Research is aiding farmers’ work on water quality
Dozens of projects coordinated by the Iowa Nutrient Research Center are helping farmers understand how they can improve water quality by reducing phosphorus and nitrogen losses from their farms.
"Over the past four years, we’ve had more than 40 research collaborations involving nearly 80 scientists across the three regents universities and including IDALS (Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship), DNR (Department of Natural Resources) and USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture)," said Iowa State University (ISU) College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Associate Dean John Lawrence, who serves as director of the research center. "The work is helping us better understand nutrient movement across the landscape, be more precise with conservation practices and address barriers to cover crops."
The Nutrient Research Center was established in 2013 to fill gaps in nitrogen and phosphorus research identified in the science assessment that was part of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. The center involves a collaboration of scientists at Iowa’s three public universities and public partners to evaluate current and emerging nutrient management practices, in addition to developing new practices to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus losses.
In the past four years, researchers have looked at a wide range of factors that influence nutrient movement, including in-field conservation practices, edge-of-field structures, land use, stream impacts and human behavior, Lawrence said.
For example, field and lab experiments are improving the understanding of winter cover crop management and the impacts on corn yield. By identifying the sources of corn yield reductions from rye cover crops, researchers have been able to provide farmers with management recommendations to mitigate yield losses. They also are exploring alternative cover crops that have fewer negative impacts.
Other projects are evaluating edge-of-field practices like saturated buffers and bioreactors to assess their ability to remove nitrates from tile flow.
In some cases, the Nutrient Research Center’s work has led to favorable changes in federal conservation policies, Lawrence reported. For example, the USDA has developed a national practice standard for saturated buffers based on the Iowa research and changed federal policy to allow cost-share for saturated buffers on Conservation Reserve Program acres.
Researchers are also evaluating the nutrient removal effectiveness of other conservation practices, such as restored oxbows, prairie strips and prairie potholes. They are also looking at the effectiveness of stacked nutrient reduction practices in side-by-side comparisons at the watershed level.
The Nutrient Research Center, which received $5.5 million in state funding in its first four years, devotes 99 percent of its funding directly to faculty for research projects, Lawrence said. Financial management and other support services are provided by the ISU College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
State funding is leveraged with additional grants from federal, state and non-governmental agencies. Iowa State alone has received $17 million in grants from 49 agencies for nutrient management research across five years.
The Nutrient Research Center received $1.325 million in funding in Fiscal Year 2017. It requested a 2 percent increase in its Fiscal Year 2018 budget for additional research toward improving water quality and developing new ways for farmers to manage nutrients
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