For the past 14 years, researchers at the USDA-Agricultural Research Service’s Columbia Plateau Conservation Research Center in Pendleton, Ore., have been doing some cutting-edge research on reduced-tillage cropping systems as they try to help farmers save moisture, reduce erosion and improve profitability.
But their work could be in jeopardy. In its fiscal year 2016 budget proposal, President Obama’s administration wants to cut $910,000 from the station’s budget — more than half of its annual funding — so the USDA can move money to priorities identified by Obama’s staff.
Though the Eastern Oregonian reports that at least three of the center’s five scientists would be laid off, they would actually be offered reassignment to other locations.
The word is that some other USDA-ARS locations are also facing cuts.
I tried this week, but was unable to get a feel (on the record) about whether these cuts will really happen after lawmakers complete the budgetary process. U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley and U.S. Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon have said they’re working to get full funding for the USDA-ARS stations.
Dan Long, the lead researcher at the center, says there are obstacles to no-till adoption in his area because of the lack of seed zone moisture in the fall when it's time to seed winter wheat. Soils in the region tend to develop microscopic channels when left undisturbed, which lets soil moisture to escape to a depth of 12 inches.
Long said he couldn’t comment on the budget, but he was glad to share the results of no-till research being done at the facility:
• Change In Equipment. Growers in this region — who see as little as 11 inches of annual rainfall — can replace summerfallow, which can involve up to five passes with a cultivator and attached rod weeder, with one or two passes with a sweep. This is a wide blade at the end of shanks that travels under the soil and lifts it, but leaving the surface intact.
This treatment leaves soil surface rougher, with clods and residue, which prevents evaporative loss of moisture and reduces wind erosion when compared to intensive tillage.
• Later Seeding. One problem with getting no-till established in this area, Long says, is that farmers might be delayed in seeding winter wheat until sometime in October, which might cause problems with germination and stands.
But research by Long’s colleague, soil scientist Stewart Wuest, found that growers can no-till wheat right after the first rain occurs, in mid- to late October. While those plants may emerged smaller than they would have if seeded in September, they will “catch up” in the spring and produce yields similar to September-seeded, tilled systems.
This is possible, Long says, because of milder winters the region has been experiencing in recent years. Growers will also see some labor and fuel savings from reduced tillage, he adds.
• Fighting Erosion. Summerfallow has typically been the answer to create a barrier to evaporative loss of soil moisture, but that does little to solve problems with wind erosion, Long notes.
So Wuest created fiberglass-encased sensors, inserted into the soil to a 12-inch depth at 1-centimeter intervals, to measure the loss of moisture in the seed zone. After tracking the diurnal change in soils with soil moisture and soil temperature in no-tilled, tilled and summerfallow fields, he quantified that reduced tillage/fallow systems retain as much seed zone moisture as intensive tillage and summerfallow.
“This shows that farmers can use a reduced-tillage system and retain seasonal moisture for economic yields, plus prevent wind erosion, which summerfallow cannot do,” Long says.
Long says attitudes are changing a bit about the amount of tillage being done to support the region’s winter wheat crop. It’s more common to see minimum-tillage tools now, rather than up to five passes with a “rod weeder” that consists of metal bars rotating counter-clockwise that wrap up weed roots but pulverize the soil.
“Another thing is vertical tillage. We’re beginning to see more and more use of those machines to cut the residue up into tiny pieces so a no-till drill can get through the field without plugging,” Long says.
So here we have an active research center trying to answer critical questions about farm conservation, and doing its part to improve adoption in the region, and the best decision our president’s budget staff can make is, essentially, gutting their budget?
Doing such a thing would be a serious blow to the adoption of conservation tillage and no-till in the region, and we at Dryland No-Tiller hope this budget proposal isn’t adopted.