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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Research Project: Production and Conservation Practices to Maintain Grass Seed Farm Profits

Location: Forage Seed and Cereal Research

2013 Annual Report

1a. Objectives (from AD-416):
Objective 1. Develop economical conservation practices for grass seed production systems that effectively reduce sediment transport and maintain water quality, crop productivity, and wildlife habitat. • Sub-objective 1.1. Develop biophysical data at a watershed scale that quantify the effectiveness of selected conservation practices within grass seed production systems in reducing sediment transport and maintaining water quality. • Sub-objective 1.2. Quantify the relative contributions of grass seed fields and adjacent riparian zones to aquatic and avian wildlife habitat quality. • Sub-objective 1.3. Develop indicators of ecosystem service capacity that are geo-spatially linked to agricultural practices. • Sub-objective 1.4. Optimize the placement of conservation practices and precision agricultural inputs that account for in-field variability in seed yield. Objective 2. Provide value-added opportunities for local-scale conversion of grass straw into bioenergy. • Sub-objective 2.1. Quantify the geo-spatial distribution of straw and associated feedstock transportation costs and the impact of cost on the conversion scale suitable for the Pacific Northwest. • Sub-objective 2.2. Conduct an on-farm pilot trial to evaluate the feasibility of commercializing local-scale thermochemical conversion of straw into bioenergy within an annual farming operation cycle. • Sub-objective 2.3. Quantify the impact of straw removal from a perennial grass seed production system on carbon sequestration and soil quality. • Sub-objective 2.4. Characterize straw ash chemical composition and the potential for application as fertilizer additive and soil carbon supplementation. Objective 3. Integrate available information regarding production, conservation, and potential value-added enterprises to improve whole-farm profitability and accomplish conservation goals and requirements in support of USDA Farm Bill Conservation Title. • Sub-objective 3.1. Quantify the impact of agricultural pollution abatement strategies and policy instruments for optimal selection and placement of conservation practices to maximize farm profitability and environmental quality and enhance rural quality of life. • Sub-objective 3.2. Evaluate relative economic and environmental services trade-offs of introducing bio-based energy production into existing agricultural production systems.

1b. Approach (from AD-416):
Societal expectations that U.S. agriculture provide stable supplies of food and fiber while maintaining or enhancing natural resource quality require agricultural systems that achieve multiple objectives while maintaining profitability. Optimizing the use of production options, including new value-added opportunities in bioenergy along with Farm Bill Conservation Title incentives, while minimizing the impact of rapidly rising fuel and fertilizer costs is critical in achieving these multiple objectives. This research project will develop new information on ecosystem services provided by perennial grass seed cropping systems under contrasting management practices, evaluate the potential for converting agricultural residues produced by these systems into an on-farm value-added revenue stream, and quantify the impact of residue removal on soil and water quality. This new information will be utilized in the computer-assisted optimization routines to identify sets of management options that enable producers and policy-makers to make informed decisions that achieve societal and producer expectations of productivity, sustainability, and profitability. The information and technologies developed within agroecosystems that are unique to the Pacific Northwest (PNW) represent an integral part of the CEAP (Conservation Effects Assessment Program), REAP (Renewable Energy Assessment Program) and GRACEnet (Greenhouse Gas Reduction through Agricultural Carbon Enhancement network) projects and will be widely applicable to agroecosystems across the country that provide the focus for these national initiatives.

3. Progress Report:
Progress was made on each of the NP216 objectives and sub-objectives, under Component I, Agronomic Crop Production Systems, and Component 4, Integrated Technology and Information to Increase Customer Problem Solving Capacity. Progress focused on: 1.B, the need to know how to best produce energy crops in different agricultural regions of the U.S. and the impacts of energy production on whole-farm economics and natural resource quality, and 4.B, the need to determine the technical limits and feasibility of integrating new technologies to ensure that their use will increase agricultural efficiency and economic competitiveness. Under Objective 1B1, economic analyses of on-farm electricity production, through research and development of gasification technology, showed that electricity by itself would provide gross revenues estimated at $12 to $20 per day using wholesale rates prevalent in the Pacific Northwest U.S. It was concluded that additional revenue from the farm-scale gasification process should be sought. Greenhouse and field research was established to evaluate the agronomic utility and economic value of biochar, also produced by the gasification process. Preliminary research demonstrated that Columbia Basin wheat grown in soil-amended with biochar showed improved crop establishment, growth and development over untreated soil. Amended soil with biochar improved soil water-holding capacity, soil texture, pH, and nutrient supply were some factors attributing to this gain. Thus, biochar, a secondary product of energy production, has added economic value to on-farm bioenergy production systems and potential environmental benefits through resource conservation and soil carbon sequestration. We further developed a physical model that evaluated the sustainability and environmental effects of biofuel feedstock production policy and practice in the Columbia Basin and calibrated the model using the Soil and Water Assessment Tool (SWAT) model of the Basin. This allowed for the simulation and evaluation of agri-environmental policies and practices in the Columbia River Basin. The Columbia River Basin contains an agricultural system that may make significant contributions to biofuel feedstock production. In Objective 4D, we developed and applied a new genetic algorithm that enabled us to calibrate the Upper Mississippi River Basin(UMRB) SWAT model for daily flow at five sites on the main stem of the Mississippi River for the purpose of eventually modeling the Willamette and Columbia Basins. Given the popularity of this model, we expect the improved accuracy offered by our calibration to have a significant impact in projecting future outcomes. Other than limited circumstances, this is the only known time a calibrated model has been used. In support of both the farm-scale gasification project and SWAT calibration in the Pacific Northwest of hydrology, sediment, and nutrient fluxes, we developed retrospective methods to identify landuse capable of extending our knowledge of crops grown and crop rotation practices employed into years for which we lacked directly acquired ground-truth data.

