A nearly $2.15 million grant the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently awarded to North Dakota Agricultural Experiment Station scientists at North Dakota State University will be used for a project to demonstrate how cover crops can increase the resilience and productivity of crops such as corn and soybeans and improve soil health and land use efficiency.
Cover crops are grasses, legumes and forbs planted to provide soil cover on cropland when it is bare, such as before crops emerge in the spring or after harvest in the fall.
"The use of cover crops, common in the eastern and central Corn Belt, are uncommon in corn-soybean systems in the Upper Midwest and northern Great Plains due to the short growing season and extreme fluctuations in temperature and precipitation within and across growing seasons," says Marisol Berti, the project's lead investigator and a professor in NDSU's Plant Sciences Department.
She adds that the lack of soil cover in the winter increases the loss of organic matter and nutrients from the soil, requiring producers to apply larger amounts of fertilizer to maintain or increase their crop yields.
"Therefore, there is a critical need to alter current cropping systems in our region by incorporating technologies to improve long-term productivity while enhancing ecosystem services," Berti says. "We hypothesize that new or modified seeding equipment will enable growers to successfully establish second crops (cover crops) in standing corn or soybean. Also, by determining the nutrient credits for the next cash crop, the grower will be able to reduce fertilizer costs as well as lower greenhouse gas emissions."
This project is a collaborative effort of 13 researchers. Eight are from NDSU, which is leading the project. The remainder are from the University of Minnesota, Iowa State University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agriculture Research Service laboratory in Morris, Minn.
The research project will include seeding four cover crops - rye, forage radish, camelina and a legume - into standing corn and soybeans at different growth stages in trial plots in North Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa. The scientists will modify or design seeding equipment and improve seeding strategies to establish the cover crops, Berti says.
Scientists also will estimate the amount of nutrients that the cover crops provided in the soil and the increased nutrient use by subsequent crops. In addition, the scientists will conduct an economic analysis of the costs and benefits of using cover crops.
Extension Services in the three states will use the data the scientists collect to conduct educational activities for producers such as research farm demonstrations, field days and regional and county-based workshops, as well as develop educational materials and web-based information (including video clips), and hold one-on-one consultations with producers.
Berti says the $2.1 million is for the first two years of the project, and the USDA will provide almost another $1.6 million in 2018 for the next two years.
A $50,000 grant NDSU also received in the latest round of funding from the USDA will be used to support an interdisciplinary conference titled "Dissection and Deployment of Durable Resistance to Diseases and Pests of Wheat" and bring in speakers from the U.S., Canada, England, Europe and Australia.
"To our knowledge, the idea behind this interdisciplinary conference is unique,"
says Marion Harris, the project's primary investigator and a professor in NDSU's Entomology Department. "Wheat is a key global resource for food security but is challenged by biotic stress caused by diseases and pests. New opportunities for protecting wheat against biotic stress are being created every day through advances in science and technology.
"One thing that stands in the way of progress is a lack of communication between scientists who study plant-pathogen interactions (i.e., plant pathologists) and scientists who study plant-insect interactions (i.e., entomologists)," Harris adds. "The two disciplines have a lot to learn from each other. This conference will begin a conversation between the two disciplines. A shared talking point will be the wheat resistance genes that have been deployed in wheat cultivars for decades, providing effective, if not durable, plant resistance."