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.
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 reduce downstream nutrient export.
Helmers grew up in Sibley, Iowa, and spent substantial time on his grandparents’ farm while growing up in northwest Iowa, where he was actively engaged in showing cattle.
IFT: Tell us about the mission of the nutrient center.
HELMERS: The Iowa Nutrient Research Center pursues science-based approaches to areas that include evaluating the performance of current and emerging nutrient management practices and providing recommendations on implementing the practices and developing new practices. This is accomplished through funding research throughout Iowa led by the state’s three Regents’ universities. In addition, the center is active in dissemination of research through seminars, webinars and other events along with working to build networks among researchers and partners.
IFT: Are you happy with the progress being made?
HELMERS: The increased interest in nutrient-related research and the increased implementation of nutrient reduction practices is exciting. We have continued to see researchers developing new technologies for reducing nutrient delivery to downstream waters, which is one of the missions of the INRC, along with developing better models and tools, for example to quantify sources of nutrients and understand weather-related influences.
There is, however, a need to significantly scale up the rate of implementation of practices to reach our ultimate goal of achieving improved water quality in Iowa’s waters and in the water that leaves the state.
IFT: How has the response from the ag community been?
HELMERS: We are gratified by the substantial interest in the research work being conducted and willingness to apply that research to implement practices. A number of landowners and farmers have been involved in developing and hosting research projects.
IFT: Spring planting is just around the corner. What advice would you give for farmers when it comes to managing nutrients?
HELMERS: With a couple of dry years in a row there is an opportunity to examine your nutrient management practices and work with your crop advisor to carefully tailor nutrient needs for the upcoming crop. With the dry years there is likely substantial residual nitrate in the soil profile in many areas. Considering this in making nutrient management decisions is important as it can have economic as well as environmental benefits.
IFT: Parts of the Midwest are coming out a severe drought. Does drought impact nutrient management or even water quality?
HELMERS: As we look back at 2013 in the year after the drought of 2012, we did see an impact on water quality. For example, at our research drainage sites we saw a substantial increase in nitrate concentrations in the spring of 2013 following the drought of 2012. In many areas of Iowa, we have gone two to three years with little drainage, and there is the potential that once we get excess precipitation and drainage we will see higher nitrate levels in our streams.
IFT: Is funding available for farmers who want to make improvements to soil and water?
HELMERS: Yes, we have seen a substantial increase in the last 10 years in state and federal investment in conservation practice implementation for in-field practices such as cover crops as well as edge-of-field practices such as bioreactors, saturated buffers, oxbows and wetlands. Funding for water quality practices may also be available from nonprofit groups.
If farmers have interest in implementing new conservation practices, I would encourage them to contact their local Soil and Water Conservation District.
IFT: How different will the landscape look in a decade when it comes to nutrient management and water quality?
HELMERS: I would hope quite different. As we look specifically at nitrate reduction practices such as saturated buffers, bioreactors, oxbows and wetlands, many of these practices have been developed over the last 10 to 15 years so we would expect substantial increase in the implementation over the next decade. In addition, with ongoing research we can hopefully better understand some of the long-term benefits of practices such as cover crops that will only increase adoption.
The increased implementation of these practices will hopefully increase the diversity and resiliency of the Iowa landscape and may, at least in some cases, benefit farmers’ bottom line.