National for Twelves Day

National for Twelves Day

On National For Twelves Day (4/12), our nation honors a magnificent number that holds significance in several ways.

We measure our days in two 12 hour sets. When we buy roses, eggs, and pastries, we purchase them by the dozen. How many months are in a year? Twelve. Of course, math lovers appreciate 12 because it has a perfect number of divisors.

On this special day, we want to bring to your attention 12 species of pollinators and wildlife that are listed as “Species of Greatest Conservation Need” by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, a full list of which can be found here

Rusty Patched Bumblebee
Habitat: Riparian Prairie and Woodland
When in Iowa: Year-Round
Diet: Pollen and nectar; preferred plants include milkweeds, prairie clovers, jewelweed, asters
Notes: This is the only federally endangered bee species in the lower 48 states.

Regal Fritillary
Habitat: Tallgrass Prairie
When in Iowa: Year-Round
Diet: Prairie and Birdsfoot Violets as caterpillars, nectar as adults
Notes: This butterfly was once considered for Iowa’s Official State Butterfly.

Gorgone Checkerspot
Habitat: Tallgrass Prairie
When in Iowa: Year-Round
Diet: Sunflowers and Lysimachia as caterpillars, nectar as adults
Notes: As adults, this butterfly exclusively visits yellow flowers.

Monarch
Habitat: Tallgrass Prairie
When in Iowa: Breeding Season (Spring-Fall)
Diet: Milkweeds as caterpillars, nectar as adults
Notes: The Monarch migrates all the way to Mexico for the winter.

Bald Eagle
Habitat: Forests near water
When in Iowa: Year-Round
Diet: Fish
Notes: The mating dance for the bald eagle involved two birds grabbing each other’s talons and free falling.

Trumpeter Swan
Habitat: Lakes and Ponds
When in Iowa: Breeding Season
Diet: Plants
Notes: This is the largest species of bird in North America.

Horned Lark
Habitat: Tallgrass Prairie
When in Iowa: Year-Round
Diet: Seeds and Insects
Notes: There are 42 subspecies of Horned Lark worldwide.

Eastern Kingbird
Habitat: Tallgrass Prairie
When in Iowa: Breeding Season
Diet: Fruit and Insects
Notes: This bird has a hidden patch of bright feathers on its head that it uses to intimidate predators.

Gray Tree Frog
Habitat: Forests and Woodlands
When in Iowa: Year-Round
Diet: Insects
Notes: This species is strictly nocturnal, and is often found feeding on insects attracted to outdoor lights.

Blanchard’s Cricket Frog
Habitat: Wetlands and Ponds
When in Iowa: Year-Round
Diet: Aquatic Invertebrates
Notes: This small frog only lives for around 1 year.

Tiger Salamander
Habitat: Underground in Tallgrass Prairie and Woodlands
When in Iowa: Year-Round
Diet: Insects, Worms, and Frogs
Notes: This is the largest ranging salamander in North America, found coast-to-coast.

Common Snapping Turtle
Habitat: Ponds
When in Iowa: Year-Round
Diet: Small Animals
Notes: Snapping turtles can live to be over 100 years old.

Contact our Watershed Coordinator David Stein to learn more about restoring habitat and wildlife on your land:

No-Till Farming The Low Hanging Fruit

No-Till Farming The Low Hanging Fruit

Trying to be a good steward of the land has posed many a conundrum to Iowa farmers, myself included. We go to meetings in the winter and we learn about all sorts of conservation methods that will renew the soil, help clean the water, sequester carbon to help with climate change and just, by golly, make you feel better about yourself.

Spring comes and you meet with your banker. Your financial sheet says your net worth has gone south and that hot dry July really put the clamps on your income forecast. Your yield just came up to your crop insurance levels so there’ll be no help there. You’ve begged your landlord to hold off for another year raising the rent but the well-to-do neighbor’s pickup is in his driveway every time you go by. You think I’d like to try some of these progressive farming practices, but maybe this is not the year to change things.

Now let’s talk about the low-hanging fruit. The low-hanging fruit on a tree is that fruit that can be picked with the least amount of time and equipment. I consider the low-hanging fruit in conservation to be no-till. Farming without fall tillage is farming with the least amount of equipment and in the least amount of time. Leaving your crop residue on top of the land throughout the winter has long been recognized as a farming practice that reduces erosion, builds soil organic matter, and takes the pressure off of getting the harvest done so you can get your tillage done.  

