Research Highlights

Research Highlights
Research Partnerships Simultaneously Improve Farm Sustainability and Wildlife Habitats

This third of an acre pollinator plot was planted in 2020 by Joe and Suzanne Shirbroun on some unproductive ground on their farm near Farmersburg, Iowa. Photo: Suzanne Shirbroun

By Laura Temple

Many organizations, government agencies and companies invest in protecting the environment. They find unexpected allies in farmers, who strive to continuously improve crop production while caring for their resources. 

The Iowa Soybean Association’s Research Center for Farming Innovation develops unique partnerships between these groups. Through RCFI’s endangered species projects, farmers play a critical role in developing wildlife habitats in ways that use marginal or unproductive land to improve soil and water quality. 

“We work with a wide variety of partners concerned about endangered species to achieve net conservation benefits within agriculture,” explains Brandon Iddings, Iowa Soybean Association field services program manager for conservation resources. “We are putting wildlife habitat research into practice in ways that benefit farmers.”

RCFI leverages soy checkoff investments to build relationships with organizations able to fund habitat construction and with farmers and landowners who have unproductive areas of land ideal for those habitats. Currently, these projects focus on creating pollinator habitat for rusty patched bumblebees and restoring wetlands for Topeka shiners, a small fish.

Planting Pollinator Plots

In 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service categorized the rusty patched bumblebee as endangered. That same year, the Iowa Soybean Association began working with Syngenta and other partners to create small plots of native flowers and grasses that serve as landing zones for pollinators, including the rusty patched bumblebee. 

“We reach out to interested farmers and landowners within 10 miles of where that bee has been identified,” Iddings says. “Together, we find spots that could work well for a small pollinator plot of an acre or less. Often, we plant plots around grain bins, in buffer strips around ponds, or on scrubby corners of ground.”

Rusty patched bumble. Photo: Iowa Soybean Association

In addition to hosting a wide variety of pollinators, including Monarch butterflies and many bees, these plots prevent soil erosion and improve water quality by taking up excess nitrogen and other nutrients, he adds. 

“These plots also beautify property and demonstrate farmer commitment to conservation,” he continues. “Plus, we minimize the time and effort required from farmers to plant them.”

In some cases, preparing a pollinator plot involves planting Roundup Ready soybeans for the season. With the help of glyphosate, the soybeans out-compete everything else. Iddings then hires a contractor to plant the native, pollinator-friendly seed mix into the soybean stubble after harvest. In other cases, the hired contractor burns down current growth in an unproductive area before planting that seed mix.

Iddings and Syngenta ask cooperating farmers to mow the site a couple times a year during the first two or three years of growth, as the native plants get established. 

“The site doesn’t look great during that time, but once it is growing, these plots have different plants flowering from April or May through October,” he says. “After the first few years, the plots sustain themselves and will last for years.”

The diverse pollinator mixes include 60 to 80 species, such as black-eyed Susan, coneflower, milkweed, partridge pea and switchgrass, according to Iddings. He plans to start sampling existing plots for rusty patched bumblebee in the future to measure the value of these plots for increasing populations.

Restoring Oxbows 

The Topeka shiner, a 3-inch minnow, lives in slow-moving, naturally winding prairie streams. The USFWS listed it as endangered in 1998. The species recovery team in Iowa determined that the most effective way to help the species recover is to restore water features known as oxbows. 

The Iowa Soybean Association and Syngenta collaborate to improve soil and water quality through efforts like this restored oxbow north of Webster City, Iowa. Photo: Iowa Soybean Association

Iddings describes oxbows as the disconnected wetlands where streams used to flow. These low-lying areas tend to flood. 

“When these areas are dug out down to the same rocky gravel layer as the original creek, they fill with backwater, creating nurseries for the Topeka shiner and other small fish,” he explains. “But their location and the removed dirt have no effect downstream, because they are disconnected from existing waterways.”

Iddings works with the USFWS, The Nature Conservancy, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. He identifies cooperating farmers, and these organizations pay construction costs for oxbow restoration in identified locations.

Restored oxbows provide many advantages and ecosystem services, allowing farmers to benefit from unproductive land. Because they hold water, oxbows can mitigate flooding. Often located in pastures, cattle can navigate the gentler slope of oxbows more easily than some creeks. Field tiles can drain to oxbows, and current research hasn’t observed any impact of that water on Topeka shiners. Like other edge-of-field practices, oxbows improve nutrient removal and water quality, with the goal set by the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy of reducing nitrates in water by 45%, according to Iddings.

Conservation professionals explore a restored oxbow recently during an oxbow restoration training held near LuVerne, Iowa. Photo: Iowa Soybean Association

“The strategy is effective for farmers and for fish,” he says. “In 2021, Topeka shiner was found in White Fox Creek in north central Iowa for the first time in 36 years. And, the species recovery team in Iowa has asked that USFWS look at the species to consider if it should be downgraded from endangered to threatened.”

He believes both types of endangered species projects demonstrate that these strategies provide farmers value from less productive areas and long-term improvements. At the same time, RFCI partners publicly report benefits from the wildlife habitats that strengthen populations of endangered species.

For more information about this project, funded in part by the soy checkoff, visit:

Additional Resources and Articles:

Shared Research Goals Leverage the Soy Checkoff

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Retailer Partnerships Bridge Gap Between Conservation Research and Implementation

Published: Nov 28, 2022