Bioreactors – One Piece of the Conservation Puzzle

Learning about denitrifying bioreactors drew a good crowd of farmers and landowners from Central Iowa – and beyond – to the Iowa Learning Farms and Prairie Rivers of Iowa field day on Tuesday, July 17th.  As a relatively new practice designed to reduce losses of nitrates from tile drained water, the crowd on Tuesday showed a high level of awareness and were eager to learn how bioreactors and other edge of field practices fit in to the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.IMG_4865

Local landowner Joe Ruetter installed a bioreactor on his farm last fall and has been pleased with the results of reducing nitrate in his tile water.

“We collected a sample a few days ago and the tile water coming in was running about 10-20 ppm of nitrate – well above the safe drinking water standard of 10ppm. At the end of the bioreactor is was 3-5ppm. So I would say the bioreactor is working very well so far.”

Joe also brought up that bioreactors are designed to address nitrate but don’t help with phosphorus so other conservation practices – like no-till and cover crops – are also needed to help reach our goals.

IMG_4862Jace Klein, with Ecosystems Services Exchange, also emphasized the importance of utilizing the right practice in the right place.

“All conservation practices have a place on the landscape. It’s a matter of fitting the right practice in the right location so as to maximize the efficiency and cost effectiveness of the practice,” stated Jace.

In combination with the Conservation Station On The Edge demonstrating the science of denitrification, Jace pointed out the scope to which each practice is capable of treating.

“If you have 40-120 acres next to a stream or creek, a saturated buffer would be the first practice we would explore. If that same sized field doesn’t outlet to a stream, then a bioreactor should be considered. However, if we are looking at multiple connections of tile draining much larger areas the most effective practice to consider would be a wetland,” explained Jace.IMG_4847

By utilizing all the pieces of the puzzle – in-field and edge of field practices – the goals of reducing the losses of nitrogen and phosphorus from our landscape are possible. We have gathered many great resources about edge of field and in-field practices on our website: www.iowalearningfarms.org. You can also visit with your local NRCS office to determine which practices are best suited for your land and discuss cost share opportunities.

Liz Juchems

 

 

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.

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

Incubating New Ideas at the Drainage Research Forum

Matt Helmers | Professor in Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering and Extension Agriculture Engineer, Iowa State University 

In my last column, I wrote about how we needed to scale up the human resources significantly in order to meet some of the goals of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. This month, I would like to assert that it is also critical we continue efforts on new technology development and research on the performance of practices – specifically new practices.

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Bioreactor Installation in Monroe Co. Iowa

One outlet for developing new ideas is the Iowa-Minnesota Drainage Research Forum. While edge-of-field nitrate reduction practices such as controlled drainage, bioreactors, wetlands, and saturated buffers are now household names, they were first discussed at the Drainage Research Forums when they were just preliminary ideas with some preliminary data. This event serves as an incubator for innovation to help us get feedback about how these practices might work.

The Drainage Research Forum is in its seventeenth year and was held in Ames this year. I have been attending these forums since I stated at Iowa State. The Forum averages around 75 people, mainly engineers and researchers from across the Midwest. Basically, when we present the new idea or practice at this forum, we are asking our colleagues to give us input on whether they think it will work on a larger scale and to see if anyone in the room can point out our flaws or give us another way to approach it. They can be really engaging and important discussions.


You can download most of the past Forum presentations from the Drainage Outlet website through University of Minnesota Extension.


Much of the initial funding for these types of unknown practices were from state agencies and local centers such as the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. These groups could be nimble and see the need and understand that small initial investments could lead to great outcomes and larger research funding which has happened in almost all cases.

So while we continue working on implementation of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy and continue with efforts to education farmers and other stakeholders about practices they can use to reduce downstream nutrient loss, we need to continue the behind the scenes efforts to develop new practices for nutrient reduction, conduct research to refine recommendations for practice implementation, and conduct research to enhance the performance of practices.

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Drainage Forum held in Ames, Iowa on November 15, 2017

In order to do this, we need forums like the Drainage Research Forum to help develop the innovation needed to develop practices or different approaches to old ones. Forums that bring together smaller groups of people with initial ideas and data to help them see how that information will work on the land.

The Iowa Learning Farms team likes to tease me about how excited I get to attend the Drainage Research Forum. They are right. It is one of my favorite gatherings. Some or much of that excitement comes from knowing I will get to learn about cutting edge practices, technology or management approaches that are in their early stages. I look forward to hearing what new ideas are discussed at the next seventeen (or more!) Drainage Research Forums. You are welcome to join us in 2018.

Matt Helmers

Rock Your Watershed! Game Brings an Element of Fun to Nutrient Reduction Strategy Goals

Think you’re smarter than the average 5th grader? Test your knowledge of how land management choices affect the environment and agricultural profits with the Water Rocks! Rock Your Watershed! game, 2.0 version! New and improved, this interactive, online game now offers even more land management choices to players as they design their own agricultural waterfront property.

