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Coffee talk - USDA soil tilth lab director discusses hot agricultural topics

One of the fun parts of this job is picking the brains of leading agricultural researchers. In mid-April, I toured the USDA National Soil Tilth Laboratory in Ames, IA. Working inside this red brick building are researchers from many disciplines.

“We have everyone from clay mineralogists to microbiologists to agronomists and agricultural engineers,” says Jerry Hatfield, the lab’s director. “We have quite an exchange of ideas. The backdrop of our research program is to examine whole farming systems over a 365-day basis.”

Over a cup of hot coffee on a chilly spring day, Hatfield discussed some of agriculture’s hottest topics and laboratory research projects.

Precision farming. Lab researchers have immersed themselves in precision farming. They’ve found that rather than “farm by the foot,” producers may want to instead “farm by the zone.”

“We have to be more simple than where we’re at today,” Hatfield says. “We should try and divide the field down to two or three management zones, rather than down to the size of a desk. Measuring differences down to one square meter in a field probably won’t do you much good in terms of a profitable system.”

That’s because the expense of minute measurements dwarfs potential yield gain. “But if there is a good-producing soil and a poor-producing soil in a field, dividing it into two or three zones should help,” Hatfield says.

Grain quality. Rather than quantity, farmers and researchers will emphasize quality in future grain production.

“Eventually, producers will want to be paid for more than just mass quantities of grain,” Hatfield says. “Right now, we sell No. 2 yellow corn and soybeans. But Canadian and Australian producers are moving their whole systems toward managing for quality.”

To compete, Hatfield expects American producers to eventually follow suit.

Quality is particularly important to specialty grain producers. “We will see a lot more interest in how to consistently produce a specialty crop,” Hatfield says. “For example, you may plant high-oil corn hybrids. However, you may be planting them on soils that won’t allow the genetics to express themselves.”

That’s why lab researchers are testing the best nutrient, tillage and residue management packages for specialty grains.

Crop rotation. Corn and soybeans are the heart and soul of Midwestern agriculture. But in many areas, this rotation has become a monoculture that’s ripe for disease and insect infestations.

“We need additional crops in our rotation,” Hatfield says. Besides breaking up pest cycles, diversifying the rotation with additional crops could help protect the landscape over winter.

“Since corn and soybeans are planted in the spring and harvested in the fall, fields sit empty over the winter,” Hatfield says. “There are crops that protect the landscape, such as alfalfa or another forage crop.”

Manure management. Historically, farmers applied manure from their livestock on their crops. But integrated crop and livestock farms have decreased in number over the past 20 to 30 years. When many farmers began to specialize in crop or livestock production, manure converted from a nutrient into waste, Hatfield says.

“We think about manure disposal, not nutrient management,” he adds. “We’ve boiled it down to simplistic terms that I don’t think are healthy for long term in the ecosystem.”

Hatfield encourages crop farmers and livestock producers to work together in order to use manure as a crop nutrient. “Part of our problem in modern agriculture is that we just think of row crops as a way to dispose of waste,” Hatfield says. “We’ve taken and manipulated the system, and that’s not healthy for us.”

Nitrate runoff. Some government officials, researchers and environmentalists have blamed agricultural nitrogen (N) runoff for causing hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico. Hypoxia kills marine life by snuffing oxygen in the water.

Hatfield says that precipitation, soil type and the amount of watershed drainage in the system influences the amount of N runoff. “We probably can’t change drainage systems,” Hatfield says. “But we can influence the N management of the crops that are grown in the watershed.”

For example, a five-year study revealed that subsurface drainage N concentrations decreased by 25% when researchers applied N during the spring and growing season instead of in the fall. Researchers also decreased N leaching by 50 to 75% through sophisticated N management, such as placing wood chips around tiles. By curbing N runoff, such practices could help halt hypoxia, Hatfield says.

Environmental issues. Typically, environmentalists and farmers oppose each other on environmental issues. But they have a lot more in common than they realize, Hatfield says.

“When you talk to both sides and find out what’s important to them, both groups are really quite surprised that they carry the same value set,” he says. “Both groups want to preserve the landscape for future generations. They just argue about what path to take.”

On some issues, farmers could win over environmental groups via education. For example, environmentalists who oppose growing grains with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) don’t realize that scientists have manipulated genetics for years. “It’s just that we’ve removed Mother Nature a little more quickly with GMOs,” Hatfield says.

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