Oxbow restoration improves water quality, habitat


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An aerial view of existing oxbows along a waterway in Northern Iowa. (G. Witteveen/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | May 25, 2017

Conversations about water quality improvement on agricultural land usually include talk of terraces, wetland restoration and curbed pesticide application. One strategy, oxbow restoration, is often left out.

Prior to European-Americans converting Iowa’s prairies into cropland, most of the waterways that flow through the state regularly took long twists and turns. In order to maximize agricultural space, farmers straightened creeks in the 20th century. IIHR researcher Dr. Chris Jones said that this causes water to move quickly downstream, increasing nutrient runoff, erosion and the likelihood of flooding downstream.

Jones is one part of an effort to restore an oxbow in Morgan Creek Park in Linn County. In an interview, he explained that oxbow restoration is a cheaper conservation method because most oxbows were located on land that is not usable for farming anyway. He said, “It’s very cheap habitat—$10,000 to $15,000 to restore one of these.”

Jones, along with UI Dr. Keith Schilling and graduate student Bryce Haines, hope to measure the water quality benefits of oxbow restoration. The researchers have installed water level monitoring wells near the project on Morgan Creek, the first of its kind in eastern Iowa. Linn County Conservation has reintroduced native plants to the area, which is close to one of the park’s hiking trails. Jones said, “It’ll provide opportunities for people to look at birds.”

Schilling has already seen the positive impact oxbow restoration can have on a watershed. His research team restored an oxbow along White Fox Creek in the Boone watershed last year. Schilling reported that the oxbow removed 45 percent of the nitrate flowing into the stream from surrounding farmland, which is equal to what one might expect from bioreactors or wetlands.

Schilling and Jones agree that oxbows provide a multitude of benefits. “Oxbows can provide a triple benefit of habitat, flood storage, and stream water-quality enhancement,” Jones said, “And all for not much money.”

To read IIHR’s full report on the project, click here.

Scientists find that less tilling means more earthworms


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Anecic earthworms live deep in the soil and emerge at night, providing a helpful mixing of soil in agricultural fields. (The Earthworm Society of Britain)
Jenna Ladd | May 16, 2017

Wriggly earthworms are the unsung heroes of agricultural fields around the world. Their tiny bodies make it easier for water and air to enter the soil, transform organic matter into nutrients that is available to plants and can improve crop productivity by more than 50 percent.

A study recently published in the journal Global Change Biology sought to better understand which agricultural conditions are optimal for worms. Dr. Olaf Schmidt and Dr. Maria Briones analyzed 215 studies from over 40 countries that explored the relationship between tilling practices and worm population health.

The meta-analysis showed that disturbing the soil less (i.e. no-till farming, conservation agriculture) resulted in significantly more abundant earthworm populations. For example, no-till farmland saw a 137 percent increase in worm populations and a nearly 200 percent increase in soil biomass. Those areas of land in reduced-till for more than ten years saw the most earthworms return to the soil. In contrast, those field that were heavily plowed lost half of their original worm population.

Researchers observed the affect of tilling on 13 species of worms and found that the largest species were most heavily impacted. These creatures, called anecic earthworms, live deep down in the soil. At night-time they wriggle up a single channel, grab food, such as plant matter or manure, and then slide back down the same permanent burrow.

The researchers write that restoring earthworm populations through practing reduced-till or no-till farming “will ensure the provision of ecosystem functions such as soil structure maintenance and nutrient cycling by “nature’s plow.””

2016 Iowa Farm and Rural Life poll released


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Jenna Ladd | May 4, 2017

Results from the Iowa Farm and Rural Life poll were released last month, providing insight into rural public opinion on a variety of topics.

The Iowa Farm and Rural Life poll, managed by the Iowa State University Extension Sociology, was established in 1982 and is the longest running survey of its kind. This year’s survey was completed by 1,039 farmers, who were 65-years-old on average. The poll is sent to the same 2,000 farmers every year so that researchers can track changes over time. This year, it asked respondents about conservation techniques, farming practices, monarch butterfly population restoration and trustworthy information sources.

