Wetland Ecosystem Services: How Wetlands Can Benefit Iowans

On Wednesday, Iowa Learning Farms hosted a webinar about the importance of wetlands in Iowa. Kay Stefanik, Assistant Director of the Iowa Nutrient Research Center, described what makes a wetland a wetland, the different types of wetlands found in Iowa and the ecosystem services that wetlands provide.

Wetlands need to have saturated soils or standing water for enough of the year that hydric soils and hydrophytic vegetation establish. The hydric soil of wetlands is different than that of upland areas. Upland soils will have water and oxygen gases in the pore spaces between the soil particles, while wetlands soils will have water in its pore spaces, with either very little or no oxygen gas. The figure below shows the different in the pore spaces of upland and wetland soils (Raven P.H. et al. 2011. Biology, 9th edition). Finally, wetlands feature hydrophytic vegetation (water plants), which can grow in these saturated soil conditions.

Stefanik described four common types of wetlands that naturally occur in Iowa. Prairie potholes are found predominantly in the Des Moines Lobe and are depressions that collect water during wet periods of the year. Riverine wetlands occur near streams or rivers on floodplains or as oxbow (old meanders of a stream channel that have been cut off from the main channel over time) wetlands. Fens are typically groundwater fed and feature low vegetation. Emergent marshes have herbaceous vegetation, open water areas and algae.

Throughout the entire state of Iowa, about 89% of the original wetlands have been removed or lost as land use has changed. In the Des Moines Lobe region, which used to be known as the “1000 Lake Region”, 99% of the wetlands have been lost. This loss of wetlands matters to us all, due to the ecosystem services that wetlands provide.

To learn more about these ecosystem services that wetlands can provide, watch the full webinar here!

If you want to learn more about wetlands in Iowa, tune in to the Celebrating Iowa’s Wetlands Virtual Field Day on May 28.

Please join us on May 27 for a webinar with Paul Miller, Urban Conservationist at the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS), titled “The Importance of Urban Conservation and Useful Stormwater Management Practices for Homeowners”.

Hilary Pierce

May 28 Virtual Field Day: Celebrating Iowa’s Wetlands

Iowa Learning Farms, in partnership with the Iowa Nutrient Research Center and Conservation Learning Group, is hosting a free virtual wetland field day on Thursday, May 28th at 1pm CDT.  

From fens to oxbows to prairie potholes, each wetland has a role to play. Within a row crop system, these areas offer an opportunity to improve water quality and field profitability when allowed to function as wetlands rather than cropped areas. The wetland plants also provide a great habitat for a variety of pollinators.

May is American Wetlands Month and to celebrate, the event will take you on a tour of the diversity of wetlands found in Iowa. The event will include video footage from a variety of wetlands in north Central Iowa and live interaction with Kay Stefanik, Iowa Nutrient Research Center Assistant Director and Adam Janke, Iowa State University Assistant Professor and Extension Wildlife Specialist. Together they will discuss how these sites were formed, identify features that make each wetland unique – including the wildlife and plants, and answer questions from attendees on how farmers and landowners can work with and around the wetlands.

“Most people are familiar with created wetlands used to treat agricultural runoff but may not know that natural wetlands benefit us too”, says Stefanik, a wetland and aquatic ecologist who has studied plants and nutrient cycling in freshwater ecosystems. “Natural wetlands improve water quality, help to retain floodwaters and potentially minimize downstream flooding, as well as provide critical habitat for plants and animals.”

“Because of the diverse geologic history of Iowa’s landscapes, we have a large variety of interesting and unique wetland types found throughout the state” says Janke, whose research has focused on understanding how birds use different types of wetlands. “The area in north-central Iowa we are featuring during this virtual field day is really remarkable for the diversity of wetland types it has within a small geographic area.”

Make plans to join us and participate in the live field day. Shortly before 1:00 pm CDT on May 28th, click this URL, or type this web address into your internet browser: https://iastate.zoom.us/s/315189792

Or, join from a dial-in phone line:

    Dial: +1 312 626 6799 or +1 646 876 9923

    Meeting ID: 315 189 792

The field day will be recorded and archived on the ILF website, so that it can be watched at any time. The archive is available at https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/events.

