Soil and Water Conservation Practices – What are They Doing?

Agricultural run-off has been a big talking point in recent years. Many people know bits and pieces of the conversation, but the scope of the issue can be a bit complicated. There are many factors and smaller issues that need attention. So, what is the deal with run-off?

As you may know, Iowa is under national pressure to reduce the amount of nutrients washing off of our land and into the rivers, and ultimately into the Gulf of Mexico. The main issue at the Gulf is hypoxia, which basically means there are too many of specific kinds of nutrients, which promotes algae growth, which in turn chokes out other organisms like fish. Clearly this is not ideal.

The main nutrient that gets the press is nitrogen. Nitrates in the water has been one of the bigger issues people talk about. The main concerns are removing nitrates from drinking water (primarily because of the blue baby syndrome that was a larger problem in the 1950s), issues of environmental stability, and even cost of wasted nutrients on the farm associated with nutrient loss from the field.

The other nutrient we are now paying attention to is phosphorus. This one isn’t quite as popular to talk about in the public space, but it impacts aquatic ecosystems similarly to nitrogen. They both support the growth of algae, sometimes to the point of using up all of the oxygen in the water and killing off native fish.

Nitrogen and phosphorus (along with potassium) are two of the three main macronutrients that plants need to grow. Nitrogen tends to be the nutrient that is applied most to Iowa farm fields, because of how important it is to crop growth. These are naturally occurring elements in the soil and play a vital role in life on Earth.

However, we’ve come to this issue. Aquatic ecosystems are being negatively impacted by these nutrients. Farmers pay to apply these nutrients to their crops and don’t want to lose their investment. How can we reduce those nutrient loads in our waterways and keep nutrients and soil where they belong?

The good news is those questions are being asked, and many programs are underway. The more difficult news is that there is not a one-size-fits-all answer either for fields or for the nutrients themselves.

Let’s back up a little bit and talk about how these nutrients interact with the soil and water. Soil particles are made up of sheets of molecules that when bonded together create an overall negative charge. This works out pretty well because most nutrients have a positive charge in their plant-available form. This means that most nutrients bond with the soil and stay available to the plants living in that soil. Phosphorus is one of these nutrients.

But then we get to nitrogen. It sometimes is in a form with a positive charge (NH4+), but it doesn’t really like to stay like that forever. It gets broken down or may volatilize into a different form. It could be lost into the atmosphere, or it could become NO3-, which is nitrate. When nitrogen changes into its nitrate form, it is no longer attracted to the negatively charged soil and ends up leaching its way through the soil profile along with ground water.

Since nitrogen moves with ground water, the primary way it gets around is through tile lines. Field tile is commonly used in Iowa to help keep excess water from the field. If soil is too waterlogged, the crops may struggle. Thus, Iowa farmers have been tiling their fields for decades to give the water a quick and easy way to escape the field.


Iowa Learning Farms display highlighting differences between nitrogen and phosphorus loss from a field and how tile lines play a part.

Both of these nutrients cost money to apply. They are important for crop growth. The soil that can hold them is also valuable. Farmers don’t want them to leave their field partially because they don’t want to lose that value, and also because of the negative impacts too much of them can have on other ecosystems. But because these two things come into the waterways in different ways – phosphorus comes into the water with soil that has eroded, and nitrogen through the water itself – they have to be managed in different ways.

So what are some ideas?

There are some practices that can be built or installed to help modify the landscape or the way the elements interact with it. These can cost real money, but in some cases, government programs or even corporate incentive programs can help fund their start up. These can be largely grouped as permanent structures

One cool new idea is saturated buffers. This system uses both buffer strips and tile lines. Buffer strips are areas of natural plants parallel to ditches and waterways left fallow to help filter runoff. Conventional tile systems are installed 3-4 feet deep to catch and take extra water from the field and into a near ditch or waterway. The outlets of these tile lines have conventionally been placed directly into a ditch or waterway uninhibited. However, the idea with a saturated buffer is that if you place the tile line parallel to the ditch or waterway, the soil and plant growth in the buffer strip will filter the soil particles and nutrients in the water before it reaches the waterway. The Agricultural Research Service claims this system filters an average of 42% of the nitrate load from the water.

