Iowa’s Nutrients: Agricultural Inputs and Exports

Iowa soils have given way to 92,000 farms across 48,100 square miles (86% of Iowa’s total land area) that lead the U.S. in two of the most versatile grains; corn and soybean. Meanwhile, Iowa also leads the U.S. in hog meat and egg production. Corn and soybeans, hog meat, and eggs annually produce a multi-billion dollar export industry. However, life vital nutrients from Iowa’s land are also exported in tremendous quantities with these agricultural exports. To sustain Iowa’s agriculture productivity, these nutrients, such as nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P), must continually be replenished to the soil. To address our question regarding sustaining productivity and our natural resources we need to consider Iowa’s land as a whole including both soil and water.

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Lawrence Selected as a Recipient for the Iowa Water Center’s Institute Research Grant Competition

Written by Sarah Feehan, Communications Specialist

AMES, IOWA – The Iowa Water Center (IWC) annually administers a statewide grant competition known as the IWC Graduate Student Research Competition.

The purpose of this funding is to enable graduate students to complete additional research objectives beyond the scope of their current work, with an emphasis on submitting their research to peer-reviewed publications.

Nate Lawrence has been selected among three other graduate students from across Iowa. He and the other recipients will receive funding for a variety of proposed research.

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Nate Lawrence, graduate student at Iowa State University.

Lawrence’s proposed research encompasses nitrate contamination in agricultural systems. It is titled ‘Denitrification in Agricultural Depressions by Nitrate Isotope Analysis’.

“The question that this grant targets is ‘to what extent are low-lying areas in fields, which are common across the Midwest, functioning as intermittent wetlands which remove nitrate pollution from water and how much of the nitrate removed is reduced nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas,’” Lawrence says.

Associate Director of the IWC Melissa Miller says, “Water Resources Research Institutes like the Iowa Water Center were authorized by Congress in part to address emerging water resources concerns through research.”

This grant will allow Lawrence to quantify how much denitrification removes nitrate before it flows to tile lines and ultimately surface waters. Lawrence’s theory is that low-lying areas in agriculture fields may remove nitrate before it ends up in the stream, acting as intermittent wetlands embedded in agriculture fields.

Miller says, “Landscape depressions are very evident with wet seasons, like we saw in fall 2018 and spring 2019, and research like Mr. Lawrence’s project is imperative for determining how we manage low-lying areas. The results could impact both water quality downstream as well as decision-making for in-field profitability.”

Get to Know Nate Lawrence, Graduate Student at Iowa State University

Lawrence is originally from a town in central Illinois called Monticello. He completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Illinois, where his interest in research took off.

“My undergraduate research at the University of Illinois also focused on soil nutrient cycling, which led me to my current research questions,” Lawrence says.

His research focuses on climate change and water pollution because he feels, “They are defining scientific questions with potential to address major environmental problems.”

Nate Larwrence Field Work
Lawrence conducting field work at the Been field site, an ISU-owned research farm off South Dakota Avenue in Ames, Iowa.

This topic brought him to Iowa because, “The Midwest is responsible for a large percentage of the world’s nitrous oxide emissions. These emissions are coupled to processes that produce nitrate pollution in water. So, Iowa is a fruitful place to look into soil nitrogen processes,” he says.

Lawrence is looking forward to connecting his two areas of study, water and greenhouse gases. He says, “It’s an interesting research project because it combines two areas of my research and may help clarify the processes of both.”

Lawrence describes his research colleagues at Iowa State University as, “…an inviting community with cutting-edge research, collaboration, and professional opportunities.” The Department of Evolution and Organismal Biology at Iowa State University has helped Lawrence thrive in his area of study.

In his free time, Lawrence enjoys being outside in a non-research capacity. Gardening, fishing, and hunting are a few of his favorite outdoor activities.


For more information about this year’s recipients, please visit: https://iawatercenter.wordpress.com/. To reference the general press release for all four recipients, please visit: http://www.water.iastate.edu/news/iowa-water-center-announces-2019-grant-recipients.

