Half of Soil Phosphorus Losses Attributed to Erosion


Via Flickr

Thomas Robinson | September 15th, 2020

According to a recent study, global phosphorus levels in soils are declining despite high levels of applied chemical fertilizers and soil erosion is to blame.

Researchers have analyzed global phosphorus levels in soils and found that all continents, except for Asia, Oceania, and Australia, have net negative soil phosphorus balances.  Phosphorus loss from soils poses a challenge to the global food supply because without phosphorus, an essential plant nutrient, crops are more susceptible to disease, and are likely to have stunted growth.  The most striking finding in the study was that around 50% of phosphorus losses from soils was attributed to soil erosion, a preventable but commonly neglected aspect of agriculture. 

Unfortunately, the phosphorus lost because of soil erosion poses another threat in the form of eutrophication. Eutrophication is caused by high levels of nutrients in aquatic ecosystems and is associated with declining water quality.  The increased nutrient concentrations promote large populations of algae, which consume large quantities of oxygen when they die and decompose.

Soil erosion in Iowa is a large concern as millions of tons of Iowa’s soil runs off tilled fields and into the rivers across the state each year.  Since soil erosion has now been identified as a leading cause for phosphorus losses in soils, Iowa is not only losing tons of topsoil per year, but also losing appreciable amounts of phosphorus as well.

Microplastics In Farm Soils Have Adverse Effects On Wheat Crops


Via Flickr

Thomas Robinson | September 8th, 2020

Microplastics in soils have recently been linked to increased cadmium uptake and root damage in wheat plants.

Researchers at Kansas State University have demonstrated that crops grown in the presence of microplastics are more likely to be contaminated with cadmium than crops grown in the absence of microplastics.  Cadmium is a heavy metal that is known to be carcinogenic and is commonly found in the environment from industrial and agricultural sources.  The researchers also found that microplastics were able to damage the roots of the wheat plants by clogging soil pores and preventing water uptake.

Microplastics are fragments of plastic products that are 5 millimeters or less in length, which is about the size of a sesame seed.  The influence these particulate plastics have on the environment and human health is still not well understood, and they are a growing environmental concern.  While most of the attention microplastics have received is in relation to the amount found in the oceans, a study published in 2016 demonstrates that microplastics actually accumulate more on land surfaces. 

Unsurprisingly, there have been microplastics found in Storm Lake, Iowa.  These pollutants can be found almost everywhere in the world which suggests we need a better understanding of microplastics and their effect on the environment. We also need to make changes to our behavior to prevent further pollution on top of what plastics have already been deposited across the globe.

New Study Highlights Environmental and Financial Benefits of Diversifying Crop Rotations


Graphic of an Iowa corn field
Via Flickr

Nicole Welle | September 3, 2020

A new study from researchers at Iowa State University and the University of Minnesota found that diversifying crop rotations keep farms profitable while greatly reducing the negative environmental and health impacts of farming.

Farmers have practiced corn and soybean crop rotation for a long time. However, this new research found that adding more crops, like oat and alfalfa, to the rotation can improve soil quality and the productivity of farmland. It also benefits the environment and human health by reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers.

The study used data from a long-term field experiment at Iowa State University’s Marsden Farm. This experiment began in 2001 and compared performance characteristics of a two-year corn-soy rotation with a three-year corn-soy-oat rotation and a four-year corn-soy-oat-alfalfa rotation. They used this information to better understand the amount of pollution and fossil fuel use associated with each cropping system, according to a Phys.org article.

By looking at pollution from both farming and the supply chain, researchers found that the production of synthetic fertilizer requires a lot of fossil fuel. Its application also produces poor air quality by emitting greenhouse gases and pollution. Less fertilizer is required when small grains and forages are added into rotations, and the addition of just one small grain crop can reduce fossil fuel use and pollution by half, according to the study.

While it may take time for farmers to further diversify their crop rotations, this information could provide long-term success for farmers, the public and the environment.

