A Case for Water Management
- Dr. Matt Helmers of Iowa State University
Jamie Duininck sits down with Dr. Matt Helmers of Iowa State University to discuss “A Case for Water Management”. Over the course of this episode, Jamie and Matt discuss water management practices, water quality, the affects of climate change and more. This episode is packed with valuable information from someone who has done the research and studied the data behind water management on the farm.
Episode 1 | 55:48 min
Matt Helmers is the Director of the Iowa Nutrient Research Center, the Dean’s Professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and a Professor in the Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering at Iowa State University, where he has been on the faculty since 2003. Dr. Helmers’ research areas include studies on the impact of nutrient management, cropping practices, drainage design and management, and strategic placement of buffer systems on nutrient export from agricultural landscapes.
This is the water table.
chance to hear the agricultural side of these issues,
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Matt Helmers 0:12
water management is just going to become even more critical into the future.
how misunderstood, what we do is
I would encourage people to open their minds. Listen to this dialogue.
Welcome to the water table podcast. Today’s episode, we will be discussing the case for water management. With us today we have a really exciting guest. Matt Helmers is the director of Iowa Nutrient Research Center, the dean professor in the Agricultural Life Sciences college, and a professor in the Department of Agriculture and Biosystems Engineering at Iowa State University, where he has been on the faculty since 2003. Dr. Helmers’ research areas include studies on the impact of nutrient management, cropping practices, drainage design and management, and strategic placement of buffer systems on nutrient export from agricultural landscapes. He has a regional extension program working to increase adoption of practices that have the potential to introduce downstream nutrient export. Dr. Helmers, thanks for joining us. We’re excited to spend some time together and talk about drainage.
Matt Helmers 1:30
Yeah, thanks a lot, Jamie. Thanks a lot for that introduction. I’m not sure that I’m the most exciting person. But boy, I’m always excited to talk about drainage. So really look, look forward to our chat today.
Yeah, great. Great. So let’s start. Just tell us a little bit more about your roles and responsibilities at Iowa State.
Matt Helmers 1:51
Yeah, so I’ve been at Iowa State since 2003. I’m a native, a native Iowan from the northwest part of Iowa. One thing that that, I guess is maybe somewhat interesting is that my family farms up in that area, my grandfather farmed, and I spent a lot of time there when I was young. And I have a picture of myself out in the field, when I was about six or seven years old with my grandfather’s tractor stuck, a second tractor in front of that stuck, and the third one pulling it out. And as I think back about it, I learned then the importance of drainage. And so I was fortunate in 03 to come, come to Iowa State, come back to Iowa, and then have been able to work in the drainage area, drainage water quality and kind of ag water quality areas. In 2018, I was fortunate enough to be named the director of the Nutrient Research Center. So we fund a number of research projects that are looking at either water quality issues or ag management issues and how we can balance the economics and profitability with improving our water.
I saw on social media here in the last couple of weeks, a picture of yourself when you were a youngster and then of your daughter with the same Iowa State gear on and it must be pretty rewarding to be working back at your alma mater and and just experiencing some of the things that you did from from childhood as far as supporting your, your college.
Yeah, I feel very fortunate when I think about that. I kind of have to pinch myself because certainly I grew up. I grew up in Iowa State and did my undergraduate here. So yeah, I feel so fortunate to be back here and and doing something I enjoy and for a college that I have a lot of faith in and admiration for the area of expertise you’re in just a long history at Iowa State. You know, my days going back 30 years and, and Dr. Stuart Melvin is you know, was kind of the the godfather of drainage for the upper Midwest. And that was always our go to back, senior salesmen of ours back in the day was John Pogge Senior, and john would always say, well, let’s call Stuart on on this issue.
And, and so it’s fun. It’s fun now to continue this relationship between Prinsco and Iowa State and our industry. So when we’re talking about managing water on the farm, you know, what are the benefits of drainage, we’re going to go into a lot of details, but, you know, we hope that on this podcast that there’s some general public that are listening to this too, and they can learn a little bit about what we do on the farm.
