Weather conditions impede farmers’ post-harvest duties

Early snows  (Julie Falk/Flickr)
Snow and cold temperatures are impeding farmers’ ability to apply fertilizer to fields during the post-harvest season. (Julie Falk/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | November 28, 2014

Early snow and unusually cold temperatures this month will likely cause repercussions for farmers in the spring as they are currently unable to fertilize their fields.

The frozen ground – which measures between 5 and 9 inches deep – has caused difficulties for farmers looking to fertilize their fields, especially using liquid manure. This is problematic not only for the soil but also the receptacles that hold the manure which will eventually exceed capacity.

“We’re hoping for a warm spell so we can get out there and inject more manure. Otherwise, we’re going to have to surface apply some of this manure so we don’t have facilities that are running over,” said Iowa State University Extension Agronomist Joel  DeJong during an interview on Radio Iowa.

In 2010 the Iowa Code established that farmers cannot apply fertilizer to their soil between December 21 and April 1. Fertilizer applied to frozen ground has a greater chance of running off the field and polluting nearby waterways and damaging local ecosystems. Several manure spills have occurred in Iowa this month including one in Fairfield where an estimated 3,000 gallons of liquid manure “spilled into an unnamed creek.” In August, a spill occurred in northwest Iowa that killed more than 860,000 fish in Mill Creek.

The state in cooperation with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently passed rules for stricter regulation of manure spills specifically and livestock farms more generally. Fines and other actions are taken against farmers and operations that violate the new rule.

Modern turkeys twice the size of turkeys from 80 years ago


A wild turkey roams a field in California (Don McCullough/Flickr)
A wild turkey roams a field in California (Don McCullough/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | November 27, 2014

Turkey has been a staple of Thanksgiving dinners for generations but the bird’s evolution over the past century or so has been particularly interesting.

Turkeys raised and served these days are more than twice as large as they were in the 1930s. Many of the reasons for the increase in the size of these fowls is directly related to the turkey farming industry. Beginning in the 1950s turkey farmers began selectively breeding birds for both size and speed of growth to accommodate for increased demand of turkey meat. With some male turkeys weighing as much as 50 pounds they became unable to impregnate their female mates and today nearly all turkeys are bred through artificial insemination.

There is debate much about whether these selectively-bred turkeys are considered genetically modified organisms (GMOs). While most scientists would not classify turkeys as GMOs, some conventionally-raised turkeys are fed GMO corn. Since turkeys are being fed in close quarters with modern farm operations, the birds are given lower doses of antibiotics to protect against infection. This change in antibiotic dosages has caused violence among turkeys and has even lead instances of cannibalism.

Farm-raised turkeys also suffer from various health complications ranging from foot and leg deformities to premature heart attacks because of their larger bodies. Wild turkeys, which are generally slimmer and more mobile than their farm-raised counterparts, are able to reach speeds of 25 miles per hour on the ground and up to 55 miles per hour in the air. Selective breeding practices have caused this evolutionary rift between farm-raised and wild turkeys.

Minnesota leads the nation in turkey production with approximately 49 million birds each year. Iowa ranks ninth nationally with 11 million turkeys annually.

New ozone emission standards on the horizon

Extreme smog over Los Angeles from a 1995 archive photo. (Metro Library/Flickr)
Extreme smog over Los Angeles, as seen in an archival photo from 1995. (Metro Library and Archive/Flickr)
KC McGinnis | November 26, 2014

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is set today to release a draft proposal that could dramatically reduce ozone emissions from power plants and other sources by 2015.

At the stratospheric level, ozone acts as an important natural filter, blocking out the sun’s ultraviolet rays. At the ground level, however, ozone released from power plants is the main component of smog, a pervasive problem in urban areas that can lead to asthma and other serious pulmonary conditions. The new proposal would lower how much of this ground-level ozone is considered healthy to breathe.

The EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee earlier this year recommended ozone levels be reduced to as low as 60 parts per billion, down from the current standard of 75 ppb set in 2008 under the Bush administration. This would require power plants to implement new strategies and technologies that could accommodate those standards, leading one business group to call it “the most expensive regulation ever imposed.”

The EPA committee, however, argues that the health benefits from the measures would lead to economic benefits that would offset the costs of implementation. These benefits include increased productivity due to reduced morbidity and mortality from pulmonary conditions caused by smog and pollution. The American Lung Association supports the ozone-lowering measures recommended by the EPA, citing the gas as “the most widespread air pollutant,” with effects ranging from coughing and wheezing to low birth weight in newborns.

Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA must issue a new ozone proposal by next week, which environmental groups hope will be as strong as the one Obama struck down in 2011, just before the 2012 presidential election. A 60 ppb ozone standard, or a more likely standard in the 65-70 ppb range, would be a significant step toward reducing ground-level ozone to what scientists view as a healthier, more sustainable level.

Study: Mining can affect fish habitats miles downstream

XXX (Wesley Daniel, Michigan State University)
Mining occurs in all 50 states for natural resources ranging from coal to salt. (Wesley Daniel; Michigan State University)

Nick Fetty | November 25, 2014

A recent study by researchers at Michigan State University finds that mining can have adverse effects on fish habitats many miles downstream from the mine itself.

The study was published in this week’s issue of the journal Ecological Indicators with funding provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey. Much of the study’s focus was on heavy mining areas in the United States, such as the Appalachia region, but also included relatively unstudied areas such as Illinois and Iowa.

Mining occurs in every state for wide range of natural resources from coal and precious metals to sand and salt. While larger rivers are able to dilute the damage caused by mining operations, smaller streams are more susceptible to pollution. These smaller streams often feed into larger watersheds which then affects fish habitats and causes other ecological concerns.

The Northern Appalachian (NAP) ecoregion encompasses most of Illinois and Iowa as well as parts of North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan. Compared to the Southern Appalachian (SAP) and Temperate Plains (TPL) ecoregions, the NAP ecoregion has the highest density of mines with nearly 40 mines per square kilometer, including 714 mineral mines and 1,041 major coal mines.

The report concluded that “the US has the world’s largest estimated recoverable reserves of coal, and production will increase over the next two decades, suggesting that alteration of stream fish assemblages may intensify in the future.”

On the Radio: Water demand strains Jordan Aquifer

Locations of Water Use Permits for Wells tapping the Jordan Aquifer (Iowa DNR)
Locations of Water Use Permits for Wells tapping the Jordan Aquifer (Iowa DNR)

This week’s On the Radio segment looks at recent news surrounding Iowa’s Jordan Aquifer, which is being depleted faster than it can regenerate itself. Listen to the audio below, or continue reading for the transcript.

Transcript: Jordan Aquifer

Increased water demand in Iowa is straining one of the state’s largest underground aquifers.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

The Des Moines Register reports that the Jordan Aquifer – which supplies about half a million Iowans with water – is being depleted faster than it can regenerate itself.

Last year Iowa drew nearly 26 billion gallons from the aquifer which is a 72 percent increase since the 1970s. Nearly 200 businesses, municipalities, universities, and other entities tap into the Jordan Aquifer with about 345 wells across the state. Parts of southwest Iowa need to drill as deep as 2,500 feet underground to extract water from the aquifer.

This increase in water usage can partially be attributed to Iowa’s biofuels industry, which requires large quantities of purified water during the production process. Roughly 15 percent of Iowa’s aquifer demand is for biofuel production with some facilities using as much as 200 million gallons of water each year.

For more information about the Jordan Aquifer and water use in Iowa visit

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Jerry Schnoor.

Iowa State Senator Joe Bolkcom talks environment, agriculture

Iowa State Senator Joe Bolkcom presented for the University of Iowa Environmental Coalition on Lecture Series at the Iowa Memorial Union on Thursday, November 20. (Photo by Nick Fetty)
Iowa State Senator Joe Bolkcom presented for the University of Iowa Environmental Coalition Lecture Series at the Iowa Memorial Union on Thursday, November 20. (Photo by Nick Fetty)

Nick Fetty | November 21, 2014

Iowa State Senator Joe Bolkcom discussed environmental issues affecting Iowans as part of the montly University of Iowa Environmental Coalition Lecture Series Thurday night in the Iowa Memorial Union.

Bolkcom – who also serves as the Outreach and Community Education Director for the UI’s Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research as well as the Iowa Flood Center – highlighted issues that farmers face with climate change in a state where agriculture drives the local economy.

“Keeping soil where it is is one of our top, if not our top challenge economically, water quality wise, and to address climate,” Bolkcom said.

By “keeping our soil” he is referred to runoff of topsoil which has been exacerbated by extreme weather events. Topsoil runoff and poor fertilizer application practices has also lead to increased pollution in Iowa waterways.

