November Webinar: Evaluating nutrient reduction at the delivery scale


On Wednesday, November 14th at noon Dr. Matt Helmers, Professor Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering and Director of the Iowa Nutrient Research Center, will discussing the innovative Conservation Learning Lab (CLL) project that is key to understanding impacts of in-field conservation practices beyond the research plot scale.

The webinar is a remote training opportunity for all stakeholders, including watershed coordinators, who are working on watershed improvement projects and implementation of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

CLL LogoThe CLL is providing the opportunity to examine how in-field conservation practices impact nutrient loss at the scale at which water and nutrients are delivered to the stream. Through one-on-one meetings with farmers to complete the conservation planning process, the project team has helped these farmers implement cover crops, strip-tillage and CRP on their land. Pre-implementation and preliminary post-implementation water quality data will be shared from ongoing monitoring within the project areas.

“This research is critical to understanding impacts of in-field management beyond the plot scale,” commented Helmers. “Examining the results of large-scale adoption of practices at delivery-scale is critical to meeting the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy goals. It is also important to note the high amount of time and human capital needed to get farmer and landowner adoption of conservation practices at the level of implementation we need.”

Don’t miss this webinar!

DATE: Wednesday, November 14, 2018
TIME: 12:00 p.m.
HOW TO PARTICIPATE: and click the link to join the webinar

More information about this webinar is available at our website. If you can’t watch the webinar live, an archived version will be available on our website:

Liz Juchems

Wet spots – losing more than just crop yields


With all the rain these last few weeks, Dr. Steven Hall’s webinar on understanding and managing nitrogen losses from prairie potholes provides great insight as to what is happening in those ponded areas in our cropping landscape.


When discussing nitrogen loss in Iowa and across the Corn Belt, the focus is often on the nitrate that is leached to local waterbodies and the Gulf of Mexico. However, the Corn Belt is also the leading source of nitrous oxide – the third most important greenhouse gas!

As a neglected pollutant, nitrous oxide is now the most important ozone-depleting substance. Local estimates of emissions are 3-4% of nitrogen inputs applied to agricultural land. Due to the concentration of agricultural production, the Corn Belt nitrous oxide emission from soil and water are a leading cause of climate change.

N20 map

Here in Iowa, the majority of the pothole wetlands are found in the Des Moines lobe region of central and north central Iowa. Pothole depressions comprise about 9% of the Des Moines lobe with the majority of them partially drained and cropped. These farmed wet spots become hot spots for nitrogen loss and contribute a disproportionate amount of nitrous oxide and nitrate to our environment.

As Emily Heaton pointed out her recent post, there are management alternatives for the pothole depressions that can help reduce these losses and potentially improve the bottom line for landowners.

Check out the full webinar here to learn more about these alternatives and the case studies Dr. Hall and his team are exploring here in Iowa.

You can catch up on all of our webinars by visiting our website.  While you are there, be sure to check out our Conservation Chat podcast series!

Liz Juchems

October 17 Webinar: Wet spots as hot spots for nitrogen losses

On Wednesday, October 17th at noon Dr. Steven Hall, Iowa State University assistant professor of ecology, evolution, and organismal biology, will present a webinar that aims to improve the understanding and management of nitrogen losses from hydric soil landscapes.

05209012018WLThe leaching of nitrate and emissions of nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas, are key environmental impacts of Corn Belt agricultural systems. Dr. Steven Hall is leading a research group that studies the biological and geochemical processes that control the cycling of organic matter and nutrients across the plant-soil-water-atmosphere continuum.  One of their focus areas is the interactions across that continuum in former prairie potholes. These occasionally flooded hydric soils in topographic depressions can contribute disproportionately to nitrogen losses at the landscape scale, suggesting the promise of management interventions that specifically target these features.

“Crop nitrogen use efficiency, farm profitability, and environmental impacts of nitrogen loss are intimately connected,” commented Hall. “Innovative management of cropped hydric soils could yield disproportionate environmental and economic benefits.”

Don’t miss this webinar!

DATE: Wednesday, October 17, 2018
TIME: 12:00 p.m.
HOW TO PARTICIPATE: and click the link to join the webinar

More information about this webinar is available at our website. If you can’t watch the webinar live, an archived version will be available on our website:

Liz Juchems

Could perennializing potholes reduce nitrate losses?