Matt Helmers 4:39
So you know, if we think about our agricultural systems, and you know, the area that we work in kind of Upper Midwest, rain fed agricultural systems. Now if we looked at an annual basis, you know, many areas we get enough rainfall to grow the crop really well. But what happens is there are times when we get too much rainfall, we have excess perception And because of the types of soils we have, we have soils where we build up a water table. And so we’ll get excess water within the within the root zone of whatever crop we’re going to, that we maybe try to grow out there. So we, we displaced oxygen or the air in that soil, we have water in there, and that’s going to hurt the roots. And so you know, one of the biggest things is that drainage allows us to have aerated soil conditions for crop production. That’s one of the ways that we enhance crop production, I think that’s a really important one. But you also brought up traffic ability. And I think traffic ability is, is really important as we think about the frequency of some of our events, and maybe the projections for wetter springs. So if we get a rainfall event, and we have drainage in that field, we’re going to be able to draw that water table down a little bit early, quicker, we’re going to get air back in those soils, we’re going to see that soil dry out a little quicker, so that we can, you know, do our do our field operations, and maybe most relevant is planting. And so you know, I think about it, if we can get in and plant that, you know, a day or two earlier with drainage, boy what what what would have happened, if we would have gotten the rain a day later, and we hadn’t got it planted, and we were delayed another two weeks from planting that could have a big impact on that crop production, you know that that planting date is so critical. And so that drainage helps us kind of be able to get into that field, when those field conditions are consistent with planning. And I think there’s a couple you know, to me, there’s a couple reasons that’s important, like I talked about the potential for wetter spring. But then as we see operations that are maybe limited in their window, when they have to get planted, you know, maybe it’s because they have some, you know, an off farm job, and they need to get it done at this point in time, or they have a lot of acres and so they have to get over it. So I think that’s another, you know, aspect that’s so important is that planting date, you know, maybe one thing we don’t think about, but kind of comes in that traffic ability is kind of, you know, growing up, my grandfather got some tractor stuck, you know, we have drainage, and we can minimize some of that we minimize some of the wear and tear on our machinery as well. So I think that’s maybe beside that isn’t as thought about as often. So I think all of those are reasons why why that drainage is is so important from a crop production standpoint, you know, we’ll talk about the water quality aspects we need to consider and deal with, which I think we’re learning more about and have practices.
Yeah, and, you know, I I just listening to it made me think about the difference between 2019 and 2020. When it comes to planting, take drainage aside, we couldn’t plant the crop due to such an extremely cold, wet spring throughout the major portion of the Midwest in 2019. We got planted very late, you know, late May and early June in some cases. And and then in 2020, we had a great spring, you know, early, early start to the spring, they could plant early, and look at the kind of yields that came out of that, you know, in areas where we didn’t have significant drought or the wind blow down, stuff like that in Iowa, areas where they didn’t have that you can just totally see that because of that early plant date, there were significantly better yields. And so if you’d put drainage in there, the people that got planted early in 19, because they got in those few days before it started raining. They had great yields too.
Yep, yep, exactly. Right.
So yeah, I appreciate that. And even even when you’re talking about wear and tear on equipment to, you know, greenhouse gas emissions and use of fuel, you’re just going to use a lot more when you’re when it’s muddy, and you’re pushing through and can’t get it done on the on the same pace you can, when you’re when you’re I feel conditions are better.
Yeah, you know, I think that, you know, one of the things that you kind of mentioned earlier that I forgot to talk about, but, you know, if if we if we get better yields, you know, and we’ve put on similar inputs of, you know, nitrogen, for example, in our field. Now, if we get better yields, we’re going to get, you know, more bushels per unit of N input. And so you know, as we think about some of these environmental side of things as well, that if that drainage allows us to get better yield, and we would have put on the same amount of nitrogen anyway, we may have greater potential to export that nitrogen out of the field rather than having it susceptible to loss for
sure. For sure. Well, that’s you know, that’s kind of goes into dovetails well for us into water quality. Let’s talk a little bit about water quality. You know, in our industry, this is often referred to as drainage water management, but we’re really talking about water quality. Both both you and your university have been actively studying and developing solutions at the intersection of production, agriculture and conservation. Can you speak to kind of the cooperative success that you’ve seen in those areas?
Yeah, I think we have I take people at our university, I take at the land grant universities across the Midwest and the Agricultural Research Service have have been doing so. And so I think we’ve looked at ways where we have this drainage system, we need to recognize that where we have this annual cropping system, and we get that excess precipitation, you know, we get nitrate moving below the plant root zone, I think it’s important to recognize so that even if we don’t have tile drainage, we still lose nitrate below the plant root zone, you know, from those crops. So, you know, the best example I use is central Platte valley of Nebraska, you know, there’s not tile drainage there, but they lose nitrate below the plant root zone, that then goes to the shallow groundwater, where we do have tile drainage, that water is intercepted by the tile line, and then taken to a downstream water body. And so we’ve certainly looked at, you know, us and others have a long history of looking at infield management of nitrogen in cover crops. But then, you know, one of the things is kind of happened in the last 15 to 20 years is looking at, can we intercept that tile drainage before it’s delivered to the stream, and use mother nature to a certain extent, to remove that nitrate so that we deliver, you know, lower nitrate coming, you know, to the downstream water body, so we’re still, you know, enhancing crop production in the field, but removing that nitrate that gets into the tile lines. And so, things like control drainage where we manage that drainage outlet, subsurface drainage, bioreactors or kind of woodchip trench bioreactors, saturated buffers are another one, nitrate removal wetlands, as well. And then a new one that that a number of us are looking at is drainage water recycling. I think all of those are kind of edge-of-field practices that we can utilize to reduce that delivery of nitrate downstream.
Okay, so we’re going to talk here a little bit later on. And in this episode about denitrifing wetlands, I want to ask you some questions. But, you know, what do you see as the most promising drainage water management practice being used right now?
