Most farms are very complex operations made up of different landscapes, soil types and land uses. Adding to the complexity are the challenges of maintaining healthy soil and reducing the loss of topsoil due to erosion. And finally, initiatives like the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy set goals and expectations for reducing nitrate and phosphorus levels in state streams that largely focus on the increased adoption of conservation practices on agricultural land.
For students in classes ranging from high school science and agriculture programs to graduate programs at universities, it can be just as difficult to grasp the interdependencies and complexities of what happens in the field when decisions about land management, conservation practices and nutrient management are made.
Seeking to provide educational resources to support learning about the sometimes daunting complexities of conservation and land management practices, the Iowa State University Conservation Learning Group has published In the Field: Watershed-Based Conservation Case Study Training Kit, the first in a series of four practice case studies.
Real look at conservation
This case study includes questions to lead discussions and address elements that contribute to improving water quality throughout the Beaver Creek watershed near Ackley, Iowa. Additionally, the documents include detailed descriptions of conservation practices applied at the farm and watershed scale, and how each impacts the watershed and water quality downstream.
Mark Licht, assistant professor at Iowa State University and specialist in extension cropping systems, managed the development and pilot of the case studies to bring the real world into the classroom.
Consisting of a teacher’s guide, student manual, and an extensive set of resources, the In the Field case study presents students with a real-life situation based on an actual farm and watershed. in Iowa. Teachers are equipped with information and recommended activities and homework to achieve the best learning outcomes from students at all learning levels. Licht piloted the case study with his graduate students from ISU in spring 2021 with excellent results.
“As with any pilot program, you expect to make some changes, but we were very happy to see things working as expected – and the feedback on the overall experience has been outstanding,” said Licht. “Many of my students were delighted to be able to apply the things they had learned in class and to see the results corroborated by the data collected in the field.
The field case study presents a detailed description of the farm in question and provides students with a wide range of data sources and reports to use for reference and research. Much like farmers who make decisions to increase productivity and profitability, maintain soil health, and manage environmental impacts, students are faced with a situation and are expected to:
• set goals
• make data-informed decisions about practices to be implemented in particular areas
• use measurement data and assessment tools to determine changes in nutrient and soil loss
• analyze and evaluate the results
• think about what could improve the results
• leave with a better understanding of the complexity of interdependent systems and practices, which together determine the health of a watershed and the quality of the water that comes out of it
“One of our main goals for these case studies is to make them very easy to teach and attractive to students who wish to delve deeper into the interdependence of agriculture, land use, conservation and conservation. water quality, ”Licht said. “It’s not just another textbook with a lot of facts and figures. The case study materials include clearly stated prior knowledge; learning objectives adapted to each level of education; and guided activities, from data analysis to outdoor exercises that involve the senses of sight and touch, to cement understanding and foster innovative thinking processes.
Beyond the classroom
Although the series has been developed for use in formal school curricula, it is also possible that the information and exercises will be used in the vocational training of agricultural advisers and agronomists, as well as for self-learning by farmers. and landowners looking to dig deeper into mechanics. and the potential benefits of specific practices for their operation.
“We believe the case studies will be a great complementary resource to the Whole Farm Conservation Best Practices Handbook that was released by the Iowa State University Extension and Outreach in 2020,” Licht continues. “Farmers can use the detailed set of worksheets in the manual to determine which practices are best for their farm and delve into the details while working on the case study; or, if the details of the case study are similar to their own land, they could apply what they learned from the case study to working through the decision trees in the set manual of the farm to inform their decisions. Either way, these tools will provide solid advice that should lead to positive results. “
Licht discussed the In the Field case study during a webinar in August, offering details about the program and showing sample data and exercise resources. The webinar can be viewed at bit.ly/ilfwebinars.
The case study and the entire agricultural manual are available free of charge at the following links.
Handbook of Best Conservation Practices for the Whole Farm: bit.ly/wholefarmcpnsbp.
In the Watershed Conservation Field Case Study Training Kit: conservationlearninggroup.org. Look for the “Training” heading, then scroll down to the “Educators” section.
The preparation of the case studies required the support and contribution of many organizations, including the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service and the Agricultural Research Service; Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship; Practical Farmers of Iowa; Iowa Soy Association; and Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance.
Ripley is the Iowa Learning Farms Manager and Water Rocks Conservation Awareness Specialist. Conservation Learning Group is a collaborative team established to advance training, awareness and research on land uses and production systems to increase the overall sustainability of agricultural and natural systems for generations to come. CLG draws on experts from a variety of disciplines to deliver engaging science outreach to farmers, agricultural advisers, landowners, policy makers, youth and communities. To learn more about the Conservation Learning Group, visit conservationlearninggroup.org.