What’s the connection between public education and science in agriculture?

Without a solid education, farmers and scientists who work in agriculture-related science would not succeed. Farming requires science which means that farmers need a solid education. As well, the folks who study water quality, agronomy, agricultural engineering, and seed science must learn both the content of their fields as well as research methology.

Unfortunately, states in the midwest are  shirking their duty in funding public higher education. This is true in Minnesota, where I work at a university and it is true in Iowa and Wisconsin. These three states account for 3 of the most important land-grant universities where much agricultural research is done: University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Minnesota, and Iowa State University.

This point was put well in On Wisconsin (Spring 2015) by Kirstie Danielson, a 2007 Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Writing about Wisconsin, “…the state is failing in its moral responsibility to support affordable education and opportunities for its citizens to prosper, abdicating the responsibility to overly burdened middle-class families.” She continues, “Let’s therefore hold our elected officials responsible to make sure that all who profit from an educated citizenry reinvest in future generations.”

So, the connection is that farmers and agriculture-related researchers need high-quality science-based higher education. Without this grounding in science, in climate change, seed science, water quality, soil conservation, precision agriculture, and agronomic research, the future of agriculture is in jeopardy.


Cover crops

Cover crops are beneficial in a row crop operation: (1) they reduce wind and soil erosion over the winter since the soil is left undisturbed, (2) they increase the organic matter in the soil in the following year when the plant material is incorporated into the topsoil, (3) they sequester excess nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizer, and (4) they  compete with weeds in the following spring.


Winter rye cover crop growing in standing corn on October 11, 2013. The rye was sown by airplane on September 7 when the ground was hard and dry. There were even numerous cracks in the earth due to the drought (one of my neighbors joked that all the rye seed had probably dropped down the deep cracks). A few days later we got over an inch of rain which helped the rye seed germinate.



Harvest is underway on October 25, 2013. The rye cover crop is growing well between the harvested rows.

On September 7 we aerial-seeded winter rye into standing corn. Six days later, after a rain, the rye seed had started germinating. On October 11, when I took these photos, the rye was growing well. The corn will soon be harvested and then we will see how well the rye is established. Winter rye will continue to grow again in the spring, unlike oats, so by planting time 2014 we should have a well established stand of rye.

One of our intentions, of course, is to improve the water quality in the water that flows off of our farm into Alleman Creek, which is a tributary in the Four Mile Creek Watershed. Our cover crop is a small step that should contribute in two ways: (1) reduce surface runoff into Alleman Creek in the event of a heavy downpour  and (2) sequester (capture) excess nitrogen and phosphorus from the fertilizer that is applied annually to the row crop ground. Practical Farmers of  Iowa has produced a number of information sheets on cover crops which help us to understand their challenges and benefits.

Unexpected consequences of “progress”.

Bullsnake killed on the road in front of my house on June 13, 2013. Bullsnakes are not venomous eventhough they look like rattlesnakes.

Bull snake killed on the road in front of my house on June 13, 2013. Bull snakes are not venomous even though they look like rattlesnakes.

Progress is a value-laden term. One person’s progress (the internal combustion engine, for example) is another’s worst nightmare (the parent of a child who is killed in an automobile crash.)

The rural road in front of my house was paved about 10 years ago. Now it is more dangerous due to more traffic that drives faster. On the other hand, we don’t have the dust drifting into our house with the northwest breeze either.

This morning, I found two victims of our road traffic (or you might say, victims of progress), a squashed young snapping turtle and a bullsnake on my road.

Bullsnakes (also known as gopher snakes) are in fact a very beneficial species to have around even if their behavior seems a little aggressive. They help keep the rodent population down.

More later on the term “progress” and what it means for us in the countryside.

Rain we really didn’t need and the erosion it brings…

In the fall of 2012 our creek was completely dry. If I am not mistaken, that was the first time since 1982 when we moved to the country, that was that dry. (1988 might have been that dry but I don't remember.)

In the fall of 2012 our creek was completely dry; if I am not mistaken, it has not been dry since before 1982. (1988 was very dry too.)

My rain gauge on May 27. We just got another 1.4 inches of rain this morning. Since May 19 we have received 4.9 inches of rain in our neighborhood.

My rain gauge on May 27. We just got another 1.4 inches of rain this morning. Since May 19 we have received 4.9 inches of rain in our neighborhood. Notice the young corn in standing water.

Last fall and winter the Four Mile creek tributary nearby was completely dry. Just now when I went out to check our rain gauges, I found 1.4 inches of rain from this morning and water behind the terraces. In six months we have gone from one extreme to another.

