Graduate students Ann Bybee-Finley and Kiera Crowley attended the American Society of Agronomy/ Crop Science Society of America/Soil Science Society of America meeting this November and presented their work. Check out their presentations here.
By Tânia Carvalho Carli
Hello! I’m an international student coming from Brazil. I’m part of a government program that supports undergraduate students to study abroad. Most of the students in the academic mobility program stay one year studying abroad at universities all around the world. Some examples of places that are hosting Brazilian students are the United States, Canada, and Europe. The objective of the program is to provide undergraduate students with an opportunity to gain international academic experience and scientific knowledge that can be applied in Brazil. Knowledge from other countries contributes to Brazil’s development and growth in specific areas, such as agriculture and industry.
For this summer I had the opportunity to work in the Sustainable Cropping System Lab with great people who are conducting very interesting research on organic agriculture. On July 16th I had the opportunity to participate in the Aurora Farm Field Day at Cornell’s Musgrave Research Farm. The Integrated Field Crop, Soil, and Pest Management Program Work Team, Cornell Cooperative Extension, and the Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station sponsored this event. The field day is an opportunity for the public to see the new agricultural research at the farm. They can see experiments first-hand and ask questions about sustainable agriculture and crop production. The tour included a visit to the research plots and explanations, for example, about crop production and management of the soil. Some topics presented this year were about production of corn and soybean on organic and non-organic plots, nutrient management and nitrogen application technology, corn breeding for multiple disease resistance and no-till organic cropping system. The last one, the no-till organic cropping system research is a project from our lab.
The no-till organic cropping system is one of our graduate student projects. Jeff Liebert is the graduate student responsible for the study. The project is a trial with winter cereal cover crops and organic no-till soybean. In the no-till system the winter cover crops are rolled to create mulch that covers the soil and reduces weed growth. It is a very useful way to suppress weeds without spraying a chemical (herbicides), which are not permitted in organic production. Cereal rye, triticale, and barley were the winter cover crops used in the plots. The study aims to find out what cover crop species are more efficient at weed suppression. Also, the cover crops were planted at different soybean planting dates. Soybeans were planted at different times in order to compare the effect of planting date on cover crop mulch and soybean yield.
Another topic related to weeds was presented by Professor Toni DiTommaso: herbicide resistance. He said that the term “superweeds” is inappropriate to refer to herbicide resistant weeds. This is because “superweeds” can be misinterpreted as a type of plant that is very strong and survives in rough environments instead of a plant that is resistance to herbicides. He suggested that the term “superweeds” should not be used as a synonym for herbicide-resistant weeds. Herbicide resistance occurs when weeds develop a tolerance and are no longer susceptible to the herbicide. Resistance is usually caused by a misuse of herbicides. For example, when the same herbicide is used extensively and constantly for long period of time it increases selection pressure on the weed population to become resistant. Dr. DiTommaso also emphasized the importance of early detection and control to prevent problematic weeds from spreading from one place to another. He said that farmers in New York State should be careful and watch out for introductions of resistant weeds from Midwest. One Midwest weed that starting to be found around New York State is waterhemp. Herbicide resistant waterhemp is a huge problem in Midwest. Some solutions to herbicide resistant weeds are the appropriate use of herbicides, early identification of weeds that are not from New York, and the use of cover crops and IPM (integrated pest management).
The field day provided a great opportunity for professors and graduate students to share information with farmers. Developing sustainable practices that are profitable is one of the main goals of the researchers at the field day. Cornell intends to increase the adoption of sustainable management practices by working with farmers and using science to provide solutions to problems in agriculture.
About 30 farmers and visitors gathered on the evening of June 18 at the Cornell University Musgrave Research Farm to learn about organic reduced tillage soybeans.
An evening tour proved a feasible time-slot for farmers busy with summer field work, and farmers engaged researchers with many thoughtful questions. A demonstration featured the roller-crimper mounted on the front of a tractor pulling a soybean planter; in one pass the small grains cover crops were rolled and soybeans planted.