A Certified Crop Adviser board-approved continuing education unit (CEU) has been applied for, for those who are able to participate in the live webinar. Information about how to apply to receive the credit (if approved) will be provided at the end of the live field day.

Liz Ripley

May 20 Webinar: Wetland Ecosystem Services: How Wetlands Can Benefit Iowans

May is American Wetlands Month and Iowa Learning Farms will host a webinar on Wednesday, May 20 at noon about the importance of wetlands in Iowa.

Wetlands are important for all life in Iowa, due to the many ecosystem services they provide, such as water quality improvement, flood control and wildlife habitat. Since European settlement, Iowa has lost almost 90% of its wetland habitat, making it imperative that we both protect the wetlands that are left and find ways to create and restore critical wetland habitat. Kay Stefanik, Assistant Director of the Iowa Nutrient Research Center, will highlight the importance of wetlands and will introduce the different types of natural, created and restored wetlands that can be found in Iowa.

“I hope that webinar participants will take away a greater appreciate for wetlands in Iowa, as well as a desire to better protect wetland ecosystems from future harm,” said Stefanik, whose expertise is in wetland and aquatic ecology, where she has studied vegetation succession in created and restored wetlands, as well as nutrient cycling.

To participate in the live webinar, shortly before 12:00 pm CDT on May 20:

Click this URL, or type this web address into your internet browser: https://iastate.zoom.us/j/364284172

    Or, go to https://iastate.zoom.us/join and enter meeting ID: 364 284 172 

Or, join from a dial-in phone line:

    Dial: +1 312 626 6799 or +1 646 876 9923

    Meeting ID: 364 284 172

The webinar will also be recorded and archived on the ILF website, so that it can be watched at any time. Archived webinars are available at https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars.

A Certified Crop Adviser board-approved continuing education unit (CEU) has been applied for, for those who are able to participate in the live webinar. Information about how to apply to receive the credit (if approved) will be provided at the end of the live webinar.

Hilary Pierce

Can I add or improve a wetland on my farm?

To celebrate American Wetlands Month, I wanted to highlight how important they are here in Iowa and share how the Whole Farm Conservation Best Practices manual can helps match your goals with the right edge of field practice – like wetlands! Several types of wetlands can be used in agricultural settings, depending on your objectives.

Wetlands are crucial to meeting our Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy goals of reducing nitrogen and phosphorus losses. Beyond acting like a filter cleaning the water, these wetlands act like sponges absorbing and storing water aiding in both times of flooding and drought. Lastly these wetlands are incredible habitats to migratory and endangered species.

Considering improving and adding a wetland?

Some must-have pieces of information for determining if a wetland could be a suitable edge-of-field practice for the site include a soils map, profitability maps, and knowledge of relationships to district infrastructure if the site is in a drainage district. The decision tree below is a great place to start the planning process.

If the primary goal of a wetland is for water quality improvements, treatment wetlands help to remove nitrogen through conversion of nitrate-nitrogen to nitrogen gas by microbial activity and through plant uptake. Ideally, treatment wetlands should have a pool footprint greater than or equal to 1 percent of the watershed area to be treated. The topography of the site should allow for a drop in elevation from the tile outflow to the surface of the standing water in the wetland to prevent backflow of water into the tile drain system.

Additional land is needed to allow a diverse buffer of wetland vegetation to develop around the shallow water pool. If the wetland footprint is in an area that could experience high sediment flow, a sedimentation basin or other structure will need to be considered. It is also important that treatment wetlands remain fish-free to reduce sediment disturbance and prevent unwanted loss of sediment, phosphorus, and nitrogen from the system.

If the primary goal is to provide additional wetland habitat, identifying low-profitability wet zones within the field can reveal locations that could be planted in perennial wetland vegetation.

Be sure to tune in to our upcoming events featuring wetlands:

-Liz (Juchems) Ripley

Wetland Ecosystem Services: How wetlands can benefit Iowans.