The saturated buffer idea is similar to the idea of bioreactors. Bioreactors also help filter nutrients from tile line outlets, but with artificially created biological processes. Essentially a pit is filled with organic, carbon-rich materials, like woodchips, where microscopic life can flourish. These microorganisms help break down and filter nitrates from the water introduced to the system. This is a slightly older technology than saturated buffers, but is costlier to implement and will need redone roughly every 15 years.

Buffer strips and bioreactors are considered “edge of field” practices. This means that they don’t need to take up area in a field, but instead use the less productive or less safe land to farm near a water boundary. Though it still may be a hard sell to pull that land out of production, it is argued that those areas likely aren’t making the farmer much money, and proper water management may help make other areas better. Since these practices help filter ground water before it reaches the stream, they are some promising pieces in removing excess nitrates.

Terraces are another way farmers can make changes to the land to slow water runoff. You may have seen pictures of farms in other parts of the world where terraces are cut like stairsteps into a large hill so that the crops can be grown on flat land. Here in Iowa, we use a different kind of terrace that essentially builds up a smaller hill on a broad hill to slow water running off the slope. When the water runoff is slowed, soil particles and nutrients can have more time to settle out in the grassed front and back-slopes of the terrace. For more info on terraces, check out our previous blog post here, Clean Water Iowa, or the Natural Resource Conservation Service.

Avoca Terraces

Terraces placed on the slope protect the soil from erosion in Avoca, Iowa.

Grassed drainageways or grassed waterways are a common sight to see around the hills of Iowa. These are natural waterways that farmers leave in native grasses to slow water flow, intercept soil runoff (to decrease P loss), and hopefully the plant life will also absorb excess nutrients in the water (to decrease N loss). If not left in a grassed waterway, these areas of the field would be susceptible to rill and gully erosion.

There are also cropping practices that can impact soil and water conservation. These can be opted into or out of any given season.

Another very cool idea is cover crops. We’ve written previous blogs about cover crops, but in a nutshell, cover crops are plants grown in a farmer’s field during the off-season (fall to spring) to keep the soil covered and protected during a time it would usually be left bare. Cover crops protect the soil surface from wind and rain, the roots help improve soil structure, they add organic material that makes soil healthier, hold nutrients near the soil surface, help suppress weed growth, and do lots of other cool things. Because cover crops help use nutrients and protect the soil, they can help with both nitrogen and phosphorus loss.


Soybeans sprouting through a terminated rye cover crop on a strip-tilled farm near Algona, IA.

Our grandfathers and great-grandfathers broke the land using moldboard plows year after year. Eventually we realized that even though tillage can help prevent soil compaction and help with weed control, it has a negative impact on soil structure and makes soil more susceptible to erosion. Because of this, some farmers swung the pendulum to the opposite side of the spectrum and went no-till. This means they never till the soil on their fields. Instead, they are more dependent on herbicide weed control, and use crop rotations and cover crops to help mitigate soil compaction. When the soil is not tilled, the structure becomes stronger, and previous years’ crop roots and stems help protect the soil. This helps prevent soil from washing off the field, thus preventing phosphorus loss.


This is a field that has been strip-tilled. Strip tillage is a form of conservation tillage where only part of the field is tilled.

If we think of no-till and moldboard plowing as the two far swings of the pendulum in terms of tillage, likely the middle of the road or slightly more toward no-till would be conservation tillage. This is the idea that a field can benefit from tillage for compaction or weed control issues, but can also benefit from increased soil structure and added organic material from less tillage. These practices vary greatly, but likely include less of the topsoil being broken up.

Contour farming is a way to plant a field so that the rows follow around the hills. This means that when the water runs down the hill, it would run perpendicular into the rows instead of parallel between the rows. This should slow the flow of water, giving soil time to settle out of the water before it continues down the hill.

There are many options available for farmers and landowners in the area of soil and water conservation. More research is being done every day for the best and newest ways to decrease risk, decrease cost, and maximize benefit. Because of the nature of these practices (particularly permanent structures and cover crops) is that it costs real money up front to earn intrinsic value later (i.e.: will not earn them a paycheck), it can be difficult to implement new things. However, farmers recognize the good that these things do, and are interested in new cost-share and grant opportunities that can help them do better with what they have.

What do you think the next big idea will be? Maybe you’ll be right!


Soil – it’s not just dirt!

