Long-term Agroecosystems Research (LTAR) Discussion with Dr. Dave Huggins

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Contact Information:

Contact Dave Huggins via email at dhuggins@wsu.edu.

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Episode Transcription:

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Drew Lyon: Hello, and welcome to the WSU Wheat Beat Podcast. I’m your host, Drew Lyon, and I want to thank you for joining me as we explore the world of small grains production and research at Washington State University. We have weekly discussions with researchers from WSU and the USDA-ARS to provide you with insights into the latest research on wheat and barley production. If you enjoy the WSU Wheat Beat Podcast, do us a favor and subscribe on iTunes or your favorite podcasting app. And leave us a review while you’re there so others can find the show too.

[ Music ]

Drew Lyon: My guest today is Dave Huggins. Dr. Huggins is a USDA-ARS soil scientist with the Northwest Sustainable Agroecosystems Research Unit in Pullman, Washington. Dr. Huggings conducts research in sustainable farming systems including soil health and issues such as soil organic matter, soil acidification, soil fertility, and nutrient use efficiency. Hello Dave.

Dr. Dave Huggins: Hi Drew.

Drew Lyon: We’re going to talk a little bit today about the LTAR. Something I’ve heard a little bit about but a lot of people may not know what LTAR stands for and how the Cook Agronomy Farm here in Pullman or near Pullman was established as an LTAR site.

Dr. Dave Huggins: You know, thanks Drew. LTAR stands for long-term agroecosystems research and that basically goes back to recognizing that in our research portfolio, it’s been difficult to establish and keep long-term studies going over time and so this has been recognized for decades. And so, you know, part of this effort that was put forward by USDA back in 2011 was to try establish sites that were funded across the United States in a network that did establish these long-term kinds of research efforts,and it’s just recognizing that we can’t solve all our problems from a research perspective in just a year or two which is much of what the grant cycle now kind of encompasses. And we could really add to our research effort by having these more long-term kinds of studies. Something you may not be familiar with the term, agroecosystem, that’s part of this but it basically is blending together agricultural and ecological kinds of principles. And this is trying to get at broadening what our expectations are for agricultural. It’s not just about productivity, profitability. Those are extremely important but it’s also in terms of delivering some of what we call environmental surfaces. It’s the clean water, the clean air, the healthy soil kinds of aspects of agriculture that are important as well.

Drew Lyon: Correct me if I’m wrong about this but the LTAR is kind of following the footsteps of the LTER which was an ecological — long-term ecological research, I believe, and somebody in agriculture realized the benefit of having these long-term sites and it’s not — they’re spread across the country, right? Across all different zones and so the Cook Farm represents a zone that wasn’t in the — in this network before. Is that correct?

Dr. Dave Huggins: Yeah that’s a good question, Drew, and it brings up another good point. The LTER, the “E” there for stands ecological research, and this was established back in the mid ’70s by the National Science Foundation to look at more natural systems from the standpoint of this more, you know, broad perspective of looking at water, air, soil, the biota that are there but it was recognized that many of those sites, the natural sites didn’t really represent agriculture. And so we needed a counter or a different kind of network in order — that would involve agricultural sites that would address the needs that agriculture has from the standpoint of monitoring assessment and research over time. And so the original network consisted of 10 locations across the United States and these were selected based on a request for information that went out from the USDA agriculture research, in this case, across the nation to kind of solicit interest. And also who had sites that would qualify from the standpoint of meeting certain criteria that they had with respect to being a long-term agricultural research site. And so I applied to that back in 2011 and it was one of the 10 sites selected nationally was the Cook Agronomy Farm. And this was, you know, primarily based on the fact that we had really good partnerships with Washington State University, the University of Idaho, and Oregon State University amongst the land grants then, USDA-ARS, and we had pursued kind of across-disciplinary or a many disciplinary type of effort to try to assess the impacts of agriculture both from a production perspective in terms of productivity and profitability as well as some of these environmental kinds of issues that we’re grappling with and still grappling with now.

Drew Lyon: Okay. So what are the research areas of emphasis and what scientists are involved out at the Cook Farm?

Dr. Dave Huggins: Yeah, much of the research emphasis hasn’t really changed a lot over time. So this year — well, this season we’ll be celebrating our 20th harvest out of the Cook Agronomy Farm and so much of it was established to, 1: to see how continuous no-till would perform from the standpoint of a more field scale kind of research. So getting away from our more traditional plot scale and actually getting to the field scale where we could access over, you know, varying kinds of soils and landscapes how various kinds of no-till, continuous no-till, in this case, performed. And also to look at precision agricultural kinds of applications. So there was a lot of technology back in the late ’90s that was sitting on the shelf. And we really needed to understand variability, spatial variability as well as temporal variability in terms of our fields in order to understand how to actually use some of that kind of technology. And so right off the bat, we established 369 georeference points. That’s a point every 100 feet or so across 92 acres of the Cook Agronomy Farm. And we’ve been following those points for 20 years now from the standpoint of not just what comes from those points in terms of yield, but how soil properties are changing including soil organic matter, soil pH, and a lot of other properties.