The Iowa Water Center is a federally funded organization, part of the National Institutes for Water Resources. Located on the Iowa State University campus, it is one of 54 institutes located throughout the United States and U.S territories. The purpose of the Iowa Water Center is to identify water-related research needs, provide outreach and education opportunities, and disseminate information about Iowa’s water resources to the public to form better policies and everyday practices. Learn more at https://www.water.iastate.edu/.


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Sarah Feehan is the communications specialist for the Iowa Water Center. She holds a BS in Journalism and Mass Communication with a minor in Political Science from Iowa State University. In fall of 2019, Feehan will begin acquiring her JD from Drake Law School.

 

 

What is the Iowa 4R Plus Program?

by Greg Wandrey, Iowa agriculture program director, The Nature Conservancy and 4R Plus program coordinator

The 4R Plus program is a science-based framework designed to increase awareness and provide information about 4R nutrient stewardship and conservation practices to crop advisers and farmers.  These 4R Plus practices can improve soil health, crop yields and water quality.

4r

4R Plus combines the 4Rs of nutrient stewardship – applying the right source of fertilizer at the right rate and right time and in the right place – with the “Plus” conservation practices like cover crops, no-till and edge of field practices like saturated buffers and bioreactors.  These combined practices are needed to achieve the nitrogen and phosphorus loss goals of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.  This strategy calls for a 45% reduction in total nitrogen and phosphorus loads going into Iowa waters, with 41% and 29% reductions in nitrogen and phosphorus loads, respectively, from non-point sources, such as agricultural production.

The 4R Plus program began in 2016 by bringing diverse organizations together to create an outreach campaign to help inform Iowa farmers about the suite of conservation practices available to them.  To date, more than 40 organizations have enlisted their support of the Iowa 4R Plus program, including agri-businesses, commodity groups, trade associations, government agencies, conservation organizations, Iowa State University and Iowa Learning Farms.

To kick off the project, market research was conducted with Iowa farmers and Certified Crop Advisers (CCAs) to help understand what practices they were using, key messages that resonated with them, barriers that hindered them from trying new practices and what their plans were for adopting new practices in the future.  The results showed that messages that resonated the strongest with farmers centered on 1) the role of healthy soil in addressing more extreme precipitation patterns, and 2) the importance of passing the farm to the next generation in better shape than they received it.  The market research also verified the importance of CCAs as the trusted adviser to farmers.

With the market research results in hand, 4R Plus coalition members developed 4R Plus informational resources that they could leverage with their internal and external stakeholders, including CCAs and farmers.  The resources include a 4R Plus brochure, 4R Plus Fact Sheet, a website (4rplus.org/), 4R Plus Blogs, an adviser module and a Twitter account (@4RPlus).  Most recently, a series of five videos were released that describe Conservation Practices, the 4Rs of Nutrient Stewardship and the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.  In addition, the five videos were converted into courses for CCAs to take for Continuing Education Units (i.e. credits).  The CCA courses can be found at 4R Plus CCA Courses.

In addition to the 4R Plus resources mentioned above, the 4R Plus program has a communications and outreach component at the state level that includes radio, print and digital media.  In 2018, these media platforms are delivering 4R Plus messages to 85-90% of Iowa farmers.

The 4R Plus program is an exciting new effort to bring information about nutrient management and conservation practices to the Iowa farming community in a straight-forward and factual way.  The partners are committed to helping farmers implement practices that fit their unique individual operations and provide economic, agronomic, environmental and societal benefits on their farm and to their downstream neighbors.

If you are interested in learning more about 4R Plus or want to join the coalition of more than 40 agricultural and conservation organizations that support 4R Plus, please contact me at gregory.wandrey@tnc.org.

 

gregGreg is a native Iowan who grew up on a crop and livestock near Dyersville, Iowa.  He received his B.S. and M.S. degrees in agronomy from Iowa State University and Ph.D. in agronomy and plant genetics from the University of Minnesota.  Greg joined the Iowa chapter of The Nature Conservancy in 2016 to lead the Iowa 4R Plus program.