Harris dirt 2

Pedology – this is a crucial field of science when it comes to growing plants on the land, but what does it actually mean? A popular guess would be that the root ‘ped’ is derived from the Latin word for foot, such as pedestrian, biped, or pedestal. On the other hand, the ‘science of feet’ makes absolutely no sense when talking about agriculture! According to the dictionary, pedology is soil science. In this case, ‘ped’ comes from the Greek (not Latin) pedon meaning ground or earth. To expand upon that a bit, pedology is the study of soil’s physical properties, chemical properties, texture, contributions to an ecosystem, and how it moves. It’s impossible to photo 12imagine a society where there was no soil, no ground, no basis for life. I hope that after reading this blog you give a little more thought to what it is we walk and live on every day.

Physical properties

Did you know the ideal soil for farming is only composed of about 50% solids? This percent can be further broken down into about 5% organic matter, with the remaining 45% being mineral content. But now this begs the question – what is the other 50% of soil made of? The remaining space is split equally between available water, unavailable water, and pore space. Simply put, pore space is the tiny pockets of air that microorganisms live in and plant roots use for gas exchange. Available water is soil water that is held a pressure that is easily taken up by plant roots. Using common sense this means that unavailable water is held at too high of a pressure for plant roots to take up, basically stuck to the soil particles and probably won’t move anytime soon.chart (1)


Chemical properties

Believe it or not, soil has chemistry too! Lots of farmers complete soil tests on their land, which will measure many varying characteristics within the soil. To start off with, soil pH is very important when considering nutrient uptake availability! Even if a nutrient is abundant within the upper portion of a soil profile, a plant cannot use it unless the soil’s pH is ideal for that specific element. The most common way of raising the pH of soil is by adding agricultural lime, also known as calcium carbonate. Another important quality of soil is its cation exchange capacity, also called CEC. Although it may sound complicated, CEC refers to the ability of the soil to hold and exchange positive charges. Some common cations are calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium, and hydrogen. Farmers and researchers alike are able to calculate their soil’s CEC, which then translates to how many nutrients the soil can hold at a given time.


Soil is composed of three main types of particles: sand, silt, and clay. Each differs from the next in terms of shape, size, and chemical properties.

  • Sand is the largest particle with a size from 0.05 mm – 2.0 mm. Fields with high quantities of sand have good aeration but poor water holding capacity.
  • Silt is unique with it being smaller than sand but larger than clay. Its size ranges from 0.002 mm – 0.05 mm, and it comes with a high available water holding capacity.
  • The final size is clay, which is 0.002 mm or smaller. This is obviously the smallest soil particle, has a high water holding capacity, and exhibits very poor aeration.

When defining a soil texture, a loam is a mixture of all three textures and is ideal for growing crops in the Midwest!

soil triangle

This is a texture triangle, useful when determining your soil’s texture! Photo from FAO


Role in the ecosystem

Soil is found everywhere around the world, from agricultural fields, to big cities, to forests, and everything in-between! Generally speaking, the ground in metropolitan areas will be very compacted and likely not supporting any biota beneath the surface. In contrast, once outside of urban areas the biota dependent upon the soil vastly changes. Some soil microorganisms include bacteria, fungi, nematodes, algae, and many more! Did you know that a fungi called mycorrhiza has a symbiotic relationship with plant roots?

Where will it go next?

You might think it’s uncommon to hear about soil moving, but it has two main mechanisms for relocating to other regions. Erosion can be caused by wind and water, both having potentially detrimental effects on the soil. Water erosion occurs in three steps: 1) sheet erosion, 2) rill erosion, and 3) gully erosion. Sheet erosion is the film of soil moving from the impact of a rain drop or in a film of water. This is the most difficult to spot and occurs over almost all bare soil during a rain storm. Rill erosion occurs once small channels are formed from the movement of water. If the situation becomes too dire, then gullies will form. This is when the big channels are too deep for field equipment to cross. Wind erosion also occurs in three main steps. The first step is called saltation, and this occurs when fine sand particles are bouncing across a landscape. If the wind picks up, the following step is when particles are becoming suspended in the air. The final step of wind erosion is called creep, which is the rolling and sliding of particles that are too big for the air column.

So the next time you’re out driving along a road, walking through a park, or tending to your garden, I hope you’re thinking about more than solely what’s on the top of the soil!



P.S. Yes I am a new name to these blogs, and I’m here to stay for a while! I recently started as the new intern with Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation and I’m thrilled for what this year has in store. So a little bit about me – I’m currently a student at Iowa State University double majoring in Agronomy and Agriculture Communications. I love growing plants of all types, and that might show a little in future blogs! I look forward to creating some more intriguing and informative posts that you all can enjoy!