“The challenge for Iowa is we haven’t had the resources and when we have had the resources, we’ve not made the investments,” he said “If you want ag producers to do more conservation we have to come up with some more resources.”

Bolkcom said the state appropriated $4 million this year for resources to address topsoil runoff though more money will likely be necessary to fully correct the issue. He said the state legislature recently changed the state constitution so that next time there is a sale tax increase, three-eighths of a cent would go toward a fund to address environmental issues. Roughly 70 percent of Iowans expressed support for this environmental protection fund which is expected to generate about $150 million per year. Even though the state has not yet raised the three-eighths of a cent, Bolkcom said it would be a “game-changing investment.”

“It would create a bunch of jobs and it would start the work of cleaning up Iowa’s rivers, lakes, [and] streams,” he said. “It would start the work of putting together the kind of infrastructure on farms that we need because it’s going to take 10 or 20 years and our work’s never done.”

In addition to environmental issues affecting farmers, Bolkcom also discussed renewable energy.

“On the mitigation side its about trying to think about ways to produce energy more efficiently and in environmentally sound ways,” he said.

The wind energy industry is strong in Iowa and there has been a recent increase in solar energy as well. However Bolkcom said more can be done to embrace solar energy in the Hawkeye State.

“We’re kind of behind a number of other states. We’re behind a bunch of other countries in terms of the implementation of more solar technology,” he said.

Currently there are tax credits available at both the state and federal level to help businesses and individuals subsidize the cost for installing solar panels. The federal tax credit covers 30 percent of the cost while the state credit is 15 percent. However the federal credit is scheduled to expire at the end of 2016. Bolkcom said at this point its unclear whether the federal credit will be extended beyond 2016 which also leaves the future of the state-level credit uncertain.

“It’s not clear. Will the federal credits be extended? Don’t know. Can Iowa extend its credit in the absence of a federal credit? Yes, it would just be worth less money if it’s just Iowa’s credit but it might still be worth doing” he said, adding that this past year funding was boosted by $3 million.

Bolkcom concluded his lecture by returning to the topic of climate change. He said further focus on and acceptance of the effects of climate change are crucial for the future of Iowa.

“We’ve had this kind of debate where 50 percent of the time is for the 98 scientists that say we’ve got a big problem on our hands and 50 percent of the time to the two scientists that say no we don’t. So I’m fatigued by that and it’s time to move on.”

For more information about Thursday night’s lecture check out The Daily Iowan.

Community group aims to turn Iowa City into an “ecopolis”

Turning Iowa City into an "ecopolis" includes utilizing local renewable energy sources and constructing environmentally-friendly building (Tom Jacobs/Flickr)
Turning Iowa City into an “ecopolis” includes installing and utilizing local renewable energy sources as well as focusing on locally-grown agriculture (Tom Jacobs/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | November 20, 2014

A group of community members gathered in downtown Iowa City Tuesday to discuss ways in which Iowa City can become “the first regenerative city of the arts, food, renewable energy, and commerce in the heartland.”

The group aims to turn Iowa City into an “ecopolis” through increased renewable energy usage, bicycle and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure, and local agriculture initiatives. These efforts would reduce fossil fuel usage between both local commuters and food being transported.

Jeff Biggers – writer in residence for the University of Iowa Office of Sustainability – is a major proponent of the Iowa City ecopolis project. Earlier this month he presented “An Evening at the Ecopolis: Rethinking Iowa City, Regenerating Food, Energy, Trees and the Way We Get Around,” a fictional narrative which “envisions Iowa City full of walkable and vibrant neighborhoods, milkweed to bring back the butterflies, high-tech architecture, easy public transportation, solar power, personal connections to nature and organic urban agriculture.” Biggers also points out that over a century ago, foreign visitors compared Iowa City to St. Omer in France, which has since embraced renewable energy methods and has developed pedestrian-friendly infrastructure.

Grant Schultz – owner of Versaland farm just outside of Iowa City – was the event’s keynote speaker and said that by May 2016 he hopes 90 percent of Iowa City residents live within 16 block (or one mile) of a community garden plot. On his own farm Schultz practices and teaches sustainable techniques such agroforestry and silvopasture.

Biggers and Schultz both helped to organize Tuesday’s event along with Miriam Alarcón Avila, Rockne Cole, Erica Damman, Mara Kardas-Nelson, and Carla Paciotto.

(Grant Schultz/Facebook)