According to the poll, 42 percent of farmers surveyed practice no-till farming, which can be effective in reducing topsoil erosion. On average, farmers lose 5.8 tons of topsoil per acre per year which can lead to a loss of 15 bushels of yield per acre each year, according to the Corn and Soybean Digest. Buffer strips along water ways and field edges to filter nutrients and sediment from runoff was the most common conservation practice among respondents. Forty-six percent of farmers reported using buffer strips in 2015, while fewer than 40 percent reported implementing extended crop rotations, terraces, or ponds.

The survey also asked about participation in The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) programs. NRCS is the arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture charged with the protection of natural resources on agricultural lands. It provides technical and financial support to farmers looking to conserve soil and water. More than 60 percent of farmers said that they were currently participating in an NRCS program, just about 34 percent said that they were not. For those not enrolled in NRCS programs, their primary reason was that they did not believe they had enough natural resources on their land to warrant participation.

The farm poll also analyzed which sources of agricultural advice respondents were most likely to trust. More than any other source, farmers said they would be most likely to trust another farmer that grows nearby.

The survey is collaborative project of Iowa State University Agriculture and Home Economics Experiment Station, ISU Extension Service and the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. “Information from the Farm Poll is used to guide policy decisions and actions and as the basis for public policy seminars, Extension reports, radio and television broadcasts, and newspaper and journal articles,” reads the Iowa State University Extension site.

Climate change decreases number of working days for Illinois farmers


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Extreme heat and drought are becoming more common thanks to climate change, both lead to “kernel abortion” in corn plants. (Erick Larson/Mississippi State Extension)
Jenna Ladd | April 6, 2017

Researchers at the University of Illinois recently released a study that predicts the impact climate change will have on agriculture in the state.

The research article, published in PLOS One, centers around one variable called “field working days.” This term refers to the days during which the weather is suitable for farmers to plant, till, monitor, or harvest crops. Adam Davis is a University of Illinois USDA Agricultural Research Service ecologist. Davis said, “Everything else flows from field working days. If you’re not able to work, everything else gets backed up. Workable days will determine the cultivars, the cropping system, and the types of pest management practices you can use. We’re simply asking, ‘Can you get in to plant your crop?”

Utilizing previously developed climate models, the researchers predicted the number of field working days for farmers in Illinois from 2046 to 2065 and from 2080 to 2099. The study modeled three possible trajectories ranging from mild to severe climate change.

Notably, the study predicts that the usual planting window for corn, April and May, will be too wet for planting in the future. Too much rain can be harmful for seedlings because it can wash them away or lead to harmful fungal and bacterial growth.

Davis said, “The season fragments and we start to see an early-early season, so that March starts looking like a good target for planting in the future. In the past, March has been the bleeding edge; nobody in their right mind would have planted then. But we’ve already seen the trend for early planting. It’s going to keep trending in that direction for summer annuals.”

While the spring months grow wetter, summer months are predicted to become drier and hotter, especially in the southern parts of Illinois. “Drought periods will intensify in mid- to late-summer under all the climate scenarios. If farmers decide to plant later to avoid the wet period in April and May, they’re going to run into drought that will hit yield during the anthesis-silking interval, leading to a lot of kernel abortion,” Davis explained.

The article offers two possible adaptations for farmers. They could opt for earlier planting of long-season varieties that should have enough time to pollinate before summer droughts, but they’d risk getting hit by a late winter storm. Or, the researchers suggest, farmers could plant short-season cultivars that are harvested prior to summer droughts. In this case, growers could be sacrificing yield due to the shorter growing season.

Either way, Davis said, farmers should begin considering how they can best adapt to the changing climate. He said, “Now is the time to prepare, because the future is here.”

Iowa Falls family honored with sustainable agriculture award


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Wetlands can improve water quality and create habitat for wildlife on Iowa farms. (Scott Smithson/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | February 10, 2017

John and Beverly Gilbert were honored with the 2017 Practical Farmers of Iowa Sustainable Agriculture Achievement Award at last month’s Practical Farmers of Iowa Conference.

Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) is a non-profit organization dedicated to “strengthening Iowa farms and communities through farmer-led investigation and information sharing.” Each year PFI offers the Sustainable Agricultural Achievement Award to an individual or couple that demonstrates a strong commitment to practicing sustainable agriculture and sharing that knowledge with others, all while fostering community.

John and Beverly Gilbert of Iowa Falls keep a 770-acre farm featuring corn, soybeans, oats, hay, and some annual crops for forage. The family also milks 50 to 60 Brown Swiss cattle and keeps pastured-raised, antibiotic-free pigs that are sold to Niman Ranch.