Kay Stefanik | Assistant Director, Iowa Nutrient Research Center

              Iowa was once a mosaic of prairies, wetlands, rivers, and forests.  Today, Iowa looks drastically different as agriculture now dominates the landscape.  Fertile prairie and wetland soils, which are ideal for row crop agriculture, have paved the way to a booming agricultural industry and led to Iowa being one of the top corn and soybean producing states in the country. 

              While agriculture is vital to the regional economy, all things in life come with trade-offs.  The rise of agriculture came at the expense of nature. Of Iowa’s natural ecosystems, wetlands have been particularly hard hit.  Prior to European settlement, wetlands made up almost 4 million acres of Iowa’s landscape.  Today, there are only about 422,000 acres of wetlands remaining; this is an 89% loss in wetland habitat.   

              At this point, you may be wondering “why does wetland loss matter”?  When a wetland is lost, we do not just lose a physical space.  We also lose the wetland’s ecosystem services – the essential direct and indirect benefits that nature provides to humans.  Even though wetlands are much harder to find today, the wetlands that do exist are still providing a variety of ecosystem services.  These ecosystems services include:

  • Flood prevention
  • Water quality improvements through nutrient and sediment removal
  • Wildlife habitat
  • Recreational opportunities
  • Food and fiber

              I am in no way implying that sides need to be taken, that it is agriculture or nature.  What I am suggesting is that not only can agriculture and nature coexist, but that nature can be used to improve agriculture.  By protecting wetlands already on the landscape, as well as strategically creating and restoring wetland habitat, we can increase the impacts of wetland ecosystem services.  Of interest in Iowa are the ability of wetlands to help with flood prevention and to improve water quality. 

              Flooding has become a major issue throughout Iowa over the last decade.  Wetlands placed along streams and rivers have the potential to capture surface runoff before stormwater reaches the stream and can also act to hold water from a river that spills over its banks.  This holding capacity prevents some of that floodwater from being immediately transported downstream.  By holding floodwater in place, downstream fields and developed areas may be spared from extreme flooding events and severe economic loss. 

              In addition to flood prevention, wetlands also help to improve water quality.   Wetlands receiving surface runoff can reduce phosphorus concentrations through the settling out of soil particles in the water column. The settled-out phosphorus becomes trapped in the wetland sediment and thus held on the landscape.  Wetlands that receive water with high dissolved nitrogen concentrations, usually ground water or tile line water, can reduce nitrogen through microbial conversion to nitrogen gas.  This nitrogen gas is then lost to the atmosphere, which is already about 78% nitrogen.  The ability of wetlands to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus can help us meet the 45% nutrient reduction goal laid out in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

              These wetland ecosystem services – flood prevention, water quality improvement, wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities, food, and fiber – give wetlands both instrumental and intrinsic value.  Wetlands have great potential to benefit the lives of all Iowans, but only if wetlands are allowed to exist in Iowa’s landscape.

Kay Stefanik

@kay_stefanik (Twitter)

Conservation Best Practices Manual Available for Free Download

The Conservation Learning Group has published the Whole Farm Conservation Best Practices Manual to aid farmers in selecting conservation measures appropriate for their farms.

Designed primarily for farmers just starting out through three years of adopting conservation practices, the manual provides a broad range of information that could be beneficial to any producer. The manual is available for free download or in hard copy from the ISU Extension Store.

Covering in-field topics including tillage management, cover crops and diverse rotations, and edge-of-field practices such as wetlands, bioreactors, saturated buffers, controlled drainage and prairie strips, the manual provides detailed information regarding implementation and expected outcomes.

In addition, it includes comprehensive graphical decision tools to aid farmers in determining the best approaches for each area on their farm.

“A primary goal in producing this manual is to help farmers succeed with conservation practices based on the vast array of ongoing research and field studies conducted at Iowa State and beyond. We’ve heard from farmers across the state that sometimes it’s difficult to navigate discrepancies between different research reports and recommendations regarding conservation and water quality practices. With this manual, we’ve pulled together the most important parts from the rich sets of research on cover crops and other conservation efforts in Iowa and presented them using consistent language in an easy-to-use graphical format.”

Mark Licht, assistant professor and extension cropping systems specialist at Iowa State and CLG member

The manual was developed based on numerous meetings and working groups among stakeholders, researchers, agency representatives and communications specialists, who worked together to provide a comprehensive resource for farmers. The content was also presented to farmers at multiple events, prior to public release, to gather feedback on usability and the graphical decision tools included.

