Karen Hills

New Ideas for Improving the Resilience of Semi-Arid Systems

Posted by Karen Hills | March 15, 2018

Karen Hills and CSANR Associate Director, Georgine Yorgey co-wrote this post.

Dryland areas are historically used for wheat production. Photo: USDA, ARS.

Across the dryland areas of the inland Pacific Northwest, soil erosion and the use of near monocultures of wheat have long been serious sustainability challenges, ones that we have been working on for decades, including over the last seven years through regional collaborations. Reducing or eliminating tillage has been one important strategy for reducing erosion across the region in recent decades.  Improving diversity by including crops such as canola, peas, chickpea and quinoa in rotations is another approach, but across the inland Pacific Northwest from 2007-2014, 53% of dryland crop acreage was used for winter or spring wheat, while an additional 31% was fallow (meaning that to preserve moisture for the following crop, no crop was grown) (Kirby, E. et al., 2017). Read more »

Crop residue–Help or hindrance?

Posted by Karen Hills | January 25, 2018

The production of crop residue varies dramatically across the Inland Pacific Northwest, with estimated residue production for winter wheat ranging from roughly 0.9 ton/acre in the drier grain-fallow cropping system (Figure 1) to 8.5 ton/acre in the wetter annual crop system, which has enough precipitation to support cropping every year. Crop residues are often seen as simply something to “manage” so that they don’t impede future plantings or as a byproduct that can be sold to help improve the bottom line. However, while editing chapters for the recently released publication Advances in Dryland Farming in the Inland Pacific Northwest, I was introduced to another way to think about these residues in the chapter in that publication titled “Crop Residue Management.” The lead author, Haiying Tao from Washington State University, and her co-authors make the interesting point that crop residues should be seen as a valuable resource and that there’s an important tradeoff that should be considered before exporting them from the farm. Residues not only serve a critical role in protecting soils from wind and water erosion between crops, they also add carbon and nutrients back to the soil, improving soil health and helping to maintain its productivity over time. Read more »

Filed under Climate Change, Sustainability
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How will climate change affect pests of inland Pacific Northwest cereal systems?

Posted by Karen Hills | December 13, 2017

Models suggest that climate change in our region will involve an annual temperature increase of 3-4°F by the 2050’s, accompanied by changes in precipitation patterns, including drier summers despite a 5-15% increase in annual precipitation (Kruger et al. 2017). Even with this information, uncertainty still exists about what climate change will mean for agriculture, in general, and for dryland farming systems in our region, in particular. The book Advances in Dryland Farming in the Inland Pacific Northwest, does its part to help managers make decisions despite this uncertainty. Three chapters in this book explore management of diseases, insects, and weeds (the three major categories of pests) and were written by teams of authors led by Elizabeth Kirby (Washington State University), Sanford Eigenbrode (University of Idaho), and Ian Burke (Washington State University), respectively. Though these chapters provide a wide range of regionally-relevant information that goes far beyond climate, I found it particularly interesting to read through them with an eye to what farmers might expect in terms of changes in pest pressures as a result of projected changes in the climate. Through this process, I learned that although climate change models have improved vastly in recent years, quite a bit of uncertainty exists about the effects of climate change on complex biological systems. Read more »

Tillage: When Less Is More

Posted by Karen Hills | December 5, 2017

Though severe erosion can quickly deplete topsoil, rebuilding topsoil is an extremely difficult and slow process, so conserving this resource is imperative. Soil erosion is one of the biggest challenges in agricultural production in the inland Pacific Northwest. Conventional tillage can lead to soil degradation and erosion by wind and water, which can cause concerns for air and water quality, respectively. Conservation tillage—a tillage system which retains residues from the previous crop on the surface, resulting in at least 30% coverage of the soil surface after the planting of the next crop—can dramatically reduce soil erosion. It also offers other benefits, such as improvements in soil quality (Figure 1) and reduced fuel use, allowing it to be widely adopted in some parts of the region. There are many types of conservation tillage used in the Pacific Northwest, which offer different levels of protection of the soil, all the way up to no-till, which results in minimal soil disturbance and maximum retention of soil residue. These differences in practices, as well as other factors, have led to variations across the region in how effective (and profitable) conservation tillage has been. Fortunately, a new resource is available that digs into these differences and why they occur. Read more »

Variability and Scale: Considerations for Precision Agriculture

Posted by Karen Hills | November 27, 2017

It is human nature to be entranced by the latest electronic gadget that promises to make our lives easier. Sometimes gadgets really do help us, and other times this help is counterbalanced by the hours spent trying to troubleshoot when things go wrong. Because I’m not really a “gadget person” by nature, I must admit that I hadn’t paid a whole lot of attention to precision agriculture during my time working in the world of agricultural research. However, I recently had the opportunity to learn more about this topic while helping to compile and edit the book Advances in Dryland Farming in the Inland Pacific Northwest. By reading the chapter on Precision Agriculture co-authored by Bertie Weddell, Tabitha Brown, and Kristi Borrelli, I learned about two of the most important factors to consider when it comes to the use of precision agriculture technology: variability and scale. Read more »

Diversification where it isn’t easy: Beyond the grain-fallow rotation

Posted by Karen Hills | November 20, 2017

Diversifying crop rotations is a key strategy used to break pest and disease cycles and improve yields. But in the driest areas of the Pacific Northwest the low precipitation amounts limit the diversification strategies that are feasible. These areas have some of the least diverse cropping systems in the region, often with winter wheat as the only crop. In areas receiving less than 16 inches of precipitation a year that are generally too dry to support annual cropping, producers rely on summer fallow to retain winter precipitation in the soil profile. Areas where over 40% of the land a given year is fallowed are classified as grain-fallow cropping systems. From 2007 to 2014, only 4.3% of these areas, on average, were planted to another crop besides winter wheat (Kirby et al. 2017). What opportunities exist for diversifying crop rotations in these low diversity areas? In my work compiling the recently published Advances in Dryland Farming in the Inland Pacific Northwest, I learned one answer to this question: winter peas. Read more »

Contact Karen Hills

Email: khills@wsu.edu