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Dairy Waste Biorefineries: An Innovative Way to Further Reduce Greenhouse Gases on Dairies in Washington State

Posted by Nicholas Kennedy | September 3, 2014

Washington State, 10th in milk production nationally, is also at the top of the list for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions produced from dairy cattle. According to the latest statistics by the EPA, in 2012 Washington State ranked 8th in methane (CH4) emissions from dairy manure management and 12th in nitrous oxide (NO) emissions (EPA, 2014). Understanding the effect the dairy industry has on climate change has led the state to leverage its many public research institutions and agencies including the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA), Washington State Department of Ecology, and Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources  (WSU CSANR) to help dairy farmers better manage and mitigate GHG emissions on large scale dairies also known as concentrated animals feeding operations (CAFOs). Read more »

Questioning the Value of Soil Quality for the Irrigated Arid West

Posted by Andrew McGuire | August 21, 2014

Grant County potato yield Sign“The Nation’s Leading Potato Producing County” states a sign on I-90 at the Grant County border1. In 2010, Washington potato yields averaged 33 tons per acre, compared to Nebraska at 20.7, Wisconsin at 19.8, and Maine at 14.5 tons per acre (Idaho’s main potato producing counties averages 27.2 tons per acre). And it is not just potatoes; the Columbia Basin produces high yields of corn, dry beans, onions, and many other crops. However, the productive soils in the Columbia Basin often have soil organic matter levels less than 1%, much less than the level considered as adequate for proper functioning, and certainly not high enough to be considered high quality soils. How can such “low quality” soils produce high crop yields, yields higher than other regions with higher soil quality? This paradox highlights a problem with the concept of soil quality; that it does not take into account the soil management practices that farmers employ to overcome problems in so-called “low quality soils” and therefore does not reflect real production capacity of soils, especially in the West. Read more »

Closing the Nutrient Loop

Posted by Georgine Yorgey | July 2, 2014

There are a number of sustainability issues getting a fair amount of attention these days: climate change, regional and local food systems, and soil health, to name a few. While this is obviously good, there are also issues that may be getting somewhat less attention than they deserve. And closing the nutrient loop is one of these. Read more »

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Cold + Dry = Winterkill : 2013-14 Winter in Review

Posted by Andrew McGuire | June 18, 2014

Remember last winter? As June warms and temperatures in the 90s are in the forecast, it may be hard to recall, but here in the Columbia Basin, it was dry with a few notable cold spells. That combination of cold and dry can be hard on plants, agricultural and ornamental.

Plants, both annuals and perennials, from wheat to lavender, alfalfa to ziziphus, vary in their ability to survive winter conditions. However, there are three factors that combined to make last winter a “hard winter.” Read more »

When engineering a green solution has gone too far…

Posted by Chad Kruger | May 12, 2014

I’ve seen a lot of crazy ideas in the realm of agricultural technology and even toyed with a few crazy ideas myself. Crazy ideas seem to have an appeal in our society that exceeds any rational expectation for the likely success or concern regarding the downside of any given technology. Perhaps this is because people are always looking for the next revolutionary technology like tractors, hybrid seeds, and solar fence electrifiers. Or perhaps it’s because we’re hard-wired to expect technological silver bullets to solve distinctly human problems. In fact, I suspect the reason that our own crazy (and not quite perfect) idea for a household-scale biogas reactor is among the most visited pages on the CSANR website is because it conjures up images of this infamous science fiction idea:

Who wouldn’t want to have that? Read more »

Concentrate Organic Matter at Surface to Improve Soils

Posted by Andrew McGuire | April 30, 2014
No-till corn with surface residues (photo: McGuire)

No-till corn with surface residues (photo: McGuire)

Organic matter is the key to soil quality, but building soil organic matter levels can be slow and expensive. There is an alternative. Research shows (Franzluebbers, 2002) many soil functions improve when organic matter is concentrated the top 2-3″ of the soil, and that, for many soils and environments, this may be the most effective way to improve soil quality. Read more »

2014 BIOAg Projects Selected

Posted by Chad Kruger | March 6, 2014

Since 2006, CSANR has provided seed funding for 60 new organic and sustainable agriculture research projects in Washington State through our BIOAg Program. These projects range from topics such as soil quality, organic and biological crop protection, and breeding, to livestock-crop integration, food safety and nutrition, and alternative crops. Projects have been funded in a wide diversity of crop and livestock production systems in the state, including tree fruit, cereal grains, small fruits, vegetables, forages, dairy, and a variety of other livestock systems. Read more »

Ecosystems are Not Smart, We Are – Applications on the Farm

Posted by Andrew McGuire | March 5, 2014
17 species cover crop seed blend

Cover crop seed blend of 17 species

In a recent post, I argued that we should cast aside the ideas of “balance of nature” and “nature knows best” in designing farming systems. If nature has not been optimized by any process that we know of, and therefore consists of mostly random mixes of species dictated primarily by natural disturbances, then there is no reason to “follow nature’s lead.”  But if we don’t, what are we left with? Read more »

Don’t Mimic Nature on the Farm, Improve it

Posted by Andrew McGuire | March 3, 2014

Garden of Eden. Thomas Cole [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Behind many efforts to make agriculture more sustainable is the idea that our farming systems need to be more like nature. According to agroecologist Miguel Alteri, “By designing farming systems that mimic nature, optimal use can be made of sunlight, soil nutrients, and rainfall.” This strategy arises from a long history of thinking that there exists a “balance of nature.” This idea has greatly influenced how we look at nature1 and agriculture. In the latter case, it drives much of what is done in organic farming and agroecology, but also finds its way into no-till farming. Nonetheless, it is false, and because it is false we can abandon the restrictive “nature knows best” argument in designing agricultural systems. Instead, we can improve on nature.

Read more »

Greening Up with Cover Crops for Yield and Sustainability

Posted by David Granatstein | February 24, 2014

I had the good fortune to attend the National Conference on Cover Crops and Soil Health in Omaha, Nebraska recently.  Soil health is in the limelight these days, with a new soil health initiative at the USDA-NRCS, a new Soil Health Partnership from the National Corn Growers Association, another soil health initiative from the Noble Foundation, and several recent meetings on soil health here in the Northwest including a session at the Washington State Horticulture meeting last December and a day-long soil quality workshop in Mt. Vernon.  Read more »

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