“This manual will be an excellent tool for our conservation planners to utilize as they work with farmers to adopt these management practices. I was involved in the working groups which discussed the best strategies for farmers who are new to these practices. It’s our hope with this advice that they will be successful early in the adoption of these practices both agronomically and from a conservation standpoint.”

Kevin Kuhn, resource conservationist for the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service

Conservation Learning Group will continue to evaluate responses to the manual and update it with emerging information and data from research projects.

“This is not meant to be a static guide. As our experiences and knowledge base grow, we will continue to communicate with producers and provide the best advice we can to maximize their successes with conservation practices.”

Mark Licht

The manual was developed in cooperation with the Iowa Soybean Association, Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance and Practical Farmers of Iowa, and with the support and input from multiple local, state and federal organizations.

This manual is a joint publication of Iowa State University and USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service, supported by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, under number 6000004181.

Liz (Juchems) Ripley

It’s time to change, again


Mark Licht | Assistant Professor of Agronomy and Extension Cropping Systems Specialist, Iowa State University

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been involved in several conversations regarding the need for change. Change is hard. It doesn’t matter what the profession. Change brings about anxiety and discontent. We do not like change forced upon us. But, we do accept change when it meets our current wants and needs. Sometimes change can be incremental, and sometimes it can be abrupt.

Since humans first began domesticating plants, agriculture has experienced incremental change. Most of the change focused on agricultural intensification – increasing agricultural production per unit of input. These inputs included labor, land, time, fertilizer, seed and pesticides to name just a few. Mechanization in labor from humans, to horses and oxen, to tractors has allowed greater productivity which led to expansion of land in agricultural production.

Throughout the last 150 years, incremental change has begun to happen more rapidly. Think of how corn production moved from open pollinated, to hybrid, to transgenic cultivars. Iowa led the nation in the adoption of both hybrid and transgenic cultivars. For centuries, fertility needs have been met with animal manure.  We shifted to commercial fertilizers in the mid-1900s and the necessity for livestock in individual production systems was eliminated. Over the last 25 years, precision agriculture advancements have yet again created efficiencies of labor, time and use of chemical inputs (or fertilizers and pesticides). Agricultural intensification has only been possible through change.

Just like changes throughout these 150 years brought greater production and ability to feed more people, we are at another formative point in advancing agricultural systems. Our systems need to be conservation focused. The time to adopt cover crops, conservation tillage, CREP wetlands, saturated buffers, bioreactors, and diverse rotations is now.

Armstrong Farm Strips

What makes this change especially difficult, is the time-frame to change and the pressures weighing on farmers from many directions. Consumers are demanding sustainable practices. Our neighbors in Iowa and beyond are demanding cleaner water and healthier soil. We need to change more abruptly than we would like to sustainably supply the needs of the world’s population now and for many generations.

As I talk to farmers about why they do not make incremental changes towards the adoption of conservation practices, I frequently hear “this is the way we have always done it,” or “I am nearing the end of my career, I will let the next generation make the change.”

These are excuses. We have to be able to see past our own lifetimes. As we look back on the lives of our parents and grandparents, we can see this isn’t the way we have always done it. More importantly, we can’t wait for the next generation to be in charge to change. What about two or three generations to come? Can we think in a longer scope? What will they say when they look back to this time?

Iowa has phenomenal farmers who have been champions for conservation. I am quite confident these farmers see change as an opportunity. Many of these champions have or will be transitioning the farming operation to the next generation. They have made incremental changes to adopt and perfect conservation practices over the course of many years. Often, they are still looking for ways to improve.

Crop production systems need to be changed to provide soil health and nutrient reduction benefits. We need to work together to find the right practices for each farm and each field. Iowa agriculture is in a unique position to lessen the impact of agricultural intensification.

Change is inevitable. To continue with our current systems, is not an option. Let’s continue to innovate together – as Iowa farmers always have. Let’s commit to making the sustainable changes needed while those changes are voluntary and can be made on an individualized basis.

Mark Licht