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A water to watch

By Staff | May 22, 2012

Eileen Bader, a fresh water specialist for The Nature Conservancy, discribes the oxbow lake that was restored last December along White Fox Creek. The oxbow is three miles west of Woolstock, just north of the Wright and Hamilton county line. Bader said the project is to see if oxbows can help trap nitrogen-ladened flood waters, and clean them up before the water continues down stream, as well as serve as fish and waterfowl habitat.


Farm News news editor

CLARION – Contrary to the negative mindset Iowans have been accustomed to when hearing about their waterways, the May 2 designation of the Boone River as a 2012 Water to Watch was something positive.

The National Fish Habitat Partnership included the Boone River in its list water bodies across the U.S. most likely to benefit from locally driven, strategic conservation efforts. These waters are priorities of the regional Fish Habitat Partnerships formed throughout the country to implement the National Fish Habitat Action Plan. The objective is to conserve important habitats for fish and wildlife.

Working hard to make all this happen are a number of workers from various organizations, including Bruce Voights, coordinator for the Boone River Watershed, a part of the wider Mississippi River Watershed Initiative. The Mississippi River Basin watershed is the second biggest in the world.

Kelly Hammen stands inside the hoop building she erected last fall for her feeder cattle operation. The building is designed to store manure, rather than sitting out in an open feedlot prior to construction. The structure was built with cost-share funds through the Mississippi River Basin Initiative.

Voights, who is housed in the Clarion County Soil and Water Conservation office in Clarion, outlined conservation practices that are designed to keep water entering the watershed as high quality as possible. These practices include cover crops, bioreactors, strip-tillage, hoop livestock buildings, refurbishing oxbow lakes along creeks and streams and nutrient management.

Through federal and state sources, a number of cost-sharing programs assist producers in implementing these practices, Voights said.

To date, in Wright and Hamilton counties, there are 3,800 acres protected by cover crops, 2,500 under strip-till management and more than 2,000 acres under additional nutrient management practices. Nutrient management is a program where producers document how much nitrogen fertilizer they apply to the land including the type – manure or dry from a co-op – dates applied and how much is being spread.

The payments and incentives are enough to cover their costs and extra labor, Voights said.

“But the producers we have, they seem dedicated to doing things right. They want to learn about the process, where the nitrogen is going, what can they do to keep it on the land, and make more money by keeping it on the land rather than losing it, and protecting the waters, too.

Keegan Kult, a watershed management specialist for the Iowa Soybean Association, monitors the nitrogen level that leaves the bioreactor on the Gifford Holm farm in Grant Township in Wright County, just east of Lake Cornelia. The bioreactor drains a 45-acre field. The tile line empties into the lake.

“It’s an economic benefit if they can keep it on the land. Cover crops should hold it there. Research shows that at least 30 percent reduction of nitrogen leaches away with cover crops.

This is the third year for the MRBI project. In the Boone River portion, Voights said a total of $406,978 was spent among four participating producers to implement the various conservation practices. In 2011, that amount grew to $1.258 million among 25 producers. He said 2012 is expected to spend far less than 2011, since cost-sharing in the programs has been trimmed. For instance, in 2010, the cost share of applying cover crops was $108 per acre. In 2011 that was trimmed back to $80 per acre and in 2012 it will pay $40 per acre.

But even at $40, Voights said, “it’s still a break even price.”


A small bioreactor on a farm field that drains into Lake Cornelia in Grant Township in Wright County was installed last fall. The bioreactor is attached to a tile line that drains a 45-acre field.

These structures are an underwater filtering system, attached to the existing tile line, usually employing wood chips to filter nitrogen from runoff water. The bacteria in the wood chips transforms the nitrogen into nitrates, which escapes the soil as a gas.

The land is owned by Gifford Holm, and the land operator is Steve Janssen, a board member of the Wright County S&WCD. He also uses cover crops, no-tills his soybeans and strip-tills corn. He’s trying strip-tilling soybeans this growing season.

Keegan Kult, a watershed management specialist with the Iowa Soybean Association, was on site taking a series of water readings.

Due to the winter drought, water started flowing through the system earlier this month. Kult said that during the initial few days the water was cloudy, likely due to fine dirt and wood dust from the construction work. “Finally the outflow is showing clear,” he said.

Several monitors track the groundwater flow level from the field. The field still had stalks from last year’s corn with the dead remnants of the rye grass cover crop Janssen sowed last fall.

Across the road, adjacent to the field are homes dotted along the east shore of the lake. Janssen said his neighbors saw the rye grass growing and said, “‘You sure have a weedy mess out there.'” He said once he explained that it was a cover crop and not weeds, he said folks seemed to be impressed that anyone would be doing this, but suspects they had no concept on if, or why, it’s important.

“I’ve always been interested in water quality,” Janssen said. “I have a lot of people watching what I’m doing here – with the lake on one side and Clarmont Golf Course on the other.

“But I want to see if you make a living by (farming) conservation-wise; and I want to leave something for the next generation that’s not depleted.”