The topics of the tour included the economics of the organic roll-down soybean system, weed management issues, and technical information like planting times and rates.
Responses after the tour indicated that 50% of farmers who filled out the feedback sheet (n=14) were “likely” or “highly likely” to try the roll-down organic soybean system. Farmers believed the greatest barriers to implementing the system were sourcing the correct equipment and correctly timing the cover crop planting and roll-down. Farmers stated the greatest benefits were reduction of tractor passes and erosion, the higher premium offered for organic soybeans, and improving soil structure and health.
Nature as Mentor was the theme of this year’s Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) conference, held at State College, PA. With over 1,000 attendees, 400 were there for the first time (myself included). The focus was creating ecosystems on our farms that more closely mimic those of the wild, in order to decrease our reliance on pesticides, fertilizer, and fossil fuels, and regenerate our farmland.
“You burned the house down to cook a hotdog!” was one of countless memorable quotes from Ray Archuleta, main speaker at the conference and NRCS conservation agronomist. This remark referred to tilling a field in order to release nutrients for that year’s crop—an unsustainable practice that destroys organic matter and soil texture. Ray explained that tilling releases more nutrients than can be taken up by the crop, so much of the fertility is washed away, requiring the application of inorganic fertilizer in the years following tillage. Many of us in the audience were surprised to learn how detrimental tilling is to the soil, after watching Ray perform two illuminating demonstrations.
For the first demonstration, Ray dropped four clods of soil into separate beakers of water. Two of the clods were from organic tilled fields that were recently put into production after years of pasture. The other two clods, same soil series as their tilled cousins, were collected from a no-till portion of the field. The effect of the water on the soil was dramatic. The tilled clods instantly crumbled apart, losing all structure and clouding the water. The no-till clods stayed as is, held together by microbial glues, an essential component of soil structure lacking in tilled soil.
In the second experiment, Ray simulated a rainstorm by pouring water on a piece of no-till soil and organic tilled soil, each atop a sieve. The water ran right through the no-till soil, quickly filling the basin under it. Very little water made it through the tilled soil, instead collecting on top. Ray explained that when the plow pulverizes the soil structure and oxidizes the microbial glues, the soil compacts and greatly inhibits infiltration. Ray argued that we don’t have a “runoff problem” causing our rivers to fill with sediment and phosphorus, but an “infiltration problem.”
Cover crops were also highlighted in many of the workshops. “Treat your cover crop like your cash crop,” said Steve Groff of Cover Crop Solutions. This mantra was repeated the next day by Mary-Howell and Klaas Martens, veteran grain farmers from Penn Yan NY. Both Steve and the Martens highlighted the importance of maintaining healthy, biologically active (and untilled) soil on the farm, and that using cover crops not only sustains soil health, but also builds it. Using cover crops to “grow your own nitrogen” allows farmers to decrease or stop application of inorganic fertilizer. Decreasing inorganic fertilizer use not only has numerous environmental benefits, but saves farmers money as well. Of the cover crops discussed, tillage radish was deemed a “rock star.” This large tuber, with its deep taproot, mines and stores nutrients, increases organic matter, helps manage weeds, and aerates the soil. Tillage radish is also very tasty and can be harvested as a food crop.
Both Steve, Ray, and the Martens discussed the myriad benefits of using cover crop polycultures, which in many documented cases actually have significantly higher yields when grown together, as opposed to when grown in monoculture. A few presenters shared images of monocrops next to polycultures after weeks of no rain. The monocrops were yellow and half-dead while the polycultures were moist and green, a testament that plants often perform better in tandem than they do alone.
The range of different backgrounds and experience among the attendees was tremendous, with both young farmers and veteran growers. All however, gathered at PASA with at least one common thought in mind: it’s time for change. Change our farmland from unsustainable to sustainable, from destructive to restorative, from battling nature to a partnering with nature.
