Jerry Glover on Improved Farming Systems

Fast Breaking Papers Commentary, February 2011

Jerry Glover

Article: Harvested perennial grasslands provide ecological benchmarks for agricultural sustainability

Authors: Glover, JD;Culman, SW;DuPont, ST;Broussard, W;Young, L;Mangan, ME;Mai, JG;Crews, TE;DeHaan, LR;Buckley, DH;Ferris, H;Turner, RE;Reynolds, HL;Wyse, DL
Volume: 137, Issue: 1-2, Page: 3-12, Year: APR 15 2010
* Land Inst, 2440 E Water Well Rd, Salina, KS 67401 USA.
* Land Inst, Salina, KS 67401 USA.
* Cornell Univ, Dept Crop & Soil Sci, Ithaca, NY 14853 USA.
* Univ Calif Davis, Dept Nematol, Davis, CA 95616 USA.
* Louisiana State Univ, Dept Oceanog & Coastal Sci, Baton Rouge, LA 70803 USA.
(Addresses have been truncated)

Jerry Glover talks with and answers a few questions about this month's Fast Breaking Paper paper in the field of Environment & Ecology.

SW: Why do you think your paper is highly cited?

The multidisciplinary team carrying out the research represented seven institutions and the research consisted of multiple components (e.g., soil, plant, and insect ecology) each of which had more detailed research findings than could be reported in a single report. This resulted in early exposure at more institutions and in more fields than other more specialized papers would likely receive. The additional published papers resulting from the specific components of the project added to that exposure. Furthermore, the article was published with other related papers as part of a special issue and that context may have served as a magnet for scientists from a wide range of specialties.

SW: Does it describe a new discovery, methodology, or synthesis of knowledge?

In terms of its design and objectives, it is unique in its integration of multiple disciplines and temporal and spatial scales to compare and describe different land management practices.

"As farmers and scientists work to improve the productivity and lessen the negative environmental impacts of our farms, our study will provide some insights on how to redesign our primary farming systems."

Behind the scenes, it was also unique in that it integrated the work of graduate students from different institutions and disciplines into one project as part of The Land Institute's graduate research fellowship program. Given the increasingly collaborative demands of research, a key objective of the fellowship program was to provide graduate students opportunities to actively work on this type of collaboration.

Even though it is common now for research scientists to be involved in multidisciplinary collaborations few opportunities exist for graduate students to do so. Effective multidisciplinary collaboration requires a whole set of skills not typically provided in graduate school, such as the ability to organize data sets for multiple users.

SW: Would you summarize the significance of your paper in layman's terms?

A truly sustainable farm would produce as much as our current high-input farms, require little or no chemical inputs, provide habitat for wildlife, and conserve the health of the soil and water. And do all that for decades or longer. In our study, we identified a farming system that provides an example of what such a sustainable farm might look like and described its impacts on above- and below-ground organisms and soil and water quality. We also measured the fossil fuel requirements used in maintaining the production system.

For over 75 years, farmers have harvested and removed the hay (plant stems and leaves) from some perennial grasslands, such as those of North America's tallgrass prairie region, to feed to their livestock. The farmers have not applied any fertilizers or pesticides and large amounts of important nutrients, such as nitrogen, are removed in the hay each year. As much nitrogen is removed in the hay from these perennial grasslands each year as is removed in the wheat seed from adjacent wheat fields, which receive large amounts of fertilizers and pesticides.

Despite the high rates of nutrient removal in the absence of nutrient additions, the soil health of the harvested grasslands is very high when compared to the soil health of the adjacent annual croplands. The harvested grasslands also provided better habitat for aboveground insects, especially pollinators, compared to the annual crop fields.

In this new century, farmers will need to produce as much or more from their lands as they have in the past but likely with fewer chemicals, fertilizers, and nonrenewable energy sources and while causing less harm to the soil, water, and surrounding environment. The world's annual grain farms are far from this ideal but to determine how far they are from this ideal we need benchmarks, or "yardsticks," we can use to assess and improve our dominate farming systems. As a result of our study, we provide some of those benchmarks for assessing and improving our annual grain farms.

SW: How did you become involved in this research, and how would you describe the particular challenges, setbacks, and successes that you've encountered along the way?

"A truly sustainable farm would produce as much as our current high-input farms, require little or no chemical inputs, provide habitat for wildlife, and conserve the health of the soil and water."

I became involved in this research in 1996 while comparing the impacts on soil health of conventional and organic grain production systems in the prairie region of North America. Although there were some differences in soil health between the two production systems, I was interested in how different the soil health of those two systems was compared to the soil health supported by the region's native vegetation consisting of diverse mixtures of perennial grasses.

I was fortunate to find five intact remnant prairies that had been preserved for hay production on the same soil type as the annual crop fields I was studying. The differences in soil health between the harvested perennial grasslands and the annual crop fields were much larger than the differences between annual cropping systems managed under conventional tillage, no-tillage, and organic practices.

I then expanded the project to include other components. That expansion required the involvement of additional scientists, a more intensive data collection schedule, and more complex data analyses, all of which introduced challenges. Setbacks occurred when the necessary resources weren't available to collect all the data in all the years.

For me the major successes came when the related papers authored by the graduate students began being published and subsequent studies used some of the characteristics of our study design in their designs.

SW: Where do you see your research leading in the future?

I hope that the results from our study will be used to design and assess improved grain production systems. I also hope that our study will encourage others to develop research projects in which graduate students from different disciplines and institutions directly collaborate with one another.

SW: Do you foresee any social or political implications for your research?

As farmers and scientists work to improve the productivity and lessen the negative environmental impacts of our farms, our study will provide some insights on how to redesign our primary farming systems. Specifically, improved farming systems will feature more perennial crops and crop diversity.End

Jerry Glover, Ph.D.
Science & Technology Policy Fellow, 2010-2011
US Agency for International Development
Bureau of Food Security
Office of Agriculture, Research, & Technology
Washington, DC, USA



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