Warmer weather and spring rains = cover crop growth!

The warmer weather and recent rains have helped green up our lawns, landscaping and overwintering cover crops like winter cereal rye!

We’ve been tracking the growth in our two Conservation Learning Lab watersheds where cover crops were seeded last fall.  Check out the photos below to see just how much has changed since the snow melted in Story County in March.

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Story County Conservation Learning Lab, March 19-April 30, 2018

With more snow and slower warm up, the Floyd County cover crops are just starting to green up. They have likely doubled in size from when these photos were taken on April 27th.

Meyer

Floyd County Conservation Learning Lab, April 27, 2018

 

Stay tuned for more updates on the Conservation Learning Lab project as we continue to monitor the performance of the cover crops and strip-tillage implementation in the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Project wetland watershed.

Liz Juchems

Deepening the Conversation around Conservation

Here at Water Rocks! we are always looking for new ways to reach the youth in Iowa, striving to deepen the conversation around conservation in new and exciting ways. Summer camp is an experience that provides youth a chance to connect to nature in a new way. When I was a camper and later a camp counselor, I saw first hand how camp changes interactions and respect for nature in a positive way. Water Rocks! day camps provide our team an opportunity to partner with extension youth coordinators, naturalists, and other environmental educators to offer the camp experience with a Water Rocks! twist!

We kicked things off with our first Water Rocks! day camp in March at the beautiful McFarland Park Nature Center. Students from Ames and the surrounding area arrived bright and early on March 8th and kicked off the day getting to know each other and getting acquainted with the concept of a watershed. We had students as young as 8 and as old as 12 join us. From the classroom we moved into nature to experience a watershed in real life. This is just one advantage to a full day camp: a way to turn the 2D into 3D.

Students designing their watershed!

Students did a great job transferring what they had learned to the landscape. They were able to determine where the water would flow at different points on the landscape. We were lucky to be surrounded by a small stream and a pond which gave them a visual of the bodies of water that the runoff could drain or shed to.

Jack and students walking the ridgeline between two small watersheds.

The highlight of the day was seeing the students work together on their service project. The Ames Smart Watersheds program donated a rain barrel for us to paint. It was on display at the Ames Eco-Fair on April 21st. Being able to participate in a real life solution to some of our watershed management concerns, such as flooding, helped to make our conversation about conservation relevant to their impact on the land.

At the end of the day the students had the opportunity to see if they could clean the water after it had been polluted. They got to choose what they polluted the water with and then were challenged with how to clean it up. Students noted how difficult it was to clean the water totally. Many filtered the water through several types of filters. We even set up a sand filter to mimic how nature filters our water as it moves through the soil profiles. The students recognized the importance of keeping our water clean to begin with, given how difficult the cleanup job was after the water had gotten dirty.

Students attempt to filter out the pollutants using coffee filters, panty hose, sand and other tools.

In all, students had a blast getting dirty and learning, too! Here at Water Rocks! we are looking forward to our next day camps coming up this summer, where we will get to partner with awesome county naturalists and educators with local Soil and Water Conservation Districts and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach!

Megan Koppenhafer

Request the Conservation Station for Your 2018 Summer Event Today!

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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.


Witek-and-a-Farmer-1030x661

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 ejuchems@iastate.edu 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