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Iowa Nutrient Research Center Highlights Recent Findings

The Iowa Nutrient Research Center at Iowa State University is releasing highlights of recent activity summarizing benefits to the state of Iowa from investments in nutrient research


Courtesy Morning Ag Clips

AMES, Iowa — The Iowa Nutrient Research Center at Iowa State University is releasing highlights of recent activity summarizing benefits to the state of Iowa from investments in nutrient research.

“INRC-funded research provides Iowa-relevant science to enable informed decisions and priority setting for the benefit of farmers, agencies and organizations that work in the arena of land-use and water quality,” said Daniel J. Robison, holder of the endowed dean’s chair in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Iowa State, and a representative on the INRC Advisory Council.

The following projects are a sampling of results from INRC-supported studies, many of which are already influencing conservation practice:

  • Perennial groundcover. Researchers have identified more than one promising candidate crop for an innovative perennial groundcover system that could make cover crops more convenient and low-cost for farmers. Several related projects have been testing the potential to integrate cash crops with a cover crop that would be planted only once every few years. INRC helped “seed” the science for a $10 million USDA perennial groundcover project that includes farmers and other agricultural stakeholders. Learn more.
  • Saturated riparian buffers. INRC provided much of the funding to develop SRBs that transform nitrogen in tile drainage as it flows from agricultural fields through soils and vegetation before entering waterways. SRBs — relatively low-cost and long-lived with limited maintenance — are catching on quickly with landowners in Iowa and beyond. To be eligible for cost-share, an initial federal conservation practice standard required the buffers to be at least 30-feet wide. However, continuing INRC-supported research to optimize the technology found that narrower, less expensive SRBs can often treat pollution just as effectively. Learn more.
  • Modeling to prioritize solutions. Models are being improved to accurately assess nutrient sources and how water and nutrients move across the landscape. This helps Iowa evaluate overall progress on nutrient reduction and prioritize application of best management practices.Learn more.
  • Analyzing costs and benefits. The new Financial and Nutrient Reduction Tool (FiNRT) within the Agricultural Conservation Planning Framework (ACPF) represents a leap forward for precision conservation planning. The ACPF toolbox now can analyze expected costs and benefits of different conservation practice options, increasing interest in the tool among conservation planners and farmers. Learn more.
  • Adopting 4R practices (or not). A study of Iowa farmers’ use of 4R Plus nutrient management practices provides insights on social, economic and ecological influences at an individual level and within a larger context. Among the biggest obstacles to adoption was fear of losing crop insurance, suggesting the importance of better aligning public risk management programs with long-term sustainability goals. Learn more.

In 2023, the center’s 11th year, INRC provided funding of $1,250,929 for nine new projects. These grants bring the total number of projects funded fully or partially by the center’s competitive award process to 136, an investment of approximately $16.4 million in nutrient-related water quality research. A conservative estimate in spring 2023 indicated that INRC projects brought at least $62.6 million in leveraged funding from organizations and agencies in Iowa and out-of-state. Find more detail about current and past projects online at

“These diverse projects are contributing to long-term, cost-effective conservation practices and better water quality for Iowa,” said Matt Helmers, Iowa Nutrient Research Center director and professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering at Iowa State.

In addition, INRC funding has helped support approximately 70 undergraduate and 30 graduate students at the state’s three regent institutions. The center is also active in sharing science-based information with Iowa farmers and other stakeholders. Recent examples include:

  • A half-day workshop on the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategypiloted in 2023 for Extension professionals, technical service providers and landowners.  Materials developed for the workshop have been compiled for local extension trainings and as educational resources available to all. Learn more.
  • Conservation On Tap eventsaround the state co-sponsored by the Iowa Learning Farms and Conservation Learning Group provide in-person opportunities for questions and dialogue with diverse interests. Learn more.
  • Drainage workshops and conferences, co-sponsored with the Iowa Soybean Association, the University of Minnesota, South Dakota State University and others bring the latest information about agricultural drainage to help guide decision-making on water and nutrient management. In fall 2023, INRC is co-sponsoring workshops on drainage and water quality for women in agriculture in eastern Iowa. Learn more.
  • INRC’s seminar seriespresents the latest news on nutrient reduction research in Iowa and beyond. The free sessions are presented in a hybrid format that makes them widely accessible. The 2022-2023 series focused on Impacts from INRC’s Decade of Research. The current Focus on the Future series features the work of current and former student researchers.Learn more.

The Iowa Nutrient Research Center pursues science-based approaches to evaluating the performance of current and emerging nutrient management practices, providing recommendations on implementing the practices and developing new practices. INRC’s nine-member advisory council, with representatives from Iowa agencies and other research partners identified in legislation, helps guide its work.

— Iowa State University CALS