That’s, that’s a great question. Jamie, and many people won’t like this. But I’m going to use the university answer, it depends. But I think there’s, I think there’s a reason it depends, because all those practices, you know, if you have a flat field, you know, pretty uniformly sloped a flat field, you know, point 5%, I think control drainage could be a really good practice of holding back some water during certain times of the year to minimize nitrate outflow and maybe provide some some water for crop production. But you need a, you need a kind of a field that’s conducive for that to work. If you are next to a stream, where you have, you know, nice soils next to that stream, high carbon content, where you can put in a saturated buffer that might be your most cost effective nitrate reduction practice, because we put a tile line along the upstream edge of the maybe a buffer we have next to stream we promote shallow groundwater flow, and get the nitrification. So I think that can be affected. If we’re in a situation where we have a field, that we have a location where maybe that this denitrification bioreactor wood chip trench bioreactor would go, that we don’t have the opportunity for saturated buffer, we don’t have the flat field for control drainage, but maybe this bioreactor would work. And then I think that the wetlands, you know, we kind of have to have a location where maybe we can outlet that, that tiile line via gravity, or, you know, people are looking at pump systems to but we’d have to kind of have that citing location, that would work best. So I think it you know, it’s, it’s not necessarily a one size fits all, it’s really thinking about that field, that drainage system, and what might work best to treat that water before it moves downstream. So I’m not sure I answered your question, or I kind of punted, but hopefully that gives people a little bit of an idea on on on my thinking,
you know, what are the biggest challenges in in achieving widespread adoption and I think you’ve kind of said that it just depends on the different you know, how the field lays, you know, what, what the opportunities are on each piece of property, but, you know, anything, anything to add there and then like what are the biggest opportunities in front of us when it comes to, to that with water quality and these practices?
Yeah, I think that’s that’s a really good question. And and I think there are a couple reasons, you know, a couple things. One is definitely that, you know, each site is a little bit different. But I think, you know, we do have to recognize all these practices we’ve talked about, cost somebody money to put in. And so if we think about, you know, control drainage, saturated buffers, bioreactors and wetlands, there’s some cost there, and there’s not a at least a direct economic return, you know, it at least in the short term. And so, you know, I think we, we have to understand that, you know, and think through how, you know, how do we scale this up when we think about the financial resources that that might be needed. We haven’t talked much about but one of the emerging practices that we’re starting to look at that, that I think could, could balance this a little bit, or at least had some potential is this drainage water recycling, where we capture that drainage water that would have otherwise gone downstream, we store it in some on farm storage, and then we use that for supplemental irrigation to try to enhance crop production in the field. And so by doing so, we would reduce downstream delivery of those nutrients and recycle the nutrients and the water back within the crop, it definitely has the potential to improve crop yield, even in the, you know, the upper Midwest rain fed area, the question is how much? And that’s where I think we need some, and we are doing some, but we need more research to document that and look at the cost effectiveness of that type of system, because there’s a lot of infrastructure costs associated with it as well, you know, I’m confident as a agricultural engineer, we could engineer these systems, but are they cost effective for the farmer? So, you know, I think that, you know, there’s still some, some research needs on that. And certainly, as we think about all those other practices, you know, we need to get people interested, we need to be talking to them about the importance and taking advantage of the financial resources that are out there from state and federal programs, but also looking at how we might finance that in the future as well.
Exciting stuff. Think about, you know, recycling drainage water, which is nutrient packed and, and using water. They, I mean, you can you can, you can please a lot of people at the same time, if you can achieve, you know, what the farmer needs to achieve from a yield standpoint. So, pretty exciting. Yeah. Dr. Helmers, we’ve we’ve know a little bit about but we’d like to talk a little bit about the couser modern farm experience. And in a way, why don’t you start by telling the listeners, you know, what is what is the couser modern farm?
Yeah, Bill Couser is a farmer here in Nevada, Iowa. His family is farmed there for a number of years. And he has a son, Tim Couser. that’s associated with the department operation agronomist. And so Bill has been I think kind of a leader and looking at, you know, new technology and trying to adopt that he did that in almost 15 years ago for some to be feedlot runoff. And I think, Bill, you know, it’s looked at, now he has some farms. And he wants to kind of show how we can use some of these conservation practices to enhance maybe crop production, you know, enhance soil health, but also have cleaner water going downstream. And he would make that available to field days of all kinds of people to learn and see what what a farmer in Iowa is doing. So I think it’s really exciting. And so he’s put in some drainage there. Kind of four big blocks of drainage, where each of them are individually drained, it’ll be able to look at some of the impacts of infield management practices. He’s done some work with control drainage. And then he’s put a bioreactor on his farm. And then he’s ultimately going to put the saturated buffer to on that farm, all within about a half mile radius of each other. So people can come out there, they can see all of those practices in one location, and how they’ve worked in the landscape. And then one of the things that that we’re doing with from Iowa State University, and Prinsco, who so graciously going to help us with a graduate student to do some of the work is to monitor some of that drainage water to document and what’s coming out of those drain blocks, what’s coming in and out of the bioreactor. And when we get a saturated buffer out there, do that as well. So I think we know not only demonstrating the practices, but evaluating their performance as well. And we’re adding that into Other data that we’re collecting on the performance of bioreactor, so we have a number of other sites, kind of right around the the Ames area, that we’ll be able to add that data to, to kind of get a larger, larger database on the performance of that practice. And we would do the same would be doing the same with the saturated buffer time. eisenhardt monitors a number of saturated buffers. So any monitoring we do at the counter farm would be added in and compared to some of those other sites as well.