Drew Lyon: I know when I drive out that way there’s quite a bit of equipment out in those areas. So it’s — you’re doing more than just soil sampling. You’re collecting other types of samples I assume. What are some of the equipment that you have out at those sites?

Dr. Dave Huggins: Yeah. Yeah. And Drew, thanks for bringing that up. So I mentioned that the University of Idaho and Washington State University as well as USDA, there’s a collection of scientists that are pursuing various aspects of agriculture. Having to do not just with the soil science piece which I address but also looking at water quality. So we have measurements — continuous measurements looking at not just the quantity of water but what’s in it, like the nitrate or the phosphorus that might be contained within it. And so we pursue — we’re pursuing that type of research. We’re also looking at the air from the perspective of the production of greenhouse gases, CO2 which is involved, of course, with photosynthesis as well as respiration as well as nitrous oxide. So those are some gases of interest and some of our monitoring equipment is monitoring those kinds of quality perspectives at both under continuous no till but also under — now under reduced tillage which is more representative of what people are doing right now from the perspective of farming. So, it takes a lot of equipment to monitor the water, the air, the soil, the crops themselves and that’s what you’re seeing out there is kind of a suite of instrumentation that collectively helps us to understand what the broader implications of any particular kind of farming is bringing to us.

Drew Lyon: And again, going — because it’s long-term now, you have 20 years. You’re starting to get to close to 20 years with the data and every year seems so different. So you can start getting some bigger picture items of how things change over time or maybe don’t change over time in these agroecosystems.

Dr. Dave Huggins: [ laughs] Well that’s right and some of the things that, you know, from a soil science perspective that we’ve been watching, one is just, well how does soil organic matter change? And you need often these long-terms kinds of research monitoring situations in order to assess how those changes are occurring, how quickly they’re occurring, and what are the consequences of various kinds of management. So in this case, our no till — if I compare our long-term no till with our reduced tillage, we can see that we’ve increased organic matter at the surface by at least a percentage point, if not more. And we’ve gone now so that our organic matter levels are above 3% which is kind of a target with respect to where we start to see the advantages of organic matter kind of coming to its fullest expression in terms of yield and nutrient cycling, et cetera, and soil erosion prevention, et cetera. That is one thing that we’ve been monitoring. We’ve been also, you know, monitoring soil acidification process, how its pH changing over the course of 20 years with our continued use of nitrogen fertilizer, and how rapidly is that occurring, and where is it occurring? It’s not just near the surface as we originally thought but at the Cook Farm we sampled down to five feet and we’ve also seen impacts on soil pH at deeper levels at the fourth and fifth foot even in some locations. So this type of approach from the standpoint of having these georeference locations allows us to follow up on some of those changes over time. Probably one of our biggest things particularly with respect to precision ag has been identifying locations in the field that are more temporarily persistent. You mentioned that each year is different. Well, some of the yields are always poor year in and year out in some locations. And some locations also are high yielding year in and year out. This kind of reflects certain soil properties that are there that if you have soil, for instance, then you can store the water and you can promote yield but if you don’t, then it’s hard to get that back from the standpoint of many of our management practices. So those locations lend themselves to precision ag technologies and management strategies in term of varying, for instance, nitrogen or phosphorus landscape and being able to target them, what kinds of inputs are required in those different kinds of locations. Then there’s this middle ground which we — which tends to be variable from year to year that we really can’t do a very good job, at least to date, with temporarily predicting what might happen in those locations. And it comes back to the kind of weather we’re getting that year with respect to temperatures and rainfall precipitation. So, you know, this idea of temporal stability really starts to become important with respect to identifying what areas really lend themselves to some of precision ag technologies.

Drew Lyon: Okay. So you’ve mentioned, perhaps, some of them but what do you see as the most important research findings to date at the LTAR at the Cook Agronomy Farm?

Dr. Dave Huggins: Yeah, good question. And I would say it would come back to some of the precision ag kinds of research I just talked about with respect to identifying how variable our yields are spatially and temporarily. And how in turn, that type of data can be used strategically to look at varying rates of, for instance, nitrogen. And we’ve spent a lot of time on nitrogen. And I’ll just mention that this past year with our spring wheat crop, we applied variable rate nitrogen and compared it to our business as usual, that’s the reduced till where we use reduced tillage put in combination with the uniform applications of nitrogen. And in this case, comparing no-till to reduced-till we found that our yields were 36% higher, our nitrogen use efficiency was about 70% higher where we had no-till and precision applications of nitrogen as compared to reduced-till and uniform applications of nitrogen. And one aspect of research that we’ve developed is this evaluation process. Well, how do we know how we’ve performed in terms of nitrogen use? And in this case, we’ve been using a combination of protein values in the grain, percent protein, but also looking at a ratio of nitrogen in the grain that’s exported, divided by nitrogen inputs in terms of fertilizer and that simple ratio can allow you to assess in combination with the protein data, it could allow you to assess whether or not we managed our nitrogen efficiently or not.

