ISU research complicates cover crops


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Cover crops hold onto soil and carbon during the off-season (via Creative Commons).

Julia Poska| November 13, 2019

Though cover cropping has proven advantageous for soil and water conservation in Iowa, the practice’s benefits to atmospheric quality may be negligible, new research from Iowa State University found.

When farm fields are left bare during the winter and spring, wind and water transport soil and nutrients off the land and into streams and rivers, degrading both the field and water quality. Exposed soil typically releases carbon into the atmosphere at increased rates compared to planted areas, contributing significantly to climate change.

Cover cropping involves planting alternative crops like rye or clover to cover and nourish the land throughout the off-season. The conservation practice holds soil in place, pulls atmospheric carbon into plant material and adds carbon back into soil upon decomposition. Sequestering carbon in plants and soil is key to combatting climate change.

That carbon may not remain in the soil for long, however. The new study, published in Global Change Biology Bioenergy,  found that the added soil carbon stimulates microbes in the soil that emit carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere as they digest the organic matter.

The research — conducted by ISU assistant professor of ecology, evolution and organismal biology Steven Hall and grad student Chenglong Ye —  highlights the need for a variety of solutions for the planet’s numerous natural resource problems. While cover crops are a proven protectors against water pollution, we will need to implement other strategies to make farming carbon neutral, too.

Iowa farmers implement sustainable practices


Photo by Alejandro Barru00f3n on Pexels.com

Tyler Chalfant | October 17th, 2019

Iowa farmers are implementing practices to increase sustainability and reduce environmental threats to public health, including crop rotation, use of cover crops, eliminating pesticides, and using alternatives to chemical weeding. One group called Practical Farmers of Iowa organized a series of educational field days over the summer, providing opportunities across the state for farmers to share and discuss these practices. One of the environmental threats in the state comes from nutrient runoff from agricultural fertilizers, which recently have contributed to the growth of toxic microcystins in some Iowa bodies of water, making sustainable farming not just an environmental issue, but a public health concern as well. 

Research published last month from Iowa State University scientists found that the widely-used practice of crop rotation helps to reduce pollution, but also depletes organic matter in soil over time. Rotating between corn and soybeans requires less nitrogen fertilizer than continuous corn production, as soybeans leave behind a nitrogen-rich residue in the soil. This allows farmers to save on costs and reduce nitrogen runoff into freshwater lakes and streams. However the abundance of nitrogen contributes to the growth of microbes which, on years when corn is planted, consume nutrients needed for corn production, depleting this organic material in the long run.

Iowa State research proposes ‘sustainable intensification’ of Iowa drainage network


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Drainage tile helps keep farm fields dry, but Iowa’s system needs a more sustainable upgrade (via Creative Commons).

Julia Poska | October 9, 2019

Agronomy researchers at Iowa State University have proposed ideas for an ambitious and much-needed update to Iowa’s agricultural drainage system. Their study makes suggestions for mitigating the effects of altered precipitation patterns due to climate change while reducing pollution to air and water.

The concept of “sustainable intensification” (the authors define this as “producing more food from the same amount of land with fewer environmental costs”) is at the core of the research. ISU agronomist Michael Castellano led the study in partnership with University of Kentucky and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology ETH-Zurich.

Artificial drainage systems are comprised of underground pipes, tiles and drains that move water off farmland, discharging it into ditches that flow into natural surface waterbodies. Without this network, most of Iowa’s land would be too waterlogged to farm, but drainage systems increase runoff of nutrient and bacterial pollution from fields into waterways.

The increasing frequency of both intense rain events and draught in Iowa due to climate change is also putting extra pressure on those systems, which were designed before Iowa agriculture became so intense.  The study, published in Nature Sustainability, describes several solutions. “Controlled drainage,” or installing gates that can temporarily open/close at the ends of drains, could allow farmers to increase drainage during wet springs and retain more water during dry summers.

Installing narrower, shallower drains could further reduce nutrient concentration in drainage water, the authors claim. They say it could also reduce needed fertilizer inputs and decrease greenhouse gas emissions from the soil.

The study also describes the need to increase on-farm conservation practices, like returning some farmed land to wetland, in conjunction with updating infrastructure.

 

Researchers speak at statehouse about rising temperatures


Photo from Radio Iowa | Bill Gutowski speaks while Peter Levi listens in

Tyler Chalfant | September 24th

Professors from Iowa universities spoke at the statehouse last Wednesday, Radio Iowa reported. The 216 climate educators who issued the ninth annual Iowa Climate Statement represent 38 colleges and universities in the state. 