One of the ways we prepare for these extremes is to integrate soil conservation into our farms: waterways (natural swales within fields that are permanent grass valleys for the excess surface water to flow through),  filter strips (strips of permanent grass along creeks and streams that help slow the flow of surface water into those creeks and help hold any top soil that might be in that surface run-off), and terraces (low soil dams built across areas in fields that stop water flow and allow that surface run-off to recede slowly through underground drainage tile). The federal and Iowa state governments both have programs to share the cost of these soil conservation measures with the land owners. They often, if funding is available, have about 50% funding available. Land owners must apply for funding, but there are not always sufficient funds to meet the demand.

Very important also are tillage practices. Most farm operators in our area chisel plow their corn stubble after harvest so that the soil is loose and partially exposed over the winter. This allows for more water and wind erosion than in fields that are not tilled in the fall. Soybean ground usually is left alone over the winter, though, most farmers do inject anydrous ammonia in late fall which does the disturb the soil a certain amount. Moldboard plowing was the most common tillage practice from the time our European immigrant ancestors first started breaking the prairie sod here in Iowa with horse or ox power, beginning about 1850, until about 25 years ago. With moldboard plowing the soil was completely turned over burying the stubble. With chisel plowing, the soil is shattered into clods with vertical knives and a certain amount of stubble is left on top. Other tillage methods which do not disturb the soil at all after harvest include no-till and strip-till (although with strip-till farmers sometimes create the strip they will plant into in the fall so that they are ready for planting in the spring). Another option is to mix in a cover crop with a no-till system (a crop that is planted in the fall after harvest which holds the soil and improves the health of the soil). In this vidoe, Dan Forgey at Cronin Farms near Gettysburg, South Dakota speaks about his experience with no-till plus cover crop.

Wind erosion of our Iowa top soil is not as common a topic of conversation as water erosion is. That is partly because the effects of water erosion are more easily identifiable when we drive through the countryside after a storm. However, there are two clear indications that we also suffer from wind erosion. One is that in the winter when we have snow and wind, we often see black topsoil on the snowdrifts in the ditches. I was reminded of the other indication just now when Cindy was on the house roof cleaning out the roof gutters. I watched her throw handfuls of spruce needles and muck down from the roof. The only way that topsoil could have gotten into the roof gutters is from the wind blowing it up there in one way or another. This Iowa data from 1997 shows that we lose less topsoil to wind erosion than water erosion.

This lost top soil is a serious matter, although we do not often figure it into our balance sheets. Mike Duffy, an Iowa State University extension economist has recently written about the value of Iowa topsoil in an article titled Value of Soil Erosion to the Land Owner.

In June a nearby field showed the effects of heavy rains and row-cropped hillsides. This is serious erosion. The topsoil lost here will likely never be recovered.

In June a nearby field showed the effects of heavy rains and row-cropped hillsides. This is serious erosion. The topsoil lost here will likely never be recovered.

When we discuss soil erosion, we must also acknowledge the role it plays in water quality. Why are these two phenomena connected? The reason is that eroded topsoil finds its way into our creeks, streams, and rivers and not only contributes to the silt content of the water, but soil particles also contain other substances, both natural and synthetic, which can degrade the water quality for wildlife and human life. Water treatment plants such as the one that supplies the city of Des Moines and surrounding areas, spend a lot of money on advanced equipment and processes to make the water fit for human use. Our farming and conservation practices in the watersheds of Iowa (both rural and urban practices) do influence that quality of the water we drink.

The bees have arrived

bee hives May 11 2013Twelve bee hives were delivered to our farm last night. It is a little chilly and windy for the bees today, but the sun has been shining and I’m sure they’ve found all the dandelions and cherry blossoms. The apple and peach trees are just about to burst into flower — so the bees are here at the perfect time to pollinate them. We will have the bee hives all summer. It is fun to watch the bees come and go. They drink water, and it is fun to see them at the sheep waterer, or at any bowl of water that we leave out for them.

rain gauges, one isn’t enough!

2.1 inches of rain

The farm rain gauge showing 2.1 inches of rain. The farm rain gauge is 1/2 mile from the house, but often the rain amounts are different between the two locations.

Our farm got some very welcome rain this past week. This was the first good, soaking rain we’ve had since July 2012.

We have two rain gauges – one at the farm – and one at the house. The farm is only 1/2 mile away, but as you can see it can make a difference! The rain gauge at the farm is showing 2.1 inches and at the house we had 1.9.

It is all welcome!

Rain gauge at the house showing 1.9 inches of rain.

The rain gauge at the house shows 1.9 inches of rain after 4 days of very welcome on and off rain in early April.

I’m farming and I grow it

A screen snap shot of the beginning of the you tube video called I'm Farming and I Grow It by the Peterson brothers in KansasBy now many of us have watched the Peterson Brothers of Kansas in their takeoff on LMFAO’s I’m Sexy and I Know It. The Petersons raise cattle, wheat, irrigated corn and alfalfa and essentially are promoting a rural midwestern work ethic and clean living. They do a nice job.


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