Meet our new Special Projects Assistant

Hello all,

My name is Tianna Griffin and I am excited to announce that I am Iowa Water Center’s new Special Projects Assistant!

I am pursuing an undergraduate degree in agronomy with an emphasis in agroecology and minoring in horticulture with an emphasis in fruit and vegetable production. I am from Davenport, Iowa, and I have had a strong interest in agriculture since middle school. My interest stemmed from wanting to learn and teach people about the food they ate and how it was grown. I wanted to know more about the beginning stages of growing food, and I knew that there was no better field for me to start with than agriculture. My interest in sustainable practices of water management and soil conservation led me to believe that the Iowa Water Center (IWC) was the perfect place for me to further my knowledge.

I appreciate IWC’s efforts to educate youth and communities on Iowa’s water and to unite Iowa women to have a voice and make a difference in the well-being of Iowa waters and the environment [editor’s note: IWC Associate Director Melissa Miller is a steering committee member for Women for Water]. In the span of my employment, I hope to learn more about Iowa water issues as well as improve my writing and communication skills. I also hope my time with IWC will lead me to improve my ability to work on a team and to get me out of my comfort zone of working independently. Upon graduating I would like to continue working towards the efforts of sustainability related to agricultural practices. Or, I would like to work for a company that produces fruit or vegetable crops in a warmer climate. Eventually, I would like to have my own business where I grow my own fruit and vegetable crops. There are so many options for me because my interests are so broad. I can only hope that I have a spiritually fulfilling and a purposeful career.

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Tianna Griffin is Iowa Water Center’s Special Projects Assistant. She is pursuing an undergraduate degree in agronomy with emphasis in agroecology and minoring in horticulture with an emphasis in fruit and vegetable production.

Get to know your soil

Photos of the 2017-2018 Agronomy in the Field cohort for Central Iowa at the ISU Field Extension Education Lab. Photos by Hanna Bates.

An education in soil sampling

Last week I attended Agronomy in the Field, led by Angie Reick-Hinz, an ISU field agronomist.  The workshop focused on soil sampling out in a field. The cohort learned a lot of valuable insight into not only the science of soil sampling, but also practical knowledge from out-in-the-field experiences.

Taking soil samples in a field is critical in making decisions about fertilizer, manure, and limestone application rates. Both over and under application can reduce profits, so the best decision a farmer can make is based on a representative sample that accurately shows differences across his/her fields.

What do you need?

  • Sample bags
  • Field map
  • Soil probe
  • Bucket

When do you sample?

After harvest or before spring/fall fertilization times. Sampling should not occur immediately after lime, fertilizer, or manure application or when soil is excessively wet.

Where do you sample?

Samples taken from a field should represent a soil area that is under the same type of field cultivation and nutrient management. According to ISU Extension, the “choice of sample areas is determined by the soils present, past management and productivity, and goals desired for field management practices.”* See ISU Extension resources for maps and examples for where in the field to take samples.

Most importantly…

Like with everything that happens out in the field, it is important to keep records on soil testing so that you can evaluate change over time and the efficiency of fertilizer programs. As we say at the Iowa Water Center, the more data, the better! The more we learn about the soils, the better we can protect and enhance them. Healthy soils stay in place in a field and promote better crop growth by keeping nutrients where they belong during rain events. Not only can we monitor soil from the ground with farmers, but with The Daily Erosion Project. These combined resources, with others, can provide the best guidance in growing the best crop and protecting natural resources.

Interested in Agronomy in the Field? Contact Angie Rieck-Hinz at amrieck@iastate.edu or 515-231-2830 to be placed on a contact list.

* Sawyer, John, Mallarino, Antonio, and Randy Killorn. 2004. Take a Good Soil Sample to Help Make Good Decisions. Iowa State University Extension PM 287. Link: https://crops.extension.iastate.edu/files/article/PM287.pdf

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Hanna Bates is the Program Assistant at the Iowa Water Center. She has a MS in Sociology and Sustainable Agriculture from Iowa State University. She is also an alumna of the University of Iowa for her undergraduate degree. 