So maybe this should be the year you try something new. Let’s see, if I don’t till my cornstalks this fall my fall expenses will be much less. Lot smaller fuel bill and I won’t have to hire my Uncle to do the ripping while I finish up the combining. I’ve already got trash whippers on my 

No-till Planter

on my planter so next spring I won’t have to do any tillage before I plant my soybeans. With all the trash on top it will probably hold down the early season weed pressure so maybe I will only have to spray once when the beans are half grown. I’m saving money! My banker will love it! Next year since I won’t be needing that big piece of iron known as the V-ripper I can sell it and pay down on my machinery loan. I noticed I didn’t get my big 4 wheel drive tractor out of the shed this year so maybe I can sell that too.

This is where I was in 1999. I’ve been a no-tiller ever since. I live on a blacktop road six miles from town. In late winter of 2000 I noticed when I drove to town that once I got past my farms, all the ditches filled with snow were black from topsoil from the wind whipping over the tilled fields. It took a long time but today in 2021 when I drive to town all the ditches are white except for the fields farmed by the two tillage holdouts. All my other neighbors have gone no-till or strip-till proving “once you don’t see black, you’ll never go back”.

The easiest change a farmer can make to his operation that will greatly affect his bottom line and help him feel good about himself is to keep those ditches clean. And you’ve just picked the low-hanging fruit.

Missing Monarchs, What it Means, Why it Matters, and How to Help.

Missing Monarchs, What it Means, Why it Matters, and How to Help.

It seems to be a yearly event nowadays, that we wait with bated breath for the release of the year’s final monarch count from Mexico, where they spend the winter.  Similarly, each year, we’re let down with the news that the population has fallen again.  This same thing has happened this year, with MonarchWatch’s yearly report from the field.  Yet again we’ve seen a decline, with the total area covered by monarchs in their overwintering site falling 26% compared to last year, now only covering 2.1 hectares (5.2 acres).  For a comparison, the indicator of a healthy Monarch population is an overwintering area of 6 hectares (14.8 acres).  So what’s going on here, and more importantly, what does it mean?

The Continual Growth and Collapse of Monarch Populations. Photo Credit: MonarchWatch.org

It’s time for my controversial but true statement, monarchs really aren’t good pollinators. There, I said it! They don’t contribute very much to fruit or seed production, and they certainly don’t help with our food security.  So what’s the deal?  Why are we spending our time and energy monitoring and reporting on them?  Well, there are a lot of reasons why protecting them matters. For example, if you felt uncomfortable, angry, or saddened by any of my previous statements in these last 2 paragraphs, then that’s a fantastic reason on its own to protect them.  

Monarchs have a special place in the culture of Iowa, the Midwest, and North America as a whole.  Most people that I talk to about the plight of the monarchs reminisce about seeing them delicately flying around in the summer.  Many more, myself included, have fond memories of raising and releasing Monarchs as part of countless elementary school science classes.  For many people, monarchs were a great introduction to the wonders of nature, highlighting how creatures can grow and change through time in order to adapt to their surroundings.  Monarchs also teach us about migration and animal movement, how creatures overcome great odds, and large distances all for the sake of the next generation, who in turn will repeat the cycle.  

Monarchs after Migrating to Mexico.

Outside of nostalgia, metaphor, and symbolism, monarchs have an important role in conservation as what’s called an indicator species.  Because of their size, recognizability, and large range, tracking a trend in the population of monarchs is far easier than, say, a small, camouflaged, yet more-efficient pollinator.  If we know that both of these creatures have similar habitat and dietary needs, it is in our best interest, time and energy-wise to focus on the big, orange, easy-to-track species.  By providing the good habitat, food, and space for a monarch, we can expect other pollinators to use those resources in a similar way.  Similarly, if we see declines in monarch numbers, we can use that data to assume that other species of pollinators are also declining for similar reasons.  

Monarch on Swamp Milkweed, but did you spot the sweat bee?

It’s in our best interest to protect monarchs, because by extension, we’ll be protecting pollinators as a whole.  Now you may be wondering how you can help monarchs and pollinators, what things you can do to help reverse these declines?  The good news is that no matter where you live, or how much land you have, you can help your local pollinators.  All it takes to start is a few seeds, easy enough right?  