Data reveal that a bioreactor installed on the Arlo Van Diest farm in Hamilton County reduced nitrates flowing into the bioreactor by 75 percent on May 6, 2010; 54 percent in June 16, 2010; 82 percent on July 7, 2010 and 77 percent on July 21, 2010.

Voight said plans call for 12 bioreactors within Wright and Hamilton counties before the project is closed.

Hoop building

A new practice is hoop buildings for livestock to serve as manure storage and management structures.

One of the newest hoops in the BRW was a former open feedlot on a slope that runs north into nearby Eagle Creek. The building is owned and operated by Kelly Hammen, in Norway Township along Keokuk Avenue, between 150th and 160th Street in Wright County.

The structure is built for 240-head of feeder calves. There were 230 in there on May 10. The hoop building was finished in October 2011.

A hoop building was erected on the farm in 2009 for cattle, Hammen said. “They really like being under a roof,” she said. “The cattle perform better. They’re comfortable.

“In the other building they averaged 3 pounds per day in gain. It worked good.”

She compared that to the cattle that would otherwise be standing outside in deep manure and mud after the recent rains.

Voights said the primary reason for MRBI assistance in erecting the hoop structure is manure containment.

The floor is scraped weekly, Hammen said. “During this time of year we take it right out to the fields,” she said. A separate storage facility will be created for holding manure during the winter.

Hammen, a 2009 graduate of South Dakota State University in animal science, bought her first load of cattle during her final year of college. This will be her fourth year in the cattle business.

A third hoop structure, not part of the MRBI project, houses her father’s sheep and goats.

Aside from the environment benefits, the hoop buildings, Hammen said, “allowed me to grow.” It also makes for easier loading of livestock, especially the sheep and goats.

White Fox oxbow

An oxbow refurbishing project was completed in December 201, just north of the Hamilton and Wright county line, three miles east of Woolstock.

The oxbow was originally created by White Fox Creek. Aerial photos in the 1930 shows the spot as part of the main waterway, but at some point, the creek had changed its course, leaving the former creek bend as a standing body of water with occasional replenishing during high water times and ground water infiltration. Many river species use them for spawning and refuge, and oxbows provide nesting habitat for waterfowl

However, over the year since, said Eileen Bader, a fresh water specialist with The Nature Conservancy, post-alluvial silt filled the oxbow. That segment was dredged in late 2011. As workers dug down to the creek bed’s original gravel bed, Bader said, it was again level with the existing creek bed less than 100 yards to the west and immediately started filling.

This is the first of five planned oxbow restorations along White Fox Creek. The primary reasons for reestablishing these water bodies is for fish breeding, especially the endangered minnow, Toledo shiner; plus nutrient reduction as flood waters are captured by the oxbow.

Eventually, Bader said, researchers hope algae blooms will grow and do the water purifying work as a wetland or as a bioreactor.

“We want to quantify what are all those benefits together (with the five oxbows),” Bader said. “There are multiple things going on. Right now it (oxbow) is slightly connected (with the creek).

“When the water gets higher, that’s when we’ll see fish coming into it. It’s deep enough that they can overwinter here. “

There are three groundwater monitoring wells placed around the oxbow Two on the east bank and one on the west “island” portion surrounded by the oxbow and the main creek. These show how the ground water is filtering into the oxbow – how fast the water level comes up, and what the water quality is before it gets into it.

Some reseeding is still needed along the east bank. Since its in the federal conservation reserve program, the reseeding will match the existing CRP seed mix.

The work was funded through the National Fish Habitat Partnership and DNR and part of the Fishers & Farmers Partnership.

This and the other planned oxbows refurbishing projects are being funded through the Sand County Foundation, based in Wisconsin.

Bader plans the other projects are planned along White Fox Creek and Eagle Creek.

Eagle Creek, she said, is classified as an endangered species habitat. “The Sand County Foundation is really interested in nutrient processing aspect,” Bader said. “So those will have to paired with tile lines. Working on contacting landowners at possible sites and seeing which would be interested.

“Most people are fairly open to this practice, because these are areas not being farmed.”

She said a water sample earlier that day showed the groundwater was clear coming into the oxbow.

A pre-construction survey found “a lot of fish in here before it dried up,” Bader said, “so as we get more water, we come back and see if any fish have gotten into here.”

There will be no stocking the oxbow, she said, but let fish populations develop naturally.

“Topeka shiners have not been documented in White Fox Creek for 20 years,” Bader said, “but that doesn’t mean they’re not in there. The numbers may just be low.”

The groundwater monitoring wells are similar to the sensors in bioreactors. The data is recorded hourly and she collects it periodically.

The oxbow, from one end to the next, covers 3.5 acres, and is roughly 300 feet long.

Not many oxbow renovations have been performed, except for a few on the Raccoon River.

“It seems like an opportunity to do a small amount of restoration at least in an area where it’s not being farmed,” Bader said. “Obviously the processes are not as (effective) as a wetland, but it’s harder to get people on board by taking land out of production.”

Contact Larry Kershner at (515) 573-2141, ext. 453 or kersh@farm-news.com.

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