Yeah, that’s exciting and Prinsco, is a leader in the industry, and we want to continue to see our industry progress into areas in which which we believe this this can go and we can we can improve water quality and grow higher yields at the same time. And so it’s super exciting for us to be part of that with you guys. And, and find out, you know, what’s, what’s coming? And what’s possible. With yield increases and, and water, water quality improvements. One thing you mentioned in there was, you know, people can go and see this, how are they doing that?
Yeah, they have hosted a couple field days already out there, most of them have been open to the public, and we at Iowa State have been involved with that they have a website, you know, you can see kind of what their plans are. And I think ultimately, they’ll probably be showing, you know, some of the data that’s collected there, too. So. So if we have, you know, listeners from around the country, I think they can learn more about that from the comfort of their their own home, especially as we get into colder weather when we won’t be having field days. And most of our our things are virtual right now anyway,
do you know from a long term perspective, how long do they plan on this research project continuing?
That’s that? I don’t know, for sure, I think I think the hope is, it can be long term, or, you know, the more that we can see the performance of these practices over a longer period of time, you know, bioreactors a good example, you know, when When do we start to see the performance start to be reduced that we need to replace the woodchips that are in there. And so I think there’s, you know, there’s real important to try and do have some level of long term monitoring, you know, maybe it’s not as not quite as intensive, you know, as we get on five to 10 years, but I think some level of continued evaluation and monitoring is important.
You know, let’s, let’s switch subjects a little bit. And a lot of these are attached to one another. But let’s talk about climate change. You know, the, just the word climate change in our industry, and for some of our customers are like, well, I don’t, you know, I don’t know if I believe in climate channel, what’s going on. But I think I think between you and I, we probably would agree that, you know, our precipitation patterns are, are significantly increasing over the last few decades. You know, let’s just talk about that. And one of the things that that I kind of wanted to share and then get some feedback from you on is, you know, for generations, the US government has subsidized drainage improvements throughout the Midwest, a lot of that’s been for, you know, many, many reasons, a few of them food security, disease prevention, erosion control, even way back as far as for settlement. But these, these activities were key in what we were doing from development and sustainability. And now we’ve, you know, where we’ve come as we are in one of the most fertile areas and most productive agricultural areas in the whole world, how important I guess is the right word, is our ability to enhance and adapt our current drainage infrastructure to handle these changing weather patterns.
Yeah, I think I think it’s really important. This part of the world that we’re fortunate to, to live and work in has some of the best soils in the world and you know, we generally get a reasonable amount of rainfall every year to produce crops. And so, you know, these, this is an area that I think we should, you know, be looking at ways to optimize production, while minimizing the environmental impacts. And it take for us to optimize production in a lot of these areas that are already in in annual real crop, our drainage infrastructure is very critical to that. And I think we have to be looking at that infrastructure in the context of, you know, some of the projections for you know, changing climate, you know, if the projections are weather springs and drier summers, that may make drainage even more important because all of a sudden a compressed window in the spring to get those timely Field Operations done, are compressed even more. And so, you know, that drainage that we taught, talked about some of those, those, those benefits of drainage becomes even more important. So I think as we know, as we do, look at you know, these landscapes, drainage is is going to become more important, not less important. And, and that I think, is We think about redesigning those systems. You know, we, we have the opportunity to think about how do we redesign those so that we integrate some of these other water quality practices that we talked about. And, and the time to do that, in my opinion is at the time of design of a new system, it’s a lot easier to integrate that in from the forefront rather than try to retrofit in, you know, at the back end. So, you know, sometimes we can retrofit for sure. But, you know, I think we want to try to be proactive and think about that, you know, right up front.
Yeah, for sure. And, you know, going back to your story at the beginning of the podcast have the picture of you. And I think it was three generations of Helmers in the in the stuck tractors. What it because of climate change, and more precipitation, do you do believe it’s more important or less important than it was 30 years ago, to have a tab of effective water management plan.
Matt Helmers 26:00
I think it’s more effective. And I really like the way we turn this water management plan, you know, because it’s about managing that water. And you know, that managing that water can take on, you know, many different things. One is, you know, kind of a free conventional drainage system, but we can also think about control drainage, we can also potentially think about drainage water recycling. So I think that drainage management, water management, on our agricultural lands is just going to become even more critical into into the future.