Drought Conditions Worsen in Iowa After Another Dry Week


Via Flickr

Nicole Welle | August 31, 2020

Roughly 96% of Iowa is now considered at least abnormally dry as drought conditions worsen across the state.

That is an 8% increase since last week. 61% of Iowa is now in at least moderate drought, with 29% in severe drought and roughly 7% in extreme drought. These could be the driest conditions recorded since the drought of 2012, according to a Siouxland Proud article.

Every county in Iowa is now experiencing drought conditions, but the western part of the state has been hit the hardest. Crops in west-central Iowa are suffering under extreme drought conditions and a recent wave of high temperatures, and crop yields will likely be affected. This comes as an extra blow to farmers who have already experienced crop damage after the derecho swept through earlier this month.

21% of Iowa corn is now in “poor or very poor” condition according to the USDA. There are a few chances of rain across the state in the 10 day forecast, but drought conditions are likely to persist.

Annual Report Shows Decreased Phosphorous Load And An Increased Nitrogen Load


Via Flickr

Thomas Robinson | August 25th, 2020

The 2018-2019 Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (INRS) report, released in late June, details that while phosphorus loads in Iowa’s waters has decreased, nitrogen loads have increased.

Within the past year, Iowa has seen phosphorus loads decrease by 18% because of land use change and conservation practices.  Unfortunately, nitrogen loads increased by 5% over the same time period suggesting that Iowa is not doing enough to reach the goals established by the INRS.  Additionally, the INRS reports that funding has increased by $48 million dollars for a total budget of $560 million.  That budget is used to educate communities and farmers about how best to reduce nutrient pollution such as cover crops or riparian buffer strips

The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, adopted in 2013, is a collaborative effort by state agencies to evaluate and decrease the amount of nutrients that pollute Iowa’s waterways.  The overall goal established by the strategy was to reduce annual loads of nitrogen and phosphorus that leaves Iowa by 45%.  Iowa’s nutrients are a concern because Iowa contributes a significant amount of nitrogen and phosphorus to the Mississippi river.  These nutrients result in widespread hypoxia caused by algal growth spurred by the influx of nutrients.  

Drought Conditions Worsen in Western Iowa


Via Flickr

Nicole Welle | July 27, 2020

Western Iowa has been abnormally dry recently, and nearly 40% of the state is now experiencing moderate to severe drought.

7.62% of Iowa is currently in severe drought, and 54% is now considered abnormally dry. Precipitation deficits have been accumulating for the last four to six months, and the continued drought could put crops and livestock at risk. Crops in areas most heavily affected by drought are showing signs of moisture stress, according to an SF article.

“We’re seeing pineapple corn. Corn leaves are rolling, soybean leaves are flipping over. You start to see the lower leaves on the corn firing,” said Iowa climatologist Justin Glisan.

The state has also been experiencing above-average temperatures for the last month. Farmers in areas affected by both drought and high temperatures are likely to see diminished crop yields, and the heat and dryness could be dangerous for livestock.

Specialists with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, the United States Department of Agriculture, and the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship are offering a series of webinars starting July 30 that will help farmers plan ahead and manage their drought-stressed crops and livestock. The weekly webinars are meant to answer any questions participants may have, provide weather and drought updates and give updates on shortages and yield estimates.

Iowa Soybean Association Receives 2020 U.S. Water Prize


Via Flickr

Nicole Welle | July 23, 2020

The Iowa Soybean Association (ISA) received the U.S. Water Alliance 2020 U.S. Water Prize.

The U.S. Water Alliance selected ISA for its solutions that benefit both farmers and the environment. ISA promotes farming practices that help build stronger soils and achieve cleaner water, and the ISA Center for Farming Innovation conducts watershed analyses to help find solutions, according to a KIWAradio article.

Agricultural runoff is the leading source of pollutants in Iowa’s lakes and waterways. Agricultural activities that cause non-point source pollution include plowing too often or at the wrong time, and the improper application of pesticides, irrigation water and fertilizer, according to the EPA. ISA works to educate Iowa farmers about these issues and help them switch to more sustainable practices.