Why do they do that? – Self-steering Tractors

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I recently called my dad while he was running the tractor and field cultivator, preparing the field to plant corn. I quickly offered to call another time, but he insisted that he could talk for a minute because he was “hands-free.”  He wasn’t just referring to using a blue-tooth head-set, either.  He was driving the tractor hands-free, too!

His tractor is equipped with an automated guidance system. The system uses a GPS receiver mounted on the tractor and a computer equipped with special software in the tractor cab to control the tractor’s steering system and guide the tractor through the field.  Automated guidance systems are one part of precision agriculture, which has brought many changes in farming in recent years.

So why do farmers use auto-guidance systems, aka self-steering tractors?  Steering a tractor seems easy, especially since tractors are already equipped with all the amenities I appreciate in my car.  Most have heating and air-conditioning, tilt-steering, tinted windows, a nice stereo system, and comfortable seats.  Some models are even available with cruise control, heated seats, and leather upholstery.  Seems pretty nice, right?

While reducing driver fatigue is one perk of automated guidance systems, there are many other benefits that make this technology a valuable investment to farmers.


Cost Savings.  Before guidance systems, farmers sometimes overlapped rows when planting or applying fertilizer, herbicide, or pesticide.  Auto guidance systems precisely guide the equipment so there is little to no overlap.  When the planter does cross over an area that was already planted, some  will automatically shut off rows of the planter so no seed is released.

Less overlap means fewer trips across  the field, which reduces fuel and labor costs too.

Overlapping rows-by 3-4 inches does not seem like a big deal, but it adds up to a significant waste of resources over hundreds of acres.  In this 2012 study, a tractor and planter equipped with auto-steering and automatic row shut-off technology increased profit by $111/acre in corn and $65/acre in soybeans.  According to the USDA, farmers often recoup the costs of a guidance system in just two to three years.

Better for the Environment.  Using less fuel and fertilizer is not only good for the bank account, but it’s good for the environment too. Reducing overlap and applying fertilizer more precisely, reduces environmental pollution and improves water quality by reducing nutrient runoff.

 newhollandReduced Soil Compaction. Driving heavy equipment across the field compacts the soil, which can make it more difficult for seedlings to emerge and restricts water, nutrient, and air movement in the soil. This reduces crop yield and can lead to increased runoff and soil erosion.   Auto-guidance systems can enable farmers to drive in exactly the same paths when cultivating, planting, spraying, and harvesting.  The soil is still compacted in these paths, but it reduces the overall compaction of the field.

Improved crop yield.  Using auto-guidance technology can increase yield in several ways.  By covering more acres in less time, farmers can finish planting earlier in the season which has been shown to increase yield in corn.  Reducing overlap improves yield, too.  Overlapping when planting results in crowded plants that that compete for water and nutrients and do not grow well.  Over-applying fertilizer due to overlap can stunt plant growth and decrease yield, too.

 anhydrousImproved efficiency & safety.  Driving a tractor can be exhausting and stressful.  In addition to steering, the driver is listening to the engine, watching the gauges, keeping an eye on the implement behind them, and scanning the field for rocks, west spots, and other obstacles.  When you’re tired or stressed, mistakes happen.  Mistakes while operating farm equipment can be dangerous and costly.

Auto-guidance systems take the work of steering away and enable farmers to focus on the tractor, implement, and field.  Less multitasking decreases stress and driver fatigue, which improves efficiency and safety.

Auto-guidance systems also enable farmers to better operate equipment when visibility is low because of dust, fog, or sun glare.  Nighttime operation is much more feasible, too.

Technology in agriculture has advanced dramatically since I was a kid riding with my dad in the tractor.  It’s exciting to think about the technology farmers will use  20-30 years from now.


6 Reasons Farmers Use Cover Crops

There is a challenge that farmers are faced with every day of their career—how do we protect the land we work on? Farmers work with the land everyday of their lives and work to protect and restore the land for future generations. They understand how the land provides for them—after all, without taking care of the land they work they would not be able to grow a product, such as corn and soybeans, and be able to make a profit for their livelihood. One way farmers work to protect the land is through cover crops.

