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 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.

 

Dubuque to hold water quality summit next week


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Screenshot from the event’s promotional flyer. 

Julia Poska | February 21, 2019

The 11th Annual Dubuque Area Watershed Symposium will be Wednesday, Feb. 27 at the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium from 3 to 9pm. The event is free to the public, but pre-registration is required to attend.

Subtitled “The True Value of Clean Water”, the event will focus on Iowa’s water quality concerns and current efforts to resolve them.  One of the first items on the agenda will be a presentation on the City of Dubuque’s recent Iowa Partners for Conservation Grant: $326,712 to be put towards engaging local farmers and helping them become leaders in efforts to reduce flooding and improve water quality in the Catfish Creek Watershed.

Other presentations will cover conservation practices, land-use practices, soil health, and water quality.

Later in the evening, keynote speakers Michael Schueller, director of environmental operations the State Hygienic Lab, and Larry Webber, IIHR research engineer and co-founder of the Iowa Flood Center, will share their knowledge and ideas about Iowa water quality.

The organizers want to hear from non-experts, too, and will hold a roundtable discussion on drafting the Dubuque County Conservation Strategic Plan, as well as encourage questions after the keynotes.

For more information visit the City of Dubuque’s official website.

 

 

 

Soil could hold key to climate adaptation


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A plant begins and ends its life in the soil, which could be the key to climate adaptation (Flickr). 

Julia Poska| September 20, 2018

Climate change models predict decreased crop yields as temperatures rise, but new research from Michigan State University says our soil can save us.

If yields go down, the amount of carbon returned to the soil will too, creating a feedback loop that would only accelerate crop loss.  The study, published in Agriculture and Environmental Letters, found that certain soil management and conservation practices can compensate for crop loss by keeping carbon in the soil.

Practices like cover cropping and conservation tillage, encouraged by the researchers, benefit the environment in other ways as well. Especially in Corn Belt states along the Mississippi River, these practices are encouraged to keep soil nutrients out of the water.

Lead scientist Bruno Basso said soil may be our most important resource for adapting to and mitigating the effects of climate change in an MSU media release about the study. “The soil that we’ll deal with in 2050 is surely to be different than it is now, so recognizing how to manage it today -along with adaptation strategies for tomorrow — is critical,” he said.

 

Conservation Reserve Program amended to support new farmers


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Buffer zones curb soil erosion and help to filter nutrients before they enter waterways. (USDA National Agroforestry Center/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | December 30, 2016

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has modified a national conservation program in order to support beginning farmers.

Since 1985, the Conservation Reserve Program has paid farmers a yearly rent for removing environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production. Most contracts last 10-15 years. Previously, if farmers broke the contract early, they were required to return all the rental payments with interest. With the policy change, farmers may now end their contracts early without penalty if they sell or lease the land to a beginning farmer.

Agriculture Deputy Under Secretary Lanon Baccam announced the policy change, which will take effect January 9th, at the Joe Dunn farm near Carlisle in central Iowa. Dunn’s son-in-law, Aaron White, is a beginning farmer on a small acreage near Carlisle.

White said, “I think the biggest obstacle beginning farmers face is land access. This program would help alleviate some of those problems.” Lanon Baccam agreed, he said giving the next generation of farmers a chance at success makes perfect sense.

Signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1985, the Conservation Reserve Program is the largest private-land conservation effort in the country. It is unclear how the program’s stated goal of improving water quality, reducing soil erosion and protecting habitat for endangered species will be effected by putting environmentally sensitive land back into production for beginning famers.

More information about the Conservation Reserve Program in Iowa can be found here.