Drew Lyon: Okay. You talked about the difference between reduced tillage and no-till as far yield in a given year. Have you — do you have enough years of data that no other one system is more stable over time than another or over larger areas than another over time?

Dr. Dave Huggins: Yeah, good question Drew. And the data that I talked about, we just started this past year. So that’s actually the first comparison that we’ve had basically cross the road where we had the Cook Agronomy Farm that’s been in this continuous no-till situation for 20 years. We’ve not monitored the other side of the road where it’s had this reduced till history for the same number of years. And this was actually part of how we’ve expanded some of our research at Cook Agronomy Farm to include this — what we call the business as usual which tries to represent what many growers would use in terms of an ag system. And compare that than to what we’re calling a more aspirational, in this case, the implication of continuous no-till along with precision ag efforts. So this year, it’s all in ‘billy beans’. So we’ll make that comparison again but we’ll start to build our research data out. We’ve established the same density of georeference locations where again, we’re monitoring the soil and the productivity, et cetera across the road now in the business as usual location as well. So we’ll start to make those comparisons in terms of how stable the crops are or how variable they may be but also trying to understand the underlying kinds of properties like soil organic matter and depth that are contributing to some of those outcomes that we achieve in terms of productivity and environmental kinds of outcomes.

Drew Lyon: Okay. So that raises the question what are the major research questions for the future? Then as you move forward, you know, you have these two different sites. Do you see the emphasis of your research changing going forward or kind of sticking with what you’ve been doing?

Dr. Dave Huggins: Well in some cases, it’s more the same but I’ll mention that all of these efforts kind of have two bounds on them. There’s kind of the economic assessment that can take place on these two systems and we’ll look a little bit harder at bringing that to the table based on the data that we have but also in terms of future efforts. And then also the other piece is what we call the biophysical modeling and this is where we’re actually trying to model the outcomes that we’re achieving and this starts to integrate some of our understanding of processes that occurring out on these variable landscapes and integrate those into our current models. For example, Claudio Stocco is working with the crops is model. And from the detailed kinds of data we collect at Cooke Agronomy Farm, we’re able to strengthen how useful and how predictive that particular model can be. And we’ll start to extrapolate the use of that model to a broader area. So for example, the last podcast I talked about trying to look at flex cropping options but where we’re using crop is largely based on some of the research that’s more Pullman-centric but now we’re trying to extrapolate that out to across the dryland regions of Oregon and Washington and Idaho to try to look at more predictive kinds of scenarios. So, we’re hoping to continue that type of exercise but also to broaden some of these long-term kinds of research efforts and the assessment of those research efforts to other locations that might be plot scale but are long-term kinds of experiments. And hopefully support those from the standpoint of what you need in terms of resources, et cetera going into the future.

Drew Lyon: Okay. If our listeners want to learn a little bit more about the LTAR research going on at the Cook Agronomy Farm, is there a website or someplace they can go to learn more about it?

Dr. Dave Huggins: Yeah, there — well, we are starting to put a website. It’s not well populated at this date but look for, in the future, Cook Agronomy Farm, cafltar.org. If you Google that now, you may find a website that’s started. There’s also a Washington State University website that needs to be updated. There’s also a national website that can be explored but really, at this point it’s kind of just developing and we’re hoping to put more and more, the data that we’ve generated to date as well some of the future kinds of data that we’re collecting. So, for example, some of the data we’re collecting right now is real time. So that can be put on the web and you can actually look. In fact, you can look now at what we call theno cams. Cameras that are at locations on the business as usual as well as the Cook Agronomy farm where you can actually see the crops. If you’ll watch it every day, you can see what kinds of operations are taking place and what kind of people are walking by, et cetera.

Drew Lyon: Okay. Well, I’m particularly happy that you had the vision to apply to get the Cook Farm in the LTAR system. I think it’s a real resource for this region and I think our listeners will learn more about this by listening to this podcast and going to the websites when they become more available. Thanks, Dave.

Dr. Dave Huggins: Thank you, Drew.

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Drew Lyon: Thanks for joining us and listening to the WSU Wheat Beat Podcast. If you like what you hear, you can subscribe on iTunes or your favorite podcasting app so you never miss an episode. And leave us a review while you’re there. If you have questions for us that you’d like to hear addressed on future episodes, please email me at drew.lyon@wsu.edu. You can find us online at smallgrains.wsu.edu. You can also reach out on Facebook and Twitter @WSUSmallGrains. The WSU Wheat Beat Podcast is a production of CAHNRS communications in the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. I’m Drew Lyon. We’ll see you next week.

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