What is a cover crop? This is a plant that is grown in fields to protect land quality for the future. There are many benefits of implementing the use of cover crops—and here are 6 reasons farmers use cover crops in their operation.sloans-cover-crop-in-corn-stubble

1.)Soil Erosion: One thing I will always remember from my American History lesson of the Dust Bowl is that bare ground is not the answer. Open topsoil is something to avoid in farming practices. Wind and water can carry the soil away through erosion. My dad always said that we can’t rebuild the soil, and he’s right—it takes many years to produce organic matter that makes up Iowa’s rich topsoil. By planting cover crops we help stabilize the soil and protect the topsoil layer by not exposing it to erosion by wind and water.

2.)Nutrient Management: Cover crops are a great way to add valuable nutrients back to the soil. Not only that but cover crops also add back organic matter to the soil as they decompose. In my agronomy class at Iowa State University, I am learning how certain types of legume plants have the ability to ‘fix’ nitrogen in the soil, such as hairy vetch and winter peas. Nitrogen is an essential element in plant growth. By adding in certain cover crops we are also adding in ways to produce nitrogen. Adding in nutrients is not the only benefit, but also balancing nutrients in the soil is a great perk of cover crops too. Adding in certain cover crops, such as non-legumes cover crops (radishes and rye), also have the ability to tie up the nutrients and prevent them from runoff or leaching. Which leads us into our next reason, water quality.

3.)Water Quality: With nitrogen in the soil also comes nitrogen runoff—both which farmers work towards maintaining. Our water streams are easily exposed to nitrogen runoff and other pollution sources. Not only do some cover crops help produce nitrogen, but others like, radishes and rye, also work to lock in nutrients and keep them from producing runoff or leaching. If you think about it, cover crops work as an extra filter system on fields.

4.)Biodiversity: Not only are farmers introducing a new plant onto these fields, they also introduce new interactions of all types of life. Cover crops bring in new habitats, they bring in beneficial or repelling insects, they attract wildlife, and provide protection against wind and water erosion. Creating an area of diverse species only boosts the circle of life and provides new opportunities to grow.

5.)Weed Suppression: Competition is a real thing in the plant world and farmers use cover crops as a way to eliminate weeds from their fields. Roots of cover crops extend deep down into the soil to take up any nutrients or water available. While doing so they also ‘weed’ out other weeds (no pun intended) for those nutrients. Not only do cover crops compete with weeds below the soil surface, but they also compete above the surface for sunlight and space. The competition from cover crops is too stressful for the weeds to handle, making it easy for farmers to have complete weed control.

6.)Green Pasture: Some farmers who also have cattle also have the option of grazing their cattle on the cover crop fields. Its just another way farmers can save feed costs. Cattle love to graze on certain forages, especially crops like clover, radish tops, and rye. Not only can the farmer feed his cattle, but he can also fertilize his fields in the process. The cattle’s manure makes a great source of fertilizer—so basically it’s a two for one deal here.screen-shot-2017-02-07-at-11-47-14-am

There are many reasons why farmers use cover crops—each reason presents an opportunity to improve soil and land quality for the future. Now you may wonder why not all farmers use cover crops. Well even though there are benefits there are also challenges. Cost is a big challenge facing farmers and one of the key reasons that they do not use them. Although cost takes a toll in the present, the benefits can outweigh the costs for the future. For example adding in nutrients and managing weeds work to boost yields, not to mention protecting the topsoil works to help plant growth too. A farmer may be faced with many challenges each day, but they also know how they can work to make the best decision for their operation as well as for the land to be worked on in the future.

-Hannah Pagel

Why do they do that? – Terraces and Tile Lines

Much of Iowa seems flat, but as we’ve previously discussed there is actually a lot of variety to the Iowa landscape. In addition to this, many Iowa farmers dabble in terracing – creating terraces on the slope of a hill. But why do they do that?

Maybe you’ve never even noticed it, but look closely at Iowa fields – especially in the southern half of the state – and you will see terraces on many hillsides.

One thing that Iowa farmers struggle with is soil loss and erosion from water running across the field. When water after a rainstorm flows across the field it can pick up soil particles and carry those particles downstream. Loosing that soil off the field might make the field less fertile. The steeper the slope or grade of the land (like a hillside) the faster the water will move. The faster the water moves, the more soil it might pick up and carry away with it.

Avoca Terraces

Terraces placed on the slope protect the soil from erosion. Photo courtesy of USDA-NRCS, Iowa.

