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.

Trends from volunteer monitoring

Imagine tracking a child’s growth if your measuring tape had no inch markings. 1 ft, 2 ft, 2ft, 3 ft, 3 ft, 3ft

Not very helpful is it? The same thing could happen if you were trying to measure a gradual decline in nitrate with a Hach test strip, which measures in very course increments: 10 mg/L, 10 mg/L, 10mg/L, 5 mg/L, 5mg/L

For this reason, I’ve always assumed that trend monitoring is not a realistic use for volunteer monitoring data. However, that wrongly assumed that any year-to-year trends would be small and gradual. Instead, using weekly lab data, I’ve found several big swings in nitrate over the past 20 years. It turns out volunteers with the Squaw Creek Watershed Coalition tracked some of the same trends. These six sites were sampled monthly from 2002 to 2008. Trends at three sites were even statistically significant, at the 90% confidence level.

Nitrate trends as measured by volunteers with the IOWATER program.

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Prairie Rivers of Iowa and Story County Officials Organizing Water Quality Monitoring Effort

Prairie Rivers of Iowa and Story County Officials Organizing Water Quality Monitoring Effort

Story County leaders are beginning to develop a ten-year water quality monitoring program for the county.  The program will be the first of its kind in Iowa in which a county, its jurisdictions and supporting organizations have worked together to create such a planning document.  The Ames based nonprofit Prairie Rivers of Iowa has organized and is facilitating the effort with planning team representing members from Story County, City of Ames, City of Gilbert, City of Huxley, City of Nevada, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Izaak Walton League and the Story County Community Foundation.

According to City of Ames Municipal Engineer Tracy Warner Peterson, “Much more can be achieved as we work in collaboration rather than have all of the weight on one organization’s shoulders. The vast knowledge of team members through the collaboration brings together so much more potential than if we were each independently working to improve water quality.”

South Skunk River in Ames, Iowa

The team is focusing on establishing a ten-year plan to create a pathway for data collection for use towards education and guiding water quality improvements throughout the county. “It’s pretty clear that the quality of our water effects our quality of life – we drink it, we are made of it, we recreate in it, we count on it for production of our food, for green lawns and for trees which clean our air, and so much more,” relates Story County Conservation Director Mike Cox,  “Therefore we want to understand our water quality so we can make improvements where needed”.

A primary goal for the plan’s creation includes supporting the quality of life in Story County by aligning water quality monitoring efforts with recreational, environmental education and watershed improvement projects. Secondly, the team plans to provide residents with tools to understand water quality concerns and solutions while actively participating in citizen science to improve local streams and lakes. “As water quality information becomes more available, land owners/residents in the watershed can then learn what we are each able to do to reduce nutrients thereby improving water quality that results in healthier habitat and enhanced recreational opportunities in our communities,” states Peterson.

Creeks run through many of the county’s public lands, city parks and backyards. They can be full of fish or lifeless, clear or muddy and choked with algae, safe for kids to play in or full of pollutants depending on the water quality as runoff enters the watershed.

NRCS photo

Many area farmers and developers are implementing conservation practices that address water quality problems.  The team plans to celebrate the progress taking place and identify new areas where conservation practices can be most effective.

Even the smallest creeks and drainage ditches can influence water quality downstream. Bacteria ending up in the South Skunk River affects the use of the newly dedicated water trail while nitrogen, phosphorus and algae blooms winding down to the Gulf of Mexico contribute to the “dead zone” where water holds too little oxygen to sustain marine life.

State agencies only have resources to monitor the biggest rivers like the South Skunk River and Story County’s most heavily used beaches like Hickory Grove Lake. Only a small amount is known about backyard creeks without the efforts of volunteers.  Ballard Creek in Huxley, West Indian Creek in Nevada and Minerva Creek in Zearing have rarely been tested.

The Squaw Creek Watershed Coalition, along with local volunteers, have been monitoring Squaw Creek and its tributaries for over ten years. Some initial findings suggest that many creeks in the watershed have elevated levels of nitrate and E. coli bacteria. That data led to a watershed plan and grant-funded project that Prairie Rivers of Iowa and partners used to help farmers install water quality conservation practices like a denitrifying bioreactor, 3532 acres of cover crops and 3719 acres of no-till practices.  

The development of a ten-year water quality monitoring program for the county addresses the need for continued water-quality monitoring of Squaw Creek, its tributaries other streams in the county. It will raise awareness, guide improvements and track the progress towards conservation efforts. Prairie Rivers of Iowa will continue to organize water quality monitoring events, share monthly lab tests and develop educational materials.

Volunteers testing water quality in the South Skunk Watershed in Story County.

Peterson concludes, “Through collecting and analyzing water quality data throughout Story County, we are able to make more informed decisions, including financial priorities, regulations, and improvements to the land.  By changing, we can improve water quality to enhance habitat, reduce flooding, create natural areas that are flourishing with potential to explore and enjoy more recreational opportunities.

