What’s the connection between public education and science in agriculture?

Without a solid education, farmers and scientists who work in agriculture-related science would not succeed. Farming requires science which means that farmers need a solid education. As well, the folks who study water quality, agronomy, agricultural engineering, and seed science must learn both the content of their fields as well as research methology.

Unfortunately, states in the midwest are  shirking their duty in funding public higher education. This is true in Minnesota, where I work at a university and it is true in Iowa and Wisconsin. These three states account for 3 of the most important land-grant universities where much agricultural research is done: University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Minnesota, and Iowa State University.

This point was put well in On Wisconsin (Spring 2015) by Kirstie Danielson, a 2007 Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Writing about Wisconsin, “…the state is failing in its moral responsibility to support affordable education and opportunities for its citizens to prosper, abdicating the responsibility to overly burdened middle-class families.” She continues, “Let’s therefore hold our elected officials responsible to make sure that all who profit from an educated citizenry reinvest in future generations.”

So, the connection is that farmers and agriculture-related researchers need high-quality science-based higher education. Without this grounding in science, in climate change, seed science, water quality, soil conservation, precision agriculture, and agronomic research, the future of agriculture is in jeopardy.

Cover crops

Cover crops are beneficial in a row crop operation: (1) they reduce wind and soil erosion over the winter since the soil is left undisturbed, (2) they increase the organic matter in the soil in the following year when the plant material is incorporated into the topsoil, (3) they sequester excess nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizer, and (4) they  compete with weeds in the following spring.

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Winter rye cover crop growing in standing corn on October 11, 2013. The rye was sown by airplane on September 7 when the ground was hard and dry. There were even numerous cracks in the earth due to the drought (one of my neighbors joked that all the rye seed had probably dropped down the deep cracks). A few days later we got over an inch of rain which helped the rye seed germinate.

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Harvest is underway on October 25, 2013. The rye cover crop is growing well between the harvested rows.

On September 7 we aerial-seeded winter rye into standing corn. Six days later, after a rain, the rye seed had started germinating. On October 11, when I took these photos, the rye was growing well. The corn will soon be harvested and then we will see how well the rye is established. Winter rye will continue to grow again in the spring, unlike oats, so by planting time 2014 we should have a well established stand of rye.

One of our intentions, of course, is to improve the water quality in the water that flows off of our farm into Alleman Creek, which is a tributary in the Four Mile Creek Watershed. Our cover crop is a small step that should contribute in two ways: (1) reduce surface runoff into Alleman Creek in the event of a heavy downpour  and (2) sequester (capture) excess nitrogen and phosphorus from the fertilizer that is applied annually to the row crop ground. Practical Farmers of  Iowa has produced a number of information sheets on cover crops which help us to understand their challenges and benefits.

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