By Sandra Wayman, Research Technician
“We’re kind of sexy right now; farmers are in!” the Commissioner Richard Ball stated in his opening to the keynote speech at the NOFA-NY 2015 conference. A large and enthusiastic group of growers, researchers, extension educators, and vendors gathered for the conference January 22-25 in Saratoga Springs, NY. Workshop topics ranged from urban mushroom cultivation to raising sheep.
Diversity was a theme throughout the conference. Klaas and Mary-Howell Martens, veteran organic grain farmers in Penn Yan, NY and recipients of the Farmer of the Year Award, lamented the loss of diversity of crop varieties. “We’ve traded excellence and diversity for uniformity,” Klaas said. He continued that a wide variety of grains used to be available on the market, offering an arresting assortment for different tastes. But the industry demands economies of scale, efficiency, and ease of processing. Now we have relatively few varieties from which to choose.
Graduate student in our sustainable cropping systems lab, Jeff Liebert, conducted on-farm research on Klaas Martens’ farm last summer looking at roll-down cover crops for soybean production. Klaas has been an enthusiastic participant in research at Cornell and we were pleased to see him receive the Farmer of the Year Award.
The Martens discussed the benefits from increased diversity in their system: introducing plow-down red clover into rotations provided more food for earthworms, for example. Klaas described using diversity as a fix for problems on the farm. Adding another crop into rotation, for instance, or intercropping could help reset a balance or stabilize the system. The Martens also discussed how improving soil health not only feeds the soil and reduces reliance on fertilizers, but also improves protein allotment and grain taste.
Two other themes, reducing fertilizer application rates and the importance of soil testing, appeared in both Brian Caldwell’s (Cornell Sustainable Cropping Systems Lab) and Vern Grubinger’s (UVM extension) workshops. Brian Caldwell made a case for reducing fertilizer use, citing the phosphorus load in our waterways and how reducing fertilizer rates actually may not decrease crop yield but will decrease weed pressure. He offered an insight into how the farmer-extension educator dialogue may influence fertilizer recommendations. For instance, extension educators want to avoid being accused of prescribing too little nutrition, resulting in crop failure, so they may slightly over-prescribe. Additionally, farmers may then apply extra fertilizer “just in case.” Thus agricultural systems are generally over-fertilized, contributing to problems like run-off and enhanced weed growth. Vern emphasized the importance of testing soil in specific fields rather than aggregating samples into one for the farm, which fails to represent distinctions among fields.
The talks I attended focused mainly on grains or soil fertility, as I was a roving ear for our Sustainable Cropping Systems Lab. I learned about the importance of grain post-harvest handling with Klaas and Mary Howell Martens. Jack Lazor (Butterworks Farm), in his presentation on organic grain cropping, shared the unique perspective that “weeds are there to solve problems for you…”. Weeds can serve as indicators, for instance common lambsquarters grows in compost and indicates a high-N environment.
Wes Jackson, the keynote speaker from the Land Institute, discussed perennial grains and the Land Institute’s work on Kernza, their name for intermediate wheatgrass (Thinopyrum intermedium), which is the first perennial grain with prospect. “We are grass seed eaters primarily”, he said as he described how a system of perennial grains could reduce soil erosion, reduce fuel and labor, and be a tremendous step towards improving our food system sustainability. He showed a life-size print of a Kernza plant—18 feet long—to illustrate the fortitude of the roots compared with an annual wheat plant. He ended his speech hopefully, that there is “an increase in the eyes to acres ratio”, that more people than ever before care about watchfully managing our land.
Our Sustainable Cropping Systems Lab is excited to be joining in preliminary Kernza research. We have planted a field of Kernza at our Musgrave research site and this coming year will be our first season of data collection.
Mary Howell Martens summed up the hope in our current chapter of sustainable agriculture by describing how we are in a time of novel ideas and creative problem solving. Research has taken us where management can be more refined and there are many new ideas and methods. “We shouldn’t worry about getting a piece of the pie,” she said, “the world is a kitchen and we can all bake our own pies!”