The Natural World as Classroom

by John Mazzello, Project Coordinator

Conference attendees exploring an outdoor classroom area with many logs, branches, blocks, and other natural materials

“Messy Materials” area at the Arbor Day Farm outdoor classroom

If you’ve been following Prairie Rivers of Iowa’s Facebook page or newsletter, you might remember that we are working on a unique project with the opportunity to affect how Iowa’s students of all ages experience and learn about the environment and the natural world around us. Through our “Outdoor Learning Environments in Iowa” project, funded by grants from Iowa’s Living Roadway Trust Fund and the Resource Enhancement and Protection Conservation Education Program (REAP CEP), we are exploring the state of outdoor classrooms in Iowa and building resources and guidance to assist future creators and funders in developing successful and sustainable outdoor learning sites.

This summer, with the assistance of Prairie Rivers of Iowa’s Mike Brandrup, we have completed site visits to outdoor classrooms previously supported by the Living Roadway Trust Fund and surveyed outdoor educators and school staff on the successes and challenges of using outdoor spaces to deepen learning across all subject areas. While there are major challenges, such as maintaining and sustaining outdoor learning environments long-term and building community support and volunteer networks, there are also important opportunities: many places in Iowa, including schools, have healthy outdoor spaces in which students can learn about the natural world or reap the benefits of experiencing nature no matter their area of study; educators of all stripes, from teachers and principals, to early childhood educators, to community center staff, are committed to deepening student learning outdoors; and there is a vibrant and growing network of experts here in Iowa and across the country ready to share their experiences with us.

Nature Explore outdoor classroom entry made of tree trunks and limbs

Entryway to outdoor classroom at the Arbor Day Farm

Recently, Prairie Rivers of Iowa’s Outdoor Learning Environments Project Coordinator, John Mazzello, and Local Foods Systems Coordinator, Ruth Powell, had the opportunity to attend the Nature Explore/Outdoor Classroom Project Leadership Institute, a conference dedicated to creating and strengthening outdoor learning environments, at the Lied Lodge at Arbor Day Farm in Nebraska City, Nebraska. At this conference, we explored research-based approaches to creating outdoor classrooms, and keeping them strong over the course of many years. This work, supported by the Arbor Day Foundation and the Dimensions Educational Research Foundation, is just the starting point for exciting future research plans that aim to clearly document the value of outdoor classrooms for students of all ages. Beyond research, we were also inspired by practitioners of outdoor classroom design and implementation, and had a chance to see and explore model outdoor classroom sites. Most importantly, we had the chance to make personal connections with some of the country’s leading experts in outdoor learning environment design and implementation, connections that will serve us well as we prepare our guidance for Iowans later this year.

A path through tall grass and wildflower plantings

A “pathway through plantings” is a method for engaging students by enabling them to travel through plantings rather than completely around them

Your help is needed to ensure that all the voices of outdoor classrooms in Iowa are heard! If you have an outdoor classroom at your site, or if you wish to create one, we’d like to hear from you. Please call us or email me at and I would be happy to talk with you and get your feedback on what support is needed and what opportunities exist. This is an exciting project and one we are looking forward to sharing as work continues.

Learn more about this project at

Learning through Healthy Soil and Water

Water testing 019

This year, Prairie Rivers of Iowa is working on a project to assist Iowa’s outdoor classrooms in becoming more effective by researching existing outdoor classrooms in the state, seeking best practices from around the country, and putting together resources and materials for educators who want to create an outdoor classroom in their area.1  You probably also know about our work with area schools through our Kids on the Byway and School and Community Gardens programs.

In honor of National Soil and Water Conservation Week, it’s worth taking a look at the important role that healthy soil and water can play in educating the next generation of Iowa leaders.  Research has shown many benefits result when students are able to experience the natural environment in person as part of their education.  These experiences can help contribute to child development and skill-building, increase fitness and motor skills, and even build creativity and reduce stress.  Outdoor experiences also help increase student success in a whole variety of academic content areas: in science, language arts, math, and other classes, plus on standardized tests.

One really important strain of research indicates that students are very capable of seeing a whole variety of learning environments as related and complementary.  Students can relate what they learn outside, interacting with the natural world, back to what they learn in the traditional classroom, and vice versa.2

This is strong reinforcement for the type of work Prairie Rivers of Iowa does, making connections in the natural world with traditional in-class education.  Rather than being an “extra” to be used only when more important instruction has been provided, outdoor education can be deeply connected to so many other content areas throughout the school day.  The view of outdoor education as only a bonus field trip misses the point that such experiences can be critical for making in-class learning more concrete or for making complex ideas real to students.

Healthy soil and water, whether in outdoor classrooms adjacent to school buildings, in designated natural areas like parks and preserves, or simply in children’s hometowns, are critical for providing opportunities for students to experience nature in all its many “classrooms.”


1This project is supported by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources REAP Conservation Education Program and Iowa’s Living Roadway Trust Fund.

2See Zandvliet, David B.  (2012). Development and validation of the Place-Based Learning and Constructivist Environment Survey (PLACES). Learning Environments Research, 15, 125-140.