USDA, SDSU projects promote sustainability for corn growers

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Farmers are accustomed to adjusting to the twists and turns of growing seasons on a short-term basis, but long-term planning is more difficult, according to climate field specialist Laura Edwards from South Dakota State University’s Extension office in Aberdeen.

She and state climatologist Dennis Todey are working on two U.S. Department of Agriculture-sponsored research projects that will provide farmers the tools they need to plan ahead.

The Climate and Corn-based Cropping Systems Coordinated Agricultural Project explores ways that corn growers can adjust their cropping practices to make their operations more sustainable, Edwards explained. It is also aimed at limiting or reducing the vulnerability of farmers to short term climate events, such as the 2012 drought. The $20 million grant, headed by Iowa State University, brings together 140 experts from 10 land-grant institutions and a USDA research unit in the Corn Belt.

A smaller more applied project, Useful2Usable, seeks to give farmers the soil, crop and climate data they need to make shorter-term and long-range decisions, said Todey, project director for South Dakota. The $5 million project is headed by Purdue University. Both five-year projects began in 2011.

“These projects capitalize on the work scientists at land-grant institutions across the Corn Belt have been doing on longer-term practices that are better for sustainable corn production,” Todey said. A wide range of experts including agronomists, sociologists, climatologists and environmental and soil scientists are involved with these projects looking at all aspects of the corn production system.

Sustainable farming practices maintain the soil while reducing inputs, Todey explained. Crop rotation, for instance, may have benefits in terms of breaking some pest cycles. These choices, Todey said, “can have longer term benefits while maintaining our economic viability.”

“Different management practices as far as soil, nutrients and water can set them up to maintain or even increase productivity and profitability,” Edwards said.

Both projects have an education component aimed at current and future farmers. Through the corn cropping project, Todey is helping develop educational materials about climate and agriculture for high school vocational agriculture and science teachers. Edwards is working on instructional materials for middle school science teachers that are more locally relevant.

The two projects also cooperated to survey producers and agricultural advisers in the Corn Belt in 2011. A majority of the 4,778 farmers surveyed cited Extension experts as their most trusted sources of information, Edwards said. As part of the cropping project, Edwards will work with 20 to 25 farmers in eastern South Dakota.

Two-thirds of the respondents believe that the climate is changing, and more importantly, Edwards said, “they believe they can do something about it.”

These producers and their advisers also ranked drought as their top concern. Other issues included excess water, pest control and soil erosion.

“What we’re seeing in the way of climate change is quite different,” Todey explained. South Dakota has seen some benefits in terms of warmer winters, additional precipitation and a bit longer growing season.

“This gives farmers more cropping choices,” Todey said, particularly when faced with challenging climate extremes, like the 2012 drought.
Techniques such as less tillage of the land and leaving more crop residue on the ground, Edwards said, “can help feed the soil and keep nutrients in the ground.” In addition, the corn stalks and leaves can minimize run-off.

“It takes a bit of time,” Edwards said, but the research shows that over a period of five to 10 years, these methods can result in better yields and better quality crops.

Information on these techniques, backed by data gathered from 26 field sites in eight Midwestern states, will provide farmers the tools to help make short term decisions and to incorporate additional agronomic practices into their operations.

“The eventual goal is to develop a dashboard of tools people can use for decision-making,” Todey said, “not only within the season but looking ahead at multiple seasons.”

Farmers, researchers, students and the public are encouraged to visit the corn cap blog at and respond to the weekly posts, ask questions, and share field experiences.

More information on these projects is available at and

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