So let’s talk about we talked just briefly earlier about Denitrifying. Wetlands as being one of the practices that, that you guys are working on, and it’s something that I’m excited about. I’m a duck hunter, so I like wetlands and and if we can, in a lot of people in Minnesota, like wetlands, and so if we can, again, have a win win with with our farming communities, and and our, our hunters and, and people that birdwatch and enjoy wetlands. It’s something that would be really important to continue that practice. But tell us about what I was state. You know, how you guys have been involved? I think you guys have led this initiative. And you know, not surprising is you guys are always on the forefront of these kind of things. But But why don’t you just start by, you know, tell us what is a denitrified wetland and how does it work?
Matt Helmers 27:31
Yeah. I really want to give credit where credit is due and Dr. Bill Crumpton Iowa State University is really one of the world leaders in the utilization of wetlands for an agricultural landscape. And so, you know, it’s kind of a long history. And you mentioned, Stu Melvin before, you know, I always feel like I’ve had quite big shoes to fill in, you know, kind of replacing to do when I did but to do and Jim Baker, another faculty member in our Ag and biosystems engineering department, no pipe 30 years ago, 25 years ago, more like 25 realized, you know, some of the the challenges with greatly reducing nitrate from our agricultural systems, or drainage with just infield nitrogen management and said we need to be thinking about how we treat that water when it comes out of the drain. So they started working with this well in the college’s bill Crumpton at Iowa State University and started to really do work kind of at the plot scale, and then up to you know, full field or small watershed scale. So it’s really kind of evolved over that period. And, and when I started it, I was 17 years ago was was kind of when the Iowa Conservation Reserve enhancement program was started to this was led by the I would Department of Ag and land stewardship. Dean Lemke was there at idle at that time, and it real instrumental partnership of Idals and the USDA FSA. And it was to target the implementation of these wetlands where we would surface drainage water into a wetland that might be restored or constructed, that that water would would travel through that wetland and the microbes would would control the nitrifying you know, that water as it moves through. And so we’d use the carbon in that kind of small soil layer along the bottom of that wetland to promote that Denitrification cycle and get cleaner water going downstream. And I think it’s a really, like you said, it’s kind of a win win. Yes, it takes some land out of production or, you know, take some land to do it. But we have that waterfall habitat with the wetland and wildlife habitat with the buffer. around there. So I think it’s providing kind of a lot of different benefits.
And and are you typically engineering these wetlands and building them? Are they? Are they existing wetlands? How’s that working?
Matt Helmers 30:11
So most of them are, there’s some construction that goes, goes along with them. And so we’ll talk about maybe some some new systems that Dr. Crumpton is looking at that would take less, less construction, but really what you know, they’ve kind of been looking at to date with what they kind of call these breakpoint etlands, where they look for a landscape position that looks like it’ll work where the water surface and the subsurface flow can be captured. And then they may put some type of berm, earthen berm across or almost a small dam to impound that water. Now about 75% of the wetland is three foot deep. You know what, full water pool or less. So these are shallow, they’re, you know, not not that deep. So most of them have some level of construction. But historically presettlement, most of these would probably have been hydric soils. So they may have been wetlands or swales before, but with, you know, some of our surface drainage that’s happened in over the last hundred some years that, you know, they weren’t, they weren’t servicing servicing as a wetland right now, but we’re somewhat we constructing or constructing those there.
So we’re kind of are kind of nitrogen decrease are you seeing? I’m sure you guys are monitoring this and going in and coming out of the wetland? What What, what kind of results are you seeing from these studies?
Matt Helmers 31:41
Yeah, that’s what’s really exciting. Dr. Crumpton does do a lot of monitoring of this. In fact, he had a paper published earlier this year in the Journal of Environmental Quality, that, you know, if anybody listening would like that, just send me an email, and we can we can get Dr. Crumpton Get your copy. So what he’s looked at is he had about 68 years of data as part of that, well, insight years. So he monitors on the order of 10 to 20 of these wetlands in any given year. And what he’s found is that, on average, if you look at, you know, the wet years and the dry years, what he’s found is if that wetland pool, the the kind of the footprint of the wetland where there would be ponded water, if that’s about 1% of the contributing area, we might expect on the long term, reduce downstream nitrate delivery by about 50%. So we’re taking 1% of the land area, and then we’ll just say there’s another couple percent for a buffer around there. So maybe we’re taking three or 4% of the land area, in a strategic location. And by getting that water from the drainage system into that, removing about 50% of the nitrate before it’s delivered downstream. Now, I think that’s pretty, that’s pretty exciting. You know, and just like he said, that well, and not only providing water quality benefit, but providing habitat for, you know, for wildlife out there as well, for things like, you know, the buffer area of maybe monarch habitat, native bee habitat, those types of things, as well, I think it’s one of those things that we can think of from, you know, from the citizens of our state. You know, that’s something that they can tangibly see out there that Okay, here’s a practice that they can prove in my water quality, but providing a lot of other benefits as well. Sure.
