conservation practices that can help reach our state’s goals.

CkHqHLaUUAA_EoS - CopyOr play the hands-on, interactive Watershed Game! See firsthand what a watershed is and how things like soil, nutrients, oil, and pet waste move in the environment.

You can also step inside the (air-conditioned!) LEARNING LAB and check out the “What’s In Your Water?” display. Each of these games/lessons is focused on water quality, and includes both agricultural and urban components.

Finally, it’s back and better than ever – don’t miss the incredible Poo Shuffle! Pet waste is a big deal, and we’re out to share some of the fun facts (and the realities) of what pet waste really means for water quality.

The Conservation Station can be found in Farm Bureau Park, south of the Grand Concourse and directly east of the Varied Industries Building. Look for the big blue trailer along with festive Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks! flags!

We’ll be open every day of the Iowa State Fair, from August 11 through August 21. Hours of operation for the Conservation Station vary by day:

Thursday, August 11 – 9:30am – 6:30pm
Friday, August 12 – 9:30am – 6:30pm
Saturday, August 13 – 9:00am – 8:00pm
Sunday, August 14 – 10:00am – 5:00pm
Monday, August 15 – 9:30am – 5:00pm
Tuesday, August 16 – 9:00am- 5:00pm
Wednesday, August 17 – 9:30am – 5:00pm
Thursday, August 18 – 9:30am – 5:00pm
Friday, August 19 – 9:30am – 5:00pm
Saturday, August 20– 9:30am – 5:00pm
Sunday, August 21 – 10:00am – 2:00pm

We’ll also have a number of conservation partners helping us out during the fair. Who knows, you may get the opportunity to see how your Poo Shuffle skills stack up against folks like Jim Gillespie (Iowa Dept. of Agriculture and Land Stewardship – Division of Soil Conservation and Water Quality) or John Lawrence (Iowa State University Extension and Outreach – Agriculture and Natural Resources).

SEE YOU THERE at the Fair!

Ann Staudt