The Gilberts’ farm borders Southfork stream, a tributary of the Iowa River. They have taken many measures to improve water and soil quality on their land including stream buffers, extensive grass headlands and waterways, and terraces. The farm also features woodland areas, a prairie marsh remnant, and a restored shallow wetland, all a part of the Gilberts’ conservation efforts.

John said, “The mindset has gotten so focused on raising corn and beans that not many understand the potential of this landscape to support people. I have long thought that if we can’t replace the number of people we have farming, there are serious problems ahead for society.”

Wendy Johnson, PFI board member and farmer near Charles City, commended the recognition of the family. She said,

“Their farming system, management and decision-making encompass all that is or should be good about Iowa: its air, water and soil. They protect these elements alongside creating a viable farming business for multiple families. Their farm is what PFI means to me: a sustainable farm on all levels.”

Hy-Vee supermarkets take on U.S. food waste problem


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Hy-Vee stores have announced a program offering “ugly” produce in order to combat food waste in the United States. (Sarah R/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | February 9, 2017

Iowa’s Hy-Vee supermarket chain announced a new initiative to reduce food waste last month.

The employee-owned corporation began offering “ugly” produce in nearly all of its 242 stores in mid-January. “Ugly” produce are those vegetables and fruits that typically are not sold at market due to industry size and shape preferences. Hy-Vee partnered with Robinson Fresh to offer its original line of Misfits® produce. Depending on what is available seasonally, four to six Misfits® produce items are delivered to Hy-Vee stores where shoppers can purchase them at a discounted price. The program’s produce offerings include peppers, cucumbers, squash, tomatoes and apples, among other fruits and vegetables. On average, consumers can expect to pay 30 percent less for the “ugly” items.

John Griesenbrock is Hy-Vee’s vice president of produce/HealthMarkets. He said, “As a company with several focused environmental efforts, we feel it’s our responsibility to help educate consumers and dispel any misperceptions about produce that is not cosmetically perfect.”

The company’s press release notes that a movement to reduce food waste through the purchase of less-than-perfect produce has spread across Europe and is picking up steam in the U.S. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that 30 to 40 percent of the U.S. food supply goes to waste. Food waste makes up the vast majority of waste found in municipal land fills and quickly generates methane, which is a greenhouse gas that is 84 times more potent than CO2 during its first two decades in the atmosphere.

Hy-Vee’s Misfit® program supports the USDA and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency effort to achieve a 50 percent food waste reduction nationwide by 2030.

“We understand that there is product left in the field because farmers don’t think there’s a market for it,” said Robinson Fresh general manager Hunter Winton. He added, “With the Misfits program, farmers have an outlet to sell more produce and customers have an opportunity to save money and help reduce waste.”

As global temperatures rise, future of agriculture uncertain


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Soybean yields could decrease by as much as 40 percent due to rising temperatures. (United Soybean Board/flickr)

 Jenna Ladd | January 20, 2017

Without further action to curb greenhouse gas emissions, global temperatures are expected to rise as much as 6.1 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial averages, which may meaningfully impact agricultural outputs.

According to a recent study by the the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and the University of Chicago, rising temperatures could significantly reduce U.S. grain harvests. Using a set of computer simulations, the researchers found that yield reduction could reach 40 percent for soybeans and almost 50 percent for corn by the end of the century if carbon emissions are not cut drastically. Wheat would fare slightly better, with its yields decreasing by an estimated 20 percent.

The researchers said, “The effects go far beyond the U.S., one of the largest crop exporters. World market crop prices might increase, which is an issue for food security in poor countries.”

A report by the European Union’s Joint Research Centre came to a different conclusion. They found that wheat may actually benefit from higher concentrations of carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere, while corn yields would decrease.

Although the global temperature has reached record highs for three consecutive years, U.S. corn and soybean yields were seemingly unaffected. Thanks in part to genetically modified seed, which can have adverse environmental impacts, corn and soybean output was higher than ever in 2016.

However, the extreme drought of 2012 serves as a reminder that agricultural productivity is vulnerable to a changing climate. That year, U.S. corn harvests decreased considerably and caused global corn prices to skyrocket.