So farmers need to try and slow down the movement of water. Hence, terraces. Terraces are man-made earthen structures that intercept runoff on slopes. They change long slopes into a series of shorter slopes. At each level of the terrace, water has a chance to slow down and the soil has a chance to settle out which keeps it on the field. The result is that cleaner water leaves the field and not as much erosion occurs.

Farmers mound up soil on the hillside creating a somewhat level area with a short steep backslope down to the next level. The top, flat area can still be farmed with crops. The short steep backslopes are seeded with perennial grasses. The roots of these perennial grasses help hold the slope in place.

Sometimes terraces can also include a tile line and drain. In some cases and if there is considerable water build up, farmers can install a tile line and drain. This will allow the soil to settle out and the water to be siphoned off into an underground pipe. This allows the water to run through the pipe down the slope without collecting any soil. The water is discharged at the end of the pipe. This also reduces soil compaction and and enables good root development.

In Iowa, terraces are a fairly common practice. In fact hundreds of miles of terraces help cut soil loss. In one watershed management area terraces reduce soil loss by as much as 13 tons! New terraces might be installed in the fall of the year after growing crops have been harvested or in the spring of the year before crops are planted. In addition to reducing soil erosion, terraces can help retain moisture for growing crops and water conservation purposes. Terraces can even help create nesting habitat in the grassy back slopes that are largely untouched.


Cover Cropping. Why Do They Do That?

In the spring, you might see some interesting looking plants popping up over last season’s crop remnants. What may seem like early growing weeds could actually be a way for farmers to promote soil and water health and reduce erosion in a system called cover cropping.

What is a cover crop?

Cover crops, also called “green manure”, are short-seasoned plants that grow quickly after the ground thaws in the spring . Farmers will plant these crops in the fall after harvest to help give the land extra cover when their main crop, generally corn or soybeans in Iowa, is not established in the late fall and early spring months.


What do cover crops do?

Though there are many types of plants used in cover cropping systems, they all serve some of the same purposes. They help hold the soil together to reduce erosion, they serve as a guard against runoff (promoting water quality downstream), suppress weed growth, use different nutrients than cash crops, and can help build healthier soils by increasing organic matter and reducing compaction.

Why do farmers plant cover crops?

Some of the biggest benefits of cover cropping are nutrient recycling and soil and water health. If a farmer plants cover crops, their soil health will increase, and their main crop can see a yield boost. Farmers also realize that taking care of their soil is important, because without it, none of their crops could grow.

How do farmers plant cover crops?

There are a variety of ways farmers can establish their cover crops. Many farmers will drill the seeds into the ground to avoid extra tillage of the soil, which can cause increased erosion. Other farmers will have small airplanes or helicopters do aerial seedings. Other farmers may plant using a broadcast system that scatters the seed, or precision planting with a corn or soybean planter.


What kinds of plants are used as cover crops?

In Iowa, cereal rye is a commonly used cover crop. However, other small grains such as oats or triticale are also used, and some legumes such as crimson clover and hairy vetch  are used. Some farmers may even plant turnips or radishes! Producers can mix and match different kinds of plants according to their strengths and weaknesses to help them meet many goals with their cover crop rotation.

What do farmers do with cover crops?

Cover crops are interesting in that their main purpose is just to grow. Though some farmers may use them to graze cattle or to get added value from the plant, others may terminate them by mowing over them or by using herbicides.

All in all, this system of planting a short-season crop to break up regular cycles and to provide extra benefits to the environment is becoming more and more popular in the state. Farmers have found many different ways to make the idea work in their fields and operations, and will likely continue to find innovative and interesting ways to meet the same goals. What do you think will come next in cover cropping?


9 Ways to Learn at the Iowa State Fair

I love the Iowa State Fair. I grew up camping at the fair, so it’s in my blood. I don’t mind the crowds. I enjoy seeing the farm animals, giant vegetables, and beautiful pies on display. I get a kick out of the corny contests and sometimes silly entertainment. But what I love most is the opportunity the State Fair brings to see and learn something new. A few years ago I saw a baby ostrich for the first time and was absolutely amazed. Who knew baby ostriches are speckled with spikey feathers?

Yesterday I visited to take note of the learning opportunities for families. Below are a few of my favorite things to see, do and LEARN at the Iowa State Fair!

