Get to know retaiN


Post submitted by Jamie Benning, Water Quality Program Manager for Iowa State University Extension & Outreach

The retaiN project was inspired by experiences of Tim Smith, an Eagle Grove, Iowa farmer.  Smith participated in tile monitoring and found levels of nitrates in his tile to be higher than he preferred even though he had been implementing conservation practices for many years.  The tile monitoring data moved him to action, leading him to increase his on-farm testing and implement conservation practices that reduce nitrate loss.  Conservation Districts of Iowa and the Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Water program led the effort to develop an easy to use nitrate testing kit to encourage other farmers to gather their own nitrate data to support decision making related to nitrogen management and reduction of nitrate loss.

Through support and partnership from the State Soil Conservation Committee, Iowa Learning Farms, Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Division of Soil Conservation and Water Quality, the retaiN nitrate testing kits were developed.  The kits include a bottle of 25 Hach nitrate and nitrite testing strips and a booklet with nitrate monitoring instructions, nitrogen practice information and data log section all in a shippable box.  The Hach test strips are simple and easy to use and provide the farmer with a concentration reading in 60 seconds.

During the pilot phase of the project, 500 kits were distributed to established watershed projects, agriculture organizations and ISUEO field agronomists and engineers.  Watershed coordinators and ISUEO specialists distributed the kits to individual farmers and provided follow-up calls and encouragement to sample throughout the 2015 growing season.  Farmers were encouraged to sample tile outlets on their farms bi-weekly, or more frequently as time allowed.  After the pilot phase, a survey of farmers and landowners and watershed coordinators and ISUEO specialists was conducted. The evaluation feedback from has been overwhelmingly positive.  One farmer wrote, “The kit is quick, very simple to use and gives you immediate results. It helps me determine if I am losing any nitrogen”.

After the pilot phase, modifications to the kit materials were made based on survey feedback and kit distribution by watershed coordinators and extension field specialists and county specialists continued.  Additionally, a partnership with Iowa Corn Growers Association (ICGA) was developed.  The Iowa Corn Growers distributed kits to farmers during their Crop Fairs, Soil Health Partnership events, and watershed education and outreach events across the state.   To date, over 1500 retaiN kits have been distributed.  Conducting on-farm tile monitoring through the retaiN project has been a catalyst for farmers and landowners to gather baseline nitrate data for their farm, implement nitrate reduction practices, prioritize changes to their nitrogen management practices and explore additional monitoring.  Several extension specialists and watershed coordinators from the North Central Region and beyond have consulted with the retaiN team to adapt the retaiN kit for their states.

For more information about the retaiN project, visit: 

Jamie Benning will discuss the retaiN project at the 2018 Iowa Water Conference. The full agenda will be available soon!

Jamie Benning is the Water Quality Program Manager with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. She develops and delivers water quality and soil conservation programs and collaborates with researchers and extension specialists to create science-based education and training opportunities.  Benning works with external partners and stakeholders to support water quality improvement efforts throughout the state.

Research shows social networks play an integral part in conservation practice adoption

Ames, Iowa – Research shows that to meet the goals of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, Iowa farmers will need to increase use of a diverse array of appropriate nutrient management and other conservation practices. However, most soil and water conservation practice research focuses on single practices (e.g., cover crops). Research from Iowa State University published this week in the Journal of Extension examines factors that influence Iowa farmers’ simultaneous use of multiple practices. The primary finding was that farmers who are more engaged in agricultural social networks tend to adopt more diverse nutrient management practices.

Farmer Social Networks

The article, “Understanding Predictors of Nutrient Management Practice Diversity in Midwestern Agriculture,” co-authored by Hanna Bates, Program Assistant at the Iowa Water Center at Iowa State University and J. Arbuckle, Iowa State University Extension Sociologist, draws on data from the 2012 Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll. The research examined relationships between information format preferences, information sources, farm organization involvement, and opinion leadership and farmers’ use of diverse nutrient management practices. The results showed that farmers who prefer to learn about nutrient management through in-person formats such as field days, farmers who are more involved in agriculture and natural resource conservation organizations, and those who consider themselves to be opinion leaders tend to employ a more diverse range of nutrient management practices.

“The finding that farmers who prefer face-to-face learning formats for nutrient management information tend to use more diverse practices is important,” said Bates. “Given the recent increase of online webinars, publications, and social media campaigns as means to reach farmers, this result suggests that in-person formats are still valuable.”

Results also highlight the important role that agriculture and natural resource organizations can play in encouraging nutrient management practice adoption. Numerous organizations have initiated or expanded conservation programs and research projects to help farmers reduce nutrient loss.

“Farmers who are more involved in these organizations used significantly more practices,” Bates said. “This result suggests that efforts to experiment and share information about practices such as cover crops and bioreactors are paying off.”

Another key finding in the study was a positive relationship between opinion leadership and use of diverse nutrient management practices. Opinion leaders are community members whose opinions and actions can influence others. The study asked farmers to rate the degree to which they take leadership roles, are role models to other farmers, or are a source of advice for others, such as extension staff and crop advisers. Farmers who viewed themselves as opinion leaders tended to use more nutrient management practices.

“Opinion leaders can be a critical component of outreach at the local level,” said Bates. “Public recognition programs, such as the Iowa Farm Environmental Leader Award, may provide insight into who are the key players who are influencing change in rural communities.”

Future Directions for Conservation Service Providers

The findings provide positive reinforcement for efforts to engage farmers in conservation networks. On the flip side, however, the authors of the study highlight that more needs to be done to reach out to farmers who are less connected within agricultural community social networks.

“Farmers who are less involved in agricultural and conservation organizations and see themselves as less central in the ag community reported fewer nutrient management practices,” noted co-author Arbuckle. “These results point to challenges for conservation service providers because farmers who are likely in need of conservation assistance appear to be the hardest to reach. The conservation community needs to develop different strategies to engage such farmers.”

Understanding Predictors of Nutrient Management Practice Diversity in Midwestern Agriculture” and “Iowa Farmers’ Nitrogen Management Practices and Perspectives” are available at the provided hyperlinks. More information about Sociology Extension and the Iowa Water Center can be found online.

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 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:


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.