Wednesday, December 1, 2021

OSU receives $2.6 million grant to study regenerative agriculture

oklahoma cotton
Oklahoma State University researchers are working on a five-year project funded by the USDA. It will focus on regenerative agriculture for crops such as cotton — photo by Todd Johnson, OSU Agricultural Communications Services

Oklahoma State University has received more than $2.6 million to research ways to improve agricultural production while reducing environmental impacts, said Kevin Wagner, director of the Oklahoma Water Resources Center at OSU.

It will require a holistic approach, Wagner said. Climate, livestock grazing, crop rotation, hydrology, regional economics and more — the systems in regenerative agriculture are just too large, complex and intertwined for a simple solution.

To that end, OSU researchers will work closely with Texas A&M AgriLife Research and other universities in the region on a five-year project funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture. OSU will receive more than $2.6 million of the $10 million competitive grant.

“Regenerative agriculture is really a hot topic right now across much of the country,” said Wagner, the project’s principal investigator at OSU. “Our goal is to find ways to not only sustain production but also improve the land and other resources at the same time.”

Most research on regenerative agriculture has typically occurred in regions of the United States with 40 to 50 inches of rain annually, a factor that significantly affects research outcomes. Less study has been focused on areas like southwest Oklahoma and the Oklahoma-Texas panhandles, which have more variable, arid conditions and wholly different challenges in managing livestock and crops, cotton in particular.

Quick benefits for producers

Although the scope of work under the grant is expansive with several multi-year components, Wagner said some aspects will benefit producers right away. For example, Jason Warren, OSU Extension soil and water conservation specialist, has plans for a soil stewardship education program similar to the structure of the popular Master Irrigator Program for farmers. And a curriculum will be adapted for regional 4-H Youth Development summer programs as well.

Among his efforts, Wagner will monitor the quantity and quality of runoff water from fields where regenerative practices have been implemented, lead the modeling team and assist with stakeholder engagement and outreach. In addition to he and Warren, there are several other key OSU researchers whose work will overlap in many areas. A sample of those efforts include:

• Seth Byrd, OSU Extension specialist, cotton agronomy — assess practices in continuous cotton production systems to achieve agricultural intensification, greater profitability and improved climate resiliency.

• Andrea Jilling, OSU Department of Plant and Soil Sciences associate professor, environmental soil chemistry — collaborate on an asynchronous, online transdisciplinary problem-based course titled “Regenerative Agriculture in Semi-arid Ecosystems.” It will be integrated into undergraduate and graduate courses at OSU.

• Alex Rocateli, OSU Extension specialist, forage systems — develop forage systems and implement demonstrations in producer and experimental station fields, as well as assist with outreach and Extension programs.

• Sumit Sharma, OSU Extension specialist, irrigation management — establish cover crop experiments at the Oklahoma Panhandle Research and Extension Center in Goodwell, Oklahoma.

Spreading the word

Many members of the team also will be involved in arranging regional on-farm field days and large, multi-state conferences hosted in Texas and Oklahoma for disseminating research results.

Additionally, Ali Mirchi, assistant professor in the OSU Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering, will use data collected by the research team to develop models to evaluate the watershed scale effects of regenerative practices. The Agricultural Policy/Environmental eXtender model will be used to predict effects of management decisions on soil loss, water quality and crop yields at the field scale.

“With the field data collected, we’ll be able to develop models so that in a computer environment we can evaluate a large number of scenarios in a time-efficient, cost-effective way to look at impacts on soil health and hydrology-related processes,” Mirchi said. “Although you might want to try everything in the real world, it can be very expensive and take a very, very long time with a lot of manpower.

“It’s significant that we’ll have colleagues in the field collecting data on various fronts and working directly with producers and other stakeholders.”

Carbon sequestration

Wagner said carbon sequestration will also be a factor to consider, or how regenerative practices help improve the soil’s ability to hold moisture and help Oklahoma reduce its carbon footprint, leading to a more resilient ecosystem. Over time, those changes also may lead to higher levels of agricultural intensification and greater profitability.

“It’s one of the aspects that attracted me to this project, because I’ve long been interested in soil health and how it impacts water resources at a watershed or regional scale. Most prior research has focused on the benefits at the field scale, but we need to take a wider view,” Wagner said.

“With better ground cover and soil management, we hope to confirm with this research that there will be less water running off and that the runoff will be cleaner. In particular, we’ll be evaluating integrating cover crops and grazing of those cover crops into cotton production systems and determining how that benefits soils, water and production.”

The OSU project encompasses short-term, medium-term and long-term goals over the next five years. However, Wagner and Mirchi said the data produced under the NIFA grant will likely yield more research opportunities, as well as additional benefits to Oklahoma and similar areas around the world.

The grant is part of the USDA’s recent investment of more than $146 million in sustainable agricultural research projects aimed at improving a robust, resilient, climate-smart food and agricultural system.

Oklahoma State University contributed this article.

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