Agronomy/Soils Field Day showcases UW agricultural research

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About 215 farmers, agricultural extension agents and crop consultants soaked up the latest data on crop production, pest management and soil science at the UW Agronomy/Soils Field Day at UW–Madison’s Arlington Agricultural Research Station on Aug. 22.

Discussing a three-year study of nitrogen fertilizer for corn, Carrie Laboski, a UW–Madison soil science professor and UW-Extension soil scientist, compared one application at planting time vs. two applications, one at planting and a second later in the season. She found no profit advantage on the well-drained soil at Arlington, but there was often a benefit to sidedress applications on the slower-draining soil at the Marshfield Agricultural Research Station.

Excess spring rain on poorly drained soils can cause nitrogen loss, Laboski explains. Waiting to apply nitrogen until mid-June reduces this risk.

The rising trend toward “precision agriculture” may suggest that farmers change fertilizer applications on the fly. However, Laboski says “not everyone can afford this technology, but everyone can consider soil properties and make unique management decisions for each field to improve profitability.”

The UW–Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences has 11 agricultural research stations around the state that host field days to spread research and insight into farm issues. The field-day audience has changed over the years, Laboski says. “Lots of people think we are serving farmers directly, and we are, but we also have the multipliers among crop consultants, ag retailers, county extension agents, and people who work for county land conservation or other agencies. Even when I am not talking to farmers directly, they are still receiving information and decision-making tools developed from my research.”

Crop consultants do much of the planning and evaluation for farmers, says Scott Hendrickson, a private crop consultant who attends to 6,500 acres around Manitowoc and Sheboygan. “I’ve been coming for 35 years, and it’s very helpful to come down here every year and get the latest updates about what is going on with many different crops. I take this information back to my growers, and we’ll implement what we can now, and will return later to a lot of things that are in progress. This is an event that we look forward to every year.”

Some of the most complex talks concerned the subject of soil health. UW–Madison/UW-Extension soil scientist Matt Ruark described new attempts to measure soil organic matter – a key support for the microbes that aid plant nutrient availability.

With three graduate students, Shawn Conley, UW–Madison agronomy professor and UW-Extension soybean and small grain specialist, discussed preliminary results on the essential bacteria and fungi to crop health and yield. The group raised the possibility that microbe transplants may eventually be used to sustain healthy, productive crops.

The event focused largely on “news you can use” for Wisconsin farmers. Andrew Stammer, for example, director of the UW Soil and Forage Analysis Laboratory located at the Marshfield Agricultural Research Station, described soil-sampling protocols for farmers who apply fertilizer in strips along the crop row.

The field day also included a foretaste of the future, as UW–Madison associate professor of agronomy Heidi Kaeppler described the new Wisconsin Crop Innovation Center. Kaeppler is the center’s research lead for genome engineering and gene editing. Housed in a cutting-edge Middleton facility donated by Monsanto “with no strings attached,” the center performs conventional genetic engineering and the fast-growing technique called “gene editing” to improve crops, for example, crop yield or disease resistance. “These techniques are exacting, and they require a great level of scientific expertise and technical equipment and abilities,” says Kaeppler.

The center is used by scientists from UW–Madison and around the world, Kaeppler adds. “We are one of the largest and most capable public facilities in the United States for doing transformations that are a central aspect of crop innovation and improvement.”