1. Meet the Iowa State Fair’s newest baby animals at the Animal Learning Center.  goatThe Animal Learning Center is all about baby animals and education. Walk in a cattle hoop barn, see how baby and momma pigs live on farms, and learn about fish farms in Iowa! If your timing is right, you might get to share the excitement of watching a newborn calf stand on his wobbly legs for the first time. Be sure to check out the ALC’s daily schedule so you don’t miss the Agriculture Bingo, Minute to Win It: Farm Edition, or the Agriculture Magic Show during your visit.

2. Estimate how tall the cornstalks are at Pioneer Hall. Most field corn grown in Iowa is 8-10 feet tall, but the corn you’ll see here is much taller. Each year Iowan’s from across the state carefully bring in their tallest corn stalks to Des Moines to compete in the Tall Corn Contest. You can see a metal replica of the contest’s record holder just outside of the south entrance of the Agricultural Building.

3. Test your agriculture IQ on the Ag Ventures Discovery Trail. Pick up a trail map at any of the State Fair Information Booths, search for the Ag Venture Farm Facts around the fair, and claim your prize!

truck4. See bees, butter, and bioreactors in the Agriculture Building. The butter cow shares a building with some other pretty cool things too. Take a close-up look at bees at the Iowa Honey Association’s display on the upper level, and be sure to explore the Iowa Department of Agriculture and commodity displays in the center of the lower level. There you can talk to famers about what’s happening on their farm, play games, take virtual ride through Iowa’s countryside on a grain truck, and learn what a bioreactor does.

5. Discover something new at the It Takes an Iowan Exhibit. Also, located in the Agriculture Building, this brand-new exhibit showcases the role Iowan’s have played in the ongoing endeavor of providing food for the nation and the world. Walk through the display to read inspiring quotes, learn about famous Iowans, and be inspired to make a difference in your community!

6. Learn the difference between a Hereford and an Angus at the Avenue of Breeds. Located in the northwest corner of the Swine Barn, this is a one-stop shop to see horses, cattle, sheep, and fish – including many breeds that will not be anywhere else at the fair.

IMG_20150813_091910468_resized7. Plant, harvest, and sell crops at Little Hands on the Farm. Grow, harvest, and sell like a farmer at Little Hands on the Farm. Children follow a path to explore a garden, grain bin, apple orchard, chicken coop, tractor shed, sheep barn and dairy barn. After gathering many items along the way, they sell them at the Farmers’ Market for a Little Hands dollar to purchase a snack at the Grocery Store.

8. See what happens to soil and water on farm land and in cities at Farm Bureau Park. Visit the Conservation Station to learn about conservation and water quality, and then test your conservation knowledge while playing a fun ring-toss game.

9. Learn how cows are milked at the Iowa State Fair Milking Parlor. Located on the north side of the Cattle barn, this 20 minute experience will teach you all you want to know about a cow’s life on a dairy farm today. You can also try your hand at milking a cow the old fashioned way with the ISU Dairy Science Club near the Avenue of Dairy Breeds.

I disagree with anyone who says the Iowa State Fair is the same every year. There is always something new to see, and definitely something new to learn! What are your favorites?

– Cindy

Why Do They Do That? – Plowing or Tilling Fields

It is spring and that means it is time for farmers to get out into the fields and start planting. Farmers have to dodge rainstorms and when skies are clear they might work through the night to get seeds into the ground. Iowa has amazingly rich and robust soil for those seeds to germinate in. That rich, black topsoil does need some preparation for the ideal growth of seeds. But, have you ever wondered why farmers plow their fields before they plant?

5Seeds are typically only planted an inch below the soil surface. Farmers want to give those seeds the best chance of germinating and growing. That means mechanically preparing seed beds by breaking the ground. Soil can become dense and compact. Plowing also makes it easier to plant. Plowing breaks up the blocky structure of the soil which can aid in drainage and root growth.

Plowing fields can also turn organic matter into soil to increase decomposition and add nutrients from the organic matter to the soil. Many farmers spread manure from cattle and swine onto their fields. This manure is rich in nitrogen which is essential for plant growth. Turning the soil over not only mixes this organic matter, but it also increases oxygen in the soil which speeds up decomposition of the organic matter and makes more oxygen available for the plant roots.

488615811One problem that farmers face is weeds in their field. Weeds compete with the planted crop for water and essential nutrients. Weeds typically grow fast and can crowd out the desired crop. One advantage of plowing is that it can mechanically break up weed roots and disrupt weeds from growing. By mechanically controlling weeds farmers may be able to spray fewer herbicides to control the weeds.  Harvested crops are also graded by the amount of ‘foreign’ material in them. A bushel of wheat will be worth more if it has fewer weed seeds in it. So, having fewer weeds can lead to increased profit.