This year’s statement warned of the increased intensity and frequency of heat waves that Iowa will experience in the coming decades. The group projects that the number of days exceeding 90 degrees will more than double within the next two decades, and nearly triple by mid-century.

The scientists spoke about how these increased temperatures will put Iowans at greater risk of heat related illnesses, including heat exhaustion, heat cramps, heat stroke, or death. Scientists have predicted that rural areas will likely be hit the hardest by rising temperatures, and that the Midwest will see the greatest number of premature deaths caused by heat. 

Peter Levi, an Environmental Science professor at Drake University, said that those facing the most danger “include our friends and neighbors who work outside on a regular basis, older adults above age 65, infants and children, those individuals with chronic conditions, low-income households and our athletes.” 

Levi also said that extreme heat will harm the state’s livestock industry, as confined livestock are at increased risk of death, and won’t reach a marketable weight as quickly when stressed by high temperatures. 


“It’s not hopeless,” added Bill Gutowski, an Atmospheric Sciences professor at Iowa State University, indicating that there is still time to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. “I want people to realize it’s not hopeless and there are adaptations that we can do as well.”

Monarch Butterflies Migrating to Iowa


Monarch Butterflies Migrate to Iowa Every Year (Flickr).

Sthefany Nóbriga| May 8, 2019

 Researchers from Iowa State University predict that this spring Iowans will see the largest population of monarch butterflies in over a decade. 

The monarch butterflies migrate every winter to Canopy Forest in central Mexico. During the winter of 2013 to 2014, the monarch population plummeted, covering less than 2.5 acres of the forest, the lowest point of the population in the past two decades. This is partly because of the loss of summer breeding habitat and pesticide use. 

However, this past winter scientist noted Mexico’s most significant overwintering monarch population since 2007. Almost 200 million adult monarch butterflies were recorded, and now they are migrating up north.

According to the researchers from Iowa State University, the reason for the increase in the monarch population is due to mild winters in Mexico, and southern parts of the United States in comparison to other years. 

Scientists are hopeful and want to maintain the monarch population and preserve their numbers. But it is reported that there is a shortage of potential breeding habitats in Iowa to maintain a steady population. 

In order to maintain this population, there must be approximately 480,000 to 830,000 acres of habitat over the next 10 to 20 years according to Iowa Public Radio. 

If the weather stays favorable, Iowans will be seeing a large monarch population starting at the end of May or even early June. 

Tom Vilsack to deliver lecture next month


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Tom Vilsack currently leads the U.S. Dairy Export Council. (Iowa State University)

Jenna Ladd | October 25, 2017

Tom Vilsack will deliver a lecture at Iowa State University as a part of the National Affairs Series: “When American Values Are in Conflict” next month.

Vilsack served as Governor of Iowa from 1999 through 2007. His lecture, titled “Agriculture and Climate Change,” however, will center more around his work as Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) during the Obama administration. As USDA Secretary, Vilsack helped to develop and manage programs related to rural electrification, community mental health and refinancing farm homes, to name a few. He also managed the federal school lunch program and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Vilsack currently serves as president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, “a non-profit, independent membership organization that represents the global trade interests of U.S. dairy producers, proprietary processors and cooperatives, ingredient suppliers and export traders.”

Additional details about the lecture can be found here.

What: “Agriculture and Climate Change” lecture by Tom Vilsack

Where: Iowa State University Memorial Union-Great Hall

When: Thursday, November 16 at 7:00 pm

Cost: free, open to public

ISU Horticulture Research Station celebrates anniversary


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ISU’s Horticulture Research Station provides opportunities for hands-on research for students and faculty. (Iowa State University)

Jenna Ladd| September 22, 2017

Iowa State University’s Horticulture Research Station celebrated its 50th anniversary this week.

The anniversary was marked with a farmer’s market, farm tours, children’s games and a produce washing demonstration on Saturday.

The 235 acre station is home to 80 to 90 research projects each year. Scientists from horticulture, forestry, botany, ecology, plant pathology, entomology and natural resources use the space to study everything from vegetables to honeybees to wasps to swallows. The land bears apples, pumpkins, watermelon, hops, grapes and more.

Ben Pease is a Horticulture Research Associate at Iowa State. He said, “We are able to sell most of what we grow. If it’s part of a research project once it’s done we can sell it or we’re growing stuff to use the land we’re able to sell it,” to Iowa State Daily. Pease added that the station has made over a million dollars selling produce since 2006. Much of the food is sold to ISU’s dining halls, which buys about 5 tons of green peppers each year.

The land, which features a 15 acre lake as well, is located just three miles north of Ames on highway 69.