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Scientists Speak - World Soil Day - Integrated Crop-Livestock Systems - Franzluebbers
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ARS Celebrates World Soil Day: Integrated Crop-Livestock Systems – Getting the Big Picture of Soil Health

Alan Franzluebbers, ARS Plant Physiologist, Plant Science Research Unit (Raleigh, NC)

Dr. Franzluebbers truly had an international collaboration evolution to find himself working on soil health in Integrated Crop-Livestock Systems (ICLS).

What is the objective of your project?

“Soil health evaluation of conservation agricultural systems is the general research objective. We hope to improve upon a variety of conservation agricultural systems by understanding the processes and properties of these systems. This research is conducted locally, regionally in other collaborations, and internationally thorugh the work described here. Our approach is to investigate the three key components of soil health: soil chemical, physical, and biological. The biological component has previously been less studied and this is the reason the project focuses on this component.”

Can you tell us about your soil research project and the international collaboration involved?

“My research at the ARS Plant Physiologist, Plant Science Research Unit (PSRU) started slowly with an invitation to attend and present at the 1st International Symposium on Integrated Crop-Livestock Systems in Curtiba, Brazil, in August 2007. A presentation focused on soil physical changes in response to integrated crop-livestock systems (ICLS). The research on this topic began with a USDA-NIFA-National Research Initiative (now AFRI) project funded to assess pasture-crop rotation conversion and grazing of cover crops. This research started in 2002 in Watkinsville, GA (an ARS research location that was closed down in 2012). Following Dr. Franzluebbers’s transfer to the campus of North Carolina State University, research reports continued to be published from this long-term research project. An invitation was extended to present at the 2nd International Symposium on Integrated Crop-Livestock Systems in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in October 2012. A closer working relationship developed with Brazilian colleagues during this event, and Dr. Franzluebbers subsequently led the editorial team for the development of three special issues in scientific journals to describe ICLS around the world:

  1. Agriculture, Ecosystems, and the Environment
  2. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems
  3. European Journal of Agronomy

The 3rd International Symposium on Integrated Crop-Livestock Systems was combined with the First World Congress of Integrated Crop-Livestock-Forestry Systems in Brasilia in July 2015. This symposium also strengthened the relationship among researchers in this group with those of the Global Research Alliance (GRA) on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases. A special issue of Nutrient Cycling in Agroecosystems is being arranged from projects focusing on greenhouse gas emissions and integrated crop-livestock-forest systems. The ARS research group submitted a paper on greenhouse gas emissions from an agroforestry system in North Carolina.

A variety of partners have collaborated in this research effort focused on evaluating soil health under ICLS and other integrated agriculture systems. Primary among them are Paulo Carvalho and Ibanor Anghinoni from Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Anibal de Moraes from Federal University of Parana, Tangriani Simioni Assmann from Technical University of Parana, and Carlos Crusciol from University of Sao Paolo. These relationships have resulted in several students coming to study in the ARS Soil Ecology and Management Laboratory in Raleigh for periods of three months to one year during the past several years, including several PhD students. Undergraduate students have spent the summer in the lab as interns.”

How has your work with international partners benefitted your project?

Our international partners have provided our research team with diversity of thought and experiences. The contribution of students in our lab has been invaluable in providing labor to conduct analyses and insights on new approaches to understanding and evaluating soil health. One student in particular was instrumental in developing a new statistical approach for evaluating soil properties in our long-term agroforestry system in Goldsboro, NC. Collaborations with professors at other universities have expanded a network of professionals interested in understanding ICLS. Their unique perspectives have been valuable, resulting in undertaking new research approaches in different regions. In addition, we are forming a new ICLS network of collaboration through the GRA.”

What skills/expertise/other contributions have they brought to this research?

“Collaborators have brought expertise in animal grazing management, forage quality, cropping systems diversity, nutrient management, and tropical systems evaluation.”

What are some of the critical research areas that still need to be addressed?

“Our research on predicting nitrogen utilization efficiency in diverse, integrated crop-livestock systems requires evaluation under a variety of soil and climatic environments. Interactions among nitrogen, phosphorus, and other elements requires further exploration to eliminate limiting factors to production and environmental losses. Long-term research is of paramount importance, and therefore, funding to support these efforts requires creativity and dedication.”

Since we’re commemorating World Soil Day, our audience will be thinking about the importance of soil to our ecosystem and food supply. What is one thing you would like everyone to remember about soil health and soil fertility?

Soil health underpins our ability to produce abundant food, feed, and fiber while avoiding damage of our precious environmental resources that are needed to support this production. Managing for only one goal will lead to the demise of both at some time in the future. Therefore, we need to simultaneously address productivity and environmental quality through a concerted effort – conservation agricultural systems are designed to meet both objectives, and integrated crop-livestock systems are one important approach towards this goal.”