Yeah. super exciting. What what kind of, what are you seeing from, from interest in this as there are people that are adopting these processes or not? yeah
Matt Helmers 33:44
there are? Now, today, the Iowa CREP the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program has primarily been administered in a way that the Idals would identify potential sites go out and meet with the landowner. So was very, very targeted type of response. And they were a little limited in how in the financial resources they had, they could only do a handful a year, maybe not even a handful of these types of weapons a year. With a few additional resources, getting more resources to do this, more and more of those are starting to happen. So that I think we’ll start to see that that scale up a little bit. But it does get back to the point we talked about before. Not every landowner or every, you know, small watershed is going to have a site that’s conducive to put one of these wetlands in. That’s one reason why they’re also looking at situations where maybe we reroute or take off part of the tile main and route it to a depression. We might have a depression up in the landscape that we could route a power drain into. And in most cases, you know, there might not be as much energy You’re involved, take on depression, and and turn it back into a wetland. And then you know, when water spills over, it can go back into the tile system. So there’s a kind of an emerging practice of what Dr. Crumpton would call kind of a tidal zone wetland, because it’s those wetlands are kind of situated more up in the power zone, there’s even been some talk of, can we pump that drainage, get into those wetlands. Now down in Iowa, we don’t, we don’t do a lot of pump drainage systems, you know, so that’s a little foreign to us. But we’ve talked to, you know, Ellingson up in up in the valley. And, you know, pump drainage is very common there. And so, you know, there may be the potential to put these types of wetlands where we don’t have to do as much construction, we can pump that water into a depressional feature, have that function as a wetland and get the water quality benefits that we desire?
Sure, sure. So are you able to partner or maybe that isn’t the right work but work with environmentalist groups, anybody like that? That’s, that’s interested and excited about the kind of results you’re seeing and are willing to do embrace the the idea and the technology?
Matt Helmers 36:12
Yeah, yeah. Certainly. Idals has been handling most of this, but I know they partnered with, specifically Ducks Unlimited. I think they’ve had some, maybe some partnerships with the Nature Conservancy as well. And I forgot one other practice that’s written it, it’s kind of important and where, you know, environmental organizations have been really at the forefront of moving this forward is multi purpose, Oxbow restoration. And so, you know, as you imply some of our listeners know, in some of these areas, we have some, you know, endangered species like the Topeka shiner. And so, you know, oxbows can be a habitat, you know, where we’ve had, you know, our strange meander and cut off these areas that, that we can maybe see from aerial photos, as I suppose. Those areas there, there are some programs to restore them to provide habitat for, for some of those endangered species. But what the Nature Conservancy that I was swimming Association, the University of Iowa has looked at is can we think of those as Multi Purpose can we route drainage water to those oxbows as we restore them, and not only get, you know, habitat benefit, but also water quality benefit? Now, again, it’s very specific, because you need to have the potential to restore an Oxbow and have, you know, an old Oxbow site, but they found those to also be very effective, you know, if we get that drainage water in there, to very effective for nitrate reduction. And I think that’s a great example of, you know, numerous groups coming together to look at the potential of this practice.
Well, I’m guessing that a lot of our listeners, including me that they heard at first here, multi purpose Oxbow restaurants,
Matt Helmers 38:07
Okay, that’s good. I should have mentioned that because actually, multi purpose oxbows was the most recent addition to the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, practice list. So I’m really glad I remembered to mention it.
No, it’s interesting. And I’m glad you did, because that’s what we’re here to provide information on this podcast. So you know, I don’t know, if you have a gut feel, or you can answer this question at all. But you you mentioned, you know, the possibility, something you hadn’t thought of, and newest, you know, pumping water, like in the Red River Valley, and actually was one of the questions I had is, it seems like there’s a huge opportunity for Denitrifying wetlands. So that’s why I wanted to ask it maybe a little bit of selfish because I see the opportunity, but especially in the you know, the upper northern plains, and how long do you think it’ll take to gain interest in other states than I went up into, you know, like Red River Valley region?
Matt Helmers 39:12
Yeah. I think that we will, you know, I think the next 10 years will move a lot quicker than the last 10 years, because, you know, it’s just within the last five to seven years that there’s been more of an emphasis on state level nutrient reduction strategies now in Minnesota, in Iowa and Illinois, in Indiana. So I think there’s a, there’s a real increasing focus on on water quality efforts and looking at practices that can, you know, maintain profitability, but provide water quality benefit, and so many of these practices that we talked about today, you know, have that potential so I, you know, I really think that the next 10 years are going to be really exciting for For the industry to think about how we marry these drainage, you know, the the water management practices with, you know, kind of with our agricultural production and these water quality practices we we talked about, you know, I’m excited as I think about it from a student standpoint, you know, we’ve seen, I think, an increasing number of our land and water resources, engineering students going and working for small, smaller engineering companies, throughout, you know, throughout Iowa, in the Midwest, where they’re working on these types of projects that that we’re talking about, you know, that these, these students are going out to design these types of wetland systems, design saturated buffers, and bioreactors. And so I think it’s, you know, we’re getting more resources to put them in, we need to be doing things like this, to talk about them to get people interested in it. And I think once you know, once there’s a little more interest in then people can see it in their neighborhoods. And so, you know, we still think things like the old days are so important, so that individuals can come out and see that practice in place, and, you know, kind of, you might not be kicking the tires, but you know, kind of thinking about it that way, coming out and looking at it, seeing what it what it’s like talking to the landowner about, you know, how big a hassle was this or what were, you know, some of the benefits. So, I think, I think we will see a lot more interest. And I’m not usually accused of being an optimist. So I feel pretty strongly that we’ll see a lot of increased interest in the next 10 years.
