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Cover crop monocultures continue to best mixtures; 2017 Update

Posted by Andrew McGuire | December 12, 2017

About a year ago I declared in a post, “Cover crop best bet is monoculture, not mix.” It stirred up quite a few comments and discussion, but no scientific evidence that countered my assertion. Nevertheless, research continues, so I have followed results as they have been published over the last year. Here is an update.

Is research finding any benefits of cover crop mixtures? Photo: A. McGuire.

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Filed under Sustainable Practices and Technology

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 »

Real-life agricultural innovation: implications for future preparedness

Posted by Sonia A. Hall | December 4, 2017

Extension has traditionally involved getting results from researchers to decision-makers in agriculture. Partly because I work on climate change and agriculture, and partly because of the approach my team and the researchers we work with take, extension is, for us, a two-way street. In this article I want to highlight the “other” side of that street: how innovations that producers test out in real life complement research and supports future preparedness.

Both John Aeschliman (left) and Douglas Poole (right) practice no-till, though they farm with very different precipitation regimes. Photo: Alex Garland.

In preparation for a new project I reviewed case studies and profiles others I work with published as part of the Regional Approaches to Climate Change – Pacific Northwest Agriculture (REACCH-PNA) project, which focused on dryland cereal production in a changing climate. These case studies tell the stories of producers who are implementing practices that break some mold, and that is leading to both interesting results and to benefits that will help them be prepared for future climates. Here I highlight the startling similarities in the stories of two farmers that farm in different precipitation zones. John Aeschliman farms in Colfax, Washington, with a range of precipitation up to 18+ inches annually. Doug Poole farms in Mansfield, Washington, with half that precipitation. Both these farmers are innovative pioneers, and transitioning to no-till is a cornerstone of their innovations. And both no-till and innovation have implications for preparing for future climates. Read more »

Stepping back: What have we learned about agriculture and climate change, and where do we go from here?

Posted by Georgine Yorgey | November 29, 2017

Cattle grazing on an allotment east of the Owyhee River Canyon, Oregon. Used with permission via Flickr from the Bureau of Land Management (CC BY 2.0).

As a number of large climate-and-agriculture projects at our Pacific Northwest universities have come to an end over the last year, we felt it was time to step back and take stock.  Our projects have included dryland wheat farming, anaerobic digestion systems for dairies, and improving understanding of the interactions among carbon, nitrogen, and water at the regional scale. Now that they are complete, what have we learned? Where should research and extension go from here? In an effort to prioritize and catalyze future regional research and extension efforts, we worked with partners to host a workshop titled “Agriculture in a Changing Climate” (March 9-11, 2016). The event brought together a diverse set of stakeholders—university faculty and students, crop and livestock producers, and individuals representing state, tribal and federal government agencies, industry, nonprofit organizations, and conservation districts—to summarize what we know, identify challenges and gaps, and define priorities for moving forward. Since that workshop, a group of us have been working together to continue to synthesize recent research findings and identify priorities related to climate mitigation and adaptation in the Northwest, and the product of that work is now freely available as an online article. 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 »

Global agricultural regions to keep your eye on in the future

Posted by Sonia A. Hall | November 13, 2017

Over 30% of wheat is grown in temperate drylands globally, which are expected to see a 41% increase in suitability for rainfed agriculture. Photo credit: Flickr user Sparky, under CC BY-NC 2.0.

One challenge I struggle with when sharing research focused at global scales is how to tease out answers to questions that are meaningful in the region and at the scale I work in. My approach is to focus on the big picture the results sketch out, and think about what it all means (even when the specifics are not exactly right, which they rarely are). Hopefully I’ll be successful in this article about a paper I co-authored, on agriculture in temperate drylands (I define these below) at a global scale. Led by Dr. John Bradford at the U.S. Geological Survey, we looked at temperate drylands across the world, and explored how rainfed (non-irrigated) agricultural areas could shift as the climate changes. Read on, and see if I convince you that wheat growers in the Pacific Northwest should care about these results.   Read more »

Filed under Climate Change, Global Environment
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Impacts and tools for dryland farmers adapting to climate change

Posted by Liz Allen | November 7, 2017

As climate and agriculture researchers we’re constantly learning from farmers who we interact with. Our conversations with dryland wheat producers in the inland Pacific Northwest have shown us that many farmers are very skilled at managing for multiple risks at once and making decisions under various kinds of uncertainty. Climate models project substantial warming by mid-century (Figure 1) as well as more frequent storm events and more extreme minimum and maximum temperatures in the future. At the same time, a higher concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere may contribute to more rapid crop growth.  As more detailed and sophisticated models of climate change and crop dynamics are developed, it is increasingly clear that managing under observed and projected climate change impacts will require new perspectives for farmers and other agriculture sector decision makers. Those involved in agriculture will need to develop their understanding of climate-related hazards and poise themselves to take advantage of emerging opportunities linked to a changing climate. Read more »

Filed under Climate Change
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A role for agricultural landscapes in conserving wildlife – Part 2

Posted by Andrew Shirk | October 24, 2017

Andrew Shirk, Climate Impacts Group, University of Washington, co-authored this post with Sonia A. Hall, Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, Washington State University.

Fields enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) have augmented native habitat and helped Greater Sage-Grouse avoid extinction in the agricultural landscape of eastern Washington after decades of decline (see part 1 of this series for details). Even though the local sage-grouse population has stabilized in recent decades, it remains highly vulnerable because it is still small and isolated from other populations. As we enter an era of rapid climate change, the right conditions for sage-grouse habitat may shift away from currently occupied areas, requiring populations to move and colonize new areas over a short period of time. And they must do so across a landscape that is now replete with major highways, urban areas, and other barriers to movement. And even if wildlife can cross these barriers, the area of suitable, available habitat may shrink under the future climate. Read more »

There is not enough manure (or compost) to sustain agriculture

Posted by Andrew McGuire | October 18, 2017

There is not enough manure. Not enough to supply nutrients to our crops, not enough to maintain our soils. Those were the conclusions in my last two posts, but before we see what this means for agriculture, let’s look to other organic amendments. Is there enough of any of them?

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Filed under Sustainability

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