Agricultural research examines environmentally-conscious practices

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Kansas State North Farm in Manhattan, Kansas on Oct. 5, 2017. (Olivia Bergmeier | Collegian Media Group)

No-till farming, an agricultural technique being studied at K-State — combined with other practices — has the potential to help reduce agricultural impacts on carbon emissions by as much as one gigaton, Chuck Rice, distinguished professor in agronomy, said. Carbon emissions contribute to the greenhouse gases that warm the planet.

“A combination of no-till, cover crops, crop rotations could sequester one gigaton of (carbon), which is the equivalent to 800 million cars,” Rice said.

An almost 30-year research project conducted at K-State finds agricultural practices that help to offset carbon emissions. One practice is no-till farming, and the research on it was spearheaded by Rice.

Rice said the research began in 1989. The idea behind no-till agriculture is to not disturb the soil.The remains of old crops and vegetation are left on the field, helping hold in more moisture.

The additional moisture promotes microbial growth within the soil. These microbes will help the soil be more capable of absorbing carbon, which is part of the idea of carbon sequestration. Much of this idea is present in Rice’s research, and he said it can help with water erosion as well.

“Managing the soils, even a small change can make a huge benefit to the atmosphere,” Rice said. “Plus, then you get the benefits of water retention, and when it’s covered, there’s less erosion, so it’s actually better for soil quality by less disturbance or by increasing carbon in the soil.”

Rice said this research — partnered with other projects also being done at K-State, such as research on grazing systems — could show ways for agriculture to become carbon neutral, or close to it. This means the agricultural system would be taking in at least close to as much carbon as it is putting out.

“A combination of reducing nitrogen oxide emissions in ag cropland and grazing systems by promoting carbon storage in soil, [then] ag could almost be carbon neutral,” Rice said.

One reason this particular project is noteworthy is its unusual length within its field. Rice said having a study spanning almost 30 years is rare. The length of the project has allowed Rice and his colleagues to examine factors such as yield rates.

Results like this are part of what Johanie Rivera-Zayas, graduate student in agronomy, said she loves about the job.

“At the end of the year, you can get a lot of results that go to the field,” Rivera-Zayas said. “It’s results that go to extension are results that we can apply, that people use, and we can see the changes in the farm. We can see the changes in the food security of our town or our city. It’s very rewarding.”

K-State is involved in several research projects involving the environment. These projects range from water quality and quantity to research on grazing system effects. Rice said climate change research even spans across colleges, and many different departments are taking part.

“K-State is actively engaged in climate change research, both here in agronomy [and] biology with the Konza Prairie,” Rice said. “Both these projects I described, we are looking at the social components as well. We have faculty in sociology that are working on this issue. It really takes a multidisciplinary team to look at these issues from agronomy, ag economics, sociology, biology.”

In fact, both Rice and Daniel Devlin, director of the Kansas Center for Agricultural Resources and the Environment and the Kansas Water Resources Institute, said K-State is a key player in climate change research.

“We play a major role in the state on environmental protection, conservation,” Devlin said. “Recommendations come out of K-State for a lot of these, for environmental protection around agriculture.”

Rice said the end results of these practices are still positive, even from the point of view of those who do not believe in climate change.

“Working in ag, you don’t have to agree with the concept of climate change, but by improving soil and increasing water availability, it’s still a good thing,” Rice said.

Devlin said he has a dream in which students who are majoring in agriculture now take the elements of preserving the Earth and put them to regular practice.

“I hope that when [K-State students] become the leaders, that they just look at environmental protection as just another part of their business, just like choosing a seed or choosing what variety they’re going to plant of crop or how much fertilizer they’re going to apply or what kind of tillage they have,” Devlin said. “They look at the environment as just another one of those things and not so much as a challenge, just another part of it.”

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Emily Moore
My name is Emily Moore and I'm a senior majoring in English and mass communications with a minor in leadership. I love to read, write and edit. During my free time, I enjoy doing crossword puzzles, rock climbing and spending time with my friends.