Projects funded by the Iowa Nutrient Research Center are investigating how farmers can reduce nutrient losses and improve water quality through management, land use and edge-of-field practices.

The center, which was created in 2013 to assist in achieving the goals of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, approved funding for 11 new projects last fall focused on research and innovation to improve Iowa’s water quality. Projects receiving funding this year include looking at nutrients in tile-drained water as well as the impact of practices such as cover crops, prairie strips and wood-chip bioreactors on nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) losses.

“Our practices that do a good job for P may do very little for N,” says Matt Helmers, Iowa State University (ISU) associate professor and Extension agricultural engineer. “We can’t just rely on one practice. It’s going to be a suite of practices to meet these load reductions.”

The projects involve collaborations between researchers from ISU, the University of Iowa, Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Iowa Soybean Association and others.

In four years, the center has received $5.475 million in state appropriations to advance the science of nutrient management, with 99 percent of those funds going directly to faculty for their research, said Hongwei Xin, interim director of the Iowa Nutrient Research Center. The center leverages the state funding to secure additional funding from outside sources, expanding the potential impact of its work. In the last five years, Iowa State University has received $17 million from nearly 50 funding sources in support of water quality projects.

“We continue to gain a better understanding of nutrient movement through the landscape in Iowa, and from that research, scientists funded by the center have made progress towards nutrient loss reduction,” said Xin.

The Nutrient Research Center (NRC) has funded more than 50 projects over the past five years with a primary focus on evaluating the performance of current and emerging in-field and edge-of-field farm practices.

The projects are designed to help meet the Nutrient Reduction Strategy’s overall goal of reducing nitrogen and phosphorus losses by 45 percent. For non-point sources, including agriculture, the goal is to reduce the statewide nitrogen load by 41 percent and phosphorus load by 29 percent.  

Water monitoring occurs at various scales, from edge-of-field to large watersheds, to help measure progress. Long-term data collection will help researchers better understand nutrient export over time.

Research funded by the NRC has also helped develop models for estimating Iowa’s annual nitrogen export by using actual monitoring data. A similar method for phosphorus is currently under development.

Another key role for the NRC is farmer education and outreach. Outreach efforts effectively doubled in the past year with partner organizations reporting 474 events with 54,500 total attendees, according to the center’s 2017 annual report. The annual report identifies measurable in­­dicators of desirable change that can be quantified, such as increased funding and education efforts that affect attitudes toward conservation.

“While it will take time to reach the 45 percent reduction goal, the indicators we track are moving in the right direction,” said John Lawrence, interim vice president of Extension and research at Iowa State University.

More information on the projects funded by the NRC can be found at