Applied research and climate forecasting

My second day in Nebraska started pretty early (things tend to get going early in America!), meeting up with the two Mikes again for another day of interesting meetings and trips. This morning we went out to visit the University of Nebraska Rogers Memorial Farm and its extension engineer Paul Jasa.

research-farmThis farm is operated as a research and demonstration farm, by the Department of Biological Systems Engineering, cooperating with several other university departments and USDA agencies. The farm is used as an outdoor laboratory for real life situations and experiences.

About two thirds of the farm consists of sloping, terraced fields and the remaining third is fairly level. The soils are mainly silty-clay loam and show evidence of past erosion. What’s interesting about the farm is that it is dedicated to soil and water conservation activities, evaluating and demonstrating both cultural and structural practices, over a long time.

pauljanaThe research going on is fantastic, and provides a comparison of tillage systems in a grain sorghum – soybean rotation, a corn – soybean rotation, continuous corn and continuous soybeans. The tillage system on these plots were established in 1981, which provides valuable data on the long term effects of tillage.  As well as these plots, other studies are run on structural practices including terraces, using riparian buffers and woodlands and stiff grass buffers. In recent years, several cover crop trials have also been established to evaluate the impact of cover crops within a no-till system in improving soil health.

Talking to Paul about getting the messages across to farmers, its clear to see that while having the data to back it up is essential, what draws farmers in is pictures and stories. “I can put up photos of plots next to each other and show the difference in terms of water infiltration, weeds, growth or other aspects. The first piece of equipment you have to change is the nut, the nut holding the steering wheel.”  Again he has impressive data on soil organic matter gain, with fields progressing from 2.2% to 5% using his system of 30 years no till and the last 10 years of cover crops.  The stress is again on the importance of having a living root, providing armour on the soil in terms of residue and having diversity of crop rotations, that are based on the needs of the soil (rather than what is financially incentivised).

After a great chat and a look around his machinery shed, where we were shown how as well as no-till he runs the fields on a controlled traffic system, we went out to look at some of the plots.  Now the good thing about visiting farmers in February is that they are not very busy in terms of field work, which means that they have time to meet with you, the downside to this is that there is bugger all to see in most of the fields as they are still too cold to be growing anything.

tillageplotsHowever the stories that were recounted about the ability of the soil under these systems to take up the extreme rainfall when it comes compared to fields under conventional tillage were evident here as well. Back in the spring last year, 5″ of rain fell in 20 minutes, which flooded the roads and a lot of the surrounding countryside, however the fields that were under no till and had cover crops were able to take all that water in (despite being fairly close to field capacity as there had been a fair amount of rain previously).  We were able to see a little of this touring the fields, where they have a tillage trial, comparing no till, no till and cover crops, chisel ploughing and conventional ploughing. The road that we were driving along was made out of white gravel. The gravel was pretty white until we drove past the plots that had been chisel ploughed and ploughed, where the gravel was brown and the road was dirty where the soil had washed onto the road. A visual demonstration even at this time of year!

Paul also told another story about a researcher that came out to test a piece of kit that would identify areas of compaction in the field and adjust the machine’s depth to put the coulter just below the layer of compaction to get rid of it. As such in order to trial out the kit, they needed to compact the soil at 3, 6 and 9 inches. Soil was scraped away to the required depth and a big construction machine brought in to drive backwards and forwards over the soil to compact at the right depth, then soil pushed back over the top. Paul explained that the soil took all the driving on it and squashing down and then raised itself back up again. It was impossible to get the soil to compact despite driving heavy machinery all over it. Now the soil wasn’t wetted before they did it, but it just shows the resiliency of soils when they are in good shape.

mikemikebeckyThe other interesting thing that we talked about was the benefits of using high carbon cover crops versus cover crops that provide more nitrogen. This echoed something that Mike Kucera had alluded to yesterday, in terms of his first limiting factor was water, and second was carbon. Paul concurred with this view, explaining “you can’t buy carbon, if I need more Nitrogen that’s easy to purchase, in this dryland system carbon cover crops are much more useful to me in terms of building soil.” It was a great visit.

lincoln-capital-hillAfter another great lunch, this afternoon we headed to the University of Nebraska to find out more about the National Drought Mitigation Centre which is based at the university and how they are using climatic data to help farmers plan adaptive management strategies to cope with these times. Brian Fuchs is a climatologist that works at the centre and he explained how their data is only one part of the puzzle. The US being such a big place, as good as the data is, there are still opportunities to miss some of the local changes, as such expert local knowledge is an integrated part of the process. He also stressed the importance of records and data, as being able to monitor, and look at what has happened in the past and the impact of management will help with future planning. He has been working with farmers to help them develop plans to cope with droughts, but stressed that these should be living plans and need to be an active document (rather than just sitting on the shelf).  Local knowledge and climatic data can enhance the usability of these plans and make them a current document.

climate-peopleAfter a good conversation my last meeting of the day was with the High Plains Regional Climate Centre, and two of their climatologists, Natalie Umphlett and Crystal Stiles. The high plains regional climate centre serves to increase the use and availability of climate data and information.   Their main function is to take the climate data and turn it into something that could be used.  One outlet for this is the Useful to Usable project, which is about to finish but has been running for the last 6 years.

Weather and climate patterns are a driving force behind the success or failure of Corn Belt cropping systems. Useful to Usable (U2U) is an integrated research and extension project working to improve farm resilience and profitability in the North Central U.S. by transforming existing climate data into usable products for the agricultural community. The goal of this project was to help producers make better long-term plans on what, when and where to plant, and also how to manage crops for maximum yields and minimum environmental damage. What is interesting about this project, is because it includes social scientists in it, they have some actual data on the impact. Early project results suggest that 20% of farmers had an understanding of the tools on offer, and 2 million acres were being managed by people who had used the tools and made decision based on the tools findings.   This is the first monitoring data that I have heard that follows it through to see whether management has been changed as a result of an interaction / education!

More research needed into this project!

footballNow, hard to believe after the temperatures yesterday, but this afternoon the weather was 70 degrees! So after the end of my meetings the two Mikes took me on another little tour of Lincoln, including the football stadium, and then left me downtown to explore.  They have both been amazing hosts for the last couple of days and have taught me a massive amount about soil health and how it impacts on resilience. Thank you to them both! Tomorrow back up to Colorado, and a chance to get up to date on a bit of homework, ready for a flight to California on Monday morning for the last bit of the trip.


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