Miller Creek Water Quality Improvement Project, IowaIowa farmers are more interested than ever in implementing practices to help them protect the state’s water quality and conserve precious topsoil.

The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy contains a number of well-researched and effective conservation practices. But finding the one that fits best on each farm’s landscape and meshes with existing practices takes more than reading a pamphlet or watching an online video, according to Matt Lechtenberg, water quality coordinator at the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stew­ardship (IDALS). Farmers, he knows, want to see the conservation practices first-hand, in action, before making decisions on which programs fit best on their landscapes and in their operations.

"It’s really important to showcase these practices, so farmers can see them and feel more comfortable with them," Lechtenberg said.

That’s the premise behind Iowa’s 16 targeted demonstration projects, which have been established in nine watersheds around the state that have been designated as a priority by the Iowa Water Resources Coordinating Council.

Working with farmers

Demonstration project coordinators work with cooperating farmers to implement a number of practices, such as cover crops, bioreactors or saturated buffer strips, outlined in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

That gives farmers in the area an opportunity to learn about the practices first-hand, see how they work in actual field conditions and talk to people who already tried them, said Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey. That experience and knowledge will help expand use of the practices and help the state meet its goals of reducing nutrient loss under the water quality initiative launched in 2013, he said.

"We want to use these as incubators that let us scale up to move these practices where they fit all over the state," Northey said.

The concept of on-farm demonstrations is not new, Lechtenberg said. "It’s really a tried and true method of delivering information to farmers," he said recently.

What is new, Lechtenberg said, is that each of the 16 demonstration projects around the state are locally designed, developed and led, with cooperation and investment from a wide range of sources. Each project has a different group of cooperators, which include local co-ops, farm equipment dealers, seed genetics companies, area colleges, local offices of government agencies and farm groups, including some county Farm Bureaus.

Under the program, the leaders of proposed projects apply to IDALS for state matching funds. After a review by IDALS, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and the state’s three Regent universities, demonstration projects are chosen based on their impact to local water quality needs.

Since the first targeted demonstration projects were funded in early 2014, the state has allocated just over $7.5 million in funding for the program and has leveraged more than $10 million in additional funding supplied from partners and landowners. 

Focus on local issues

With local leadership in place, the demonstration projects address that area’s needs and take advantage of local opportunities and resources to show off practices to improve water quality, Lechtenberg said.

In northeast Iowa, for example, the Central Turkey River Nutrient Reduction Project has worked on demonstrating how cover crops fit well after harvesting corn silage, a common practice in that region, said Michelle Elliott, the project’s coordinator. "It’s sort of a no-brainer to work in cover crops because silage comes off early," she said.

The northeast Iowa project, which is headquartered in Calmar, has also been able to work with Northeast Iowa Community Coll­ege, one of the partners, Elliott said. The college serves as a centralized hub and educational center for the project, she said.

Across the state in northwest Iowa, where livestock production is the primary economic driver, the West Branch of Floyd River Water Quality Initiative works on water quality improvement practices for livestock intensive farms, said coordinator Becca Meerdink. That includes working with man­ure-incorporating equipment to help reduce nutrient loss and other practices for livestock farms, she said.

Other demonstration projects around the state work to spread knowledge and experience with edge of field practices, such as buffer strips and bioreactors, wetlands and saturated buffers. One demonstration project in Tama and Benton counties is looking at water quality practices that can be used in seed corn production.

Drawing attention

Area farmers have been very interested in both participating in the water quality demonstration projects on their own fields, and in learning from them, coordinators said.

"I’m really getting very good cooperation," said Shane Wulf, coordinator for the Miller Creek Water Quality Improvement Pro­ject, near Waterloo in the Middle Cedar River watershed. "Farmers don’t want to lose any of their expensive inputs and are really interested in learning more about the practices that are out there that can preserve them."

Meerdink in the Floyd River Project agreed. "Conservation and water quality are very much on farmers’ minds now," she said. "They want to know about how effective all the different practices are and what it costs to put them in."

A list of all 16 targeted water quality demonstration projects can be found at