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Scientific Collaborations Are Creating New Trends to Find Solutions in Dryland Crop Production Systems

Contact: Maribel Alonso
Email: Maribel.Alonso@usda.gov

September 16, 2021

Specialized technology and new trends in science are changing the way scientists look for solutions. Field experimentation is happening at a landscape scale; simulation models are being developed based on satellite imagery and remote sensing data; and worldwide scientific collaborations are happening across disciplines. These are only a few examples of what some refer to as modern science (or evolution of science). A concept that is opening doors to the analysis of data and collaborations across multiple fields to find solutions to current agricultural problems.

In an editorial article published in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, Dr. Robert J. Lascano, Research Leader with the USDA's Agricultural Research Service,Wind Erosion and Water Conservation Research Unit in Lubbock, Texas, presents a team of scientists from different disciplines coming together for common objectives to solve a problem that is much more complex than initially thought. This is an example of experts, including agronomists, soil scientists, plant physiologists and breeders, agricultural engineers, climatologists, and economists, combining their minds to identify agricultural problems and management practices for farmers to minimize risks.

In this compilation of six studies, Lascano explains a current challenge that crop producers face in the High Plains. "When agriculture started in this area over a century ago, it relied entirely on rainfall. Then advancements in technology changed how we dealt with dryland crop production. Farmers started to extract water from the Ogallala Aquifer for irrigation. Over the years, the continued use of this water was no longer practical due to an increase of the depth to the water table and cost of pumping the water," explains Lascano.

Aerial view of Lubbock County, Texas
Aerial view of Lubbock County, Texas. Photo curtesy of Robert Lascano.

The article briefly describes findings from studies that used computational models for long-term evaluations on management practices in dryland crops, including crop rotations, topography, and the use or not of tillage, to predict profitable yields. Some models even present the economic aspects of certain approaches. Still, Lascano cautions that the results obtained from these models are specific to the region and soil type, so field testing should always be considered.

The High Plains stretches from Montana in the north to Texas in the south, and from the Rocky Mountains at its western edges through Nebraska and Kansas at its easternmost periphery. The soils in Texas vary in texture and the climate is primarily semi-arid. Still, various crops are widely grown in these regions, including rotations of wheat, corn, and grain sorghum, or cotton. Climate variability and water deficit have generated extensive research because irrigation-water provides the biggest economic stability for producing crops year after year. However, this is not just in the irrigation aspect, but also in developing new strategies that combine irrigation with reliance on rainfall.

"With technology quickly changing ways in agriculture, it is important to keep up with information we can provide to producers so they can maintain more sustained agriculture. It is not about telling the farmers what to do, but about finding and teaching practices that can help them be profitable and stay in business," stated Lascano.

Collaboration across multiple disciplines can offer practical solutions to very serious challenges agriculture faces today regarding environment, preservation of natural resources, and conservation.

The Agricultural Research Service is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific in-house research agency. Daily, ARS focuses on solutions to agricultural problems affecting America. Each dollar invested in agricultural research results in $17 of economic impact.