Well, no…you need to make sure you plant the right seeds for the job.  Monarchs and pollinators evolved right alongside our native plants, so those are the plants to grow that will cover all of their nutritional needs.  If you aren’t able to access native plants, or don’t have the space for them, non-native nectar plants like lavender, mint, and clover are all good options (just make sure that they don’t spread outside of a designated area!)  Also plant “host plants.”  These are specific species of plants that caterpillars will eat to prepare them for becoming butterflies.  The host plants for monarchs are famously milkweeds, but every other butterfly has their own version of this.  Finally, your plants should bloom throughout the season, with species blooming continuously between May and October.  This way, you’ll know that you’re providing a source of flood for hungry pollinators at all times.  

Pollinator Gardens Provide Nectar Throughout the Summer.

Monarchs may not be the best at pollinating, but they are an important symbol.  They symbolize migration, change, and the cycle of nature.  They also symbolize pollinators as a whole, illustrating their needs, their declines, and their need for protection.  Again, by protecting monarchs, providing them with spaces for them to grow, thrive, and eventually venture out from, we’ll be able to protect all of our pollinators.

What’s carried with snowmelt?

What’s carried with snowmelt?

When snow melts, salt applied to melt snow on sidewalks, roads, and parking lots can make its way to streams. Freshwater critters don’t like living in saltwater. Are we getting to a point where they’d have trouble? Not quite, the chronic levels of concern for Iowa is 389 mg/L of chloride, and this sample (from a creek near Ames High School) and some others in our area were just shy of that last weekend. But be mindful of how much salt you’re scattering if we get some more icy days this month–people often apply more than what’s needed for safety!

The Izaak Walton League’s Winter Salt Watch is a good way for people to check on water quality during the winter and learn more about the issue.

What else is being carried in snowmelt? Our lab tests from late February are showing higher nitrate and bacteria levels than January’s tests. Check back in mid-March and we’ll get that data organized.

What’s in a (creek) name?

What’s in a (creek) name?

Learning the name of a person is a first step to building a relationship with them. It’s the same way with natural features. Learning to distinguish and name Iowa’s species of trees and wildflowers helped me me deepen my awareness of the landscape and seasons. That’s the thinking behind the road signs we helped Story County install, marking the creek crossings and watershed boundaries. Once you know the name of a creek and where it flows, you pay a bit more attention to it. If you begin to see the creek as something more than a garbage dump or drainage system, maybe you’ll take some steps at your home, farm, or business to make the water cleaner.

Now, the name of one of those signs is a word that is disrespectful to Native Americans. We apologize for perpetuating its use. We are delighted to hear that the U.S. Board of Geographic Names has approved changing the name of “Squaw Creek” to “Ioway Creek.” We commend the Story County Supervisors, Ames City Council, and others who pushed for this issue. It will take a little time and effort to change the signs, the logo and legal documents for the Watershed Management Authority, and our habits, but it’s a necessary and overdue change.

Time to replace some road signs. It’s shows respect and is not that big a hardship.

If you’re inclined to roll your eyes at this “political correctness,” hear me out. My white Norwegian-American elders did not share stories of racism and oppression, but they did teach me about pride in our heritage and showing respect for others. And since I have a hard-to-pronounce last name, I understand that when people take the trouble to get a name right, it’s a sign of courtesy.

The settlers who adopted the word “squaw” for place names did not take the trouble to get it right. According to a group that works to preserve indigenous languages:

“Squaw” is not an Indian word. It was probably invented by European colonists who could not pronounce a longer Indian word… The likeliest thing is that those original colonists were not being insulting and were just trying and failing to use an Indian word for “woman.” … However, since then the word has been used in a very racist and sexually abusive way, so it definitely has negative implications now.

-Native Languages of the Americas

Here’s a little thought experiment for white Iowans who enjoy, as I do, the celebrations of Dutch heritage in Pella, Norwegian heritage in Story City, etc. Imagine that there was no-one of Norwegian heritage left in Story City. Imagine they had all been killed or driven out generations ago, and there was no one left there to celebrate Syttende Mai, or paint rosemaling, or roll lefse, or bake sandbakkels. Imagine that instead of being celebrated in the town square, those customs had been suppressed by the US government and religious schools, and had only recently been revived by my Norwegian-American community in exile. Suppose that all that remained to acknowledge that Norwegian immigrants once lived here was a creek or housing development named “Sunbucker,” a corruption of the dessert “sandbakkel”, now understood to mean “those backward people.” Suppose I’d grown up being called a “Dirty Sunbucker” or worse because of my ethnicity. How would I feel about these place names? Uff da! Would I appreciate if people showed me the courtesy of using Norwegian words correctly, and talking about my ancestry without resorting to crude stereotypes? You betcha! It’s a silly analogy for a traumatic history, but you get the point.