Oh, awesome. Because, like I said, I see it as such a big opportunity and, and an exciting thing that our, our industry can really put our stamp down of saying, Hey, here’s how we’re helping, when you’re saying 50% reduction in nitrates, and all we got to do is build a wetland, yeah, you take a little take a little land out of production, but it’s very little, and you provide so much more to the landscape. So exciting stuff. You know, one of the things that one of the reasons why I wanted to do this podcast series was that we as an industry, don’t tell our story well enough of how we manage water on the farm. I think we’ve been doing that today. So this could be a little bit of repeating, but you know, how would you say we can best connect our message to our city cousins?
Matt Helmers 42:26
Yeah, I think that’s, I think that’s a really good, really good question. And, you know, this has been the last nine months, I’ve just been such a challenging time for so many of us. But it’s allowed, you know, within with some of our extension programs, you know, we haven’t been able to do things in person, but we’ve been able to do a lot more with with things like video, you know, and how do we create, you know, my one colleague would say marketing campaign, you know, maybe, maybe it is that, you know, to really show these practices to people that might not otherwise see them, you know, and think about how we, you know, can get people out to some of these, you know, I mean, you know, how do we how do we have field days or events where we invite the general public to come out and see one of these new wetlands we built and, and, you know, see, see what’s being done, because I think it, we can talk about it. But you know, I mean, they always say a picture’s worth 1000 words, but you know, and it’s kind of seen as believing if you can see this, you know, experience it, you can see what what people are doing, you know, I think about that with with some of these wetlands, when you’re able to go out and sit there and see the wildlife see that the waterfowl coming in? Yeah, really makes you appreciate, you know, what’s, you know, kind of what’s been developed on that land, you know, there ways we can do a better there, wait, we need to do it better to enhance the value of it. But, you know, I really think getting people there to, to experience it is is important. And, you know, in some of these cases, we might have to take it to them in it as we think about things like video and so portraiture and
yeah, I my hope and desire is that even through this podcast that people will, you know, they might listen to this, and then they might say, well, who is this doctor Helmers guy and they do a little more research and then they they find the the Couser Farm and they, you know, they through that and it just provides them just a better understanding and knowledge of what we’re doing. Because I don’t believe that people have the wrong intentions. I just think that they have misconceptions of what we do. And it isn’t necessarily easy to explain subsurface drainage and water management to somebody that you know, very seldom spends any time on the farm. So that’s my hope. That’s my desire. With that few more questions kind of around around telling our story. How, helpful is social media, do you think to telling our story?
Matt Helmers 45:04
I think it is important. You know, I, I guess I’m kind of kicking and screaming got into social media, I don’t use it a lot, but I do use it a little bit. And I think that’s still a way that people get information. One of the things I’ve wondered about social media is, you know, how often do we do we cross over from the people we would normally interact with to, you know, those that we might want to, to, you know, to try to figure out a positive interaction with and so, you know, that might be one of those things that social media expert might have a little better, better view of that, but certainly, you know, I’ll just say, I think it’s, it’s helped me make some connections with with some folks. Yeah, in the drainage industry and outside the drainage industry. And, and, you know, to me, it’s also a good way to get some information out there into nice pictures out there, that kind of thing. So I think it is important, you know,
talking about social media, I recently saw another tweet from you. So you do it a little bit more than you think. But yeah, I think it was something you shared about sorghum, potentially becoming the third crop of Iowa. And I guess my question there is, is diversifying crop rotation a key ingredient to improving water quality?
Matt Helmers 46:24
I think it can be. And this is where I think those those things that we think about, also need aerated soils. And so you know, I think that having something living on the ground, a greater percentage of the year, has great potential to reduce some of the nitrate leaching. And I think it goes hand in hand with the system. And part of that system is water management as well. So, you know, I think, now, we have to have something that’s profitable, right? I mean, we, you know, we can talk about we want a third crop, but we have to have something that’s profitable for farmers, you know, I think, I think farmers will grow something different. If it’s profitable, you know, I mean, we’ve some, some times, I still remember a comment I got somebody said, we’ve grown corn and soybeans, and I will forever we’re always going to grow corn and soybeans, that well, you know, we look at the last hundred years, yes, we’ve grown, you know, over 10 million acres of corn every year. But if you look at eight years ago, we didn’t grow hardly any soybeans. And so you know, that that was a, you know, crop diversification or, you know, cropping system change. And so I think there, there’s potential there. But as I said, any of those are likely going to need aerated soils, which are, you know, where drainage is so important.