Planting seeds is always weather dependent. Farmers need to wait until the soil temperature is above 50 degrees Fahrenheit so that the seeds will germinate. Farmers want to plant as early as possible so that they can maximize a short growing season and give their crops the best chance to be productive. Black soil will absorb more sunlight and increase that soil temperature more quickly than soil that has plant matter on it. Plant matter reflects some sunlight and might delay how quickly soil temperature warms to 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

Farming is about Decisions

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere are a lot of reasons for farmers to plow or till their fields. But, plowing does present some challenges and costs. One of the principle problems with plowing fields is the potential wind and water erosion that might carry soil away from the field. For this reason many farmers chose to plant their fields using no-till technology in which last year’s organic matter is left on the surface and seeds are drilled directly into soil without plowing. The organic matter from previous years helps hold the soil in place.

While plowing or tilling fields can disrupt the weed lifecycle, it can also disrupt the microorganisms in the soil and adversely affect the soil health. Bacteria, fungi, worms and insects that all live in the soil create a unique environment that contribute to the health of the soil. It is many of these organisms that breakdown the organic matter in and on the soil.

467002013Ultimately farmers need to decide if the benefits of plowing their fields outweigh the risks of soil erosion. They can choose between conventional tillage, reduced tillage, and conservation tillage. They need to decide if tilling harms the microorganisms that live in the soil. Many Iowa farmers have chosen to practice no-till farming because it does have many positive benefits to the environment. Most farmers don’t actually ‘plow’ their fields. They either use conservation tillage methods or do not till the soil at all. Traditional plowing by definition turns up bare soil and buries all plant residue leaving soil vulnerable to wind and water erosion. Plowing also creates clods and an uneven seedbed for planting. This traditional, old fashioned form of plowing hasn’t been practiced commonly in Iowa for 25-30 years. Farmers try minimally disruptive techniques that leave much of the plant residue on the surface of the soil helping reduce erosion. But, every field is different and farmers need to decide what works best for them and their operation.


AG 101: Iowa Environment & Soil Conservation

As a novice to agriculture, I have had the opportunity to dig deeper into many different topics and educate myself and others about agriculture and agriculture’s impact on our day to day lives.  Our environment is a hot topic. I am curiou_74974804_heavyrains to know more about what farmers do to manage their land and how different strategies affects land and waterways throughout the state.  As we celebrate Earth Day this April 22 it’s the perfect time to be proactive with our precious land.

My first question is “Why does heavy rainfall cause destruction to the land?  What can be done to prevent the erosion?” The intensity of the heavy rainfall striking the soil has the potential to dislodge particles in the soil and splash them several soil crustingfeet away.  This relocation of particles of soil does not create a smooth surface, but instead can cause particles to fill soil pores or if rapid drying occurs it creates a hardened layer called soil crusting .  This can create conditions that lead to soil erosion.  So what can be done to prevent this?  Farmers work to improve soil structure  by not tilling the soil or by planting cover crops.

What are the biggest negative impacts of soil erosion?  Soil erosion sets into motion many negative influences to our rich soil.  Land degradation will lead to a decline in crop production.  This in turn will  have an adverse effect on the world’s food supply affecting everyone.

Is there any tie between erosion and our water quality? Yes, the connections are too many to mention.  One of the critical connections is surface water runoff.  When soil conservation has not taken place, contaminants can enter watersheds and affect the water quality.  Once again, controlling erosion is a critical link of improving water quality.

What are benefits of soils conservation?  Earthworms  can increase soil organismsaeration and their channeling through the soil enhances natural water drainage.  Proper soil conservation allows these soil organisms to remain unharmed.  Maintaining proper soil PH ensures that nutrients are readily available for growing plants.  Best of all, soil conservation prevents further soil erosion.

We cannot see soil erosion happening.  We just see the aftermath of bare topsoil and ground that appears  stony with a gravel like surface.  Some of these management strategies do carry a cost and so farmers have to consider the best way to manage their soil.  Changes take time to show positive impact but are worth it in the long run.healthy soil

Through extensive efforts, everyone reaps the benefits of taking care of the dark, rich land we in Iowa have been blessed with.  Our personal efforts may seem small, but little things make a big difference in protecting the soil. This effects everyone!

– Sheri