I feel very lucky to be part of Take Cover!...We are all working on different systems that increase the coverage of soil throughout space and time...We can accomplish more together than we can alone.
Michelle Dobbratz
Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Take Cover!

expansive farm field with farm buildings on horizon

Graduate researchers improve sustainable agriculture in Minnesota through increasing green cover

What better place to study sustainable agriculture than a state with 26 million acres of farmland? Take Cover! is a group of ten University of Minnesota graduate researchers -- including geneticists, plant breeders, and agronomists -- collaborating to increase the amount of living, green cover on Minnesota's landscape. Working on projects both connected and separate, the students are dedicated to improving the social, economic, and environmental sustainability of food production systems in Minnesota. Take Cover! has drawn attention from regional organizations like the Land Stewardship Project. Below are the experiences of four students within the group and the highlights of their research.

Increasing living mulch systems and making them viable for farmers

Improving human and environmental health through sustainable agriculture is important to Michelle Dobbratz, a master's student in Applied Plant Sciences-Agroecology. Right now, she's exploring how living mulch systems can be more feasible for farmers.

Her work focuses on planting crops into a field of perennial clover, which can live up to fifteen years, surviving winters and farm equipment. In spring, most clover is kept alive to serve as living mulch for crops that are planted. Living mulches are plants that protect soil and water and add nutrients that can be used by the main crop, like corn.

"This system provides many benefits," says Dobbratz, who received her bachelor's in Agronomy and minors in Global Health and Environmental Studies from University of Wisconsin-Madison. "The clover living mulch catches chemicals applied to the corn main crop that might otherwise pollute the water, it adds nitrogen to the soil, and it prevents the soil from eroding."

However, living mulches currently lead to decreased yields. Dobbratz's project is to identify where the yield loss stems from by measuring water, temperature, and light conditions in different tillage treatments. She hopes her research will inform more viable designs of living mulch systems and enable more agricultural producers to take advantage of the ecosystem services that living mulches offer, such as clean water and healthy soil.

"I feel very lucky to be part of Take Cover!...We are all working on different systems that increase the coverage of soil throughout space and time," she says. "We can accomplish more together than we can alone."

Helping organic farmers achieve productive crops and healthy soil

How can organic farmers cover land year-round with living plants while maintaining good crop yields? Peyton Ginakes, who's working towards her Ph.D. in Applied Plant Science, studies the interplay between cover crops and soil acroecology. "My hope is that my results will help farmers be successful economically, and also empowered to create resilient, healthy agroesystems," she says.

Cover crops can be difficult to work into the timing of crop rotations, and can become "weedy" and outcompete cash crops. While conventional growers can manage these challenges with chemicals, organic growers have a harder time controlling cover crops without heavily relying on tillage, which negatively affects soil health.

To understand how organic farmers can sustainably manage cover crops, Ginakes is experimenting with a conservation tillage method called zone tillage, which involves tilling narrow strips of land for planting, keeping soil between the rows untilled.

She collaborates with Michelle Dobbratz on one project, experimenting with different zone tillage methods on kura clover, a perennial cover crop. "The overlap between my work and Michelle's is just one of many examples where my cohort collaborates across distinct disciplines with different questions to work toward a greater goal," she says. In another project, she examines how zone tillage can be used in horticultural cropping systems with winter annual cover crops, and how these systems affect soil quality.  

Ginakes earned her bachelor's in Environmental Science, Policy & Management (focused on Conservation & Resource Management) and Soil Science minor at the University of Minnesota. She works to create a healthier environment through the lens of her training in soil conservation. "I think the health of people and communities are intrinsically linked to the health of the world we live in," she says.

Exploring beneficial cover crops to reduce pollution in lakes

Matthew Ott's research is driven by a major environmental concern: pollution. According to the state, lakes in southwest Minnesota within the Missouri River Basin are unsafe for fishing or swimming, primarily due to high levels of nitrate and phosphorous connected to leaching and surface runoff from agricultural fertilizers.

To replace fertilizer use, Ott is trying to find cover crops that would significantly decrease the amount of nitrate leaching and phosphorous runoff. Two promising cover crops, winter camelina and field pennycress, have a potential economic benefit for farmers and may absorb significant amounts of fertilizers that would end up in groundwater.

"Since cover crops in general have not been widely adopted in the Upper Midwest, we hope that greater incentives stemming from cover crops will make them more attractive for growers to incorporate into their systems," says Ott, who earned his undergraduate degree in environmental studies from the College of St. Benedict/St. John's University. His experiences working as an intern at the Land Institute in Kansas, helping to develop perennial grain crops to reduce farming's environmental impact, inspired him to pursue graduate studies in agronomy and plant genetics at the University of Minnesota.

In a separate project, Ott is breeding winter camelina to improve its environmentally and economically beneficial traits. His research is funded by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, and he feels grateful for being able to collaborate with Frank Forcella, Russ Gesch, and Carrie Eberle of the USDA Agricultural Research Service; Don Wyse, the founder and leader of the Forever Green Initiative, and his graduate colleagues.

"I appreciate their investment into research that seeks to address some of the most pressing environmental, social, and economic problems we are facing," he says. "The Forever Green Initiative has been instrumental in demonstrating that research that has scalable benefits is worth the investment of public and private funds."

Developing cover cropping systems for key Midwest cash crops

Using cover crops can be challenging for farmers due to a short winter growing season, added complexity in crop management, harsh winter conditions, and other factors. Through his research, Ph.D. student Kevin Anderson hopes to overcome these challenges and maximize the benefits of cover crops, like improved soil health.

Anderson is working to develop cover cropping systems that fit in with corn and soybean crop rotations in the Upper Midwest. "We're using relay cropping techniques in which the growing season of two crops overlap, investigating the value that cover crops return to farmers, and developing new 'cash cover crops' which may be harvested for profit," he explains.

Growing up, Kevin Anderson spent much of his time on his family's farm in the Driftless Area of Wisconsin. After serving for the U.S. Army in Germany for several years, he studied biology at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. Undergraduate research sparked his interest in ecosystem functions and led him to study insect ecology and evolution at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.

Becoming more aware of agricultural innovations that support sustainability and ecosystem functions, Anderson was drawn to the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities to study new, alternative farming systems and acroecology. His studies and research are funded by Monsanto, Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station, and various grants.

He also collaborates and receives help from scientists and technicians Agricultural Experiment Stations throughout the state and the scientists in Morris, MN who lead the "cash cover crop" approach. "We have many goals for this system, but I think of it as increasing farm profitability and resilience while reducing some of the negative impacts that come from row crop rotations," he says.

-Lyra Fontaine