4. Accomplishments
1. Gasification biochar improves soil health and promotes wheat growth. The utility and potential value of biochar produced by on-farm gasification of residues resulting from cleaning of Kentucky bluegrass seed as a soil amendment was not known. ARS scientists at Corvallis, Oregon, demonstrated that incorporation of this biochar into a low pH farm soil in eastern Washington enhanced wheat growth and yield by over 1.5-fold compared to untreated soil in a region where crop sustainability can be severely limited by soil pH and moisture. Addition of biochar to this soil improved soil water holding capacity, raised soil pH, and provided added mineral nutrition to the wheat crop when compared to lime-treated and untreated soils. This research demonstrated that this coproduct of on-farm bioenergy production has added economic value to the producer and improves soil and crop sustainability.

2. Multiple objective calibration of the Upper Mississippi River Basin (UMRB) Soil and Water Assessment Tool (SWAT) model. ARS researchers at Corvallis, Oregon, developed and applied a new genetic algorithm that enabled us to calibrate the UMRB SWAT model for daily flow for five sites on the main stem of the river. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Agricultural Research Service (ARS) invested substantial funds and effort to establish a SWAT model of the UMRB. The model has been used in several studies related to climate change and biofuel feedstock production. Due to the size and complexity of the model, it has only been calibrated for limited circumstances, and most reported studies have used the non-calibrated model. Given the popularity of this model, we expect the improved accuracy offered by our calibration to have a significant impact.

3. Calibration of a Soil and Water Assessment (SWAT) model for the Columbia Basin. The Columbia River Basin contains an agricultural system that may make significant contributions to biofuel feedstock production. A physical model is required for evaluation of sustainability and environmental effects of biofuel feedstock production policy and practice in the Columbia Basin. ARS researchers at Corvallis, Oregon, calibrated a SWAT model of the basin that enables simulation and evaluation of agri-environmental policy and practice in the Columbia River Basin. This accomplishment will enable the application of the well-tested SWAT tool to predict the consequences of conversion of diverse agricultural activites in the region to biofuel feedstock production and provide a scientific basis that policymakers can employ in the development of bioenergy policy.

4. Optimal trade-offs among profit, policy efficiency and ecosystem services. Using a novel hybrid genetic algorithm developed for this project, ARS researchers at Corvallis, Oregon, calculated the optimal trade-offs among farm profit in the Calapooia River Basin, Oregon, the policy efficiency of agri-environmental policies, water quality and ecosystem services. Alternative conservation policies concerned nutrient reduction, and included a green tax and different approaches to contracting with a government agency for nutrient reduction. The ecosystem services analyzed included water quality, Shannon diversity, and species richness. Development of this approach enables policymakers to identify optimal policy in resolving landscape problems where multiple objectives like profitability and natural resource preservation must be balanced.

5. Use of current year ground-truth data to extrapolate landuse knowledge into the recent past. Many serious questions concerning relationships between agricultural practices and health of the surrounding environment are hard to study due to lack of detailed knowledge of how, where, and when specific crops have been grown over time. ARS researchers in Corvallis, Oregon, hypothesized that recent ground-truth data could be used to extrapolate previous or future landuse in landscapes where cropping systems do not generally change radically from year to year because the majority of crops are established perennials or the same annual crops are grown on the same fields over multiple years. Synthetic ground-truth data for the 2003-2004 cropping year based on the most common landuse classes over the following seven years successfully classified 46 of 57 categories at an overall accuracy exceeding 90%. The success in developing detailed landuse data for years in which it had been previously lacking will supply critical data needed in analyses studying links between agricultural practices, water quality, and historical measurements of ecosystem services.

Review Publications
Johnson, J.M., Arriaga, F.J., Banowetz, G.M., Huggins, D.R., Laird, D., Ottman, M.J., Wienhold, B.J. 2011. Crop residues of the contiguous United States: Balancing feedstock and soil needs with conservation tillage, cover crops, and biochar. In: Braun, R., Karlen, D., Johnson, D., editors. Sustainable Alternative Fuel Feedstock Opportunities, Challenges and Roadmaps for Six U.S. Regions. Ankeny, IA: Soil and Water Conservation Society. Available:

Last Modified: 07/28/2017
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