Industry leaders, decision-makers take Chesapeake water quality research tour

Amanda Yeager
October 11, 2016

Researchers, educators, elected officials, farmers, agribusiness professionals and agricultural and environmental agency representatives gathered for the 2016 Penn State Agricultural Research Tour in late September to learn about current water quality and soil health research relevant to the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Organized by Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences and the Penn State Ag Council, the day-long event included visits to two large dairy farms in Clinton County, Pennsylvania. On the tour, Penn State researchers and partners shared innovations that could help maintain Pennsylvania's productive agricultural industry while addressing water quality goals, and discussed research initiatives that have combined multiple agricultural disciplines and cooperative projects between Penn State and its partners.

On planning this year's research tour focus, Penn State Ag Council president Matt Ehrhart said, "Water quality issues are front and center now, especially the discussion around state goals, so water quality made a lot of sense, as well as the topic of soil health, which has many related applications.

"This tour highlighted producers who are working with the University on these topics and also have really strong farm performance levels. These farmers are excellent managers, and the questions we're examining are about how we magnify that knowledge and management capacity," said Ehrhart, who also serves as the director of watershed restoration for Stroud Water Research Center.

This year's theme also aligned closely with research priorities for Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences, according to Rick Roush, dean of the college.

"Addressing water quality is a major goal for the college," Roush said. "This is a topic that affects agriculture and the environment across the state, and our researchers and educators are working hard to develop science-based strategies and partnerships to promote water quality in Pennsylvania and the bay."

Water quality and the Chesapeake Bay

Representatives from several key environmental agencies involved in water quality issues and Chesapeake Bay conservation attended the tour, including the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and Chesapeake Bay Commission.

"For me, with the bay, it's about how we come up with efficient, effective solutions, and I personally place a lot of value on seeing the work that people are doing on the ground and getting that perspective," said Patrick McDonnell, the state secretary of environmental protection.

"It was great to see so much interest in water quality and agriculture, and how they co-exist," said Marel King, director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission's Pennsylvania office. "The role of research and extension in helping to expand our knowledge about these issues and communicating to the farm community and to others is so important."

In addition to their dairy operations, the farms on the research tour included acreage that is dedicated to Penn State research projects to test cultivation and management strategies intended to promote efficient agricultural production while reducing nutrient and sediment inputs to Pennsylvania's waterways.

Both farms participate in the Pennsylvania No-Till Alliance, an organization of producers who collaborate on sharing and promoting no-till crop production practices and related research and technology innovations. Tour participants learned about the benefits of combining no-till practices with cover crops, including the improvement of water infiltration into soil, which reduces field runoff of water and associated nutrients and sediment into local streams. Presenters explained how the use of cover crops such as ryegrass and clover also can suppress weeds, take up excess field nutrients and add to the organic and nutritional content of the soil – improving soil biology and composition and yielding production benefits for field and forage crops rotated on the same fields.

"At the end of the day, water quality issues and agriculture affect everyone," said Chris Houser, one of the tour presenters and interim assistant director of agronomy and natural resources programs for Penn State Extension. "We visited farms that host research and include a lot of best management practices. They're demonstrating what agriculture can contribute to water quality, and we're showing what Penn State and the college can do to help."

research tour

Tour presenters discuss the capabilities of the Penn State Interseeder, a piece of equipment designed to allow no-till farmers to seed cover crops into an existing field crop such as no-till corn.

IMAGE: Michael Houtz

Tour highlights also included technological innovations such as the Penn State Interseeder, a piece of equipment for no-till producers that was developed and commercialized by a team of Penn State researchers with input from the farming community. The interseeder was designed to establish cover crops earlier in the growing season, allowing farmers to seed and fertilize a cover crop into an existing primary crop such as no-till corn.

Soil health, education and water quality

The value of agricultural outreach was echoed by several researchers and technical experts who work closely with farmers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed to optimize soil health on their properties using tested conservation techniques.

"Education is so important. When farmers understand and value soil as a resource, they're going to do the right thing. I see soil health as the way to move forward that everybody benefits from – the farmers, the public and the environment," said Lisa Blazure, agricultural resource conservationist for Clinton County Conservation District.

"Farmers see a lot of anecdotal evidence of soil health, and they know what works for them," she said. "Decision-makers need research to back up these observations, and Penn State documents the good outcomes farmers are seeing, which can inform future regulations."

Blazure and Sjoerd Duiker, associate professor of soil management and applied soil physics, spoke to tour participants about cover-crop research projects and no-till cropping systems. They are two of the co-authors of a printed "Soil Health" guide for landowners that presents 14 tested field-crop and forage-crop production practices. Tour participants received copies of the guide, which was produced as a partnership among Penn State Extension, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Capital Resource Conservation and Development group and Clinton County Conservation District.

