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Can you dig it?

By Staff | Aug 5, 2011

Bulldozer operators at the Midwest Construction Expo and Field Day on July 27 near Melbourne used global positioning system technology to accurately install terraces.

BOONE – As humidity levels soared and the heat index topped the 100-degree mark in late July, RAGBRAI riders near Boone were grateful for the cold water they received from Chuck Gipp, who is quick to point out the many ways that Iowa’s farmers and land improvement contractors are protecting water and soil quality.

“We have a lot of success stories we can share when it comes to conservation and water quality in Iowa,” said Gipp, the new deputy director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, who met with RAGBRAI riders in central Iowa before heading to the Midwest Construction Expo and Field Day on July 27 near Melbourne.

Many of these success stories, including waterways, terraces and tiling, were showcased at the 80-acre farm’s field day, which was sponsored by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, the Iowa Land Improvement Contractors’ Association and the Marshall County Soil and Water Conservation District.

Due to its close proximity to Des Moines, the site offered an excellent opportunity to highlight best-management practices to urban residents and state lawmakers.

“This great field day shows how farmers and contractors are true conservationists who are making great strides as they integrate new technology to save Iowa’s soil and protect water quality,” said Rep. Annette Sweeney R-Radcliffe.

Bulldozer operators at the Midwest Construction Expo and Field Day on July 27 near Melbourne used global positioning system technology to accurately install terraces.

Attracting attention

Sweeney and other field day attendees were especially interested in a 20-by-20-foot rain garden, which LICA members constructed to manage the rainwater that comes off a nearby 60-by-80-foot shed. Rain gardens have become increasingly popular in urban areas to help rainfall infiltrate into the ground and reduce potential water quality issues, said Tim Recker, a farmer from Arlington who serves as LICA’s vice president.

While rain gardens can work well in urban settings, tiling remains one of the best ways to control runoff in large-scale settings like farm fields. Yield maps that pinpoint the productivity gains offered by well-drained soil have prompted more farmers to install additional field tile in recent years, said Mark Erpelding, who owns Erpelding Excavating Enterprise in Algona.

“A field with good patterned tile can handle the first four inches of rain and balance out the flow of water,” said Erpelding, who noted that user-friendly global positioning system technology allows contractors to work more quickly and efficiently, since they no longer have to stop to check and reset lasers.

“Tiling allows the water to filter through the soil rather than run off the field and right into the creek.”

Scott Hamman, of Nancy’s Blankets, noted that once a new waterway is seeded, it can be covered with these erosion-control blankets of straw sandwiched between two sheets of bio-degradable plastic mesh.

Grass waterways also provide a key method to manage the flow of rainwater that falls on Iowa’s fields and prevent erosion.

Contractors have a new tool, called Nancy’s Blanket, to ensure newly-constructed waterways get off to a good start. Once a waterway is installed and seeded, it can be covered with these erosion-control blankets of straw sandwiched between two sheets of bio-degradable plastic mesh.

“Often the seed is washed away by the first rain that falls after the waterway is built, and the wind can blow away the straw mulch that some contractors spread over the new waterway,” said Scott Hamman.

His family developed Nancy’s Blankets, which have been used in Ohio for seven years and are now being distributed in Iowa by Plunkett Farms of Maxwell. “It’s more cost-effective to put down the blanket once than put straw on twice.”

Hamman said the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Ohio is a strong supporter of the product.

“Farmers ... are true conservationists who are making great strides as they integrate new technology to save Iowa’s soil (and) water quality.” —Rep. Annette Sweeney (R-Ratcliffe)

It takes about a year and a half for the sun to break down the plastic mesh in the blankets, he said.

Contractor Keith Rohwer, of Paullina, said he’s always looking for new solutions to do a better job for his clients.

“The field day is a great opportunity to learn about the newest ways to help preserve our soil and natural resources,” Rohwer said. He manages Dry Run Farm Drainage and also raises corn, soybeans, hogs and horses.

CREP wetlands

Guests at the field day could also learn about the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program wetland, which contractors built two years ago on the 80-acre Marshall County farm.

CREP is a major state and federal initiative to develop wetlands which are strategically located to remove nitrate from tile-drainage water from cropland areas. This helps protect drinking water supplies

Water quality monitoring completed by researchers at Iowa State University has confirmed that CREP wetlands remove 40 percent to 90 percent of the nitrate and more than 90 percent of the herbicides in tile drainage water from upper-lying croplands.

“While we’re not saying these wetlands are a silver bullet, they can play a key role in helping to improve the quality of water coming off Iowa’s landscape while preserving agricultural production,” said Gipp.

He said there are approximately 80 CREP wetlands in Iowa, although 3,000 would help Iowa meet the Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Task Force’s goal of reducing nitrogen by 45 percent, and phosphorus by 45 percent.

CREP wetlands, along with filter strips, grass waterways, reduced tillage, terraces and other conservation measures, are already making a positive difference, said Gipp, who previously served as director of the division of soil conservation for IDALS.

He cited the Gulf Guardian Award, which the EPA presented in 2008 to IDALS, to FSA in Iowa and to Iowa Farm Bureau for the organizations’ joint efforts to help farmers reduce nitrates and phosphorous that reach the Gulf Coast.

Gipp believes that a voluntary approach, rather than a regulatory approach, is the best way to support additional conservation efforts.

It’s also important to continue hosting events like the Midwest Construction Expo and Field Day to show how farmers are protecting Iowa’s natural resources as they produce an abundant food supply, he added.

“The biggest challenge that Iowa agriculture faces isn’t the weather or commodity prices,” Gipp said, “it’s the disconnect between farmers and consumers.

“It’s vital to keep educating people about how their food is produced.”

Contact Darcy Dougherty Maulsby by e-mail at yettergirl@yahoo.com.

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