Long Term Ag Research
July 1st, 2020
On a windy June day, microbiologist Tom Moorman lifts a metal lid and reveals a collection of bottles, tubes, meters, and cables in a shallow pit on the edge of a farm field.
“So you see in those bottles labeled 17, 18, 19, 22,” Moorman, says.
Moorman works for the Agricultural Research Service of the US Department of Agriculture in Ames, Iowa. He explains that each bottle collects water running off one specific plot. His research team grows corn and soybeans. About half the plots are “business as usual”—planted, fertilized, harvested, and so forth the way a local farmer might do it. But the others are what Moorman and his colleagues call “aspirational.”
“So we have two basic ones that we’re looking at here, rye cover crops, which we’ve looked at for quite some time. But this particular treatment instead of rye, we’re trying to grow winter camelina,” Moorman, says.
Camelina is an oilseed that can be planted in the fall and harvested in the summer even as soybeans are growing in the rows around it. Moorman’s looking at whether the camelina helps reduce nutrient runoff. He measures that in the water collected in those plastic bottles. He’s also hopeful camelina, or some other option, could ultimately offer Midwest farmers a third cash crop in addition to corn and soybeans.
“Agricultural scientists in the Midwest have spent a lot of time thinking about another big third crop. And we haven’t come up with it exactly yet,” Moorman, says.
Moorman’s team looks at row crops and water quality with additional locations in Minnesota and Wisconsin. They’re one site in the Long-term Agroecosystem Research Network, which has 18 sites across the country. The overarching goal is to figure out how agriculture can scale-up to feed more people while also reducing negative environmental impacts.
And that takes time. In Michigan, the Kellogg Biological Station has been studying the impact of no-till farming for so long Nick Haddad says the results are conclusive: not turning over the land before planting is beneficial when you do it year after year.
“If we had stopped at any point in that 30 years we wouldn’t know the extent that a less intense cropping system has on yield,” Haddad, says.
Haddad says no-till leads to higher soil moisture and keeps more carbon in the ground. He says the results likely would hold true on 20 to 40 percent of Upper Midwest cornfields.
But the agricultural landscape looks different in Nebraska, where there are more livestock and less water. The Platte River/High Plains Aquifer site of the agroecosystem network has records on groundwater, pesticide residue, and productivity.
“We have several long term data sets, several of them goes back to the ’70s, few goes back to the 40s,” Tala Awada, says.
Awada of the University of Nebraska Lincoln is a co-leader of the site.
“The groundwater fluctuation goes back the early 1900s,” Awada, says.
These data have helped land managers advise local farmers for decades. Now, using the same business-as-usual versus aspirational framework, the whole research network is exploring water quantity and quality, greenhouse gas emissions, and other environmental impacts across many agricultural landscapes. The coordinated effort aims to illustrate how the different regions are related.
“We are all facing changes in the environment, changes in climate, that one of us cannot capture,” Awada, says.
USDA’s Teferi Tsegaye, is the national coordinator of the network. He says with a growing global population and no additional arable land, sustainably increasing production is a must.
“We have one earth, basically, so you have to increase the productivity with the same land that we are currently producing,” Tsegaye, says.
Researchers hope their work will demonstrate viable ways for farmers to do that.
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