Visitors also observed the farms' field-crop and forage-crop acreage, which featured the integration of cover crops with no-till, a strategy being refined by several research initiatives. Duiker spoke on the findings of a multi-year program that yielded high adoption rates of cover-crop use on small Pennsylvania dairy farms by using educational outreach with a high level of cost efficiency.

"For cover crops and soil health improvement practices in general, I believe outreach is a very sound approach," said Duiker. "I really appreciate the partnership we have with the farmers and with organizations like the conservation districts. When you develop a common vision and work toward that, a lot can be achieved."

research tour

Tour participants learn about the value that cover crop rotations offer in managing field crop pests during the Penn State Agricultural Research Tour.

IMAGE: Michael Houtz

Other tour discussions led by Penn State agronomy and entomology researchers focused on farm management resources, such as nutrient index calculations that assist producers with conservation planning, and additional field techniques that work in concert with no-till farming and cover crops. Integrated pest management strategies and cover crops were reviewed for their potential to control slug pests and promote beneficial pest predators such as ground beetles. Tour participants also were introduced to the concept of "planting green," or planting spring cash crops into a standing winter cover crop, rather than dispatching the cover crop before spring planting; this practice is being studied for potential soil health and pest management benefits.

Pennsylvania management practices

During the event, attendees received an update on the Pennsylvania Farmer Conservation Practice Survey from Houser and Matthew Royer, director of the Agriculture and Environment Center in the College of Agricultural Sciences. Administered in the early months of 2016, the survey asked Pennsylvania farm producers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed to document conservation practices they have employed to promote water quality and soil health; the collected responses were kept confidential and not associated with farmers' names or locations. The survey was developed collaboratively by Penn State, the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, PennAg Industries Association, Pennsylvania Farmers Union, Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, Professional Dairy Managers of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, the Pennsylvania State Conservation Commission and the Pennsylvania Association of Conservation Districts.

Royer and Houser explained that Pennsylvania farmers have contributed much to water quality improvement in the state's waterways and the Chesapeake Bay watershed, but many conservation practices previously have not been recorded in tracking progress toward priority water goals, because they were implemented independently from formal or cost-share programs. The survey is meant to ensure that the state's voluntary agricultural conservation practices are captured for analyzing water quality progress. Researchers are analyzing the data collected from more than 6,700 completed surveys and Penn State Extension's on-site visits to a smaller subset of farms, and they expect to complete the analysis this fall.

James Shortle, distinguished professor of agricultural and environmental economics and a lead researcher in the state survey, concluded the tour event with a discussion on the applications of survey and land use data in conservation planning and strategic modeling.

"One of the questions we need to ask is how much work we need to do and where – we can look at individual watersheds in the Chesapeake to evaluate where we need the most conservation practices," he said. "In the context of water quality, we want to make sure we achieve our goals, which means we need to see a relationship between what we do on the land and what happens in the water. It's a complex question because you need to be able to predict how the land use practices are going to change the water."

Research applications for Pennsylvania

Among the research tour attendees were agency personnel, community educators and local elected representatives who came to learn more about how the presented management practices and research findings could have application in regions throughout Pennsylvania.

"I work with groups in Lancaster and Chester counties, so I'm interested in the newest things being presented to see if they can be scalable to other places in the state," said Megan Keegan, who works for the Environmental Protection Agency's Region 3 office. "I think collaboration is absolutely essential to Pennsylvania reaching its bay goals, and it's really the diversity and willingness of the stakeholders that will make a difference for clean water."

Partnerships, efficiency and outreach were recurring concepts in the day's discussions on implementing science-based solutions for reaching water quality goals and maintaining strong agricultural production.

"It was great to hear a lot of the good management practices that are being implemented, and more than that, they're being done economically – and economics are always important for research applications to be relevant in the real world," said Fred Strathmeyer Jr., deputy state agriculture secretary for plant industry and consumer protection. "It was also great to see the farm producers had only good words for the researchers. Partnership in this day and age, when resources are stretched, when we see these kinds of implementations of private-public relationships, it speaks volumes for what we can do moving forward."

The College of Agricultural Sciences' Ag Research Tour was co-organized by the college and the Penn State Agricultural Council, an independent association of more than 90 organizations that represent agricultural or related interests in Pennsylvania. Sponsors for the 2016 tour included the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, American Mushroom Institute, Pennsylvania State Grange and T.A. Seeds, all Penn State Ag Council member organizations.


Last Updated October 11, 2016