Summer Update from the IWC Graduate Student Research Grant Program: Emily Martin

Post submitted by Emily Martin, MS Environmental Science student at Iowa State University

Intensive farming and heavy nutrient application in the Midwest coupled with an extensive subsurface tile drainage network frequently leads to excessive nutrients in surface waters. As a result, heavy amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus has become a critical issue for policy and water research.

In spring 2017, I was awarded funding in the Iowa Water Center Graduate Student Supplemental Research Competition for my project titled, “Enhancing phosphate removal in woodchip bioreactors.” This project is conducted under advisement of Dr. Michelle Soupir at Iowa State University. A bioreactor is a subsurface trench along the edge of the field that can be filled with a range of different carbon sources. They are identified as a practice to help mitigate nutrient loss to flowing water systems, and so they deserve further research to understand their full capacity to capture water nutrients.

The goal of the project is to evaluate the ability of woodchip bioreactors to remove phosphorous by adding biochar as a phosphate (P) amendment to bioreactors. Objectives of the study are (1) to assess the effectiveness of different amendments on P removal in bioreactors and (2) to analyze the effect of influent P on overall removal.

We broke the project down into two main parts: a P sorption study and a column study. We completed part one during the month of June using 18 different types of biochar. The biochar was made by Bernardo Del Campo at ARTichar using three different temperatures of slow pyrolysis, 400°C, 600°C, and 800°C. We used six different types of biomass provided by the BioCentury Research Farm and the City of Ames, which are: switchgrass, corn stover, ash trees, red oak, mixed pine, and loblolly pine. The goal was to test a variety of biomass to see which would perform best as a P amendment and under which pyrolysis conditions they would function best.

Biochar is made using a process called pyrolysis. Pyrolysis is the burning of plant materials in a low to no oxygen chamber in order to “activate” the carbon structures that exists naturally within plants. The highly structured form of carbon rings in plants is desired for its stability and potential to adsorb or bind with chemicals, including phosphate and nitrate. There are two main types of pyrolysis: fast and slow, which refers to the amount of time the biomass remains in the pyrolysis chamber. Fast pyrolysis can be used to create biochar, but the yield is lower than slow pyrolysis. The temperature of pyrolysis can impact how the biochar interacts with different chemicals. In order to test these effects, we used three different temperatures when making our biochar.

Results from the P sorption study showed a few patterns. The main take away is that none of the biochars we tested adsorbed P exceptionally well; however, of the biochars we tested, the following were our top five P adsorbers:

  1. Corn stover @ 800°C
  2. Loblolly pine @ 600°C
  3. Red oak @ 600°C
  4. Switch grass @ 800°C
  5. Mixed pine @ 400°C

Because none of the biochars performed well in our P sorption test, we had to make a decision for the second part of the project. We came up with two options: (1) find new biomass and run the P sorption test again, or (2) test how well all 18 biochars remove nitrate from water. We chose option two and have begun nitrate batch tests, which will run throughout July. The batch tests are being run in one liter flasks and are tested at 4, 8, 12, and 24 hours to simulate woodchip bioreactor residence times found in the field.

After the nitrate batch test is complete, we will analyze results and decide if we will move forward with option one and see how other biomasses perform in a P sorption test.

Check back later on to learn more about the progress of this project!

 

View from my Windshield: Observations of soil erosion across Iowa

For the past couple of weeks, I have been on the road across Iowa. These trips vary in their purpose, but one thing that remains the same is the evident erosion in the fields along my travels. Regardless of where I am – whether it is in the Loess Hills visiting family or in the Des Moines Lobe for a meeting – spring rains have revealed that there are deep cuts in the bare brown soils where lush, even soils used to be.

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Development of a Watershed Project Extension

The Boone River Watershed Nutrient Management Initiative project has been granted additional funding from Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS). This is in order to extend the project for another three years to increase the use of conservation and water quality practices in Prairie and Eagle Creek Watersheds. In these projects, we will continue working towards meeting Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy goals. The extension process involved writing a new grant application based on the lessons learned from our first three years.

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