Emily Heaton | Assistant Professor of Agronomy, Iowa State University

Are wet spots hot spots for nutrient loss? That is the question Steven Hall will be addressing in the ILF Webinar Oct. 17, and it is one that interests me greatly. What I really want to know is, if wet spots are hot spots, what can we do to cool them off? And boy with all the precipitation, 2018 was a great year to test these questions!

Steve Schomberg

Fig. 1 Steve Schomberg has miscanthus planted on a few hundred acres near Letts, IA. Miscanthus is being used to replace coal for heat and power on the UI campus. Miscanthus’ deep root system and abundant soil residue allows harvesting when bare soil is too wet for equipment. Photo credit: Emily Heaton

Steven is part of a team of researchers, extension specialists, farmers, and farm groups digging into the economic and environmental performance of farmed potholes. As Iowa State University’s Extension Biomass Crop Specialist, I help this team learn if we can improve profit alongside water and nutrient cycling by incorporating perennial biomass crops into farmed potholes.

So, what are biomass crops?

Biomass crops are those harvested for their whole above-ground biomass, not just grain or fruit. The only perennial biomass crops widely grown in Iowa today are forages such as (give examples), but that could change as plants are increasingly used to replace things we get from petroleum today. For example, the University of Iowa is replacing coal in their power plant with the perennial grass miscanthus (Miscanthus x giganteus), grown on ~2,500 acres in the Iowa City area (Fig. 1). The UI expects miscanthus to provide about 10% of the entire university’s heat and power load within the next few years.

As those of us rooted in the prairie Midwest know, perennials have deep root systems that hold soil and clean water. They also require less fertilizer and fossil fuels to thrive and only have to be planted one time! Because of this, their carbon footprint can be considerably lower than the annual crops we currently use for energy, like corn ethanol and soy biodiesel, and there is growing demand for them. Perennials also tend to be more resilient than annuals, including tolerating drought and flood stress that would kill an annual (Fig. 2).

flood stress

Fig. 2. Looking north (top) and south (bottom) at a farmed pothole on the ISU Sorenson farm July 3, 2018 (left) and Oct. 12, 2018 (right). The pothole flooded multiple crops (from top left in top photo: cool-season grass CRP, miscanthus, corn, miscanthus, soybeans, sorghum) multiple times this year. The soybeans and later the corn, were a complete loss. The perennial CRP survived and miscanthus thrived, due largely to growth habits and established roots. Photo credit: Emily Heaton and Nicholas Boersma.

With all this in mind, our team is asking the following questions:

– Could we get feedstock for low-carbon fuels and products by planting crops like miscanthus in farmed potholes?
– Can farmers make more money with a resilient perennial in potholes instead of corn/soy?
– Would planting perennials in potholes change the amount and quality of water leaving farm fields?

We are hoping to find the answer to these questions, and discover new questions to ask, in several experimental plots we’ve established near the ISU campus (Fig. 3) as parts of a USDA NIFA grant and a Dept. of Energy grant. We will be monitoring ponding depth, water quality, greenhouse gas emissions and crop growth in experiments with separated and controlled tile drainage systems (white lines in top left of Fig. 3) as well as in “natural” farmed potholes (red outlines). In both cases we will test both corn/soy and miscanthus, along with the annual crop sorghum, which seems more resilient to environmental stress than corn.

tile drainage systems

Fig. 3. New ISU experiments will assess perennial and annual crop impacts on potholes using controlled drainage experiments (top left; white lines are tile maps) and monitored potholes (bottom right, red lines are ponding outlines) near Ames, Iowa.

To learn more about this exciting research, listen to Steven’s webinar on Wednesday. I know Steve will welcome your questions or insights into what we are doing. And then, in a year or so, once the sites are really established and we have data to share, we will be having public field days. Keep your eyes on this blog to know when and where!

Emily Heaton

What can conservation planning do for your farm?

With over 130 conservation practices that can be implemented through the conservation planning process, farmers and landowners are able to find the best practice or management tool to fit their operation.