“A special thank you goes out to our farmers leaders who provide oversight and guidance in these efforts,” said Roger Wolf, ISA director of innovation and integrated solutions. “And, of course, our farmer champions and participants in these water quality initiatives. We are unable to do this work without your participation and engagement.”

Widespread Dicamba Injury Observed Across Iowa in 2020


via Flickr

Thomas Robinson | July 21st, 2020

An Iowa State University scientist says that 2020’s crop injury from dicamba exposure has been the most widespread since the pesticide’s introduction in the 1960s.

A recent blog post by Iowa State University professor Bob Hartzler describes the likely reasons behind the unusually high amounts of dicamba damage seen in 2020.  Agronomists across Iowa have observed extensive dicamba damage to non-resistant soybeans which can compromise the crop entirely. Dicamba is a commonly applied pesticide that is increasingly used to address weeds that have become resistant to other groups of pesticides.  Unfortunately, dicamba is volatile and can form drifting clouds which can result in damage to nearby crops like soybeans which are sensitive to the pesticide.

The first factor which led to high dicamba damage is that the 9th  U.S. circuit court of appeals ruled the EPA had understated the risks of dicamba application to crops creating uncertainty for the future use of dicamba products.  The second factor was that poor environmental conditions for dicamba application were prevalent during June when the pesticide needed to be applied.  High wind speeds and heat can allow the pesticide to volatilize and early June had limited times when conditions were right. These two factors likely led to dicamba applications in non-ideal conditions that resulted in extensive volatilization and damage to crops.

Crop injury from dicamba has been found in many areas of the Midwest where the pesticide is applied and concerns about the pesticide’s safety have been growing in recent years.  Crop damage can result in agricultural losses for farmers and disputes over the pesticide have even escalated to murder.

Iowa Farmers Join Initiatives that Pay Them to Reduce Carbon Emissions


Via Flickr

Nicole Welle | June 22, 2020

An increasing number of Iowa Farmers have begun growing cover crops as part of an effort to reduce carbon emissions and fight climate change.

Carbon farming involves growing cover crops, like cereal rye, in alternating rows with crops like soybeans and refraining from tilling fields. These practices increase the level of nutrients in the soil, help prevent erosion, and can help sequester more carbon in the ground.

While carbon farming is not hugely profitable now, many farmers are getting paid to participate in these initiatives. It can help farmers who are currently struggling with low corn and soybean prices reach profitability, and it leaves them with healthier soil and a more sustainable way to farm, according to a Hawk Eye article.

Sequestering carbon in the soil also comes with a number of environmental benefits. The stored carbon in the ground is cut off from contact with the atmosphere where it would combine with oxygen to create carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. By reducing erosion, it also improves the health of Iowa’s rivers, lakes, streams and wildlife.

Corn and Soybean Production May Move out of Iowa in Coming Years Due to Warming Temperatures in the Midwest


(Image Via Flickr)

Nicole Welle |May 7th, 2020

The production of corn and soybeans makes up a huge part of Iowa’s economy, but studies show that warming in the Midwest caused by climate change may cause the ideal growing conditions for the crops to move north into Minnesota and the Dakotas in the next 50 years.

Researchers at Penn State University studied county-level crop-yield data from 18 states compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agriculture Statistics Service over approximately a 30-year period. The team also studied weather patterns and the relationships between climate and corn and soybean yield over that same time period.

Their findings showed that this northward shift has already begun and is likely to continue if there is no intervention. This may be concerning to Iowans who rely on the production of these crops for their livelihood. However, the current changes are happening gradually, so farmers would have adequate time to adapt over the coming decades, according to Armen Kemanian, a researcher at Penn State.

Iowa farmers would have to begin growing a different variety of crops or switch to a system that involves growing two crops a year once corn and soybeans are no longer a viable option. The new crops would also need to have a lower sensitivity to extreme temperatures and changes in humidity to thrive in an environment with more extreme fluctuations in temperature caused by climate change.