Yeah, I appreciate that perspective. You know, moving on, we’re getting close to finishing up here, but just want to talk a little bit about the future of drainage. And, you know, our industry, the drainage industry, has been through, you know, multiple transformation periods over time. I was thinking about that this morning. And, you know, power trencher, laser guided equipment, from clay pipe to plastic pipe, was a huge transition. And, you know, LIDAR and GPS controls are just a few of those periods. I’m wondering what you think of are we are we entering a potential transformation period, again, when you’re when we’re talking about water quality, and all the opportunities?
Matt Helmers 48:37
It is, as we think about designing these new systems, I think it’s important that we design them in such a way that we could implement some of these practices that we talked about, and maybe not implementing them right off the bat. Because for whatever reason, that’s not possible. But thinking about this, as, you know, a generations investment in the drainage. And what might I want to what might we need to do with that in the future, whether that’s laying it out a little differently to accommodate control drainage, or laying it out in such a way that you might be able to put up a bioreactor in a certain position. So I do think that now, it is kind of a, it may be a very much of a transformational time. And I think that, you know, as I’ve talked to some contractors out there, I think they there are some of them that are like, we need to be on the forefront of these edge appeal practices. We need to know how to design them, how to put them in and how to work with those systems. I think there’s the potential that that those types of individuals will be on the leading edge of have a transformational time and I think that it would be fun to be a part of that because I think there’s there’s a lots of benefits to drainage and the more we can we can get some of these other features integrated into the designs, the better off we are.
So each each state in the Midwest has a goal of being at 45% reduction in nitrates. This is set by the EPA, as you know, and how are we doing with that? And are we going to get there? And what are the keys to getting there?
That’s a great, great question. I think it’s 45% by 2035, was the goal. And, you know, we are we are lagging behind that. Can we get to 45? Yes, I think we can. How long will it take? That is another question I don’t have an answer for I think we need to be looking at ways to to accelerate the rate of implementation of these practices. And I think a lot of our state agencies are, are working to do that now and figuring out how do we how do we scale this up, they’re one of the things that that I think is important, that we can talk about, let’s put all of these practices in. But we also have to have people to do it, right to design them, to construct them to maintain them. And so even if we wanted to put in thousands and thousands of bioreactors this next year, I’m not sure we’d have the capacity to do that. So we have to build that capacity over time. So I think that I think that we can we can get there, I think we need to be looking at ways to really accelerate that level of adoption. And how do we do that? You know, I think there’s, there’s a few ways. One is, you know, you from the drainage industry talking about the importance of this, because, you know, I can talk about it from the university. And I think some people, maybe maybe a few people would listen to me and say, Okay, well, you know, they seem to think this is important, but I think it’s important for, for the agricultural community to say we want to be a part of this. And we, you know, we want to, we want to help farmers do this, and we want to see things moving forward, you know, as rapidly as, as we can. And I think that’s, that’s important. So that, you know, people hear the message that, you know, we’ve done some good things, but we have a long way to go. And we need to be, we need to be very proactive in trying trying to do that. So I guess that’s, that’s some of my thoughts on a, you know, a pretty challenging topic. Again, if I hadn’t, if I hadn’t good answers to that I’d probably be doing something else.
Well, it isn’t just there, there is no smoking gun here. And it’s going to have to be what we’ve talked about multiple practices, that we’re going to have to choose which one works the best for that piece of property. And that’s how we’re going to get there. So, you know, we on the ground here, just really appreciate what you guys are doing to continue to advance and to continue to look at different opportunities. Five years ago, we wouldn’t have had some of the opportunities we do today. So, you know, by 2025, there’s going to be things we don’t know yet that we are starting to research are starting to implement, to get us to that ultimate goal and in 2035 so exciting, and we’re grateful and thankful that you guys are there to to be doing this research for our industry. You know, that’s kind of kind of leads us to the end of this thing today. We really appreciate Dr. Helmers. you joining us on the water table podcast, it’s really been a lot of fun. I think it’s been very informative. As we go, what we like to do here is give you one final chance to do what we call our water table takeaways. And it’s an opportunity for you kind of to give your final thoughts. What would you like to leave with our listeners today?
I would say that artificial subsurface drainage, you know, has made Midwestern agriculture what it is, in many ways, I think it’s important for our future. And I think we can look at ways where we can enhance environmental performance while still having that important subsurface drainage in our field. And hopefully, we talked about some of those practices, we might be able to use to reduce downstream nutrient loss, but allow us to continue to have the important agricultural production that we have in our fields.
Thanks so much, Dr. Helmers, for joining us. Really appreciate the time and the opportunity to to hear what you have to say. I hope it was informative to our guests and and if they want to learn more, how do they get ahold of you?
Yeah, you can get ahold of me anytime at Iowa State University. Just say my email is M. Helmers. I state Got edu. Or if you just use whatever search engine you like on the internet, and search Matt Helmers that I was State University, you’ll find my contact information. Also I issue ag water management on Twitter, if people want to do that. But I just want to thank you to Jamie for, for this fun conversation and for what you’re doing to get word out about about water management and our agricultural landscapes.
Thanks so much and hopefully we’ll see each other soon.
Oh, yeah. Thanks for inviting me. Okay, they care.
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Transcribed by https://otter.ai