This month’s webinar featured Kevin Kuhn, Natural Resources Conservation Service Resource Conservationist Serving on the Ecological Services State Staff, highlighting the benefits of conservation planning for farmers and landowners. Conservation planners rely on gathering information from producers through questions in the office, but also by visiting the field to gather as much information as possible to make the best recommendations for success.

As founder Hugh Hammond Bennett stated in 1943,

“We cannot depend on windshield surveys and office planning to carry out a job of the complexity and magnitude of safeguarding our farmland and controlling floods.”

As a nine step process, conservation planning helps consider all natural resource concerns, is voluntary, science based and works to relate common objectives between the planner and client. The conservation planning process is an opportunity to receive free conservation consultations from trained professionals and build a working relationship with your local Soil and Water Conservation District office.

Be sure to check out the recording of this webinar to learn more about when, where and how to start the conservation planning process and potential funding opportunities that become available through the planning process.

Check out this webinar and previous webinars on our website!

Liz Juchems

September 19 Webinar: Highlighting the Benefits of Conservation Planning

On Wednesday, September 19th at noon Kevin Kuhn, NRCS Resource Conservationist serving on the Ecological Services State Staff, will highlight the benefits of Conservation Planning for farmers and landowners.

Kuhn Cropped

Kevin Kuhn in a field with cereal rye.

Conservation Planning provides many benefits to the farmer operator, landowner and society through the identification of resource concerns and opportunities to implement practices like no-tillage, cover crops, waterways, saturated buffers, wildlife habitat and more. Kuhn has 30 years of experience working for NRCS assisting landowners with conservation on their farms. He will discuss how conservation planning optimizes the use of conservation practices, saves time and money, and improves water and soil quality.

“Conservation planning is about putting the right conservation system in place that meet the objectives of the landowner, the resource concerns of the specific tract of land, and minimizes offsite resource concerns,” commented Kuhn. “Conservation planning is time well spent.”

DATE: Wednesday, September 19
TIME: 12:00 p.m.
HOW TO PARTICIPATE: and click the link to join the webinar

Don’t miss this webinar! More information about this webinar is available at our website. If you can’t watch the webinar live, an archived version will be available on our website:

Liz Juchems

Tea Bags Tell Story of Soil Health

Soil health is trending, there’s no doubt about that! But perhaps expensive soil tests aren’t your cup of tea.

Look no further than the Soil Decomposition Index: a simple, straightforward, citizen science approach to evaluating soil health that utilizes buried tea bags. Learn more about this novel approach to soil health from Dr. Marshall McDaniel, assistant professor of agronomy at Iowa State University, in his recent Iowa Learning Farms webinar titled Burying Tea to Dig Up Soil Health.

Microbes are the engines that drive the biology of our soils, especially the cycling of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur. Under the umbrella of soil health, McDaniel points out that biological indicators are the most sensitive to changing management practices, so this tea bag concept is built upon evaluating one aspect of the biology going on right beneath our feet.

The tea serves as food for the smallest soil microorganisms, including bacteria, actinomycetes, and fungi, that are able to squeeze through the tiny openings in the mesh tea bag. As the tea is consumed over time, the bags are dug up and weighed, providing an indication of the biological activity within the soil, particularly the decomposition activity of the smallest soil organisms.

In each field, McDaniel’s team is comparing two types of teas side-by-side: green tea, which simulates a high quality (low C:N) residue, and rooibos tea, which simulates a lower quality (high C:N, nitrogen-limited) residue. Based on how much of each tea is remaining, you can calculate a Soil Decomposition Index value.  Values range from 0 to 1, and the closer to 1, the healthier the soil is! Using two teas side-by-side lets you calculate a standardized Soil Decomposition Index value which accounts for temperature and soil moisture variability, as well as allowing results to be readily compared between different sites – so you can compare apples to apples.

Check out the full webinar, Burying Tea to Dig Up Soil Health, on the Iowa Learning Farms webinars page, to hear more details of this novel soil health test and preliminary results from on-farm studies evaluating the Soil Decomposition Index with cover crops.

For those active on Twitter, you can follow the McDaniel lab, @ Soil_Plant_IXNs, as they continue to evaluate this unique tea bag concept and many other aspects related to soil-plant interactions and agricultural sustainability.

Ann Staudt