The Rock Your Watershed! game takes complex issues of nutrient transport, soil erosion, and habitat changes and translates them into an online game where players can see how every choice in land management has both economic and environmental impacts. In essence, it’s like the Nutrient Reduction Strategy in a game!

In the new version, players have the option of adding livestock, urban development, and witnessing how land management choices affect biodiversity.  Using scientific data that correlates how land management choices impact soil erosion, nutrient transport, and wildlife habitat, as well as the impact of precipitation variability, players seek to obtain a high score by achieving an optimal balance between profit, nutrient use, sediment loss, and biodiversity.

new rock your watershed game screen shot

Will you plant row crops right up to the river shoreline? Do you want livestock on part of your land? Will you include a wetland to help filter nutrients? What about including cover crops? Perhaps you will want to include housing or recreational lands. Each choice you make will have an environmental impact as well as a financial cost. You may find yourself wanting to play over and over again in an attempt to beat your previous score. No problem! Revise your previous choices by going back and simply changing one piece of land at a time until you see desired results!

Fun for youth and adults alike, this game can be used to learn about how various land management choices, combined with Mother Nature’s unpredictability, affect both the environment and one’s pocketbook.

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

Outdoor Adventure + Exploration with Water Rocks! Camps

Today’s guest blog post comes from summer intern Elizabeth Schwab. Originally from Levittown, PA (just outside Philadelphia), Elizabeth is a senior at ISU, double majoring in Environmental Science and Agronomy. She is also a radio DJ at 88.5 FM KURE on the side!

Monday, June 26, we held our first of a series of three Water Rocks! Summer Day Camps, this one in the beautiful Winterset City Park in Madison County. I saw my first of the famed Madison County covered bridges (the Cutler-Donahoe Covered Bridge) on the drive to the shelter where we set up camp, but unfortunately the bridge didn’t appear to be designed to handle the fifteen-passenger van we were traveling in. I’ll have to return to Madison County to tour the covered bridges some other time.

After organizing our supplies and activities, we were ready to begin our day; shortly thereafter, the campers began to arrive. The 23 campers, ages nine to fourteen, were organized into two packs, each led by two Water Rocks! team members. My fellow intern Andrew and I spent our day with the blue pack, who soon named themselves the “Blue Ferrets,” while Jenn and Josh led the red pack.

We kicked off the morning with some music and dancing led by Todd. I’m not much of a dancer, as anyone who saw me “on stage” on Monday morning can confirm. However, I was excited that some of the more exuberant campers soon joined our staff up front to show off their moves (and prove that they have much more talent than I do). This was a great high-energy start to the day! After we were all welcomed to camp, we split up into our packs for some icebreakers and time to get to know each other, and then we were able to dive into the lessons!

One of my favorite aspects of the educational modules that the Water Rocks! team presents is that they make education a lot of fun, both for the presenters and the audience. For the first part of the morning, Jenn and I led each pack through sessions on wetlands, which involved playing such games as Habitat Hopscotch and Wetland Bingo.

Throughout the day, campers also learned about watersheds, contemplated biodiversity (while playing Biodiversity Jenga and Musical Oxbows), and participated in a “game show” with our Dig Into Soil module! In times like these, I sometimes wish to be an observer rather than a presenter at our outreach events. I have learned, however, that leading students or campers through these activities is just as fun, even if it means that I can’t win prizes in Wetland Bingo or develop my own piece of lakeside property during the Watershed module.

What better way is there to reflect on why we should conserve and appreciate our water resources than by playing a few water games? After lunch and a quick trip to the playground, the packs competed against each other to play a few games, with bucket relays and water balloons proving to be the stars of the show. It just wouldn’t be summer camp without water sports, and these activities were certainly a memorable part of the camp experience!

It was a busy day in Winterset, and by the end of the camp day everyone was ready to take things a little more slowly. We ended our day by making “edible soil” to complement the afternoon’s lesson about soil, and then spent some time reflecting and writing in the nature journals that we created during arts and crafts time earlier in the day. This was a great way to wrap up our day—I’m excited about nearly any opportunity that involves either chocolate pudding or crafts, and being able to tie both of these to other topics that I’m passionate about was an added bonus.

As the campers departed at the end of the day, many of them expressed interest in returning for future events or camps. I am proud to have been a part of making this day memorable for so many young people, and I am thrilled to have the opportunity to return to our next two Water Rocks! camps in Des Moines on July 6 and 7. Every time I go to an event or camp I discover something new about communicating scientific information in a way that is engaging to the audience as well as to me as an educator. And I get to have fun doing it! There really is no better way to learn.

Elizabeth Schwab

NOTE: Limited spots are still available for 9-14 year olds in our upcoming Water Rocks! Summer Day Camps at Greenwood Park in Des Moines – choose from Thursday, July 6 or Friday, July 7!  Do you have a child, grandchild, niece, nephew or neighbor that might be interested?  Camps are FREE of charge; we just require registration in advance. Registrations are being accepted through NOON tomorrow – Friday, June 30.