At this point the etymology of the word “squaw” is beside the point.

“It’s not a positive term. The continued use of it is not appropriate and disrespectful to the people of native tribes.”

-Lawrence Spottedbird, executive director at Meskwaki Nation, as quoted in the Gazette

If you can bring yourself to change your seed cap from “Monsanto” to “Bayer” over a corporate merger, surely you can get used to saying a different creek name to show a little more respect for the people who used to live in Story, Boone, and Hamilton County (the Iowa or Bah-kho-je people) and to avoid insulting our Meskwaki neighbors.

Recently, the students of Newton High School, having cleaned up their neighborhood creek, campaigned to change its name from Sewer Creek to Cardinal Creek. It was a way of changing the way people thought about the place. Water matters to us. Names matter too.

Weather whiplash

Weather whiplash

cover crops near Nevada
Nice looking rye cover crop near Nevada, IA
November 2020

A big thank you to farmers who planted cover crops after this challenging year. Cover crops will hold soil and nutrients in place through the winter and early spring. That could be especially important this year.

After a drought, nitrogen that might normally have been taken up by a high-yielding crop or flushed away by rainfall remains in the soil. That leftover nitrogen could be available for next year’s crop, but only if:

A) we have a dry spring, or

B) farmers have made use of practices like cover crops or nitrification inhibitors that prevent nitrogen losses during the fallow season.

A wet year in 2013 following a dry year in 2012 (dark blue) caused nitrate concentrations in many central iowa streams to jump as much as 10 mg/L higher than usual (red). Figure from Van Metre et al. 2008

A drought in 2012 following by a wet spring in 2013 led to nitrate concentrations in excess of 20 mg/L in many rivers in Central Iowa. If we have a wet spring in 2021, we could see this happen again. As one scientific paper put it, “weather whiplash drives deterioration of water quality.”

“Weather whiplash” can also help explain the long-term trends I’ve been seeing in the South Skunk River and its tributaries: a decline in nitrate concentrations from 2005-2012, a big jump in 2013, and another decline over the past 7 years. I’ll walk you through my analysis.

Explaining nitrate concentrations in the South Skunk River

Technical details, feel free to skip: This data was collected by the City of Ames just upstream of wastewater treatment plant. The City has monitored the South Skunk River above and below its wastewater treatment plant almost every week since 2003! Flow is measured continuously at a few miles upstream USGS gage near S. 16th St. I’ve summarized nitrate concentrations and streamflow by season (Jan-Mar, Apr-Jun, Jul-Sep, Oct-Dec). At each step of the way, I apply a linear regression equation and graph the model residuals. Taken together, these three factors explain 59% of the variation. The effects of “weather whiplash” may extend beyond one year, since nitrate from some parts of the field may travel more slowly to streams via groundwater.

In a given quarter, nitrate concentrations in the South Skunk can be up to 10 mg/L higher than the long-term average, or as much as 10 mg/L lower. The following graphs show how much variation is left to explain after correcting for current weather, last year’s weather, and season.

Nitrate in the South Skunk is again declining after a sudden increase in 2013.
Low-flow conditions in 2011-2013 explain unusually low nitrate concentrations.
Wet springs following dry years explain unusually high nitrate concentrations.
Seasonal patterns explain some of the remaining variation.
  1. The lowest nitrate concentrations can be explained by streamflow: when the weather is dry and tiles aren’t flowing, nitrate levels in rivers taper off to the background levels seen in groundwater.
  2. The highest nitrate concentrations can be explained by weather over the previous 12 months: a wet period following a dry period will flush out nitrate that’s accumulated in the soil.
  3. After that, there’s still a seasonal pattern independent of rainfall: nitrogen is most susceptible to loss in spring when soils are bare and microbial activity picks up (April-June) and least susceptible when the maturing crop is using up the available nitrogen (July-Sept).
  4. Can some of the remaining pattern be explained by greater adoption of conservation practices in the watershed in the past 5 years? We hope so, but let’s see what happens next spring!